Last night’s Glee made me cry. I laughed a lot for like the first 45 minutes. It was definitely the best episode so far all around. But at the end I cried. And let’s be clear—this wasn’t single-tear sniffles, this was out-and-out sobbing. Before Kurt even turned around from his mirror, I was already choking up and yelling, “Tell Him!” at the screen.
Coming out may be a trite gay storyline, but when it’s done well, it’s still incredibly compelling. Any time Sandy is on the screen, I think, “Oh great, more ridiculously inappropriate stereotypes.” When Kurt is on the screen, he captures my heart. His portrayal of a young man coming to terms with his identity is very real, very honest.
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that young people are coming out earlier and earlier. This week, the New York Times has a wonderful story about Coming Out in Middle School. At a time when conservatives are attacking Obama’s appointment of Ken Jennings (founder of GLSEN) and using “they’ll teach our children about gay sex,” this story depicts a very different story in our schools. It shows how important GSAs are, how natural it is for young people to realize their identities, and how ignorant schools and teachers are when it comes to providing a proper foundation for when they do.
Austin doesn’t have to play “the pretend game,” as he calls it, anymore.
Austin is 13. He lives in Oklahoma (poor guy). At 13, he had already been hiding enough that he was done with it. Too bad schools never provided any education about sexual orientation, because he still had to figure it all out on his own.
Thankfully, the Openarms Youth Project in Tulsa allows him to connect with other young queer people on a weekly basis. In Oklahoma, you take every opportunity you can get!
In one corner, a short, perky eighth-grade girl kissed her ninth-grade girlfriend of one year. I asked them where they met. “In church,” they told me.
But what I think is most compelling about these kids’ stories is the maturity they exhibit regarding their own identities. They talk about themselves in the same way older folks might. That’s because they can. Those identities are already manifesting. This is how it works folks.
“I definitely lost some friends,” he said, “but no one really made fun of me or called me names, probably because I was one of the most popular kids when I came out. I don’t think I would have come out if I wasn’t popular.”
“When I first realized I was gay,” Austin interjected, “I just assumed I would hide it and be miserable for the rest of my life. But then I said, ‘O.K., wait, I don’t want to hide this and be miserable my whole life.’ ”
I asked him how old he was when he made that decision.
“Eleven,” he said.
Now, you might be thinking that it’s tougher because he’s in Oklahoma. But don’t let your optimism cloud your perspective. The author of the piece thought the same thing:
Just how they’re faring in a world that wasn’t expecting them — and that isn’t so sure a 12-year-old can know if he’s gay — is a complicated question that defies simple geographical explanations. Though gay kids in the South and in rural areas tend to have a harder time than those on the coasts, I met gay youth who were doing well in socially conservative areas like Tulsa and others in progressive cities who were afraid to come out.
Part of this phenomenon is obviously technology. Technology allows young people to counter the oppression they perceive from society—literally!
Going online broke through the isolation that had been a hallmark of being young and gay, and it allowed gay teenagers to find information to refute what their families or churches sometimes still told them — namely, that they would never find happiness and love.
The biggest problem I see is how the teachers and schools deal. Consider these three excerpts from the article:
A middle-school counselor in Maine summed up the view of many educators I spoke to when she conceded that her school was “totally unprepared” for openly gay students. “We always knew middle school was a time when kids struggle with their identity,” she told me, “but it was easy to let anti-gay language slide because it’s so imbedded in middle-school culture and because we didn’t have students who were out to us or their classmates. Now we do, so we’re playing catch up to try to keep them safe.”
The school’s principal would not comment specifically about Austin, but he insisted that the school “does not tolerate harassment and bullying of any kind.” He did concede that teachers don’t react to anti-gay language as consistently as he would like, which is something I also heard from a counselor at Kera’s school. “We have veteran teachers who have been teaching for 25 years, and some just see the language as so imbedded in the language of middle-schoolers that it’s essentially unchangeable,” she said. “Others are afraid to address the language because they feel like it would mean talking about sexuality, which they aren’t comfortable doing in a middle school setting.”
“Teachers would never let students say, ‘That’s so black,’ ” says Eileen Ross from the Outlet Program in Mountain View, “but I’ve had teachers look at me like I’m crazy when I suggest that they should say something to a student who says ‘that’s so gay.’ They’ll say, ‘If I have to stop what I’m doing every time a student says that, I won’t have any time to teach!’ ”
This is why we need to do more to teach students how to understand sexual orientation and gender identity and do more to counteract bullying.
I am quite happy that I can be out. My coming out was easy, even though it wasn’t until I was almost 19. Most of my adolescence was spent not hiding my identity but not caring too much about it. That fluidity that I experienced a decade ago pervades schools today, and I really think everybody needs to read this article. I’ve only highlighted a few tiny excerpts.
Coming out is still hard. I do it everyday. There’s still hesitation; there’s still concern. But if my being out can make it easier for young people to realize they can be happy as they are, then I’m proud to continue advocating for LGBT rights and protections.
Take a look at how 15-year-old Austin from Michigan (different Austin) dealt with going to his first gay-pride parade. His mom says:
“I told Austin he could go if either me or his dad went with him,” she recalled. “So he chose his dad, probably because he knew it would be the thing his dad would want to do least in the world. But off they went, and I give my husband credit, because he will do anything for his son. He doesn’t totally understand why Austin is gay, or how he can know for sure at his age, but he’s trying to be there for him. And he’s rarely seen Austin happier than at the parade. Austin warned his dad, ‘You can’t get mad at me when I scream at cute guys in Speedos!’ And boy, did Austin scream. He was in gay teenage heaven.”
That’s what America is really about.