Owning His Gay Identity -- at 15 Years Old

Saro Harvey, 15, of Arlington, Va., talks about his experience as an openly gay teenager. Video by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

School's out, and Saro Harvey and his best friend, Samantha Sachs, are hanging out in his Arlington County bedroom. She is slouched across his bed, and he is poised on a chair, posture-perfect, wearing dark, skinny jeans and a ruffled shirt meant for a girl. A rust-orange purse he sometimes carries hangs behind the door.

The 15-year-olds were voted most popular last spring in their section of ninth grade at Wakefield High School. Still, Saro knows there are those on and off campus who don't like him, who never will.

He has grown so used to the stares and laughter of strangers that their insults slip off his 118-pound frame like an oversize shirt.

"I think I've dealt with it so much my whole life that it really doesn't bother me anymore, not as much as it used to," Saro says. "If you have a birthmark on your leg for so long, you don't even notice it."

Saro, who first said he liked boys to a classmate in sixth grade, is like many of today's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths who openly discuss their sexual orientation and identity with friends, and sometimes family, before entering high school. In doing so, experts say, these youths are escaping the isolation of generations before them but also finding themselves vulnerable to harassment -- or worse. A California eighth-grader who expressed interest in asking another boy to be his valentine was fatally shot in February in a case that drew national attention.

"Within any given school system, there may be a very accepting crowd and a very hateful crowd," said Robert-Jay Green, executive director of the Rockway Institute in San Francisco, a national center for LGBT research and public policy. "You have to find a way to avoid the people who will hurt you and keep close to the group that will accept you."

In recent years, 110 Gay Straight Alliance clubs, which are common in high schools nationwide, have sprouted in middle schools, including nine in Maryland and Virginia. Kevin Jennings, the founder of the first club, said he "never anticipated" they would also form in middle grades. His organization, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is creating age-appropriate pamphlets to respond to the trend.

This year, students in 1,046 middle schools took part in the Day of Silence, a protest against LGBT intolerance, organizers said, double the participation level of the previous year.

"Unlike people of my generation, where there was very little visibility and a great sense of sadness, these kids know gay people are out there," Jennings said. "They have a language now to understand their feelings."

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The first time Saro said aloud what he had always felt -- that he liked boys -- came when he lived in Prince George's County. The words tumbled out, Saro said, as he and another sixth-grader were walking home. The boy shrugged it off with a "So?"

Later that year, that boy called him an anti-gay slur. When Saro ran to tell the teacher, according to a letter his parents wrote to the school, he was told: "Well, you act like one, so you should be used to it by now."

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