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.”
I remember when Ellen [DeGeneres]came out on television. That was the pinnacle of everything. That's one of the things that inspired me to come out. I watched her show religiously before she came out. I remember looking at the clock on a Wednesday night at work and thinking, “Damn, she's coming out right now.” She came out on TV. It was such a big thing in the papers and everything. Somebody paved the way for it to not be so bad. Everybody was on TV talking about it. I was probably 14.
I told my mom on October 10, actually, two years later, at 16. It took two years to come to grips with myself. My mother had me when she was 19. I figured she would be cool with it. She never called anybody “sissy” or “fag” or any other derogatory names. My mother is, like, 1970s. But I'm closer to my grandmother, so I said to myself, “I'm gonna tell my grandmother first.” I was gonna ask [my mother's] advice. So, I said, “Mom, I would like to tell Grandmother that I'm gay.” That was sort of the way I came out. It shocked the shit out of my mother, to say the least.
She had a long battle with me over it. After I came out, every month my mom would ask me if I was still gay. It would turn into a really big fight. I did so much political stuff, working with Project Ten [the nation's first public school program for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth”], but I regret that now. I got involved in all these campaigns and went up to Sacramento and stuff, and when I came back, my mother got really frightened of me and we got into a big fight. She gave me an ultimatum: “You're either gonna not be gay or you're not gonna live here.”
“Mom, I cannot not be gay.”
“So then you have chosen to live on the street.” I'm still a teenager in high school, and she kicked me out over being gay — at 17!
I moved to a shelter for throwaway youth for five months. Did the whole what-you-do-when-you-don't-have-a-place-to-live thing. It took me a long time to really level out. I have moved back in with my mother since then. I don't push being gay with her anymore, because when I was 16, 17, 18, being gay was a big part of my life, because it was something new, something that I'm finally okay with. Now that I have been out for five years, I don't hold it in front of her face anymore. Once my mother kicked me out, I had to come out to everybody, because they wanted to know why. I had to come out to my grandparents, my whole family. She kind of outed me. I didn't go to any family functions.
It's a tough road to get that confident. I didn't have a relationship with my father, and I said, “Why would I want to lose both parents?” So I called her up and I said, “Mom, here I am.”
LUIS SIERRA is a 20-year-old gay Latino who works as an outreach coordinator at REACH L.A., a youth HIV-prevention organization.
“I said, 'Dad, will you go to my wedding?' He said, 'Yeah, if you marry a girl.'” –Luis Sierra
I STARTED REALIZING I WAS GAY AT AROUND 5. I used to cry about being different, and get angry with my parents for making me this way. I'd be like, “God, did they not have sex the right way?” As a gay kid, you question and look at things differently.
When I was in high school, I would be crying in front of my mother, honestly trying to open some kind of dialogue. [My parents] couldn't see that I was crying for help to be gay. I would think to myself, “You don't even know what I'm going through, or that I'm even trying.” They would say, “Oh, he has red hair.” Or, “What is it with these friends?” Or, “You listen to that music?”And I would be, “That's not it.” They would avoid asking if I was gay or not. I kept all the emotions to myself.
I was 14 when my mom asked me, in anger, “You're gay, right?” And then I remember, oh my gosh, I answered, “Yeah, I am, and so what?” Now we have a cool relationship, but it took some time. I don't think my mom was homophobic. Even when she says, “Even if you were a drug addict, I would still love you.”
My dad always has known, up to a point. I was known to go out with a lot of á different guys. Of course, he would look, because they had cars and they would come to pick me up. A year ago, I was at the dinner table, and all of a sudden my mom asked, “Will you get married?” “Yeah,” I answered, “I want to get married in Hawaii.” You know, mix it up. And my mom sighed. My dad said, “Not at the dinner table.” And then I said, “Dad, will you be able to go to my wedding when I get married?” He was like, “Yeah, if you marry a girl.” “I'm not,” I answered. “I'm going to marry a guy.” He started shaking his head.
I came out that way because I wanted him to acknowledge me. I know that subconsciously I would provoke him because I did bring guys home. I would just make it very “there” to make my dad uncomfortable. I wanted him to realize that it's not gonna be a phase and that we should talk about it. So when that happened, he literally said, “It's a shame to have a gay son.” My dad is a guy who doesn't talk about how he feels, even if he is happy. That was the only time that I heard him express himself. He even began to cry. It hurts. I know I have people who love me for being gay, who acknowledge the fact, who embrace the fact that I know who I am. But it hurts. It really does. Everything I do [is about] my dad noticing. I'm at a point where I have to let go of that, because I can't keep tormenting myself.
