An hour before 1Fest kicked off at UCLA's Wilson Plaza this past Sunday afternoon, James Neiley and Dave Valk, the student organizer of the gay and civil rights rally, sat at a long table in the air-conditioned office of the school's LGBT Center. Neiley, a 17-year-old high school student from Charlotte, Vermont, had flown to Los Angeles on Saturday with his mother at the invitation of Valk, who received a grant to pay for the traveling expenses of three out-of-state speakers.
"He had a Little Miss Sunshine moment," said Valk, referring to the movie.
"I got home from chorus at 9:15 at night," said Neiley, promply hitting his cue, "and my Dad said I had a very curious message waiting for me. Then I listened to the message and I said, 'Oh, my god, I'm going to L.A.!'"
Valk chose Neiley, a peppy teenager who's also a gay rights activist,
after seeing him testify at a hearing before several Vermont state
legislators who were deciding whether or not to push forward a bill
that would ultimately legalize gay marriage in that state.
"He was on YouTube," explained Valk, "and he was perfect. He was just plain and simple and honest."
"I gave my first real speech in November against Proposition 8," Neiley then said. "I was very upset. I guess I owe my activism partly to
Prop. 8. It made me think, 'That's not okay.'"
Valk was pulled away to attend to some business and Neiley continued.
"When I got the chance to speak here," he said, "it made me so excited.
Because now I could speak directly to California. The youth voice is so
important in these campaigns. Some of us can't vote, but we can make a
difference by speaking up. And you feel so much power in taking part of
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Neiley was able to speak up and take part in history by coming out of the closet in his sophomore year when he was 15 years old. His parents fully support him.
"As soon as I became comfortable with my homosexuality," said Neiley, "other people became comfortable with it. Once people understand who you are, they respect that."
A few hours later, just before he would speak to a crowd of college students, Neiley also met one of his heroes, Cleve Jones, the gay rights activist who was portrayed in the movie Milk and also spoke at 1Fest. The meeting would have never happened if Neiley, who's now thinking of applying to UCLA, hadn't faced the truth about himself.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.