As I witness a generation of gay youth struggling with intolerance in everyday life, I think back to what it was like when I first came out in 1995, at the age of 16. I came out to a group of friends and classmates. I got some support, but I also got opposition. Most of my teachers were supportive, but some were concerned. I was very confused. Being gay was not accepted and, at the same time, I was struggling to fit in with everyone, wanting to be liked. It was a lose/lose situation. So, even though I decided to come out and stay out to my supportive friends, I had also no choice but to “stay in the closet” in other parts of my life so that I would not lose friends.
I also felt alone, even with my supportive friends, because at the time, I was the only girl I knew who felt an attraction for other girls. I needed a support group, so I went to a counselor at my high school, who told me about Youth Pride. When I went to my mom to tell her, I was scared. But she was supportive. Dad, on the other hand, thought the state was going to take me away from the family. My sister was shocked at first, but eventually accepted me with open arms.
Our only exposure to gay youth at that time was through television, either on a talk show or an afterschool special. We were not lucky enough to have shows like South of Nowhere, where the main teenage character is a lesbian. But there was one of those specials that helped me come out and be the openly gay high school student that I needed to be. It was an HBO film called Lifestories: Families in Crisis, The Coming Out of Heidi Leiter. It was a film from 1994, about a lesbian high school senior who decided to take her partner to the prom. It is the most inspirational film that I have ever seen, even to this day, and it gave me the motivation to come out. Later, Youth Pride would give me the feeling and knowledge that I was not alone.
In 1997, I graduated high school and went to CCRI. When I walked on that campus my first day, I saw rainbow flags in the student government office and gay students showing their pride, wearing buttons with gay pride themes. We had a great administration that supported LGBT students. College was the place to be to be young, gay, proud and SAFE.
A year later, in 1998, Matthew Shepard, a college student from Laramie, Wyoming, was murdered in a horrific hate crime. It was all over the news. When that story aired, I saw things begin to change. Even the people of Laramie, a town that was known for being conservative, changed their attitudes, all because of this poor young man’s death. This, I thought, was the beginning of acceptance for gay youth. The tragedy of Columbine, and the beginning of campaigns to stop bullying that followed made me think again that maybe we will finally learn to accept one another.
Eleven years later, I am sad to see that it has not. Instead, I see things have gotten worse. Even on college campuses, a place where, when I was 18, I felt safe to be gay, where I could meet others who were out like me, and even the straight people were cool. Now, I feel those good days have gone. They can come back – they have to come back. But until they do, we must all do something to take a stand. We must accept everyone for who they are regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, disability, race or anything. The best part about this world is it is full of diversity. If we were all the same, wouldn’t we be boring?