With more teens coming out during high school, three UAHS students describe their experiences and acceptance within the UA community
By Kate Magill, ’13 and Abby Godard, ’13
“Because I’m gay!”
The words fly out of Will Todd’s mouth before he can stop them. They are the words he’s been waiting to say to his mother, and now they are finally out in the open. Storming out of the room, Will takes a walk to clear his head and cool off from the heated fight that led to his outburst.
As a sophomore, Will had already come out to other people in his life, including close friends, but up until now he had not felt ready to share the truth with his parents. But as he walks back into the room to face his mother, Will knows he has made the right decision. His mother welcomes this revelation with open arms.
“When I got home she said, ‘You could have always told me that. I don’t care [that you’re gay],’” Will said.
As a high school student who has experienced coming out, Will understands the mixed emotions that can come with opening up to others, something that can often be nerve-wracking as students grow up and begin to discover who they are.
Facing The Truth
Unlike their heterosexual classmates, gay students often undergo a more complicated process of embracing their sexual identities. However, more and more students are coming out during their high school years, and many are finding the experience to be much more positive, according to the Feb. 7, 2007 article “Gay teens coming out earlier to peers and family,” by Marilyn Elias of USA Today. This can be seen in the rising number of Gay Straight Alliances across the United States. In the mid-’90s there were a few dozen alliances nationwide, but as of 2007, there were 3,200 Gay Straight Alliances registered at schools throughout the country, according to the article.
Students in Upper Arlington, including senior Hannah Schreiber, are joining the movement by coming out during their time in high school. Although she had a more formal coming out process with her friends and classmates by officially telling them she was a lesbian, Schreiber said she has always known she is gay.
“Basically I’ve just always known,” she said. “In elementary school I was a huge tomboy, I had the short haircut and everything. Freshman year I came out as bisexual as I was testing the waters. Then later freshman and sophomore year, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gay.’ The thing with me is I’ve always just been completely open about it.”
While Schreiber did officially come out at school, she said there was no need to formally come out to her parents.
“My family has always been really open and accepting about that kind of thing. I was really lucky with that,” she said. “Ever since I was little my mom knew, and I didn’t have to come out to my parents. My mom has always said to me, ‘If you’re gay, that’s fine. We’re always going to love and accept you for who you are.’ And they’ve always been really supportive.”
Like Schreiber, senior Joe Todd also found an accepting environment after coming out. Joe went through this process during his freshman year and said it was an easy transition.
“Coming out was actually extremely easy because it just happened naturally,” Joe said. “My mom actually asked me if I was gay instead of me going to her and letting her know, which made it a lot easier. I’m pretty sure all of my close friends and family already knew I was gay, so when it was clarified it really didn’t change anything, except I became more open with them about it.”
While Joe and Will both endured the coming out process, Joe said his journey differed from that of his twin brother’s.
“I was somewhat surprised to learn that my brother was gay just because I thought if he was, he never would have come out in high school,” Joe said. “I probably fit the gay stereotype better than he does, so I thought if he was gay, he wouldn’t make it known until later. It was actually surprising [to me] that he came out to my friends before I did. It was also pretty surprising for me because I heard about it through my friends, because we hang out with a lot of the same people.”
Will also said that while he and his brother did not initially bond over coming out and being homosexual students in high school, it is now something that has brought them closer together.
Most importantly though, Joe stressed the acceptance he felt from his family and friends.
“Everyone was extremely supportive, and I didn’t experience any bad feedback from anyone,” he said. “I never really flat out told [my friends and family] that I was gay, but they accepted it. Today, we can openly have conversations about my sexuality and it doesn’t change anything.”
An Accepting Environment
When speaking about their coming out process, Schreiber, Joe and Will focused on one aspect the most: acceptance. At UAHS all three seniors said they have found the acceptance level to be high, and that they have experienced limited problems with bullying.
Joe said that he has received positive recognition for his decision to come out, and that it has affirmed his belief that UAHS is an open environment to students of all backgrounds.
“I’ve actually had teachers and other students come up to me and tell me they respect me for it, which is nice,” he said. “Students should also know that the acceptance level at UAHS is surprisingly high for a community that lacks homosexual diversity.”
While all three students said that they have not experienced any direct bullying, Schreiber said she does feel hurt by the gay slurs she often hears used. Schreiber said she isn’t offended when friends jokingly use phrases such as “That’s so gay,” because she is comfortable with them and knows it is meant to be lighthearted. She said she is less comfortable when people use derogatory terms, especially when used by those she doesn’t know.
