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As life experiences of gay teens illustrate, the world is still far from accepting

Tuesday, October 5, 2010; B4

Trina Cole remembers the head-to-toe, white linen outfit she wore to junior prom.

And how the outfit looked after she was attacked, how the cranberry juice her classmates threw at her as they yelled and screamed and shoved her in front of everyone made it look as though she were bleeding, even though it only felt that way.

Rejection, harassment and humiliation - first by her conservative Washington family and then by tormentors in high school and at a college in West Virginia - have left scars all over her arms.

"I used to think of suicide. And I used to cut myself," Cole, now 19, told me, rubbing her hands over the raised crisscrosses and lines up and down both forearms.

This is not how it was supposed to be for this generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens who are coming out in an era when mainstream future dreams - marriage, kids, homeownership, PTA superstardom - are in their grasp.

They have Ellen as a Covergirl, Ken Mehlman out of the closet, Rachel Maddow reading the news, Rosie sharing family craft tips, Queer Eyes helping divulge style secrets and Will and Grace to explain it all to Mom and Dad.

But what happened across the country in the past couple of weeks, when four gay students killed themselves after being mercilessly bullied at school, shows how little has changed for many teens.

The most recent case was the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University whose roommate allegedly videotaped him during a sexual encounter with another man and broadcast it on the Internet, both outing and humiliating a quiet, bright young violinist with one, cruel keystroke.

Clementi jumped to his death off a New York bridge, bidding farewell via Facebook.

"I had people calling us all week, shocked this was still happening," said Andrew Barnett, executive director of a Washington area support group called SMYAL, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League.

"There this feeling in the older LGBT community that coming out is easier for youth now than it was for them," he said. "And that's just not always true."

Nine out of 10 students reported being harassed because of their sexuality last year, according to a report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Today, the average age that kids come out is 13, Barnett said.

Although they are more confident, emboldened and proud, they are coming out in a world that will still beat the crap out of them. That still condemns homosexuality with a fervor that can be frightening.

Just take a look at the Supreme Court's docket this week, where the Rev. Fred W. Phelps will insist that it's his right to devastate a mourning family with his hateful, horrid, anti-gay protests at soldiers' funerals.

And technology affords a handful of new fronts for bullies to harass and humiliate: Facebook wall posts can be seen by more eyes than any bathroom wall graffiti, and Twitter can outrun all playground gossip. Relentless texts and e-mails pound a young soul to a pulp as bullies hide behind anonymous e-mails and whittle away at any sense of safety.

It also appears that some of our nation's grown-ups have set a deplorable standard, without the help of a blog. The teens at SMYAL told me horrible things about the way they were treated by the adults who should be protecting them.

Cole still remembers being slapped across the face when she was 14 and told her family that she was gay. And she still remembers their shock a few years later when she announced that she is transgender and began taking female hormones.

Many LGBT kids get kicked out of their homes by their mom, dad, grandmother or auntie. They've been forced into Bible study for "reeducation" and humiliated in front of entire church congregations. They've dropped out of school because they get jumped every day.

None of the teens I talked with was all that surprised by the recent rash of gay youth suicides across the country.

I got a smirk, an eyebrow raised, a head-thrown-back laugh from them when I asked.

"Guuurl? You think it's easy for us out there?"

"I met one kid who was carrying a hammer in his backpack to school every day, just so he could defend himself," said Cortez Riley, 22, who can understand that kind of logic. He had it pretty rough growing up gay in Charles County.

He heard his teachers loudly gossip about other gay kids at school. His track coach would yell at the runners at practice: "Don't be lazy and fag out."

When Riley finally came out, his father stopped talking to him.

Being a gay grown-up is far easier, Riley told me. He's got a good job now, supportive friends and a future.

He's just worried that so many of the teens he knows won't make it that far.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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