When she was 15 and made a pass at a girl, Michelle Marzullo had her head smashed against a bathroom wall by her best friend. At 17, Marzullo said, she got kicked out of the house and ricocheted from place to place, staying with friends while she finished high school.
Now 33, Marzullo, who is in a doctoral program studying anthropology at American University, intends to direct an advocacy group someday -- and she's got a hefty scholarship to help get her there from the Point Foundation, a four-year-old nonprofit group that helps gay and transgender students.
American University doctoral candidate Michelle Marzullo, 33, is aided by a foundation that supports gay students.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
It's another sign of how much has changed since she was a teenager -- and how much hasn't.
More than 100 scholarships nationally have been established for gay students, from $300 checks to a million-dollar endowment, mostly in the past decade. That increase reflects the growth of gay-rights groups across the country and the growing numbers of teenagers coming out in high school.
Last week, Maya Marcel-Keyes told a rally in Annapolis that her famous father, Alan Keyes -- a conservative politician who has criticized gays -- kicked her out of the house and cut her off for being a lesbian but that the Point Foundation would help her pay to attend Brown University.
Many of the scholarship recipients have been thrown out of their homes, said Vance Lancaster, the foundation's executive director. That's part of the reason why each Point scholar is paired with a mentor, who might help a scared freshman move into the dorm or cook Thanksgiving dinner. Marzullo's mentor helps her network with activists.
"We don't just hand them a check, and that's it," Lancaster said.
The checks, though, are sizable. Marzullo's was $20,000 this year, and she's got at least two years to go.
The Chicago-based foundation is growing. It helped eight students its first year. This year, it hopes to give money to at least 40 students, and it already has received more than 1,600 applications. It hopes to double the million-dollar endowment it raised last year.
Several other national groups, including Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, also give scholarships to gay students, typically about $1,000 each, said Candace Gingrich, herself a relative of a famous political conservative, half brother Newt Gingrich.
Many universities offer individual awards to gay students. George Washington University offers a $3,000 scholarship, funded by the Gill Foundation, to a student studying politics for a semester.
Marzullo's scholarship was established to honor an American University graduate. This year, the foundation will make three more AU scholarships available, Lancaster said.
Sometimes students challenge Marzullo about the money, asking why she should qualify for so much aid because she is gay.
"There are thousands of scholarships for all different kinds of things," she said.
And to her, it seems like a natural next step, part of the evolution of gay rights in her lifetime.
When she was a teenager, she didn't even think about college -- she was just trying to get through the day. After she came out and lost the friends she grew up, she found new friends, other young people on the fringes.
One day, her guidance counselor told her she had to go on to college. "He saw a potential in me I didn't see," she said. "I wasn't thinking about the future then -- I was so freaked out just dealing with the day-to-day."
At 20, she found a support group. At 24, she took it over and started a workshop on homophobia and sexism.
Now, Marzullo, who has been in a relationship for six years and has an apartment in Adams Morgan, said she has so much to study that she stays in her room to read most of the time. Her focus is on race, gender and social justice, and she wants her dissertation -- which she said could be a book, a documentary, why not both? -- to shake things up. She wants to be a professor and run an advocacy group.
Although she will be in debt when she graduates, she said, the scholarship has not just lessened the financial burden. "This gives queer people a vision of the future. . . . The potential," she said, "is just outrageous."