Like most high-achieving students, senior Michael Lewis wears a lot of hats.
Named salutatorian of his class, the 18-year-old’s repertoire includes a diversity of accomplishments such as learning Mandarin Chinese, being in an a cappella ensemble, theatre productions, varsity cheer and strumming on a ukulele.
But one of his activities is especially personal: fighting for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer-Questioning (LGBTQ) acceptance.
Lewis is openly gay and vice president of his school's Gay-Straight Alliance club.
His interest in LGBTQ issues was sparked by the 2008 shooting death of Lawrence King--a 15-year-old gunned down by a peer in a middle school classroom in Oxnard because he was gay. Lewis was in 8th grade at the time.
"They were talking about guns but they didn’t really address the issue I thought was more pertinent, which was you need to accept your fellow students regardless of who they are," he said.
King's death inspired him to localize a national event known as the Day of Silence.
"The essential message is that people will remain silent on that day to echo the silence that LGBTQ teens suffering from bullying at school are experiencing every day, their inability to communicate," he said.
The event he created on Facebook ended up spreading to Viewpoint School and El Camino High School in Woodland Hills.
“Even though I’m gay myself, I’m out and I’m confident, there are other people who aren’t like that,” he said. “It helped me see what it would feel like if I were, you know, even in a different environment and wasn’t able to be who I was.”
Lewis has continued working on Day of Silence and a slurs campaign since joining the Gay-Straight Alliance two years ago. A letter he wrote regarding the use of offensive words and phrases such as "faggot," "dyke" and "that's so gay" ended up being read by Associated Student Body members to every class.
“I think that Calabasas in and of itself is pretty accepting, but then again I’m in like this music and theater-kid world . . . maybe my view of what’s going on at school is slightly obscured," he said. "Typical of any high school, I think there is an issue because I still hear kids call each other faggots when I’m walking through the hallways."
So when it was announced that there would be a student production of The Laramie Project at Calabasas High last fall, Lewis jumped at the opportunity to audition for a role despite having no previous acting experience.
He ended up with four roles in the play written about the life and death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who died tragically in 1998 after being severely beaten and tied to a fence for six days in Laramie, Wyoming.
“I really wanted to send the message of acceptance beyond tolerance. I think tolerance is a very low goal,” Lewis said. “So I wanted to move beyond that and really get that message out there and show this is what happens if people aren’t doing the activism that needs to be done. Things like what happened to Matthew Shepard will continue to happen.”
President Barack Obama signed anti-hate crime legislation bearing Shepard’s name into law more than a decade later in 2009.
Lewis said he is happy the president has evolved his stance on the issue of gay marriage and called his recent admission "monumental" for the LGBTQ community, although he believes Obama has always felt this way and was reluctant to say so before due to political pressures.
Closer to home, Lewis’s affinity for diversity that he felt was lacking during his brief time at Viewpoint (his entire 7th grade class numbered at around 109 students) was able to flourish at Calabasas High.
“At Calabasas High, I’ve been able to flow in and out of groups of people and I’m friends with a lot of different kids--music kids, theatre kids, sports teams,” he said. “. . . It’s allowed me to see all these different walks of life within this microcosm of Los Angeles.”
Bound for University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the fall, Lewis said he’s looking forward to the change.
“Up until this point, all my life has been pretty planned out, pretty rigid, you know what I mean, with school and where I wanted to see myself but post-graduation," he said. "My plans are really, I guess, unplanned.”
Lewis said he's unsure whether he'll pursue music or activism as a career choice.
And although he felt Viewpoint wasn’t right for him, the Mandarin classes he took there in 7th grade stuck. Six years later, he's considering minoring in either the language or East Asian studies when he goes onto UPenn.
At college, Lewis says he will be led by an important guiding principle penned centuries ago by another theater aficionado, William Shakespeare.
In the words of Polonius in Hamlet: "To thine own self, be true."
Michael also has a YouTube channel.