“The student body has definitely changed,” he says. “There used to be a lot of bullying and harassment, people who spray-painted names on dorm doors and some teachers would make unfair comments, unfortunately.”
Kilmnick also believes there has been change, and credits his organization for helping open people’s minds on Long Island.
“Things change over 10 years, either for better or for worse,” he explains. “It is different. LIGALY has been around for 17 years, and we’ve made a huge impact on Long Island by educating people, empowering young people and helping transform Long Island into a safer space.”
He adds that things do not happen overnight, and there is still work to be done: “We need to look at it from the big, macro, broad perspective. Some things have changed for the better and other things we’re working to make sure they get better.”
Even the youths realize how far things have come.
“Twenty years ago, LIGALY wouldn’t have existed; I probably wouldn’t have been out at all,” says Normandin. “There was a point when I said that I wasn’t gonna come out, but I did. But I don’t think at that time I would come out.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Along with the fear of peer reactions to coming out, most LGBT youth also struggle with the issue of telling their parents.
“When their kids come out, it’s a coming out process for the entire family, says Kilmnick. “The family starts to wonder, “What do I say to aunt so-and-so when she calls?” It’s a learning process. A lot of parents are supportive these days, and there are still some who aren’t, unfortunately.”
For Normandin, coming out to his family was almost accidental. He had been attending OUTlet and telling his family he was at work instead, and was one day caught off guard.
“Before OUTlet started, we went to a sushi restaurant, and it was ’80s night so I had makeup all over my face,” he says. “So me and my boyfriend were waiting for our food, and then my parents walked in. and they didn’t realize it was me when they passed in front of me. And I had told them I was at work.”
His parents eventually noticed him, and that night, Normandin officially came out to them.
“I don’t know why I lied to them—I knew they would be accepting. I just didn’t want to go through the awkwardness of it,” he says.
Normandin’s parents were accepting, but his mother’s openness of the subject is sometimes too much for him, he admits.
“She invited a whole bunch of her friends to the house and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Erik’s gay!’ It was really bad,” he says with a grimace. “And she sent out a mass e-mail to my extended family, and this was like right before Thanksgiving. I kind of wanted to go to someone else’s Thanksgiving that year. They were OK with it, but I don’t like when people come out for me.”
Blake, who lives with his father, says although his father accepts him now, he was resistant at first: “He told me that he changed my diapers and I can’t tell him who I am.
“My grandma is really supportive and will be so good and try really hard to make me feel like she accepts me, but then she’ll buy me a skirt and be like ‘Isn’t this pretty? Why don’t you try it on?’” he adds.
In Jillian’s case, her parents’ unhappiness about her confused orientation causes her extra stress while already struggling to come to terms with her own identity.
“There will be a day that I am OK with it, and my dad says, ‘Go ahead and tell your grandmother that you’re a dyke. See how that works out,’” she explains. “So that kind of shuts me down. They say they support me, but they haven’t. I don’t think it’s intentional.”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“One of my dad’s famous quotes is, ‘No matter what, we’re gonna accept you, but it doesn’t mean we’re gonna like it,’ and that’s pretty much how it is,” Jillian concludes. “It doesn’t make me feel bad, it doesn’t make me feel good. It could be a lot worse; they could just not accept it.”
She and Blake have friends who have been kicked out of their houses or had their computers and cell phones taken away once they came out to their families.
For youth of families who are not accepting of homosexuality, Powell offers a different type of advice.
“Timing is very important,” he stresses, advising teens if there is any possibility their parents will kick them out or disown them, to wait until they are out on their own or financially stable.
“It’s hard not to come out to your parents if you want to,” Powell sympathizes, but explains “Many gay teens come out to their parents and become homeless. Homeless teens tend to gravitate toward urban centers, where they can end up caught up in drugs and prostitution.”
“GOD MADE ME HATE GAY PEOPLE”
Another source of tension at the forefront of gay issues, explains Powell, is religion.
“Often, religion causes problems because they can’t reconcile their religion and what it says about homosexuality and how they feel,” he says. “It’s a very difficult issue. Even those without religious belief often struggle with the moral pallor that is over anyone who’s different.”