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In looking at the state of gay and lesbians teens in 2001, it would be impossible to ignore the surge of high school violence and abuse that has culminated in shoot-outs on campuses from Columbine to Santana High. Tormenting already tormented teenagers with homophobic slurs (which were targeted at Charles Andrew Williams, allegedly responsible for the shooting at California's Santana High in March) is often part of the norm where adolescent cruelty is a life passage. As Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, wrote in a 1998 Advocate perspective, "The cycle of violence starts early--in the nursery rhymes kids learn to recite; in the classrooms, where students hear antigay comments 26 times a day on average and where teachers do nothing an astounding 97% of the time." Fortunately, many of the gay teens we talked to are finding their way through these stormy years. Some are even falling in love, breaking up, coming out, and teaching others how to make the world a better place for all teenagers. Here are their stories ...

George Loomis 19 YEARS OLD * FRESNO, CALIF.

A gay teen takes on a school district for failing to protect him from harassment

By Sabrina McIntosh

GEORGE LOOMIS WAS SITTING in his high school Spanish class one day when his teacher commented on his eating. "Only two kinds of men wear earrings, pirates and faggots, and there isn't any water around here," the teacher said. The comment was the start of Loomis's nightmare. Singled out as gay, he was harassed by his fellow students. Worse still, he contends, the administration at his high school in Visalia, Calif., did nothing to stop the harassment. Eventually he was told he would have to leave the school and enter a tutoring program. Suddenly, the former student council member was forced to give up the last months of his senior year and with it his chance to enter his dream school, the University of California, Berkeley, which was looking for' a diploma from a high School and not a special program.

In January, Loomis took action. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. he filed suit against the Visalia Unified School District. Loomis is seeking unspecified damages from the district for failing to stop the harassment, "George was very brave in coming for. ward and putting the Spotlight on not only his school but schools around the country," says Robert Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU in San Francisco, "He is a real catalyst and a hero."

Loomis, 19, now lives in Fresno, just an hour away from Visalia, and is attending California State University, Fresno. His boyfriend, Aaron Jura, has been standing by him as he takes his battle to the courts. The suit and the attendant publicity have taken a toll on Loomis, who has little contact with his family. He is also constantly under threat of physical attack. `I'm still facing harassment from people, even strangers who have heard about the lawsuit," he says, "My car has been vandalized, I've had to move a few times. I've had to quit jobs." Still, he remains upbeat about his case and his own future. The soft-spoken Loomis sat down with The Advocate to discuss his case and the experience of being a gay youth today.

When did you realize you were gay?

I've always known I was gay, but I didn't always act on it, At 6 years old all of my friends were girls. I became more confident with my sexuality as I grew older.

How did you come to terms with it?

I was trained when I was young to think that being gay was wrong and an abomination, but I've come to terms with who I am and to realize that there's nothing wrong with being gay. Being gay is a part of you. It's not accepted by a lot of people. and I've had a lot of struggles with being gay, I've endured a lot of harassment because of it, Through all of it I've remained confident in being gay.

What role models did you turn to while establishing your gay identity?

I've used straight people as my role models, because when I first came out I didn't know many gay people, But my straight friends helped me realize that being gay is who I am and that there's nothing wrong with it.

What is it like growing up gay in Visalia? Did you feel any connection to the broader gay community?

I felt really isolated and very scared in that community because being gay there is unacceptable. It's a very religious community. And then in the media I saw stories about gay people being harassed or killed because they were gay, like Matthew Shepard. That scared me because I felt the same thing could happen to me. And then every day at school I was harassed, so I knew it could happen to me.

Why did you decide to file the harassment lawsuit against the school district and not let it go?

I couldn't stand silent while they violated my civil rights or the civil rights of other students, It's an injustice if I stay quiet about it, because we're at a perfect time to speak out and create change. And I know how hard it is to be harassed at school because you're gay or perceived to be gay. I wasn't out at school, and that made it worse because at that time I was only perceived as being gay.

What kind of an Impact did the decision to file have on your Image of yourself?

I know that a lot of people don't support me. A lot of people do support me. And either way, I'm confident in doing what I know is right.

How has your lawsuit affected your experience of being young?

It's changed the way I live my life, because I'm in the spotlight and certain decisions that I make may reflect the outcome of this. I know there are a lot of young people out there who now see me as their rote model, and I want to be a good example for them, I don't want to do something that would give them the wrong impression about being gay. Also, I'm being recognized by my peers at Fresno State and at work. But as far as my everyday life goes, I'm still a student and I'm still George. I'm not giving that up.

What would you tell people who have been harassed to do?

