When Californians approved Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage in 2008, many people were devastated, wondering how voters in a state with such a liberal reputation could pass legislation that limited gay rights. But the new ban also led to a movement, as many young people in the LGBTQ community were motivated to become activists. Matthew Palazzolo, a UCLA alumnus who had studied design and media arts, was part of the new wave of activists.
“I’d been focused on other things in my life. Then Nov. 4 happened, and it woke me up,” he said in a 2008 New York Times article. “While we knew we’d been discriminated against in the past, we’d never felt it until now.”
At a West Hollywood rally that same year, Matthew gave a rousing, impromptu speech to an enthusiastic crowd, borrowing someone’s megaphone and standing on top of a trash can.
“We will no longer be the discriminated against in this country, and we will no longer be the marginalized and the second-class citizens of this country,” he said. “But we will be the role models, and we will join the ranks of the many heroes that have stood and marched in this country throughout its great history. So keep on moving! And let’s never be silent! Never blend in!”
Palazzolo’s charisma and passion are evident, as the people surrounding him respond with loud cheers and applause. He inspired others to join with him, and together they organized rallies, marches and events that would make an impact and promote LGBTQ equality. But Palazzolo’s life and his work as an activist were tragically cut short when he died of heat stroke while hiking in Australia in 2018.
To honor Matthew and pay tribute to his life and legacy, his father, Pat, and brother Michael have established two funds at UCLA: the Matthew B. Palazzolo Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Matthew B. Palazzolo LGBTQ Equity Fund.
“The funds satisfy two objectives that I know Matthew would have really liked promoting: scholarship and helping at-risk students,” Pat said. “Matthew felt it was important to nurture gay students and young gay people, to encourage them to achieve their dreams and to make them realize that there are no barriers to anything they can do, including their sexuality.”
For the scholarship fund, the UCLA LGBTQ Campus Resource Center, in partnership with UCLA Financial Aid and Scholarships, will provide approximately $5,000 annually, in perpetuity, to students in the LGBTQ community.
“Pat and Michael wanted to ensure that some of the money was going to a student based on financial need, to really be able to support a student who is in crisis,” said Andy Cofino, director of the LGBTQ Campus Resource Center. “We’ll be able to award a scholarship, under Matthew’s name, to honor students who may not have access to a UCLA education otherwise.”
The equity fund will go toward the LGBTQ Campus Resource Center’s programs, trainings and services, which are “very much in alignment with Matthew’s legacy as an activist and advocate,” Cofino said. “His legacy is about making sure the world is a better place for LGBTQ people, particularly young people and those who are adversely affected by racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. These funds will enable the center to continue to provide critical services, especially at this moment, when some students are in financial distress and don’t have a safe place, a safe home.”
The equity fund also includes a non-monetary award to a student who has demonstrated a high level of excellence in public service or leadership.
“We wanted to create this award, and we wanted Matthew’s name to be associated with it, so that people would understand who he was,” Pat Palazzolo said. “When people see something that needs to be done, some people might not do anything because they think that they can’t. But Matthew proved that anybody can do something. It just takes a lot of determination, inspiration and drive. We want to motivate and inspire young people who see social injustice to do something about it.”
In 2008, when confronted with the social injustice of Proposition 8, Matthew knew he had to do something. With friends Mike Ai, Sara Pollaro and Chris Smith, he co-founded the Equal Roots Coalition, a group of mostly 20-something professionals who wanted to make a difference.
“It’s pretty amazing that four people who really didn’t know what to do were able to come together and create a movement,” said Ai, who was a close friend of Matthew’s. “We would call ourselves ‘love warriors,’ because that’s what the activism felt like. We were fighting for the right for same-sex couples to marry, but it really was fighting for love.”
Ai, manager of electoral programs and special projects at Equality California, describes the Equal Roots Coalition as a flash point in the gay rights movement, one that sprang up when it needed to exist.
“After Proposition 8 passed, there was a lot of anger in the LGBTQ community. People were angry and didn’t know where to put that anger,” Ai remembers. “Matthew was able to harness his anger in a way that was empathetic, honest and truthful. He could take pain and make something beautiful out of it, turn it into something fruitful.”
Robert Gamboa, a UCLA alumnus who worked with Matthew on West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board in 2012, believes Matthew’s spirit of inclusivity and his ability to connect with others led to his success as an activist and community organizer.
“He would clear the path so that people could become the best person they could be,” said Gamboa, senior policy analyst at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “The work was never about Matthew. It was about the people and how to lift up these communities. It was about how to inch forward in progress together.”
As the Palazzolo family, Gamboa and Cofino thought about how to remember and honor Matthew, they thought about all the different ways the LGBTQ Campus Resource Center could utilize the funds and knew Matthew would be happy that the center would continue to do his work in perpetuity.
“UCLA gives students so much opportunity,” Gamboa said. “It’s going to teach you how to do something, but you have to walk through that door and have that experience to learn and understand. And that’s what Matthew was able to do. He was able to show people how to walk through that door and have that experience to become individuals who could contribute to society and live as their authentic selves. UCLA is beautiful in that regard, so it makes so much sense for the funds to go to UCLA.”
On that night in West Hollywood more than 10 years ago, when Matthew delivered his impassioned speech, he spoke about the many struggles of minorities throughout the history of this country.
“Those stories inspired us to stand up for ourselves as LGBT people. It inspired me to stand up for myself as a gay man, as a gay Asian American man,” Matthew said. “And now, if we keep marching and we keep talking and we keep sharing our stories, then one day, 20 years from now, maybe children will be reading about us and being inspired to stand up for themselves, for whoever they are.”
Matthew’s words that night are especially prescient today, as the establishment of the Matthew B. Palazzolo Memorial Scholarship Fund and LGBTQ Equity Fund at UCLA will help ensure that his story inspires future generations of Bruins for years to come.