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Sunday, June 25, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Who do these kids thing they are

Seattle Times staff reporter

A gay youth talking pride over pizza with straight allies in the high- school health room? Serving as student body president of the state's largest university?

Many older gay men and lesbians can barely believe it. Who do these kids think they are?

Activists. Mentors. Organizers.

Today - Gay Pride 2000 - we'll introduce you to four young leaders in Seattle's gay community.

Two, Ryan and Jaime Biava, are brother and sister. Ryan has fronted gay issues at the UW for years, and smashed stereotypes as student president. High schoolers Jaime and Clare Johnson inspired a fledgling gay-straight student group to action.

And Robert Matencio, aka Gaysha Starr, uses his celebrity to keep young gay men healthy through the Gay City Health Project.

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Clare Johnson, long light-brown locks twisted into a clip, wears one black Saltwater sandal and one white one. Retro sunglasses. Tie-dyed tank tops and plastic beaded chokers.

Jaime Biava, with cropped blond hair, favors cargo pants and athletic shoes scrawled with chemistry equations. A gray hooded Garfield sweatshirt. Adidas gear and no jewelry.

Eighteen-year-old Clare is art. Jaime, 17, is all science. Clare's the organizer. Jaime admits she's kinda flaky. Clare likes to take charge. Jaime's forced to.

But despite being two "totally different people," as Jaime puts it, for two years they've worked together to make Garfield High School more comfortable for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

Co-chairwomen of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, a weekly student group, Jaime and Clare have orchestrated "yellow ribbon days" (to raise hate crime awareness), Safe Staff Lists (lists of staffers supporting gay students), panel discussions and the annual Day of Silence (corresponding with the national day in which people are quiet to symbolize those afraid to speak about their sexuality).

Out for years at home and at school, the two friends advise kids at other schools on forming gay-straight clubs. In March, they organized a workshop attended by about 40 teachers from Garfield and other Seattle schools.

The workshop advised teachers on how to protect and support gay students, while providing information on health risks facing sexual minorities.

They've come a long way, fast.

Two years ago, Jaime was a tongue-tied freshman whose friends pushed her to co-chair the 15-member group. Her face went red every time she opened her mouth. She told Clare she'd work behind the scenes, make copies, anything besides talk in front of people.

Clare, a sophomore, felt like an outsider in the group but had strong ideas about where the year-old alliance should go.

"I didn't want it to be about community announcements," Clare says. "I wanted it to be about action. I wanted to build community, but I wanted a group where we raised awareness."

Jaime supported Clare's vision. And they made things happen.

Their first Day of Silence in spring 1999 - observed by about 50 gay and straight students - got the rest of the school talking. Some of what they said wasn't pretty.

"Some people were like, `This is stupid. This is wrong. This is gross,' " Clare says.

But others engaged. It was exciting, says Clare, who remembers fliers and rainbow stickers (symbols of gay pride) everywhere. "It became other people's issue."

Jaime remembers it differently. Not as many students in her grade participated. Still developing her activism, she felt conspicuous.

Though both girls have had trouble at Garfield - Clare suffered put-downs from "menacing and bigoted" older guys as a freshman, and Jaime was once cornered in the bathroom by girls who said she looked like a boy - they've heard worse about other schools.

"I think Garfield is one of the safest schools out there," Jaime says. "We're extremely diverse. There's still a lot of tension, but people are still more open to accepting other people."

Their group plays a part in that, she says proudly. And they've played a huge role in the group.

They do other cool stuff. Jaime, who adores molecular biology, volunteers at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center and has done summer research at Immunex Corp. and the University of Washington.

Clare, art editor for Garfield's yearbook, is active in other community gay, lesbian, diversity and crime-prevention groups. She'll intern this summer for a Seattle Police Department crime prevention program in the Central Area.

Jaime, a senior next year, has found her voice. She'll co-chair the Gay Straight Alliance again, with friend Sadie Pile.

Clare, recently graduated, will study art and creative writing at Brown University in Rhode Island this fall.

Both say they'll continue their activism on gay and lesbian issues.

But after visiting Brown, Clare is looking to broaden her scope.

The school's recycling program doesn't meet Seattle standards, she says. "I plan to tackle that."