I talked about that with my godfather. He is pretty old, and different from anybody I've met. He talks to me about the importance that gay people have had in history. And not until recently [did] I see what he's been talking about, and why my parents have had such a hard time with all this. Older gay people who meet me today ask, “Why are you so confident?” I answer, “You don't know what I had to go through to get here.”
JASON (a pseudonym) is a 16-year-old female-to-male transgendered teen who attends a Los Angeles area high school.
I REMEMBER MY HUMILIATION when I couldn't believe that I wasn't a boy. I thought everybody was plotting against me, telling me, “Boys pee standing up; you don't, so you're not a boy.” I didn't believe them. My mom would try to put me in dresses, and I was like, Why me?
I remember distinctly getting in trouble in preschool because I refused to wear my bathing suit. I wore a pair of swim trunks from the lost and found. Some other girl was borrowing my swimsuit. My mom found out about it, and yelled: “Why can't you wear your own clothes?” I used to put water on myself and say that I had peed on myself so I could wear the boys' clothes from the lost and found.
I knew who I was! It was more of a pure thought than when I got older, because you have no social stigmas going against you. I'd be humiliated if my mom put me in a dress and sent me to school. I handled that by battling my mom. It wasn't courage. It was just, “You're wrong. You're putting me in a dress. What's wrong with you?” I ended up dressing like a boy anyway. My mom didn't push me all the time, but on those special occasions that I had to look nice for the grandparents, it turned what was supposed to be a nice event into hell.
When you find out that you're different, it's a burden. You're never gonna be like other kids, normal. I told everybody, “I'm a boy.” I assumed the normal role, like a tomboy. Eventually I came out as a lesbian, and I thought that should have made things better, because I liked girls, and so it made sense. But I was still unsettled.
I knew I liked girls, but I wasn't like a woman with a woman. My girlfriend at the time was very feminist, very lesbianlike, and so it felt weird. I just recently obtained the feeling that I used to have when I was a little kid. Within the last year or so, after I started hormones — becoming a guy — I got myself back on track. I feel like I haven't been living my life for the last 10 years, like it wasn't mine.
It's like when [people] come out and realize, “Oh my God, I'm gay.” I would assume that's like a click. I didn't get the click until I realized, “Wait, I'm not gay. I'm straight. I'm just not a girl.” Now I know who I am again.
“Why do I have to be the one struggling to make my family think outside the box?” –Lizzette Torres
LIZZETTE TORRES is a 21-year-old bisexual woman with a 3-year-old daughter.
I REMEMBER BEING bused to Hubbard Elementary in the Valley from South-Central because the school was overcrowded. That's my first memory of being different. I was in first grade. There was one little girl; we always talked together. We'd hold hands, we'd kiss, but it was always under our jackets. How did I know to hide this from the family? Well, you never saw people of the same sex kissing each other.
Right after I started finding out about myself, I was sexually abused by my stepfather. I didn't have time to understand myself. I was dealing with the fact that this person is having sex with me, and I'm 9 years old, and is that normal? I don't remember saying anything. I pretended to be asleep. I would hide under a table. I was quiet as a kid.
It wasn't until I started working at the Gay & Lesbian Center that I saw I had my own internalized homophobia and my family's. I live in a Latino-Mexican community where you don't talk about homosexuality, especially in the ghetto, where you're poor. My family had a yard sale just after the September 11 attack, and one of my uncles — he's a born-again Christian — said, “Oh, you know why the World Trade towers were crashed into, right?” And I said, “Why?” “Because homosexuals are getting married.” I never got that angry before. I couldn't control myself. I raised my voice in front of my family. My mom walked away.
I've broken the cycle of silence with sexual abuse and broken the cycle of silence with homophobia in our family. I've broken so many cycles that sometimes I'm in that position where you just wanna die. Why do I have to be the one struggling to make my family think outside the box, outside our little community? It's hard, hard, to be a young, single Latina woman with a child, having to teach her family about the real world.
