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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

While children are coming out younger, studies show that they are doing so in schools where staff members have received little training in the area, where their fellow students use such language as "That's so gay" every day to express dislike, and where anti-bullying policies often don't exist or don't specifically protect students on the basis of sexual orientation.

In May, Maryland became the 11th state to enact a law to protect schoolchildren from being bullied because of sexual orientation. The District has had such a law since 1973; Virginia does not have one.

But California's anti-bullying policy, which is among only a handful to cite gender identity in addition to sexual orientation, could not stop what happened in February to the openly gay eighth-grader in a computer class in Oxnard.

Lawrence "Larry" King was in that class when he was fatally shot twice in the head. He was not so different from Saro. Larry didn't dress like other boys. He wore purple eye shadow and high-heeled boots. The 14-year-old classmate he had considered a possible valentine is charged with his death. The killing was reminiscent of the 1998 murder of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, only Shepard was in college when he was killed for being gay. King's death was felt by many school-age children across the nation, with some organizing vigils in his memory.

Jasmine Le, 16, learned what happened to Larry King as she sat at her teacher's computer in Littleton, Colo., where posters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. adorned the classroom walls. Suddenly, word of the shooting flashed across the screen.

"I read it. I read all of it, and I just started crying," Jasmine recalled. "I said, 'There is too much violence in the schools and too much bigotry.' "

Jasmine said she was in fourth grade when she first kissed a girl and seventh grade when she told her sister that she liked girls and boys. She didn't know the word for it, but she knew how she felt.

"They knew of my crush on Aaron Carter. I said I have those same exact feelings for Hilary Duff," Jasmine said of the one-time celebrity couple, adding that that's when her sister explained the term "bisexual."

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A generation ago, the typical coming-out story for a young person involved a college student and distraught parents, said Lindy Garnette, executive director of Metro DC Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Now, she said, the more likely scenario involves a minor living at home, and the questions from parents have evolved from panicky to pragmatic. "What do I do when my 16-year-old lesbian daughter wants her girlfriend to spend the night?" some have asked. "What about if she wants to go to an all-girl sleepover?"

Emily Harvey, Saro's mother, said she long believed that her son was gay. When he told her at the end of eighth grade that he liked boys in addition to girls, she said it was a relief.

"I think he really became complete the day he told me that," she said. "It really made him be more comfortable in all aspects of life."

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