For gay teens, it still needs to get better

Acceptance rises, but bullying remains a plague

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / November 6, 2010

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Michael Renken, 18, graduated last spring from North Quincy High School, where for a time he was the only openly gay male student. While the vast majority of schoolmates did not harass him about his homosexuality, says Renken, a small minority did, periodically peppering him with antigay slurs.

Usually he tried to ignore them. But he says there were times when he grew depressed enough to contemplate suicide.

Renken, who is studying to become a cosmetologist, has contributed a video to the It Gets Better campaign, a YouTube phenomenon in which concerned adults — President Obama among them — reach out to at-risk gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (known as GLBT) youth, often sharing deeply personal stories about being bullied when they were younger. “I remember dealing with the emotional pain of coming out, of being harassed,’’ Renken said. “And I don’t wish that on anyone.’’

The It Gets Better initiative is one of several undertaken in response to recent high-profile tragedies. In September alone, a string of gay teenagers across the country took their lives after being bullied or harassed, including 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after two schoolmates surreptitiously recorded his intimate encounter with another male, then posted the video online. Last month in New York, law enforcement officials say two teens and a man were beaten and tortured by gang members in an antigay hate crime.

While physical assaults on gay teens may be declining overall — thanks to many factors, including tougher antibullying laws and more support systems for high schoolers who choose to “come out’’ — there’s ample evidence, too, that bullying and intolerance remain part of their daily lives.

Incidents such as Clementi’s suicide have prompted much soul-searching — and outrage — among GLBT youth, their families, and adults who counsel them in school and elsewhere. To many, the tragedies are a sobering reminder that antigay bias is thriving, if less blatant than in the past. Massachusetts passed a new law this year banning bullying on school grounds, yet critics have faulted it for failing to contain language about victims’ sexual orientation.

Life at school
So what is the reality for gay teens today? None of the nearly two dozen teens interviewed for this article said they had been physically assaulted for being gay, lesbian, or transgendered. But virtually all said they had been exposed to some degree of harassment. They also said that without a formidable support system, their feelings of being marginalized would probably be much worse.

Emma Munson-Blatt, a sophomore at the Arlington School in Belmont, said it is no longer cool, if it had ever been, for students there to use derogatory terms when addressing openly gay students such as herself.

“Whether people are more tolerant or have just had it beaten into them, I don’t know,’’ Munson-Blatt, 15, said during an after-school meeting of Project 10, a support group for GBLT students that meets at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. “But we have a lot of diversity in general.’’

However, one teen said she had been told by a schoolmate that she would go to hell because she’s gay.

Another teen, who is transgendered, said administrators at his Merrimack Valley area high school turned a deaf ear to complaints about bullying over his sexual identity. Logan Ferraro, 19, a Wilmington High grad attending the University of Massachusetts Boston, recalled showing up for his senior year in gender transition from female to male. “Gym class was not fun,’’ he said. Older boys picked on him constantly. Much of the verbal bullying took place away from school grounds, Ferraro added; on senior prom night, he found his car windows shattered.

Finding support
Still, for many teens, the school environment is less alienating than home life, where religious or cultural prejudices against homosexuality can make their lives uncomfortable. Afraid to discuss concerns such as peer relationships and dating, they feel isolated and even more vulnerable. As specialists, such as Concord psychotherapist Marjorie Cahn maintain, parental support is often the biggest factor in helping a GLBT teen make it through adolescence with minimal trauma.

“In a way it’s more frightening now, because children are no longer safe in their own houses,’’ said Cahn, who has worked extensively with GLBT teens and whose adult daughter is gay. For teens still confused about their sexuality or not yet out to their parents, she added, online teasing, often done behind a cloak of anonymity on sites such as Facebook, “is like the Goodyear Blimp flying overhead saying, ‘Johnny is gay!’ ’’

Many teens said they also know of schoolmates wary of coming out lest they be socially marginalized. Boys typically have it harder than girls, most agreed. Beyond the intentionally hurtful comments, though, are remarks more ignorant than malicious. The phrase “that’s so gay,’’ for instance, widely applied to everything from clothing to homework, can be personally wounding, since it implicitly equates “gay’’ with “bad.’’

“When people find out you’re gay, it changes you as a person,’’ said Cambridge senior Angela McKenzie, 17. “Maybe they feel they can’t say something [nasty] outright, but you do get ostracized.’’

What data exist on bullying of gay teenagers support the notion that antigay bias remains widespread. In September, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released its 2009 National School Climate Survey of nearly 7,300 middle and high school students. Nearly 90 percent reported some harassment at school, and two-thirds said they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Nearly one in five said they had been physically assaulted in school. Schools with active gay-straight alliances and antibullying policies had more hospitable environments, according to the survey.

The percentage of gay youth reporting frequent harassment or assault has remained “fairly consistent’’ over the past decade, according to officials at the network, who also point to “small but significant decreases’’ since 2007 in reports of verbal and physical harassment.

Another survey, released last year by the Massachusetts Department of Education and based on 2,707 interviews conducted at 59 public high schools, showed gay and lesbian youth attempted suicide far more frequently than their straight peers (24.7 percent, compared to 5.6 percent), skipped school more often because of safety concerns (13.9 percent to 3.4 percent), and were threatened with a weapon at school (17.3 percent to 6.4 percent).

Arthur Lipkin, head of the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, said he has seen marked improvement over the past 20 years. But he also said the climate can vary widely from town to town, and school to school. Having an active gay-straight alliance helps, he said, but such groups have been threatened by budget cuts. Meanwhile, he worries that laws imposing punishment for harassment and bullying might simply drive antigay behavior to other arenas such as the playing field or school bus.

Danielle Murray, a Brighton High School teacher who advises the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said teens at her school are coming out earlier and in greater numbers than a decade ago. Brighton students even elected an openly gay male senior as student government president this year. But greater awareness cuts both ways, she said, providing more support for gay teens on the one hand and more targets for potential bullies on the other.

Because the potential for harassment still exists, said Murray, teachers and staff members talk to freshman about bullying and train all students to “be better advocates’’ for themselves and others who might become targets. It helps, she added, for the school to have openly gay faculty members such as herself.

Family fears
Nick Lee-Diaz, 17, a senior honors student at Brighton, said antigay bias is pervasive enough for gay teens such as himself to regard coming out as risky. Still, he added, being out is often preferable to being suspected of homosexuality, which often leads to more overt teasing and ostracism. For Lee-Diaz, who is African-American, the bigger problem is dealing with family and friends. “It’s way harder for us to come out when you’re a minority, because of the community you live in,’’ he said.

Parents of gay teens harbor anxieties of their own, especially after recent suicides.

Lex Thomas, whose 17-year-old son, Cory Larson, is a senior at Nashoba Regional High School, said she is grateful that her son’s school has an active gay-straight alliance. Nevertheless, she said, “If I felt any grief when Cory came out two years ago, it was realizing I’d have a level of fear above and beyond what other parents have — that he’d have an element of risk in his life, physical and social, that others don’t. And that’s just wrong.’’

For Sheyna Baez, a 17-year old Brighton High senior, the school climate has indeed improved. Harassed during her freshman year after coming out — by boys, mostly, in what they seemed to think was a joking manner — she has experienced little bullying since. Still, when she heard about tragedies such as Clementi’s, the reality hit home that antigay bullying remains widespread. Without vigilance, she said, tolerance doesn’t mean much.

“I was in shock at first,’’ Baez said. “But after the fifth or so [tragedy], I wondered, what the hell is going on?’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at