“It’s a lot of times with my friends that they’ll say ‘That’s gay’ every once in a while, and they know that I’m gay and they’re just joking around, so it really doesn’t bother me,” Schreiber said. “But when people say stuff like ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke,’ then it bothers me. When people are clearly being offensive, it bothers me.”
Will said that while he has never experienced outright bullying at UAHS, he has found in himself in uncomfortable situations with those that do not agree with his sexuality.
“I’ve definitely been in situations where people were talking about how gays were against their religion or the way they were brought up. Which is kind of like being the elephant in the room… It’s really awkward in those situations because you can’t be yourself,” he said.
Although Schreiber, Joe and Will all agree that UAHS has been an overall accepting environment for homosexual students, Schreiber said she did experience one difficult situation with a permanent substitute last year.
While writing an essay that was in favor of legalizing gay marriage, Schreiber’s substitute teacher tried to alter her thesis statement and veer her opinion away from being in favor of legalizing gay marriage for all citizens across America, and change it to state that homosexuals should be permitted to be married specifically in a church.
Later in the semester, she said he then used gay slurs to prove a point in front of the class.
“He was like, ‘Pretend we’re at the World AIDS Conference,’” she said. “Then he began speaking in a stereotypical gay man’s voice, ‘OK, hello, I’m here with my partner, and I’m here to talk about AIDS.’ Why do I have credibility?”
Schreiber said that as the teacher continued, her class grew increasingly uncomfortable with what had been displayed in their classroom.
“I was in the back of the room just fuming; I was so angry,” she said. “And he was just like, ‘You guys can just say it. Why am I credible? I’m gay! You know, gay guy… AIDS.’”
Distraught, Schreiber left class and went to talk with her counselor. The administration later talked with Schreiber’s substitute, where he was persistent in saying that he had done nothing wrong. After the conference, the substitute was no longer seen subbing in the district. For this, Schreiber was often blamed and criticized.
“A bunch of people ended up thinking I got him fired or something, which isn’t true. I was just trying to stand up for myself,” Schreiber said. “And a bunch of people said, ‘Oh you must not be comfortable with yourself.’ And I was like, ‘No I was just trying to get the idea out there that it’s not OK to have those stereotypes.’”
A Broader Debate
As one of the most influential aspects of today’s society, the media has also greatly impacted the debate over gay rights by including homosexual relationships in the story lines of popular TV shows, including Glee and Modern Family. Some celebrities have also become icons for the gay community because of their open sexuality, such as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
Joe said he believes that the media has given members of the LGBT community a voice and has helped people everywhere understand that gays aren’t much different from everyone else.
“I think the media has had a positive influence on the acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S., because Ellen and characters on Glee are admired and liked for who they are, regardless of their sexuality. In fact, a lot of people are attracted to them because they’re gay. I think characters like them in the media help portray gays as people who aren’t so different from the rest of the world,” he said.
Unlike his brother, Will said that while the media has definitely helped, he feels that shows such as Glee oftentimes portray gays in a stereotypical way, which does not give a clear depiction of gay people as a whole.
Senior Matt Pesavento, who is more conservative on issues concerning gay rights, agreed with Will. (Pesavento’s full interview can be found here.)
“I have avoided Glee, since the show has, in my opinion, morphed into a documentary of the struggle through which gays must go,” Pesavento said. “I think the show portrays gays as stereotypes, which is inaccurate. Not all gays manifest in such a flamboyant way.”
Although shows such as Glee have displayed such stereotypes, Will and Pesavento both agreed that shows such as this have brought the debate over gay rights to the forefront of Americans’ minds.
Another issue that is at the front of the debate over gay rights is the question of gay marriage and its potential legalization. This is a topic that students such as Schreiber will have to face directly, as she currently cannot be legally married in her home state. Schreiber said that on this controversial topic, while she respects the opinions of those who do not feel gay marriage is right, she disagrees with them.
“I think if you don’t like it, then don’t have a gay marriage,” she said. “People are free to decide. There are lots of things in society that I don’t necessarily agree with, but people have the right to do what they need to do.”
Will agreed with these ideas, explaining that while he respects the opinions of others and doesn’t judge those who have opposing views from him, he doesn’t necessarily understand why others argue against gay marriage.
“I just think it’s really wrong to say who can marry whom and who can’t marry whom, because if you love someone than you should be able to marry them,” he said. “But I’m not going to look down on you for having views other than my own. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions.”
Schreiber and Will are among the growing trend of acceptance of gay marriage among Americans. The percentage of Americans who believe gay marriage should be legalized is the highest in the nation’s history at 53 percent, according to a May 2011 survey by the research institute, Gallup.