I would encourage them to call people on their actions, There are laws now that protect -students, If they think we can be quiet and the harassment will go away, that's completely wrong. It's not going to go away unless we speak out about it.

Where have you been getting support?

My support comes from the people I consider to be my family,They're not blood. related, but they're my family, t actually have a huge amount of support from my friends, people at school, my attorneys, and my partner.

What is the most difficult aspect of being a young gay person?

A lot of people think that if you're gay, you live a certain lifestyle. All the stereotypes really bother me, There are gay people who fix cars; there are gay people who do all kinds of things. I don't want people to say, "George is gay, so he's a certain way."

Do you think the older gay generation knows what it's like to be young and gay in this era?

I think they do. They faced a lot of things back in the beginning of the movement, I've heard so many stories about gay people who faced very serious problems years ago. I think it's a little easier for us. Not too much easier, but it has gotten to a point where we can at least talk about being gay. Ten years ago even, you couldn't talk about it.

What Is college like for you?

There's a great difference between college and high school. The people there are so much more mature. The university doesn't allow harassment, so that's relieving. We have a pride club [for gays, lesbians. bisexuals, and transgendered people], which is really nice. We even have a booth out with all the other clubs, and there's never any vandalism on it or any problems, It's shocking to see, because I've gone from a very homophobic school system to a normal university.

Is there any advice you would give to Advocate readers who are gay youths?

Tikkum olam, It's a Hebrew saying that means "to repair the world" or "to do what's right." That's what I would tell everyone, If you feel that you're right in what you're doing, then do it. I really encourage people to call people on their actions and to stand up for their rights as a human being, Don't allow others to harass you, If you're in a situation where you feel it's the right thing to let someone harass you, then maybe it's right for that time, but realize it's going to be a lot harder to create change.

McIntosh is assistant editor for News Link, a gay/lesbian newspaper in Fresno.


Gay teens start to reap the spoils of visibility and organizing: out and proud dating lives

By Jon Barrett

Editor's note: As pioneering as many gay and lesbian teenagers are today, society itself has some catching up to do. Because of this lag, The Advocate cannot legally print the names or pictures of people under 18 without the permission of their parents. As a result, the names of some of the teens featured in this story have been changed.

Marc Robinson, a 17-year-old from Milwaukee, didn't know how good he had it until the day he spoke to a group of gay senior citizens. "It weird to hear how they weren't able to come out until they were, like, 50," he says. "They didn't know what it was like to be with someone. Then, when they [did finally date], they had the same type of problems teenagers have with their first relationships."

Although the stories the seniors told Robinson may have had an "I walked 10 miles in three feet of snow" quality, they vividly illustrate how times have changed. That's especially true when the seniors' experiences are compared with Robinson's: Out of the closet at 15, he's had three relationships, the longest lasting five months. "I know people who have been in relationships for, like, two years," he says. "I have two lesbian friends who are never apart. Like, if you say one of their names, you say the other. That's just how it is."

And that's just how it is for thousands of high school students across the country. Despite the very real threats of verbal and physical abuse many of them still face, gay teens are not only coming out younger every year, they're also leading openly gay dating lives with a panache that would surprise gay people only 10 years their senior.

Take 18-year-old Peter Viengkham and 18-year-old David Purtz, for example. The suburban Fort Lauderdale, Fla., couple have dated off and on for more than a year. They even occasionally spend nights together in their parents' homes. "My mom knows we're going to have sex anyhow," Viengkham says. "She's like, `I don't want them to do it in a car because we won't allow them to do it here.'"

Or consider 17-year-old June Washington and 18-year-old Jeanette Sanders of Philadelphia. The two have been going steady ever since their first date a year and a half ago, when they went to see the film Double Jeopardy. "It turned out we didn't see much of the movie," Sanders says, acknowledging, almost under her breath, that she and Washington shared their first kiss in the back row of the theater that night.

"These kids are coming out and experiencing things that I should have at their age," says 32-year-old Javier Smith, who leads a gay youth group in Boise, Ida. "A lot of times they surprise me with their maturity and the things that they've done. But other times I'm surprised at how immature they are, and I have to remind myself that they are only 16 or 17."

Aside from the Internet, gay student groups--there are more than 800 of them registered with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network--are the biggest reason for the upsurge in out and proud dating among teens, says Caitlin Ryan, coauthor of Lesbian & Gay Youth: Care and Counseling. "It was difficult 10 years ago for a gay youth to meet another gay youth," Ryan says. "But these groups are providing an opportunity to have peers and to learn about being gay through your peers."

