An East Hampton High School junior who campaigned to start a Gay Straight Alliance at the middle school was named a national runner-up for "Student Advocate of the Year" by a leading organization that focuses on ensuring that schools are safe and places of tolerance.
Joel Johnson, 16, of Springs, was one of three finalists, out of more than 500 nominations, for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's award, announced this month.
"The best part of it was I ran into this teacher from my freshman year at a different high school and he asked to nominate me," Johnson said. "I had done all this stuff in GSA [Gay Straight Alliance], but I didn't consider myself a community leader or anything."
The nomination, however, made Johnson realize that "a difference could be made by one person."
He attended middle school in New Hampshire and was home-schooled until the end of eighth grade. After moving to Springs with his family in February 2010, he attended Bridgehampton schools as a freshman and went to East Hampton High School as a sophomore.
During the 2011-12 school year, while campaigning for an alliance for students in the middle school, Johnson and another student made presentations to educators, students and parents. The goal was not only to support students but also to teach tolerance in the district.
"I think it was really important," Johnson said. "A Gay Straight Alliance is . . . a safe place for kids. A lot of kids come out or they have no support system and are mercilessly ridiculed.
"Kids know very young their sexual orientation," he said. "They know in middle school, and if the support net is not there to catch them, I don't know where they would end up."
Johnson is about to start testosterone therapy and is looking at surgery options. He just completed the legal change of his birth name, Joelie, to Joel.
East Hampton principal Adam Fine said that Johnson's effort to help extend the Gay Straight Alliance to the middle school "was incredible and long overdue." "In addition, he continues to advocate for all kids," Fine said.
Johnson wants to work to extend the alliance to neighboring school districts, such as Sag Harbor.
Luis Veloz of Dallas and now enrolled at Southern Methodist University, was named "Student Advocate of the Year" at a ceremony last week in Los Angeles. The network's award honors a young person whose efforts have helped ensure a safe learning environment for all students and who has served as a voice of change in their school and community.