The idea of respecting differing opinions is one shared not only by those who support gay marriage, but also by those who do not. Junior Stephanie Small does not agree with gay marriage; however, she too upholds the opinions of others.
“Personally, I am very conservative and I wish our country was run the way it was back when our forefathers founded this land,” she said. “Marriage has always been defined as the union of a man and a woman. In marriage, two people become a family and create a family.”
Upper Arlington Lutheran Church, a prominent religious institution in the area, also does not condone homosexuality, but does not persecute it either. Senior Pastor Paul Ulring said that while UALC does have specific beliefs against homosexuality, it is not something about which the church spends time preaching.
“We believe all sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage is not God’s will and best for us,” Ulring said. “This is not an anti-gay church at all, though a few people have tried to cast us as such over the years,” Ulring said. “Our ‘position’ on the issue is not a front burner deal for us in any way. It might be for specific members in their own lives, but not as a congregation in terms of emphasis and program.”
The “We Believe” statement of the church, which includes the beliefs on which UALC is based, further expands on Ulring’s thinking. In it, the church states that all sexual activity outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual intimacy, is sin. It also says that those who have committed this sin can turn to the grace of God and be forgiven. Ulring also said that while this is the belief of UALC, which includes the prohibition of gay wedding ceremonies, it does not divide the church, and that they do in fact have members who are lesbian and gay.
Another issue that is often considered controversial in the discussion of gay rights is gay adoption. Joe said that he feels that gay couples should be able to adopt in order to give children a much needed loving home. In his opinion, when children seeking adoption are denied a possible new family because the couple is gay, the government is denying them the chance of having a loving and supportive family.
Schreiber said she is also in favor of gay adoption and believes that a gay couple could provide a child with a home just as well as a heterosexual couple.
“If a gay couple is going to go through all the steps they need to take in order to be able to adopt a child, they’re going to make sure they provide a good environment for that kid,” she said.
Schreiber also mentioned that she does not agree with the notion that a child adopted by a gay couple lacks the influences of both female and male role models.
“You can have male and female influences without them being your parents,” Schreiber said. “Obviously my parents are my biggest influences, but there are plenty of people I look up to that are not my parents. So that argument just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Unlike Schreiber, Pesavento believes a lack of both female and male influences is one of the pivotal reasons why gay couples should not be permitted to adopt children. He believes that an environment with a traditional family structure of a mother and a father is the most beneficial for children and will provide them with the most appropriate home. However, he said he does think that children in abusive situations who are in need of a home, especially if a traditional family structure is not available, should be permitted to live with a gay couple in order to give the child a safer environment.
Small also does not condone gay couples adopting children, because she feels it could alter their growth.
“Children are in the heart of their development stage and they learn many things from their parents. I believe all children need to have a father and mother,” she said. “I believe if a kid grows up with same sex parents, it can hinder their development and their learning about life.”
A Feeling of Hope
As students continue to develop into adults, acceptance and understanding of those different from themselves is important not only in regards to those in the LGBT community, but for all people. Schreiber noted that it is important to be aware of others, and that factors such as sexuality do not change the character of a person, which is what really matters.
Joe and Will also said that the most important part of a person does not lie in his or her sexuality, and that it is important to look past these differences and stereotypes.
The idea to look past stereotypes is an idea held by those on both sides of the debate, including Pesavento. He said he feels that just because an individual does not believe in ideas such as gay marriage, does not mean they are not caring towards others.
“Conservatives are often the scapegoat, when there is objection to definition of human right, as they appear less compassionate towards individuals than liberals do,” Pesavento said.
As a part of this belief in defying assumptions, Small said that aggression between opposing groups should be avoided.
“People should be able to have a debate or an argument without aggression towards one another. No solution will be made if the two groups can’t even cooperate, even if they disagree,” Small said.
Having now successfully opened up about his sexuality to others, Will said he can appreciate the bravery it takes to share something so intimate about oneself with others. However, he encourages others to open up to those around them.
“I was really nervous that no one would be accepting, but it just shows that if you’re fearless people actually respect you more,” Will said. “I actually had people say, ‘Good job. You were one of the first gays to come out in our grade, and I just really respect you for it because I could never do that.’”
Joe felt the same way, saying that he also believes that opening up to others helps a person to feel more comfortable in his or her own skin. After coming out, Joe said he was able to strengthen his relationship with others, because he was able to be more honest with them. He explained that without such a big secret looming over a relationship, people can become closer. Most importantly, he said that opening up about whom you are leads to a more confident, happy person.
“After coming out, students become a lot more comfortable in their own skin and become an all around happier person,” he said. “You become more confident and proud of who you are, which makes others proud of you.”