Throughout middle school and high school, I was suicidal. You kill yourself slowly, through drugs. Now I could never picture myself taking my own life, because why leave this Earth when you are doing something different? I try to expose my daughter to everything. She's been to the Gay & Lesbian Center. She saw two guys hugging, sort of cuddly, lovey-dovey. She just stood there and stared for two minutes. Oh, my God. My daughter is opening her mind.
JESSIE FUNES is a 21-year-old lesbian Latina participating in a 10-month fellowship with Public Allies Los Angeles, a nonprofit leadership and training organization.
“I prayed to God, 'Can't I be straight?'” –Jessie Funes
I DID HOLD CRUSHES ON older people in kindergarten, first grade, second grade. I knew that there was a feeling inside that you call different, but [I didn't] understand what “different” meant. I don't remember her name, but there was a girl. I used to hold her hand. The experience was totally different from when I held hands with a boy. It's like saying the word sex. You hear it, but you don't know what it is. I don't think I was conscious of having to hide yet. I developed a stronger crush on a girl, second or third grade. That's when I started hearing people talk about same-gender [couples], always in the negative sense — like my family making jokes.
In fourth grade, the girls were like, “Why is she following us?” They called me weird. I think I was too close with the girls. I was a very sensitive kid. I just loved being with — I don't even remember her name. I don't even remember her face. I just remember it was a girl, and I remember playing merry-go-round or something.
For years I believed the Catholic stereotype that homosexuals were pedophiles, drug dealers, bad — the devil. That's how I was raised. It was hard, because at the same time, I tried to say, “Stop it.” I had this whole internal thing going back and forth: Don't think this, don't feel this . . . I stopped writing in seventh grade, because my mom found from my journal that I had a crush on Leslie [a pseudonym]. And she's like, “You want me to tell her, I'll show this to her.” I'm like, “No. That's just a story.” From that point I stopped writing.
My mom hated the way I dressed, thought it was very guyish. I wasn't the little girl she wanted me to be. I think my aunt knew. I will never forget. I was 7, 8 or 9. I remember my aunt telling my mom, “She is going to be . . . ella es marimacha?” And I remember my mom got so upset. I think my mom from that point started to think of how I was going to be or what I was going to become.
The weirdest thing about growing up with Catholic people and seeing them as great people comes when your peers in ninth grade turn their backs on you. A lot of harassment. I prayed to God, “Can't I be straight?” I did the whole boyfriend thing, having intercourse. All I could picture is the feeling that I had with a woman, even though I had never been with a woman before.
Once I came out, word spread, and I was forced to change high schools three times. It was a small school. Everybody knew Jessie was gay or a dyke, right? I couldn't take it. I was excluded. All of the people on the soccer team, football team were very negative — stones thrown at you, gum in your hair. Religion class was difficult, because the teacher would always put me on the spot in terms of biblical scriptures. He'd say homosexuality is the cause of AIDS. I failed the class. From that point on I got depressed, and I probably would have killed myself in ninth grade. My first try was at my grandmother's house in Echo Park.
All of this has led me to try to define my spirituality, because when people ask, “What do you believe in?” it's like, well, “What is it that I need to believe in?” Why do I have to believe in something? When I told people that I'm no longer Catholic, they're like, “What?” Because before, it was all “God is love, love is beautiful.” That was all I grew up with. That was all I could relate it to. That's what I considered spirituality. I always said if you believe in God, nobody can take that away from you. Now, I don't believe in a He-God. So in terms of my mother, I told her, “I'm a great kid, even though you might not think so. I'm a great daughter and a great sister, even if you don't think so just because I cannot identify with the religion you baptized me in. It doesn't change anything.” And she didn't say anything. I don't want to hurt her.
I am in love right now, and I can finally tell my girlfriend that I love her. I can say it in Spanish, and I can say it in another language. It's bigger than physical affection. It's so much more than we are able to understand, because we're taught to limit our minds. I love the space I'm in now, because I'm able not to feel limited. It's not an easy space to go. How long did it take to think or feel this way? It took me forever, and it's still difficult.
I recently learned that Native Americans had rituals where they would see if the child was different or not. If they were different, that meant that they were blessed and the tribe needed them, that they had a gift. In indigenous times, when a person was transgendered or acted the role, she had this balance that other people didn't have — like having a gift from the gods.