Gay teens face tough adolescence

March 17, 1992|By Jean Latz Griffin | Jean Latz Griffin,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Joey took his boyfriend to the homecoming dance at a high school in the northwest suburbs.

"Some of the kids snickered behind their hands, but I was like, 'It's my school and my senior year,' " the 18-year-old recalled. "Most of the people there supported me."

When Rosie hears that students at her Chicago Catholic high school are discussing whether she is a lesbian, she confronts them directly.

"Why don't you ask me about it?" the 17-year-old asks them. "I know the most about me."

Karal tried to keep his feminine mannerisms in check, but still he was constantly hassled and beaten up at school. Last fall, when the 17-year-old transferred to a different school, he started attending in drag.

"They just thought I was a big fat black girl," he said.

Today's gay and lesbian teen-agers are more open about their sexual orientation than previous generations. But that doesn't mean that growing up homosexual is any easier.

Unlike heterosexual teen-agers, who can grow into their sexuality by fits and starts in a culture that reflects and understands them, homosexual teen-agers feel like outcasts -- "freaks of nature," as one girl said.

They also feel invisible. Many believe from childhood that they have a horrible secret, which if known would turn everyone against them, especially their parents.

For them, the anxiety and anguish of adolescence are magnified a hundredfold, yet they commonly feel they have no one to turn to for help.

In this emotional caldron, they are more susceptible to suicide, drug use and alcoholism than other kids.

And because many of them are kicked out of their homes, or leave to escape intolerable situations, a disproportionate number of homeless teens are gay -- vulnerable to violence, rape and AIDS and other diseases.

"When I was in high school, I was suicidal about it," said Kerry, a 19-year-old lesbian who graduated from high school last June. "I figured out I was gay at a very early age. I thought I was a freak and would be just left alone to die."

What kept Kerry from killing herself or becoming hopelessly depressed was a chance encounter with a gay boy who told her about a support group for homosexual teens.

Several years ago, that opportunity to get help would not have been available to her, and she might have been in dire straits by now, rather than in college.

But the unique plight of gay and lesbian teen-agers is beginning to be recognized and dealt with, but only in a limited way and primarily by adult homosexuals.

In recent years, an array of social services has been developed for these kids, from support groups to juice bars to same-sex proms. In New York and Los Angeles, separate shelters have been formed for homeless gay and lesbian youths.

Those who run these activities say they are still reaching only a small portion of the kids they could be helping, but teens who are lucky enough to become part of these groups say they are happier and coping better with their problems.

"It helps a lot to know I'm not the only one," Eric, 15, said recently on the first afternoon that he dropped into Horizon Community Services, a comprehensive social service agency that offers counseling, social activities and court intervention for gay and lesbian adults and teens.

"I found out about this place because one of my friends made a joke about it. He was joking, but I remembered what he said," said Eric, a freshman at an all-boys high school in Chicago.

He is frightened about what his friends might do if they found out about what he is going through. A few months ago, a fellow athlete at his school confided to some other boys that he is gay, Eric said. The boys waited for him after school and beat him up.

"I'm scared," he said. "In religion class, they talk about how it is a sin. The people I hang around with are anti-gay. They go out and look for gay people to beat up. I'm under a lot of pressure to date girls. So I date girls."

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