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Online Extra: LGBTQ Update: Gay Amtrak passenger speaks out after coma

by Alex Madison

Aaron Salazar. Photo: Courtesy Facebook
Aaron Salazar. Photo: Courtesy Facebook  

Aaron Salazar, the young, gay Latino man who was found critically injured adjacent to the train tracks near Truckee, California in May, said he did not jump from the train in a video posted on Facebook last month.

Salazar, 22, a passenger on an Amtrak train, was found lying near the railroad tracks at the far east end of Truckee May 15, Truckee Police Chief Rob Leftwich said in a statement in May. Salazar had suffered major injuries and was transported to the hospital in Reno.

The Salazar family has been continually critical of the Amtrak Police Department's investigation, which is still ongoing. At the only news conference the company held May 29, Amtrak Police Chief Neil Trugman said that Amtrak believes the young college student was "very distraught" while on the train and may have attempted suicide. The family strongly disagrees with this narrative and believes Salazar was attacked and is calling it a hate crime. Amtrak is the lead on the investigation.

Salazar came out of a monthslong coma in late August. The November 28 video posted in the Facebook group "Justice for Aaron" is the first showing Salazar speaking. In it he said, "I wanted to thank everybody for the love and support and the prayers and the letters. I want [you] to also know I did not jump off the train; I would never ever try to kill myself."

The text that accompanies the video post, published by Sonja Trujillo, Salazar's cousin, states, "It's an absolute miracle he has progressed as much as he has. So happy he is finally able to speak out about what we have always believed was the truth. Aaron did not jump off the Amtrak train. He would never try to kill himself!! Thank you for the love and prayers."

Amtrak has not released any updates to the investigation after its only news conference on the matter, citing the case in under active investigation. A spokeswoman for the company, Olivia Irvin, told the Bay Area Reporter last week, "We are glad Aaron is improving and look forward to talking with him and any other witnesses as part of the investigation."

It is not revealed in the Facebook group whether Salazar remembers or has said what happened to him. In previous posts, the family stated multiple times that he does not remember what happened due to his head injuries.

"Because of his head injury he don't remember being on a train or even being in Colorado visiting his dad and family," Trujillo wrote in a Facebook message to the B.A.R. "We are hopeful that in time he will remember."

She added, "Aaron was upset when he found out that Amtrak stated that it was an attempted suicide. He said, 'I may not remember being on the train but one thing I do know is that I would NEVER EVER try to kill my myself. I was happy.'"

As previously reported by the B.A.R., at the news conference organized by Amtrak and the Truckee Police Department, which initially responded to the call, details were shared as to why Amtrak believes it to be an attempted suicide.

"There is no physical evidence or witness statements to [suggest] a physical altercation occurring on the train," Trugman said at the news conference.

He said investigators spoke with 300 customers, crewmembers, and Salazar's friends, and said that "individuals who noted interactions with Mr. Salazar shared that he expressed to them a number of life concerns and challenges he was having."

Report lists top affordable LGBT-friendly colleges in the nation
There are some surprising findings in a recent report from Student Loan Hero that ranks the most affordable LGBT-inclusive, four-year universities across the country. The list of "Most Affordable LGBTQ-Friendly College and Universities" ranks the top 10 schools for students attending school in and out of their home state.

This was the first time Student Loan Hero, a for-profit company based in Austin, Texas, conducted a study dedicated specifically to LGBT-friendly college campuses and affordability. Kali McFadden, senior research analyst at the business, said the motivation behind the report was because, "LGBT students have very special needs on campus, and we've all heard the horror stories of schools not meeting their needs and how that inhibits a person's ability to get an education that they are paying for."

The report encourages LGBT students to be proactive about choosing a school that promotes a welcoming environment for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Student Loan Hero used data from Campus Pride, a nonprofit dedicated to building LGBT-friendly college awareness, to determine the LGBT friendliness of the schools. Campus Pride's rankings are based on the organization's set of LGBTQ-friendly benchmarks for policies, programs and practices, according to its website. Campus Pride could not be reached for this article.