According to a survey conducted by Lisa Love, a health education specialist whose work includes gay youth issues in the Seattle school district, the two topics, besides coming out, that members of these groups want to talk about most are dating and sex. "Kids are either talking about relationships they're in, they've been in, or frustrated that they're not in," Love says. Even though many of the groups do not directly address dating issues, they bring teens together in an atmosphere in which they can at last enjoy the same rites of. passage that their straight peers take for granted.

In Boise, for example, the youth group is the primary social outlet for gay teens, including 17-year-old Nick Rutley and 18-year-old Kayla Tabb. The only openly gay student at his high school, Rutley says he "would be beaten alive" if he were seen holding hands or kissing Travis Harrison, the 16-year-old he's been dating for the past few weeks. Nevertheless, he and Harrison plan to go to the prom together this spring. "I'm a little bit nervous," Rutley says. "I've talked to my parents, I've talked to the principal, and I've talked to a lot of my friends and asked them to be there, just for safety, in numbers."

Tabb started dating when she was 16 and has had two girlfriends, both of whom were 20 years old. However, she's not currently dating. "I've got too much stuff going on right now just with trying to finish high school," she says. She did recently try to date the one other girl who regularly attends the youth group, but "it was supposed to be sort of a messing-around sort of thing, and she wanted a relationship," Tabb says. "So I decided it needed to stop."

Viengkham helped establish the gay student group at his high school but met Purtz on America Online. "Everybody I know happens to meet people on AOL," he says. "I met other people [online] before David, but I guess you would call those flings," Viengkham says. "David was the first person I went out with, technically. Once we met, he actually drove up to my house. It was a really fast kind of thing, like, `Oh, let's meet.'"

While just meeting someone used to be the biggest dating-related obstacle for gay teens, today's youth say their dating conundrums aren't so different from the ones their straight peers face, including how to tell parents about relationships.

Washington and Sanders haven't come out to their parents about their sexual orientation or about the year and a half they've been dating. "To talk to [my mom] would be tough," Sanders says. "I mean, she sort of knows stuff and asks about it, but I never verify." The couple only came out to their friends when they realized they needed the support they weren't finding at home. "We decided we needed to tell people [about the relationship] because whenever we got into problems with each other, there was nobody to turn to," Sanders says.

Those, like Viengkham, who can talk to their parents often turn to them when the relationship gets bumpy. "My mom gives me advice and says, `Maybe he doesn't know you're feeling that way,' or `Maybe you should talk to him,'" Viengkham says. Others, like Tabb, say their parents try almost too hard to be accepting. "My mom will bring things home and say, `Look, this has a rainbow on it,'" Tabb says. Still, she says, it was comforting to tell her mother about her first girlfriend: "She gave me a big hug, and then she started to cry."

Where sex fits into the relationship--if at all--is another cause for concern, especially for a generation hit with images from TV shows like Queer as Folk, which often equates gay life with no-strings sexual encounters. But many teens seem to take a more cautious approach than the boys on Showtime. "I'm going to wait for quite some time before I even consider having sex with [Harrison]," Rutley says. "I have to know that [our relationship] isn't just casual, that there is a commitment of sorts."

Viengkham says his gay friends are more sexually active than his lesbian friends, but he doubts the difference is as much a gay-versus-lesbian thing as a male-versus-female thing. "I could go up to any straight guy or any gay guy and ask them how much sex goes through their mind, and they would answer honestly, `All the time,'" he says.

The hardest part of all, of course, is when a relationship ends. "Initiating relationships, especially in a small town like this, is often nothing more than `I'm gay and you're gay," says Boise youth-group leader Smith. "But I sometimes spend night after night answering phone calls at 10 o'clock at night from kids asking me the same question over and over again: `Why did they break up with me?'"

Indeed, breakups are one point where gay teens diverge from their straight friends. The end of a relationship can underscore just how little gay relationships are recognized.

"Gay youth want to be in relationships for the same reasons other youth do," Ryan says. "And I think it's wonderful that there are so many opportunities for them to find each other so they can actually date in high school. But when they break up and the nature of the relationship isn't really understood by their peers or their family, I think that can be an extremely isolating and vulnerable time."

However, feelings of isolation and vulnerability are exactly what teens are supposed to be experiencing at this age. Relationships are about personal growth and experience--and sometimes the pain that goes with them. Now more than ever, gay and lesbian youths are able to learn the lessons of growing up at the same time their straight peers do. "I learned a lot in my last relationship, and I've learned a lot being single," says Harrison. "I've definitely had a lot less emotional pain being single than being in a relationship. In the end, what motivates me to be involved in another serious relationship again is [simply] the desire to love and be loved."


