WHEN DEREK HENKLE WAS 14 YEARS OLD, HE CAME out at his Reno public high school. Some students lassoed a rope around his neck in the parking lot and threatened to kill him by dragging him behind their truck. Campus authorities treated Henkle as if he were the problem, transferring him to an alternative school for disturbed students where the principal told him to "stop acting like a fag." Following a transfer to a third school, Henkle was beaten bloody by another student as two security guards stood by.
In January 2000, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund took the Reno school district to federal court, suing for sexual-orientation discrimination. The case opened the door for dozens of other federal and state court cases, confronting the gay community and school officials with a new sociological phenomenon: Gay youth are coming out in high schools like never before.
Does this portend a new gay youth movement?
A 1999 Cornell University study, conducted by professor Ritch Savin-Williams, seemed to suggest that it does. The average age at which gay and lesbian youths identified their sexual orientation to themselves had dropped, the study says, from the age of 20 in 1978 to the age of 13. This news has been accompanied, however, by recent Department of Education reports from Minnesota, Vermont and Massachusetts saying that gay-identified youth are five times more likely to be truant because they feel unsafe, seven times more likely to have been threatened or injured by a weapon at school and four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers.
This raises the question: Why don't today's gay kids handle the situation the way earlier generations usually did? Why don't they protect themselves from school and family hostility by coming out after they leave the coop?
The most obvious answer is that it's culturally easier to come out these days. With more openly gay elected officials and celebrities than ever, the gay movement's greater empowerment could be sending a positive message to gay teens that they are not alone and will be protected. Perhaps stars like Ellen, Rosie and Ian McKellen -- along with gay characters on TV (Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, Real World, Survivor) and in the movies (In & Out, The Next Best Thing) -- have subliminally encouraged queer youth to be strong and proud and, as Madonna sang, "Express yourself!"
Some might equate the phenomenon with other civil rights movements like the Little Rock Nine. But today's coming-out phenomenon is different. Unlike other minority youth, most of whom at least have family support, gay kids are isolated within the enemy's camp and thus are faced with a radically different set of psychological and social disadvantages.
Hoping to find out exactly why queer youth are coming out earlier, I asked five individuals who came out when they were around 14 to tell their stories. What emerged were five distinct voices shedding light on the subtle emotional and intellectual process of how a growing child ultimately decides to choose loyalty to his or her unfolding queer feelings over affiliation to family, religion, friends, and their own internalized homophobia.
*** "I swore for a year that it was a phase." --Josh Lampkins(Photos by Debra DiPaolo)
JOSH LAMPKINS is a gay, 21-year-old African-American who works at a local chain record store.
I CAME OUT WHEN I WAS 16 TO MY PARENTS, but I came out in school well before that. I came out to myself just before I was 13 or 14. I swore for up to a year that it was a phase. During junior high, early high school, I didn't think I was gay -- even though I'd had sexual relations with other boys, from [the time I was] 6 all the way to the present. I kept telling myself the only thing that makes a guy gay is when he kisses another guy. That was the plateau, no turning back. Every year my birthday would come up and I'd tell myself, "If it hasn't gone away now, I'll give it another year and tell somebody about it."
And then around 13 I had my first boyfriend. (I had him for three years.) One day he leaned over and he kissed me, and that was the first kiss I ever shared with a boy. I was so traumatized the moment he did that, because it was sort of like when you commit yourself to something: "Now I'm gay. I can't turn back and say I'm not gay. I have kissed another guy, oh my god." I remember I went through so much anger and emotion within myself, and I exhibited that upon him as well, and he looked at me like, "What did I just do? Why is he giving me that look? He's supposed to be smiling. Yet he is freaked out and frowning and running around."