The networker

Gaysha Starr always ends the night with a little friendly drag-queen advice: Use a condom. If you drink or use drugs, don't hurt anybody. Love yourself.

The 28-year-old glamour girl performs diva tunes and hosts lip-sync contests at Neighbours, a longtime Capitol Hill gay bar, every Sunday night. In her long black wigs, sparkling skin-tight gowns and towering platform mules, Gaysha has shaken her moneymaker for many a good cause.

She's prettier than the average queen and that's meant more cash for charity. As the 1999 Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle, an annual pageant, her court raised about $23,000 for gay organizations - $10,000 of which will go to student scholarships.

Working the scene since 1993, she's donated performances and tips for groups such as Chicken Soup Brigade, the Northwest AIDS Foundation and the People of Color Against AIDS Network.

Gaysha's proud of her image as a civic-minded good-time girl.

But now, Robert Matencio, the man behind the queen, is making a career of community service at Gay City Health Project, the in-yer-face Capitol Hill health organization.

Known for its irreverent, naughty and creative approach to gay men's esteem, health and sexual issues - this month the group threw a HomoBowl at the West Seattle Bowl to celebrate its five-year anniversary - the men of Gay City use camp to reach their peers.

Out with stern condom lectures and tragic AIDS images. In with Ken-doll poster campaigns like "We're all in bed together," and "probing forums" with saucy titles like "The rubberless". . . well, a word we can't say in the paper.

Matencio's new official title is young men's community organizer of Queercore, Gay City's group for men between the ages of 18 and 29.

Queercore has about 75 volunteers and sponsors regular "Boy Games" like "Capture the Fag" in Volunteer Park, Wild Waves trips and scavenger hunts. In 1999, Gay City reports, more than 2,000 young men played along.

It also hosts informal "coffee talk" get-togethers.

The goal: to build a strong community for young gay men and provide alternative social events that promote safe fun.

And, most important, to help young gay men avoid the big A.

Matencio's all for that. Since he donned his first dress, he's felt a duty to serve his community.

He's home-grown - his family moved here from the Philippines when he was 1 - and he can't really imagine leaving Seattle.

He still performs in drag several nights a week. But many nights, he goes out "to network" on behalf of Queercore.

"People think I'm pretty and fluffy, but I have business cards in my pocket or purse all the time," he says. "And I can make things happen."

Like recently, when he persuaded a local bar to donate food for a Queercore "Bring your own meat" barbecue in exchange for publicity.

"You create win-win situations," he explains.

It was his Rolodex - and fund-raising skills - that won him the job at Gay City in March.

"He knows absolutely everyone," says John Leonard, Gay City executive director.

Leonard can see Matencio taking Queercore in new directions, maybe to the bars. In the past, he says, the organization has stuck to social events that provide alternatives to clubbing.

But, he says, "the gay bars, like it or not, are pretty much the centers of gay culture. Robert has a tremendous amount of connections in the gay bars in Seattle."

Matencio, who coordinates Queercore with George Froehle, says: "I'd like us to reach a wider base. I'd like to see more men of color involved, as well as bisexual men."

Matencio writes a column for Seattle Gay News and would like to start a Queercore magazine. Sort of a "gay man's Cosmo."

But mostly, he wants to energize the group's volunteers and foster community. Create a place where young gay men can talk about sex. A place they can gain the self-esteem he believes translates into healthier lifestyle choices - not smoking, not getting high, not having unprotected sex.

It's a new kind of activism for him. He now goes to work more often as Robert, not Gaysha.

"For me to work in the community outside of drag is incredible," he says. "I really believe in what they do. I feel really good about being someone in my age group who's taking responsibility."

The President

For Ryan Biava, being gay and running for student body president of the state's largest university was no big thing.

President of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) is a prestigious position that gives one lucky student direct access to the university's top dawgs.

Successful student presidents meet tons of influential folks, oversee other student leaders, occupy a mammoth corner office in the student union and leave with a fat resume and great references.

As president this past year, 21-year-old Biava represented about 26,000 UW undergrads. But as the first openly gay ASUW president, he represented much more.

And he knows it. When he moved into the dorms as a 17-year-old sophomore, he didn't know of any prominent gay administrators or student leaders.

