Jillian has a hard time coming to terms with her sexual identity.
“It’s not OK for me to identify as a bisexual,” she says, matter-of-factly. While she admits a longing for her former, straight life, she also knows it’s no longer who she is. “I want a boyfriend. It would make me so happy if it worked, but I know it won’t,” she explains.
These days, Jillian doesn’t classify her sexuality at all. She doesn’t feel ready to put a label on herself until she can come to terms with her feelings: “I identify myself as a seriously confused teenager,” she says, delivering a delayed giggle as she glances down at the black, chipped polish on her fingernails.
Erik Normandin, 19, came out to his drama club friends at Bay Shore High School his senior year. At the time, he only knew of one other gay student in the entire school. Normandin has since graduated and now attends Suffolk County Community College, but says his legacy at Bay Shore unfortunately lives on.
“My brother is now known as the ‘kid with the gay brother,’” he says. While the sexual orientation slurs and discrimination don’t lead to arrests and often don’t end in violence, make no mistake—it is harassment, say experts.
Kilmnick asserts just because teens have become used to the verbal attacks doesn’t mean they should be tolerated.
“You really can’t keep bullying in the closet,” he says. “It needs to come out so we can address it.”
A NETWORK OF HOPE
Groups such as LIGALY aim to eliminate discrimination through education and empower teens to feel comfortable in their own skin. But while LIGALY is a key player in advocating gay rights on Long Island, it is not the only place where LGBT teens can find comfort and support. Pride for Youth, a nonprofit service located in Bellmore and advocate for LGBT youth, is part of the nonprofit Long Island Crisis Center, and the national Pride Network (which has a Hofstra University and Nassau County chapter). It provides counseling and support services, as well as sponsoring a Friday night social gathering for around 120 young people. Twice a month, Pride for Youth provides HIV testing. It also hosts a weekly “Coffeehouse,” a safe, friendly, alcohol-free space where LGBT youth and their straight friends can come together to socialize and get help if they need it—similar to LIGALY’s OUTlet. Those interested can receive counseling and education regarding HIV/STD prevention, homophobia and coming out.
Pete Carney, Pride for Youth’s director, however, explains the emphasis is more on “creating a social atmosphere where teens can go and feel safe.” All services are free and confidential.
Carney notes that many of the teens who walk through their doors are transgender. Transgender individuals are those who do not identify with the sex that they were born with. It does not relate to sexual orientation, as transgender individuals can identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or nothing at all. Carney says it is not easy being a transgender teenager.
“We work with a lot of transgender youth and they still face tremendous discrimination, lack of understanding and a large lack of role modeling,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of [transgender] images in our communities and in our culture of adults to really look up to.”
Blake Klapak, of Bay Shore, knows this firsthand. Born Katelyn, the 18-year-old says he identified more as male his entire life.
“I’ve always felt like a boy, since I was little. But it was OK to be one of the boys because I had three older brothers,” he explains, noting he liked to be referred to as a boy. “I was Randy when I was little.”
Blake, who is heavily involved with LIGALY, first came out as a bisexual when he was still referring to himself as Katelyn. Then, on Dec. 7, 2007, a date he remembers vividly, he announced to his best friend he was transgender. His friend stopped talking to him soon thereafter. Since coming out as transgender, the Bay Shore high school senior has met his fair share of resistance. When he asked friends and family to call him Blake, he received criticism from both sides.
“My family thinks its stupid, and my friends don’t like it,” he says. “My dad told me I should call him ‘mom,’ just to prove his point.”
Blake faced a great deal of discrimination from his current job, which he asked not be named in this story. His boss recently transferred him because two of his coworkers had expressed being uncomfortable with him, he says.
“My boss said, ‘You and I both know that things have changed,’” Blake recalls “She said, ‘We both know what’s going on so you have to either work at the other place or just not work here.’”
In 10th grade, Blake sought comfort and reassurance at LIGALY and now spends at least three days a week at the center. A self-proclaimed “poster boy” for the organization, he visits other schools frequently to give presentations and address gender and sexual stereotyping. He credits the organization with helping him through the difficult transition in his life.
However, not everyone shares Blake’s opinion LIGALY is a positive place for LGBT youth. Jillian, who happens to be Blake’s best friend, does not agree with the group’s mission.
“Here, it’s like, ‘You should be gay’—not, ‘It’s OK to be gay,’” she says, lowering her voice so others at the center can’t hear her. “It’s more promoting [being gay] than supporting. It’s all promotion.” She and Blake met her first time at the center, when she stated she didn’t believe in bisexuals and “he attacked me.”
Blake smiles and interjects: “I tried to educate her.”
As bad as the name-calling and discrimination can be, those interviewed agree it was far worse in the past. Dr. David A. Powell, director of the LGBT department at Hofstra University, first started teaching French at the college in 1986. He recalls a very different environment for young homosexuals back then.