“My problem is not everybody accepting me; it’s me accepting me, which is my biggest struggle right now. I have friends who support me, and I just can’t accept myself. I disagree with it,” she says with a shaky voice. “I feel like it’s not genetically correct. Men and women are made to reproduce. I go to a Catholic high school, I practice Buddhism.”
She continues: “Another thing that bothers me is that Catholics accept gays. But they don’t accept gays having interaction with one another. I’m constantly hearing that from my theology teacher. You’re accepting a gay as a person, but not as anything else. I can’t be gay and touch another girl,” Jillian says, as she nervously looks around the room and plays with her star necklace.
Sometimes, the very people who commit hate crimes against homosexuals will use religion to defend their actions. Last November, three men beat and robbed two others in Lakeview—one who was dressed in drag for Halloween—while shouting anti-gay slurs during the attack. According to published reports, when Robert Bellamy Jr. of Wyandanch was arrested by Nassau County police, he told detectives, “God made me hate gay people.” He was charged with robbery as a hate crime and two counts of assault as a hate crime.
High school homosexuality was recently thrust into the spotlight again this March, when a high school in Mississippi canceled its prom after lesbian student Constance McMillan, 18, asked if she could bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. According to published reports, the school later invited her back after a court ruled it was wrong, but upon arrival, McMillan discovered she had been invited to a “fake prom” with only five other guests. The rest of the school was at a secret location attending the real prom.
The story not only brings to light the homophobia that can occur within high school, but also shows that for LGBT teens, prom dilemmas go far beyond wearing the same dress as your best friend.
“It’s never easy being a teenager, and then you add on the fact that you’re feeling as though your sexual identity kind of separates you and makes you different from everyone else,” says Carney.
McMillan’s dilemma may be closer to home than most Long Islanders think. According to Normandin, in 2008 same-sex couples were banned from attending Islip High School’s prom. According to a rep from the school, however, there has never been a gender policy regarding prom dates. LIGALY holds its own prom every year, and last year Normandin and his boyfriend went together. This year, Blake wants to take Jillian to his senior prom, but Jillian’s mother refuses to let her go with him.
“IT’S (NOT) OK TO BE GAY”
Advocates such as Carney believe the stigma against LGBT individuals permeating our schools is reflective of a national perspective. Case in point, he says: same-sex marriages (or the lack thereof). Only legal in eight states, LGBT adults continue to struggle for the same rights most Americans take for granted. New York does not allow gay marriage, however, it does recognize a union performed in another jurisdiction.
“If you look at issues like gay marriage not being passed in New York, it sends a very strong message, especially to youth, a very conflicting message about whether they are accepted or OK with being gay, whether the larger society sees something wrong with that,” says Carney.
While there are alternatives for same-sex couples such as civil unions or domestic partnerships, those who were interviewed for this story do not find them acceptable. Normandin doesn’t shy away from airing his grievances.
“Technically, you can get a domestic partnership with your dog, so that doesn’t say much,” he says. “Everybody has the dream of what their wedding is going to be like. If you come out as gay, that shouldn’t have to disappear.”
Powell chalks up ignorance or homophobia to a lack of exposure to LGBT individuals. For those reasons, he says it is all the more important for teens to have a strong role model.
“It’s especially hard for parents who aren’t informed or know any gay people,” he says. “This is why it is important for figures that are well-known to come out and say, ‘It’s OK to be gay. You don’t have to be a prostitute or commit suicide, you can be fine.’”
Yet schools continue to lag behind in addressing LGBT issues, says Carney, explaining that many are either uncomfortable with the subject matter, or simply don’t know how.
“I think most LGBT youth face a fair amount of discrimination, but I think isolation is really more of an issue for them in their school systems,” says Carney. “They tend not to have a lot of peers that they know who are LGBT or just come from communities or family systems that are just not accepting.”
Isolation is a concept very familiar to Blake, who explains how his school dealt with him using the public bathrooms at the start of his transition.
“In the beginning of this year, I went into the girls’ bathroom,” he recalls. “Girls started cursing and telling me I shouldn’t be in there. They ran out and got the security guard, and he yelled at me. They took me to the dean’s office, and the dean said, ‘Hello Katelyn’ and I almost got written up,” he explains. “So now I’m only allowed to use the nurse’s bathroom. They said, ‘This is your option, and it would be really good if you took it.’ I don’t want to use the guys’ bathroom, because it’s kind of dangerous.”
Powell insists any time a student is treated “different,” it opens the door for further harassment and psychological damage, which can lead to poor academic performance.
“Yes it affects students emotionally, but also academically,” he says. “If a student is afraid to go to the bathroom or go out in the hall, their academic performance is going to suffer.”
It’s difficult to say whether or not gay teenagers have a higher rate of suicide, but according to Powell, it is thought as many as one-third of teenagers who commit suicide are gay.
Blake, Jillian and Normandin face uncertainty when looking toward their future. Many aspects of their adult lives are currently in the hands of lawmakers. Gay marriage is still on the table in New York, but the overwhelming opposition to these unions makes it unclear whether Normandin and other LGBT teens will be able to have the wedding of their dreams on Long Island.
For now, many of these teens are just trying to get through high school. For Jillian, every day remains a constant struggle as she tries to finally be at peace with herself. As Blake prepares for his high school graduation in June, he looks toward the beginning of college with both trepidation and excitement. He plans to go to an upstate SUNY college.
“I wanted to be a school psychologist and work with adolescents. I want to help kids that are messed up like me,” he says thoughtfully, adding, “I think that I’m gonna go with special education now.”
While Blake is appreciative of LIGALY and all it has done to help him, he looks forward to the day when he will be acknowledged as a heterosexual male.
“If I’m with LIGALY, they think I’m a guy because I look like a guy, and they think I’m gay because I’m with LIGALY. If they think I’m a girl, they assume I’m a lesbian. So I just don’t get recognized as a guy who likes girls, ever,” he laments.
The university he plans to attend requires he dorm with his birth sex, sparking anxiety about how his future roommate will react to him.
“I’m really nervous; because I’m gonna have to live in the girls’ dorm. And I mean, girls are more open, there’s less potential for harassment,” he trails off. “I’m just worried; I hope they’re open about it.”
Tags: 2007 National School Climate Survey, Blake Klapak, Bullying, Constance McMillan, David Kilmnick, Dr. David A. Powell, Dr. David Kilmnick, Dr. David Powell, Erik Normandin, gay, GLSEN, Hate Crime Statistics 2008, Hate Crimes, Hofstra University, Justin Lee Higgins, LBGT, LGBT, LIGALY, Long Island, Long Island Crisis Center, Nashon Minter, OUTlet, Pete Carney, Pride for Youth, Pride Network, Robert Bellamy Jr., The Pride Network, Wes Nemenz