It would have been nice to see role models, Biava says. "If someone had run for ASUW president who was openly gay, it would have made a big difference."

When he ran for president last spring, drawing about 60 percent of the student vote, everyone knew he was gay. But no one brought it up, he says.

"At first I was kind of surprised that it wasn't negatively reacted to," he says. But "my opponents were not conservative, so that helped."

Or perhaps who Biava is protected him from any ugliness.

He's thoughtful, low-key and incredibly bright, say those who know him. Honest, complex and good at uniting people of differing opinions.

His wardrobe matches his calm demeanor: khakis, plaid shirts, crew-neck sweaters. His short, light brown hair is combed neatly forward.

And then there's his bulletproof record.

Valedictorian of Rainier Beach High School in 1996, he simultaneously attended community college classes during his senior year and entered the UW as a third-quarter sophomore.

In high school, he enlisted the help of local American Civil Liberties Union attorneys to challenge his principal after she threatened to suspend him for speaking out about campus television censorship.

He later formed the UW's first ACLU student group and interned at the organization's national office in Washington, D.C.

He was a key player in a student group that persuaded UW regents to approve health insurance and housing for student same-sex partners and families in 1997.

A year later, he helped defend the policy against conservative state legislators who tried to outlaw it. Just 18 years old, he debated Rep. Mike Sherstad, then a Bothell Republican, on KOMO radio.

In 1997, he represented the Gay Bisexual Lesbian and Transgender Commission in the Student Senate, a governing body made up of students from different campus groups.

And in January of 1999, he and other student leaders persuaded UW President Richard McCormick to create an advisory committee to study gay issues on campus.

It sounds like mere bureaucracy, Biava says, but establishing a committee is the first step in gaining visibility and programming.

"People laugh, but it's the only way things get done at a university campus."

Biava hopes the group's recommendations, due out this fall, will lead to a university-funded resource center for gay and lesbian students.

He's proud of his activism, but admits it tapered off during his presidency. But even before he was elected, he knew his interests weren't confined to gay issues.

"I found that I liked to talk about all sorts of things on campus," he says. And he wanted to work within the system, rather than "yelling from the outside."

He did squeeze in a few gay and lesbian concerns.

Last month, he used his clout to persuade the student housing director to send a letter to all incoming dorm residents, reminding them they could be evicted for harassing gay and lesbian students.

The letter also lists a confidential number for gay students to call if they're bothered.

Most of Biava's activism wasn't personal - he didn't have a domestic partner needing health insurance - but the dorm issue was.

His first night at school, his new roommate told him he hated gay people, he remembers. So Biava told him he was gay, and asked if it was going to be a problem.

The roommate claimed he could live with it, and the two managed to share a room for a quarter before Biava got a place off-campus.

He's heard anecdotally that harassment in the dorms is common, but no statistics are kept on incidents, he says.

He collected harassment stories while arguing for the presidential committee. Some came from staff, such as a teaching assistant who reported finding obscene, anti-gay notes on his office door.

The issue of climate - how it feels to be a gay or lesbian student or staff member on campus - is just one topic the committee is tackling.

Biava will have to follow the group's efforts through e-mail.

He recently flew to Washington, D.C., where he'll work for an online company this summer before attending the Institute for Political Studies in Paris next year.

A fifth-year senior, he won't officially graduate until next spring. He had planned to finish in 1999, but extended his education to run for president and study abroad.

After that, it's on to law school. He would have applied sooner, but felt he was too young. "Who wants to hire a 23-year-old lawyer?"

He'd like to be a judge someday, and he sees himself practicing mainstream law while doing pro bono civil-rights work.

As ASUW president, he learned he prefers to make change from inside, he says. As an activist, "You're always trying to change the status quo."

While he doesn't force the issue, that's exactly what he did as he sat with university regents as an ex-officio board member last year.

At one of the board's last meetings in May, the issue of homophobia came up during a larger diversity discussion.

He was able to bring up his own experiences as a gay man on campus. Some of the newer regents didn't know he was gay, he says, and he saw a few eyes bug.

"They'd been working with me all year," he says, laughing. "It wasn't relevant before."

But, he admits, quietly, "I was glad that it came up. I'm glad I had an opportunity to do that. It's always good when we can be known."

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752. Her e-mail address is pstockton@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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