Every spring the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA+) grants scholarships to local student leaders. In the program’s 10-year history, its board has allocated more than $170,000 to student scholarships. 

This year, the board awarded the largest cumulative amount of money yet in one year: $40,000 in scholarships in all, or $5,000 to 8 different students. Seven of the recipients are 2023 high school graduates, with the eighth being a prior winner continuing his college education.

OPALGA+ raises money for the scholarship fund throughout the year, with its biggest fundraiser being the Annual Scholarship Gala held in October. As reported in this year’s program book, scholarship recipients are “amazing student leaders (who) have demonstrated a commitment to service and advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community through the lens of equal opportunity for all.”

One of this year’s scholarship recipients was Taylor Montes-Williams, a prominent local activist and Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate. “Becoming an activist was more of a necessity than a choice for me,” said Montes-Williams in an email. “Growing up, it was impossible to see the injustice in the world and towards my communities without wanting to change it.” 

During her time at OPRF, Montes-Williams led and organized protests in response to police violence and racism, gun violence, and sexual harassment and assault. She was a prominent member of the Revolutionary Youth Action League (ROYAL) and Students Advocating for Equity (S.A.F.E.). In the fall, Montes-Williams will be studying Political Science at the University of New Mexico. 

In a video released by OPALGA+, Montes-Williams said she chose New Mexico “to further my education and my experience and be able to advocate for people of color, queer people, other people with marginalized identities across the country. … The scholarship means a lot to me because it can help further my education so I can help protect queer people, not just in my community, but those nationwide and those globally.”

Annie Larson, a 2023 Fenwick graduate and scholarship recipient, said she approached her activism in a different way. As a student at the Oak Park-based Catholic school, Larson said she has tried to be a role model for fellow students in the community. 

Annie Larson | Provided

“I didn’t experience a lot of outward homophobia, but there’s plenty of little comments,” said Larson. In her activism, she said she focuses on creating a “safe space for others.”

Larson said she makes sure that “if I hear something problematic, I don’t just ignore it and I make sure I say something. Not just because it’s making me uncomfortable, but so that if there’s other people, especially people in the closet, that they know that not everyone is agreeing with the problematic statement and that there are people on their side defending them.”

Larson came out as bisexual in eighth grade, she said. “I was definitely the only one of my close friends to come out at that time. I think a big role that I’ve played in supporting my community is being that person that it’s easier to come out to.”

As an active member of the Fenwick Pride Alliance, Larson helped to push the school to relax its dress code with regard to gender lines. She independently organized an annual Easter egg hunt that raised over $20,000 for Hepzibah Children’s Association. In the fall, she will be attending Georgetown University.

After receiving the scholarship, Larson said she was able to learn about and talk to the other recipients. Larson said she was impressed with her peers’ activism and mentioned Montes-Williams. “She is leading protests and giving speeches and she is amazing,” said Larson. 

Larson said she was grateful the OPALGA board recognized the importance of “day-to-day” activism as well. To the students, receiving the scholarship was more than a recognition of their achievements. It made way for new possibilities and opportunities. “The scholarship opened doors for me,” said Montes-Williams. “Queer futures matter.”