By Jeff Walsh
Since coming out two years ago, Jesse Costello-Good has definitely put the 'active' in activism.
In September 1995, three months after coming out, he joined openly lesbian Roberta Achtenberg's mayoral campaign in San Francisco. It was the first political and social thing he had done as an openly gay teen.
"It was nice, because it wasn't like walking into a gay bar and that kind of scene. It was a very responsible, young but politically-aware scene, where no one was sexually coming on to me," says Costello-Good.
Shortly thereafter, he went to LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center), a queer youth group, for the first time.
"That was a big step, meeting other people my age," he says.
After Achtenberg's campaign, Costello-Good volunteered to work in openly gay city supervisor (and standup comic) Tom Ammiano's office, where he still goes occasionally to answer phones and help out.
Costello-Good came out on a much wider scale when Ammiano appointed him to serve as a gay representative to the mayor's youth commission.
"So, suddenly, I was going to be in the paper. I was on the BAR's (Bay Area Reporter, local gay newspaper) front page. And at least the kids at school with gay parents were going to know," he says. "I wasn't out at school, so my English teacher advised me that it would be stupid to be outed like that."
To prevent that from happening, Costello-Good got up and spoke at an all-school meeting at his private high school. He said he wanted to form a discussion group for gay students.
"Someone said, 'Omigod, did he just come out to the whole school? I guess he did,'" Costello-Good recalls now, laughing. "And there's no one else out at my school and continues to be no one out at my school. It's been completely fine. I don't know why no one else comes out."
The commission has spent a lot of time getting organized, but they did help sponsor and chair a hearing with the Human Rights Commission on queer youth, which produced hundreds of recommendations and findings.
"A lot of stuff came out of that hearing," he says. "We're still working on stuff with the Board of Supervisors to implement them."
Costello-Good also ensured youth were represented when the San Francisco Examiner did a huge series of article on being gay in America. He saw an ad in the newspaper looking for people who had been interviewed seven years ago when they did a similar series.
"So, I just called up and said 'Seven years ago, I was ten years old, so why don't you profile me and other gay youth?' and they said that was a great idea," he says. "So, there was a big picture of me in the paper on that Sunday, the day of the parade. And I marched with the youth contingent. My dad marched with P-FLAG."
When he got back to school this fall, he started a Gay Straight Alliance, sending fliers out in the school mailer before the semester started and attending the club fair to sign up members.
"We had 400 students at our meeting, and put candy under 40 of the chairs, and asked them to look under their chairs and to stand up if they had candy... to show the possible number of gay students in the school," he says. "We then established a core of seven or eight students who were active in the club all the time. We had a field trip to Beautiful Thing, but nobody went to that. Then, we decided we would sell candy to raise money to buy the school something. So, we later decided we would buy Beautiful Thing and have them show it, so we raised the money."
Being involved with only one GSA wasn't enough for Costello-Good. In March, he helped put together OHMY (Overcoming Homophobia Meeting for Youth), a one-day conference for all Bay Area GSAs.
"OHMY sucked up my life for two months and I'm just coming out of it," he says. "It started when one of my teachers came to a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting and suggested we do a conference for other GSAs. So, we jumped on it and jumped on it and formed a group of four people. We took the whole thing on, and I was the main organizer of the program. It went so great. It was so fun. It was last Saturday... it seems like a long time ago. We got 140 people who came from all over the Bay Area. It was a good mix of people."
As for his future, he and fellow queer youth commissioner Kent Khounsonbach are going to be the grand marshals of the entire San Francisco gay pride parade in June.
"We'll be in our little convertible waving our hands. It's going to be fun," he says, clearly excited by the prospect.
It all seems unlikely for someone who came out of the closet because his mother read his e-mail from America Online and looked at some of his computer files.
"They deduced from that information what my sexual orientation was," he says. "My mother outed me to my dad and pretty much kicked me out of the closet. She didn't call the newspaper or anything. I got to do that later on my own."
As for their son being open and active, he says they "get a kick out of it."
"Home life is great, except for the normal stuff," he says. "They only freaked out for a short time, and never in a bad way, just protective."
Of course, his achievements do beg the question of why he has been so incredibly active upon coming out.
"It's interesting and I really like politics and it seems to me that I came out at the right time," he says. "Queer youth are sort-of the 'in-thing' in San Francisco. There aren't that many. And to be appointed to the youth commission gives you an incredible status of role model and being an outstanding youth. It's really just a lot of the stuff I'm interested with politics and gay activism, and it just so happens that kind of work and the category I fall into happen to get a lot of attention. It was time for there to be youth grand marshals of the parade and me and Kent are just the ones sticking out."
He says his activism has shown him that things aren't totally positive for gay youth in San Francisco.
"There's a long way to go here in San Francisco in terms of queer youth," he says. "Everyone thinks it's the gay mecca and we're so lucky living in San Francisco. And in a big way we are, but in some ways San Francisco ain't that good for queer youth. The main Castro neighborhood is a strip of bars and expensive retail outlets. A neighborhood that has prohibitively high rents, making it an old white male neighborhood. There's a very strict age limits on bars, which is what the community is based around. There's not that much happening for the 18 and over crowd, let alone people under 18. And in some of the public schools here, well, you could be in the midwest and the homophobia levels don't differ that dramatically."
And what about being a young, cute teen walking around such an older, gay neighborhood?
"It's cruisy, but if you're young, it tends to be cruisy much more in one way than in the other. And you can figure out which direction that is," he says, laughing.
Costello-Good admits he has found his way into a few over-21 clubs and never felt afraid for his safety. But he is conflicted about whether allowing youth into bars is really the answer. He is currently working on establishing an under-25 dance club.
"There was a problem with the last generation's initiation to gay life be in a bar, which is pretty much the exclusive experience to gay people here," he says. "I really don't want to go back to that, but I don't think that would happen in San Francisco, because to get to the bar, you'd have to walk to the Castro and that would be your initiation before you ever got to the bar."
And being online, Costello-Good has heard his fair share of people saying its easier for him to do everything he has because he lives in San Francisco.
"I get pissed off when people say that," he says. "I got into a fight with someone who said that after I wrote an article in XY called "Invest in Queer Youth," which was originally printed in the BAR. It translates to national pretty well, but it was written for San Francisco. So, when the national audience read it, I got people writing in saying you are so lucky. Someone who doesn't live in San Francisco doesn't know anything. They said I was totally whining and said I didn't know what bad really was. And in a lot of ways, I don't. But the point of the article was not that I get beat up when I put a rainbow sticker on my backpack..."
Costello-Good, an avid white water kayaker who wears a gay sticker on his helmet (as seen in the mock Apple ad in XY6), is heading to Columbia University in New York City this fall. But, he says he does plan to return to San Francisco when he graduates.
"As a white, gay male, I am the heir to the neighborhood. It's getting sold out, but it's our home. It's our mecca and we can't abandon it to the capitalists," he says.
But he does admit he is slightly scared about re-establishing himself in New York City.
"I'm just afraid I'll be swallowed up and not be able to do anything. I've built somewhat of an empire here in terms of who I know working with gay youth," he says. "And if I want to do something, I can use my connections and do it. And in New York, I won't have that initially."
Looking at all he's been able to do in two years in San Francisco, there seems to be little doubt that he'll do just fine. If anything, San Francisco should worry about who will be able to replace him.