Owning His Gay Identity -- at 15 Years Old
Youths Coming Out Sooner, but Protections Against Harassment Lag

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."

* * *

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."

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."

* * *

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."

What did surprise her, however, was "how far out there" he was in style and expression. She said she sometimes asks him to tone it down, not because it bothers her, but because she has seen how it bothers others. She notices the stares from strangers and the way children ask innocent, yet hurtful, questions, such as, "Is he a girl?"

"For an average kid," Emily Harvey said, pausing on the adjective before continuing, "for an average kid, you don't really have to say, 'Maybe the ruffled shirt is not a good idea.' If he was going through a punk stage and dyed his hair purple, it would not be the same conversation as, 'Maybe you shouldn't carry my purse to school.' "

"I worry about him all the time," she added. "All the time."

Her immediate fear: Will someone hurt him? Her long-term concerns: Will he find someone who loves him for him? And if he does, will he have the same rights as everyone else?

Saro's father, James Harvey, said he loves his son but confesses that he has faced his own prejudices as he watches Saro change.

"Sometimes I have the feeling I want to toughen him up," James Harvey said. "It's something I completely don't understand."

He said he struggles to grasp what "triggered" Saro's interest in the same sex. Had his son been molested? he questioned. Could this be just a phase?

* * *

Days before school let out for summer, the pizza had arrived in John Clisham's office at Wakefield High, and the students in the GSA club were spread across the sofa and chairs.

One girl told how she was writing her senior project on same-sex marriage. Another explained how in the past few years many girls at the school, especially African Americans, had started saying they were bisexual, thinking it was cool.

A junior told how he fell into his first "gay talk" in fourth grade. His foster mother had asked why he was so into the red Power Ranger. "I said, 'I don't know; you tell me.' "

Everyone laughed.

The conversation turned to Saro. He's not a member of the club and has never attended a meeting.

A 17-year-old senior said a ninth-grade girl approached her lunch table one day. "She kept referring to our very flamboyant freshman -- everyone knows who he is -- as that 'gay kid' and kept talking about how much she hated him and if he came up to her she would freak out."

Another 17-year-old, a junior, said he heard "a mean comment" about Saro. "Someone said, 'He's so gay, he doesn't even fit in with the [anti-gay slur].' "

Doris Jackson, the principal of Wakefield, said the school does not tolerate bullying for any reason. "To me, it's more than having a policy and enforcing it. It's establishing an environment of tolerance of everyone," she said, adding that the school even provides a separate restroom for a transgender student so the person is not forced to use the girl's room or boy's room. "When we say we are very diverse, people think racially. But we are diverse racially, culturally, [by] sexual orientation and socio-economic level. Being gay here doesn't set you apart. You're just another kid with something about you that is unique."

It was at Wakefield that Saro determined that he was gay and not bisexual, and where he started incorporating bright color into a wardrobe of mostly girl's clothes. When he is later told about the comments that emerged about him at the GSA meeting, he laughs -- not nervously, but loudly.

"I tell my friends all the time, I'm like, 'What makes them think talking about me is going to make me change who I am?' " Saro says. "They can talk about me. They can do anything. But I'm still Saro. It doesn't bother me."

Even when he wore baggy pants and clothes in neutral gray and black in middle school, classmates questioned him. And before he ever posted the word "Queer," prominently and in rainbow colors, on his MySpace page, insults were slung.

"I swear I think I was in second grade and this boy, he was like, 'Are you gay?' And I was like, 'I don't know what that is,' " Saro says. "I've always been feminine but just never knew what it was."

Samantha says the stares bother her more than him. She was with him in Baltimore on a field trip this year when several teenagers called him names and then, seeking to pick a fight, attempted to shove their way past the teachers onto the school bus.

"I think you just don't even think about it. You don't even question it," Samantha says to Saro. "If you sat there and thought about everything people said and would take it in, you wouldn't be the person you are. You would be depressed every day going to school. You wouldn't want to be you."

"I wouldn't be Saro."

"Yeah, you wouldn't be Saro."

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