Teen homosexuals are taking a stand

September 06, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

In an Eastern Shore community, a teen-age girl announced her bisexuality, causing students to harass her. In April, the 17-year-old dropped out of her public high school.

At a private school in Baltimore, another 17-year-old revealed to friends that he is gay. He took a male friend to the senior prom, weathered the comments, graduated in June and recently left for his freshman year at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Such declarations about sexual orientation can be painful and difficult. Nonetheless, homosexual teens nationwide are finding it increasingly important to "come out" -- and seem to be doing so at younger and younger ages.

"The increased visibility of gays and lesbians has led young people to identify themselves as gay earlier. They are claiming their rights to express themselves as they believe they should be able to," says Carol Gush, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League of Washington, D.C.

From same-sex proms in Los Angeles to marching in Baltimore's Gay Pride Day Parade, young gays and lesbians increasingly are going public, but the consequences can be daunting.

"While increased visibility has led to more acceptance, it also has led to more overt opposition and hatred," Ms. Gush says. "In some areas, it may be safe for young people to come out, but in some it may be more risky to be open."

According to health professionals, rejection or harassment during the volatile teen-age years can heighten self-destructive behavior: substance abuse, unsafe sex and even suicide.

Of the 5,000 suicides each year by young people, a third are related to problems with sexual orientation, according to a 1989 federal report.

A chance to talk about those pressures draws youths to the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore on Saturdays. The meetings, moderated by an adult, act as part support group, part safe haven for gays 14 to 24 years old. Anonymity is assured.

"Some are 'out' to their families, and some are not," says Everett Sillers, group leader. "Some have difficulty with their parents; some find support. Some are harassed on the street or in school -- especially those who are more obviously gay." And several are involved in long-term relationships, he says.

On a recent Saturday, about a dozen young men and women sat in a tight circle. Talk was about suicide and grieving: A few weeks before, a former group member had shot himself. Reportedly, he was distraught over his relationships with his parents and his boyfriend.

Because of the death, Henry Westray Jr., state coordinator for youth suicide prevention, was there to discuss the warning signs of someone who might be suicidal. He also wanted these young people to know that help is available -- through this group and through a Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline, (800) 422-0009.

As he talked, Mr. Westray slowly drew out group members. Two were grieving for their former friend. Two said they had thought about suicide themselves.

Self-esteem problems

Many young gays have trouble conforming to gender stereotypes at an early age. They may be the "tomboys" or "sissies" who are picked on as children, say mental health professionals. They often enter adolescence with self-esteem problems, which imperils them emotionally even before they begin wrestling with issues of sexuality.

Jennifer Canard, the Eastern Shore girl who "came out" in the town of Berlin, found that the cost of openness included facing insults from fellow students at Stephen Decatur High and losing friends. When she dropped out of school last spring, she was in her junior year.

Ms. Canard identifies herself as bisexual but says she does not believe in precise categories. "Sexuality is a very open part of living. It can't be defined," she explains.

She began to realize that she was different at about age 13. "I remember thinking this thing was wrong with me. I didn't understand why I wanted to look at a woman more than a man. I don't know how I got to a point at which I said, 'This is what this means,' " Ms. Canard says.

Coming out for Ms. Canard, the oldest of four children, began with telling her mother, a day care provider. Next came one friend, then two.

In 10th grade, Ms. Canard began wearing a "gay equality" button to school.

"It has been a process," she says. "I was trying to move to where I really understood what was going on.

"I didn't know anybody else like me. It was just me, trying to deal with it myself. I didn't want to talk to my family about it. They are religious and don't really want to accept gay social issues."

Last fall, Ms. Canard reviewed a book about a gay romance for the school newspaper -- and escorted a girl from Delaware to a school dance.

The book review prompted some parents to call school authorities and some students to call her names in the cafeteria and halls. Several friends refused to speak to her, Ms. Canard says.

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