High school sucks. It's even worse if you're gay. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens face even greater concerns than the standard homework, tests, future, friends, and family that confront straight teens. Throw in the taboo that some attach to homosexuality and the mix becomes volatile. First, teens must reconcile their orientation with their self-image and ideas of virtue, a process that can be quite difficult in the Bible Belt, where conservative religious upbringing is the norm. Then, they either live in the closet, or come out, itself a risky situation.
As Craig Johnson, an adult volunteer for A Safer Place Youth Network (ASPYN) in Raleigh explains, the difficulty in coming out boils down to one question: Can I tell this person who I am and risk losing them from my life?
And openly LGBT teens face more than just isolation. A recent study by Southeastern Network of Youth and Family Services confirms that the school environment is anything but nurturing for LGBT youth. Of 111 teens surveyed in North Carolina, Florida and Kentucky, 78 percent reported verbal harassment and 13 percent reported physical assault due to their sexual orientation. Further, nine out of 10 victims of harassment and three quarters of those assaulted say that the incident(s) happened at school. Perhaps most surprising, however, in 73 percent of harassment cases and 60 percent of the assaults, students who reported the abuse to their schools received no support.
"One time when I was reporting harassment to the principal, the response was, 'Don't you think you bring it on yourself?'" Dale Eramo II, from Union County, N.C., told interviewers.
In the face of this abuse, it is not surprising that LGBT teens are at unusually high risk for depression, substance abuse and suicide, says Michelle Forcier, a pediatrician and head of ASPYN. When members of the LGBT community are at their most vulnerable, coming out not only to the world but to themselves, they have seemingly no place to turn. Many have no haven at school, some are kicked out of their homes and relationships--even friendships, for some--are virtually nonexistent. This is not the idealized high school experience.
But the picture isn't entirely bleak. Support groups are helping in high schools around the Triangle. The most common is the GSA or Gay-Straight Alliance. Chapel Hill High, East Chapel Hill High, Southern High, Enloe High, and Broughton High, among others, have GSAs or similar organizations. They provide safe areas for LGBT students, organize coffeehouses and dances, show movies, and educate school staff about LGBT issues. In addition, independent organizations like ASPYN and North Carolina Lambda Youth Network (NCLYN, pronounced "incline") offer support, information, a tolerant atmosphere, and adult guidance. Just as importantly, these groups give LGBT youth a chance to meet others coping with the same issues. The characteristics of the groups vary from one to another, even from year to year depending on the members. Their interests range from friendly discussion to social activism. But they all have one thing in common: recognition that LGBT teens need an inviting, safe place to be themselves.
A Safer Place
The first time Elizabeth Snyder found out someone she knew was gay, she threw up. In some ways, it may not be surprising that a child's discovery of a friend's mother's homosexuality provoked such a visceral reaction. Attitudes, however, change over time, and Elizabeth was no exception.
At 15, she came out--an openly gay high-schooler in a small Midwestern town. Fortunately, she played three sports, which she says made it acceptable, or at least overlooked--during the season that is--that she was a lesbian. Not everyone tolerated her orientation, though. Opponents and coaches ridiculed her, "and when nobody stands up for you," she says, "you're on your own." Her personal coming out story is a typical one. "I was in the in crowd," she says. "I sat my friends down and told them I was gay and shortly thereafter lost 99 percent of them."
Today, she is a 24-year-old volunteer for ASPYN, described by their Web site as "a coalition of Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, Questioning and Allied [...] youth [...] and adults working together to make Wake County a safe, healthy, and life affirming place for LGBTQ&A Youth." ASPYN had existed in the Triangle for many years mainly as a support network for the coming out journey until other organizations began to overshadow it. Eventually it was picked up as the youth arm of Triangle Community Works and, with the work of the same volunteers, revitalized itself as more than just a help center. It remains small--about a dozen volunteers run it--but committed to helping the young LGBTQ community.
"Our primary goal is to facilitate young people getting together," volunteer Beth Bruch explains. That can be a challenge, especially when the normal avenues open to adults are not an option. Young people don't have access to effective transportation; a teen struggling with the coming out journey is not likely to ask their parents to drive them to a gay youth group meeting. And clubs are not open to teenagers, so even a meeting place is hard to find.
ASPYN tries to solve problems like these by holding open meetings close to Raleigh bus routes. Every fourth Saturday, ASPYN volunteers get together for a coffeehouse hangout, where young people can drop in to meet each other and discuss their concerns with adults who have had similar experiences.
