On Wednesday night, a diverse panel from the Bryson Institute of Philadelphia shared their experiences as young LGBTQ people in an event sponsored by Peace Week, SQU, and Feminist Majority. The Bryson Institute was founded in the late 1990s in reaction to the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay male from Wyoming who was the victim of a brutal hate crime. According to Justin, one of the facilitators at Wednesday’s panel and discussion, the Institute “goes to universities, colleges, schools, and religious institutions to educate and get the stories of people out there so you have an experience to put with a statistic.”
Justin began the panel with statistics about harassment of LGBTQ students in public high schools. Apparently 97% of students in public high schools report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from peers and 53% from teachers. 80% of teachers report negative feelings towards LGBTQ individuals in the workplace, and a staggering 20% of guidance counselors “didn’t think they had any LGBTQ students at their schools.” Two of every three queer students have experienced harassment, and of these 42% of the women and 34% of the men have attempted suicide as a result. Justin also stressed that many students admit that they have never reported these incidents to an authority figure at school, because they are “scared of the outcome of reporting.”
He also pointed to a 2004 GLSEN study that tried to determine how safe public schools in different states were for queer students by looking at Safe Schools laws, non-discrimination laws, sexuality education laws, and local Safe Schools policies, among other factors. Pennsylvania was 23rd in the nation with only 33/100–New Jersey received 95/100, and the lowest-ranking state was Mississippi with a -3.
With these statistics in mind, the panelists, all educators from the Bryson Institute, told the audience their personal stories. Mason, originally from New Jersey, explained that “my first name is actually Jessica… I recently decided I didn’t want people referring to me as a female because I don’t identify as a woman.” Mason explained that in hir high school, “the racial tension was so intense that I never felt much GLBT tension.”
Mason noted that while ze knew about gay men from the age of eleven, ze never heard about gay women. At thirteen ze told hir aunt that ze liked girls, “and she had a ceremony for me where she tried to bless the gay out of me.” Mason was lucky that when ze was 15 years old, “one of my friends came out as being bisexual… I kind of rode on her coattails.” That said, hir mother was more difficult to win over and even sent hir to therapy for a few sessions. Now, though, Mason says, “I watch the L Word with my mom… my mother is more supportive than she was initially.”
Amusingly, Mason also has an identical twin, and “for seventy-seven percent of identical twins, if one twin is gay the other one is too… I always teased her by saying that only twenty-three percent of people in her situation weren’t gay, and had she ever been in the top 23% of anything?” In their sophomore year of college, Mason’s twin called hir and said “I’m not in that twenty-three percent,” and that was her coming out.
Randy, originally of Michigan, spoke next. She first came out at thirteen, and explained, “I knew that I was a lesbian but told people that I was bisexual.” Although she didn’t want to diminish the difficulties of being bisexual, she said, “I personally used it as a stepping-stone… for me it felt safe where I was half there and half not.”
She recalled watching a lesbian kiss on “My So-Called Life” with her parents, who called it “filthy.” In part because of their attitudes, she began by telling people at school. In her freshman year, “I was writing a note during math class to my girlfriend… as the letter was getting passed it got intercepted, and the rule was that any notes that were passed were shown to parents.” Randy stayed after class to beg, and once he understood the situation, the teacher allowed her to get out of having the note shown to her parents by scrubbing every desk.
That was one of the good teachers–in her sophomore year, Randy was at another high school where she took a weight training class with only three other girls. Two of the girls were dating guys in the class, so Randy always stuck with her best friend in the class. “One day she wasn’t in class… I went to change the radio station and got cornered by sixteen guys calling me everything in the book… the teacher was standing there and did nothing to stop it until he dismissed class.” Randy recalls that she “never told anyone… I withdrew and started getting depressed, even tried to commit suicide, because I had learned that my school was no longer safe for me.”
At Marquette University, Randy came out to her roommate after about a month. “She was OK with it but it got out in the dorm… on a Friday night someone came in grabbing his genitals and telling me he could fix me.” Although she reported the incident, “Housing did nothing… I finally found a safe space on campus with the help of the diversity advisor.” Through this incident, Randy was inspired to become a spokesperson on campus, talking with housing and working with the system to make things better for queer students on campus. Now she works specifically with children who have GLBTQ parents, and she “finds that a lot of the problems are mirrored.”
