Helping 'FIERCE' LGBTQ Youth Of Color Stand Up For Themselves

03/18/2011 09:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This post is part of our month-long series featuring Greatest Women of the Day, in recognition of Women's History Month.

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Krystal Portalatin decided to take action when she and her friends nearly lost one of the few safe places for young, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers.

The city started to barricade the Christopher Street pier on the Hudson River, one of the few public spaces where many young LGBTQ New Yorkers felt they could be themselves.

Many went to the park just to hang out, others would actually sleep there during the summer months, after coming out and being thrown out of their homes.

At the same time, the New York Police Department drew fire for unfairly targeting young, LGBTQ blacks and Latinos in New York's West Village, which is home to the pier. Krystal, 27, said she and her friends felt embattled. "If we weren't being harassed because we were young and queer, we were getting harassed in our neighborhood for being young and of color."

But even when all but five inches of the Christopher Street pier were fenced off, Krystal said, people kept going. "It made us realize how important that space was, and how much we wanted to keep it."

So, in 2000, she and a group friends started Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE) to take back the pier.

Krystal, now associate director of FIERCE, says she's proudest of that campaign. They beat the curfew back to 1 a.m. and stopped the city barricading the pier when it closed. They got portable toilets installed and successfully campaigned for summer programing on the pier.

FIERCE quickly became a way to teach other young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers to address the issues that concern them, from homelessness, to fighting homophobia, to making sure LGBTQ issues are part of the agenda for politicians.

The campaigning group, which is funded by grants from foundations, and a series of fundraisers, now has six staffers, a 10-person board and around 1,300 members. Young members learn how to run campaigns and get the attention of politicians and the media.

They also learn about the community's history and struggles, everything from the Stonewall riots that cemented the West Village's position as a safe space for the LGBTQ community, to the struggle over the Christopher Street pier.

The idea is to give younger members of the community the skills they need to fight their own battles, said Krystal: "Who do we expect to take that on when people are aging out of the movement?"