Among the list of top five most affordable colleges for in-state residents, based on their in-state costs and the average financial aid awarded to each student, are the University of Washington-Seattle campus; University of Maine at Machias; Purdue University; California State University, Northridge; and the University of Minnesota-Morris. The cost of attendance for these schools for in-state students ranges from about $19,000 to 26,000.

For out-of-state students, the list includes the University of Minnesota-Morris, Eastern Illinois University, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Princeton University. All have an annual tuition under $27,500 with the exception of Princeton, which has an annual tuition of $66,150, but offers an average of $44,128 in grants and scholarships.

The list is just the tip of the iceberg. Student Loan Hero also provides a list of over 100 schools that fall into that category. Among the California schools that made the extensive list are Humboldt State University in Arcata; California State University, Long Beach; Mills College in Oakland; San Diego State University; Harvey Mudd College in Claremont; UCLA; UC San Diego; UC Santa Barbara; UC Santa Cruz; UC Davis; and Loyola Marymount University.

Of the more unusual findings, said McFadden, who is straight, was the appearance of smaller, rural area schools on the list.

"It's surprising to see tiny state schools in Illinois or Wisconsin that would rate so well," she said.

Additionally, she said that LGBTs who have a dream of attending an elite school, but rule out applying out of fear of not being able to afford it, should still apply.

"Well endowed schools have a lot of money to spread around to students," McFadden said, explaining that students can often receive more in scholarship or financial aid at elite, private schools than at some state schools. Purdue and Princeton are among the more expensive schools that made the list due to their average awarded scholarships and grants.

The purpose of the report, McFadden added, was not only to provide the LGBT community with a resource to help find an affordable and welcoming school but to emphasize the importance of choosing schools that meet their needs.

"For people who maybe feel like they have special needs or are vulnerable in ways because of their sexuality, those things can really interfere with a person's ability to get an education if they don't feel like they have a support system on campus, or their roommate's attitude toward them," McFadden said. "These are real concerns that can have long term effects for people if they don't graduate, get bad grades, or don't enjoy those four years."

The report can be found at https://studentloanhero.com/featured/most-affordable-lgbtq-friendly-colleges-universities/.

Equality Utah working to ban conversion therapy
The largest LGBT rights group in Utah has plans to draft legislation that aims to ban conversion therapy, Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, told the B.A.R. Conversion therapy attempts to change people's sexual orientation and is widely discredited by major medical groups, like the American Psychological Association.

Williams said he is in the process of finding a legislative sponsor for the measure that would outlaw conversion therapy for minors and said it includes concerns about LGBT youth suicide.

"Utah has incredibly high suicide rates for young people," Williams told the B.A.R. "The rate has spiked 141 percent for young people since 2011."

He mentioned a recently published study by Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., director of Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, "Parent-Initiated Sexual Orientation Change Efforts with LGBT Adolescents: Implications for Young Adult Mental Health and Adjustment."

"[The study] made the connection that LGBT youth who go through conversion therapy are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide than kids who do not," Williams, a gay man, said.

If successful, Utah would be among 15 states, and Washington D.C., to pass laws or regulations protecting youth from conversion therapy. In 2012, California banned mental health professionals from performing conversion therapy on children under 18, but a bill that would ban it for adults was shelved in August after passing the Assembly.

Utah is a unique state explained Williams, in that 79 percent of its legislature seats are Republican and 90 percent identify as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He mentioned that Utah was the first state to successfully pass LGBT bills in a Republican-controlled legislation in 2015, when it passed Senate Bill 296 that put into place non-discrimination laws for LGBTs in housing and the workplace.

The Mormon Church has disavowed past therapies that attempt to change orientation. The Mormon Mental Health Association also opposes conversion therapy.

Williams said he will be able to reveal more details on the measure early next year.

LGBTQ Update is a weekly online column addressing issues affecting the community. It runs weekly. Please submit comments or column ideas to Alex Madison at (415) 875-9986 or a.madison@ebar.com.

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