Skyler, currently a college freshman, grew up in Texas and realized he was into guys in sixth grade. He attempted suicide in seventh grade, and “my parents didn’t know why… I was in an institution, and my parents found my journal, read that I was gay and became alarmed.” They drove to the institution just to ask about it, and Skyler recalled that “I became more depressed” as a result.
When he returned home, “I started telling people about my sexuality.” Although his best friend said it was OK, the e-mail he sent to his friend “got forwarded everywhere… the last day of school I was almost jumped by a big crowd of people.” He moved to Pennsylvania in eighth grade but continued to be harassed. “Teachers told me when I was picked on that I was bringing it on myself… after he came out I developed a supportive group of friends but was still picked on every day.” Things got better slowly over the years, and he took his boyfriend to prom. The photographer “rolled her eyes and tried to position us like friends… there were dirty looks coming from the picture staff.” In a small victory, the school administration told the photographers that if they didn’t stop, they wouldn’t be used again.
In October this year, Skyler “went to a party and drank a little too much… I slept in a friend’s room that was locked, but people broke in and beat the hell out of me.” When he woke up in the morning, he had two black eyes, an almost-broken jaw, and bruises all around his neck from an attempted strangulation. “I was in the hospital for two days… they literally tried to kill me.” When he contacted the police, “they did almost nothing… to this day I get scared in big crowds and don’t drink at all at parties… I always have to make sure I’m in control of the situation.”
Finally Tiffany spoke. “My family’s Jamaican, and my father is a Jamaican Muslim,” she explained, “so his religion is very against it.” She knew she liked girls from nine years of age, and continually went to her mother from then on trying to explain, “but mom said you don’t know what you’re talking about… she said it couldn’t happen until I had my period and got hormones, because then I would realize I was straight.”
When Tiffany got her period, she called her mom and the first thing she said was “I’m gay.” Although Tiffany had “a big grin on my face” at first, when her mom said that she had called Tiffany’s father, “my heart dropped… he cursed me out, he said don’t tell anybody in Jamaica.” When the family went to Jamaica a month later for Thanksgiving, it was Tiffany’s father who told the family, and “my cousin was ready to fight me and my grandmother wanted to take me out of the house… my dad had to take me out to a hotel.”
Tiffany also was harassed in school. “Somebody painted a rainbow on my locker the first day… the next day it was scratched out and said fag… the next day there was a picture of me with a rope around my neck.” After that, she decided to be home-schooled for the rest of that year. The harassment has continued. She told a story of being on a bus when a man kept trying to hit on her. When she explained that she was a lesbian, another man started bashing her, and when she moved to the front of the bus he followed her. “I told the bus driver and he said, “Why don’t you get off here and catch the next bus?'” Furious with the bus driver, she got off the bus and called the cops, “but they did nothing.”
Justin did not share any stories of his own, but said, “I can talk until I’m blue in the face.” He also works for Planned Parenthood in Bucks County and “I have seen the most horrific things of my life… one girl came out as a lesbian and had a friend rape her to change her mind… another student at an all-male school was raped by his RA and his floor.” He continued “we have work to do… the average coming out age has dropped from seventeen to thirteen in the past decade… what are we going to do to help our youth who are coming out younger and younger?”
The panel was followed by a discussion. It was agreed that while “structures are in place” at Swarthmore to support queer students, “there’s always homophobia and transphobia,” with the burning of a Queer Safe Space sign on somebody’s door a visible sign of homophobia still alive at Swarthmore.
Many students had very personal concerns, but one interesting question that was raised was of whether the queer community is accepting of questioning and bisexual people. One student said that he feels that there’s a pressure in the queer community to decide what you are and not take time to think about it. Panelists responded that “it’s good to go for openness… it’s important to affirm the youth despite not having the answers.” Another panelist pointed out that we’re on a continuum, not a binary… it doesn’t have to be a finite thing.”
In an inspiring comment, Justin said that he always encourages questioning people to go to Pride events–Philly has four Pride events alone, and Philadelphia Black Gay Pride is coming up later this month. “Go to Pride and look around and see what you identify with… it’s a beautiful experience no matter what sexuality you are.”