In a first-person narrative, one teen explains why breaking up is hard to do

DON'T REALLY REMEMBER what time it was when I crawled into bed with my parents. I couldn't sleep and just ri:ceded some immediate comfort. After a year and a half, my girl friend and I had just broken up, Lying in bed with more questions than answers, I gave myself the spins.

Walking into a relationship at age 15, all I knew was that I was in love. By age 17, when I stumbled out of my relationship, I realized how flawed the situation had been. All of the preconceived notions t had about relationships came back to bite me in the ass, I never realized I could give too much of myself, so I gave and gave until what I needed had been completely forgotten. I didn't have to take care of someone else. I needed to take care of myself. As cheesy as that may seem, it was the truth.

Finally, after a couple of months, I felt I had sorted things out. I wasn't sorry about the breakup. I felt I was in a much better place because of it. I knew who I was and what I needed if I chose to get into another relationship, My whole outlook changed, my grades improved, and I felt focused enough to finish my college applications.

A few weeks later I met someone. She's great, but I was still a little scared. I would never have imagined that dating again would feel so strange. She was different from any girl I'd ever dated, We've been together for almost two months, and she understands that I need to move slowly. We aren't planning to get married any time soon. Senior prom is coming up and, being an out student, I want to take her, but who knows if we'll still be together. She told me to wait and see what happens. And I'm OK with that.


As his senior year replays on PBS's American high, the Illinois native takes on the Big Apple

By Eric Meers

THERE WERE A FEW MOMENTS Brad Krefman, the only openly gay student among those profiled on the high school reality series American High, didn't want caught on tape. Like the time some of his girlfriends asked him to hold forth on the sex appeal of various guys at his school. He gladly shared his views and later convinced the show's producers not to air the footage. Other times he played up his gay side: Once, when his art teacher asked him to do a project, he handed in a collage of half-naked men. "I thought the show's editors in L.A. would eat that up," he says. "When you have your life on film, you have to have fun with it."

Though the Fox network canceled American High after four episodes in August PBS has now arranged to broadcast all 13 of the half-hour episodes, beginning April 4, (The shows will air in two-episode blocks weekly through the end of August.) So Brad will have a new opportunity to see how the show s executive producer, R.J. Cutler, might embarrass him.

Cutler and his team chose to focus on Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago because they felt it represented a cross section of the U.S. population. Camera crews followed 14 students for a year and gave them handheld cameras to tape themselves in their private moments, if anyone else was in my situation--out in high school--and had this opportunity, I'd expect them to do the something I did," says Krefman, now 19 and a freshman at, New York University. "It wasn't my full life, but it was pretty accurate."

Brad's life, however, may have been a little tame for producers' tastes. "If you just listed who you'd have thought would have the most drama at the beginning of the show, I definitely would have been one of the top ones," says Krefman of the series, shot during his senior year, which began in 1999. "But as it turned out, I had the most stable life of anyone on the show." Krefman, who came out in the winter of his boyfriend to the prom at the end of his junior year. "I bet the producers wish they had been around for that," says Brad with a laugh.

The boyfriend went off to college, though, and Brad remained single for his entire senior year. ("The suburb s of Chicago aren't exactly conducive" to finding a same-sex mate, he says.) But that didn't stop the camera crews from trying to stir up some romance between Brad and the other gay teens at the school. "They would be like, `What about so-and-so?'" he recalls. "I'd be like, `Come on! You can't just conjure up something out of nothing. Sorry if I'm not giving you the story that you want, but this is my life.'" Perhaps due to his lack of a romantic storyline, Brad gets less and less screen time as the series progresses.

Still, the new attention coming from the PBS revival of American High may make setting into life as a regular NYU student more difficult for Krefman. "When I first got here, I couldn't eat in one of the cafeterias because people were coming up to me saying, `Are you that Brad?'" he says. But Krefman, who dated another undergrad for three months in the fall but is now single, says he's enjoying the more gay-friendly environment in college. "There are a lot of gay guys at NYU. I'd say that 15% maybe 20% of the [mate] students are gay," he says. "The boyfriend will come in time; I just wanted that one gay friend to share things with. And I have that now in my roommate, who's gay."

But the biggest difference between the burbs of Chicago and Manhattan's Washington Square Park is more subtle that that. "In high school I had to explain about being gay to everyone, which I didn't mind at all, but it just got tiring." Krefman says. "Being in New York, I don't have to explain anything because it's just around--everywhere."

Meers is managing editor of Paper magazine.

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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 10, 2001
Previous Article:Three seats at the table.

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