The relaxed atmosphere is both fun and supportive: In between lattes (the first one's free) the group discusses reconciling one visitor's sexual orientation with his conservative religious upbringing, a discussion that leads into a few jokes about what the Bible really says about homosexuality. In some ways, this setting is better than a club. To begin with, it's safer: "You're not making reckless decisions at coffeehouses," a visitor said. There's no strobe light or ridiculously loud music, and it doesn't in any way suggest the stereotype that you're just cruising for sex.
Indeed, one common misconception about homosexual youth is that if someone comes out, it means they are sexually active. This logic produces some ironic twists--the same visitor recalls his mother's reaction when he first told her he was gay. "She asked, 'Have you had sex with girls?' And I was like, 'Yeah,'" to which an adult volunteer laughed: "Are you sure? Have you tried it?"
Coffeehouses aren't the only things ASPYN is doing. The group runs an adult education program designed to help adults understand what it's like to be a gay teenager. Program Director Michelle Forcier explains: "You're not gonna change stuff until you change some of our larger cultural biases."
Perhaps what is most surprising about ASPYN is that even though it was intended to be an organization of adults working for and with queer youth, it has found itself in part simply giving aid to young people's projects, like the recent alternative prom in Chapel Hill. Says Forcier, "There are some amazing young people doing amazing activism. And to me, that's hopeful."
For more information about ASPYN go to http://www.tcworks.com/aspyn.
Broughton High GSA
A handful of students and a pair of faculty advisors sit around a bench in the quad at Broughton High School in Raleigh. They quip back and forth in lighthearted banter, exchange stories about the week, plan what's coming in the near future. They are relaxed, friendly. This is the Broughton Gay-Straight Alliance. Their reason for existence is simple: "High schoolers are cruel to each other," says a member named Clayton. Lindsay, on the other side of the bench, echoes the sentiment: "They act like gay people are new attractions in the zoo."
The fact is, few high schoolers are out. Among the Broughton student body of 1,900, the GSA members estimate that about five are openly gay. Two members of the GSA are the only openly lesbian (or gay) couple in the whole school. This does not mean that so few people are queer. Nor does it mean that the ubiquitous words "that's so gay" and "fag" are any less offensive--or humiliating. Other instances of homophobia abound. Last year, a senior member was turned away from giving blood due to his sexual orientation, part of the residual stereotype that gay men have AIDS. The GSA's president, Rebecca Carter, says that some members have had to stop participating in meetings because of parental objections. "When their parents really found out what exactly they were staying after school for, they weren't allowed to come back."
It's not like the GSA does anything risque. Many GSAs spend most of their time just hanging out, or planning future activities. And Broughton's has been quite active. They have gone on field trips, one to see Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center speak. Another time they saw a play, Finding a Chord, about a teenager coming out to her sister. At one meeting they showed the documentary The Kids are Alright, directed by a former Enloe student, and 35 people showed up, compared to the five or 10 that come on a normal day. They organized Broughton student participation in the Day of Silence, part of a nationwide protest to demonstrate that many people must remain silent in the face of homophobia and similar abuse. They even went before the school faculty to ask teachers to help curb the liberal use of homophobic language.
The school has been understanding in most cases. Wynn Cherry, a faculty advisor to the GSA, says that after addressing the faculty about the slurs around campus, several approached her and agreed, saying, "It's about time we put this issue on the table." Many students support the group as well. On the day of silence, for instance, the GSA made ribbons for the participants. "We made about 40 ribbons," says Rebecca, "and we ran out."
Not everything is so bright and supportive, though. Wynn recalls that the introduction of a GSA into Broughton about five years ago resulted in a lot of tension. "When this group first began, there was a tremendous amount of resistance; there was open hostility, lockers were vandalized. ... In the last four to five years, I've seen a real change in the student body."
That doesn't mean there are no longer instances of overt homophobia. When Rebecca took a female friend as her date to the Winter Formal dance, negative reactions were easy to find. One student tapped her on the shoulder and said directly, "Would you please go away? I think that's disgusting."
"I was so devastated," Rebecca says. "I couldn't believe she said that to me. And then [I] kept on dancing--with whoever I pleased."
Nicole Burgess and Drake Morgan were graduated from Durham Academy this month. This story was written as part the school's internship program.