Coming Out is Getting Harder

"Coming out" with one's sexuality or gender identity has never been easy. Now there is a presidential campaign to amend your country's constitution so that same-sex couples will never be able to marry.

That's the new social climate many LGBT youth across the U.S. have to face. If passed, the anti same-sex amendment would be the first one to restrict citizens' rights. Could "the closet" ever look more inviting?

"By telling LGBT youth that they will not be able to have a legally protected partnership with a person they love, the campaign implies that it is wrong, bad, immoral, or unacceptable to want to marry someone of the same sex, and hence, it is wrong, bad, immoral, or unacceptable to be gay," said Alex Sanchez, a former youth and family counselor and author of the young adult trilogy Rainbow, whose main characters are gay or questioning.

A resolution to amend the constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman was first introduced in the House of Representatives on May 21, 2003. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate on November 25, 2003. There is also the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

"I came out before this amendment was introduced. But this amendment actually showed me people's attitudes on gay rights," said Tan Pham, 18, of the University of Connecticut, and president of the Queers United Against Discrimination (QUAD).

"Basically, I had close friends, family members, and people whom I recently met tell me that they support the campaign. That whatever the campaign taught -- such as same-sex marriage would give children the 'wrong' idea on what a family is -- they believe," Pham added.

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual activist and educator based in Cambridge, Mass., and co-editor of Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexual Youth Around the World, experienced first-hand an increase in homophobic incidents across the country.

"I have heard numerous stories from students of assaults, anti-gay graffiti, posters being torn down, hateful letters to the editor in school papers," Ochs said. "I personally believe homophobia is nothing new. What is new is that people feel increased permission to express their homophobia."

"My biggest concern [about the marriage amendment] is how the constitution would define 'man' and 'woman.' By creating stricter regulations for gender and sex qualifications, the entire transgender and intersex community will find itself at risk in a more dangerous legal, medical, and cultural environment," said Mike (last name withheld upon request) , 21, a female-to-male queer community activist, and a transgender and queer women's health advocate at the University of Minnesota.

"Being transgender is difficult enough as an adult, but being transgender and a youth adds extra possible problems, as the daily peer pressure is often evident," said Sheila Mink, a PFLAG TNET 4-Corners regional and West Coast transgender coordinator.

Robert Smith is 18 and a Republican. He works at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center and TimeOUT Youth in Charlotte, S.C. Smith came out in January 2004, and said there are only two things he doesn't agree with President Bush on. "This, and the troops in Iraq," said Smith. "Most gay people who hear that I'm Republican are shocked. But I can't help it -- I come from a long line of Republicans -- and neither party is supporting us."

“The Bush administration’s amendment campaign makes bisexual and transgender people invisible by speaking specifically about gays and lesbians,” said Shannon Berning, writer on LBT issues and contributor to the 2005 edition of the women’s health book Our Bodies, Ourselves. “As if people who are bi or transgender don’t exist, or won’t be affected by this amendment.”

LGBT Hate Crimes on the Rise

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently found that LGBT hate crimes have gone up 30 percent within the past year. That is in addition to the alarming results found in a national survey of LGBT students conducted by the Office of Public Policy of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 2003. The survey found that, "77.9 percent heard remarks such as 'faggot' or 'dyke' frequently or often at school; 18.8 percent heard similar remarks from faculty or school staff at least some of the time; 82.9 percent reported that faculty or staff never or only sometimes intervened when they were present when such remarks were made; 84 percent personally had been verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation; 65.3 percent had been sexually harassed; and 39.1 percent had been physically harassed."

"I have definitely experienced a lot of homophobia in recent months that seem directly influenced by the national attention to gay and lesbian issues," said Mike. "I am seeing a trend of homophobia being justified as patriotism."

José Lopez-Serrano, 21, a social worker in St. Petersburg, Fla., volunteers his services at ALSO, a support group for LGBT youth. He moved to the mainland from a small town in Puerto Rico in 2002. From the experiences he's counseled youth on so far, Lopez-Serrano is sure about one thing, "I'm glad I came out in Puerto Rico."

"Back home, we don't have preachers telling us what to do. They don't get in our business -- they just let us be," said Lopez-Serrano. "When I came here, I learned that being gay is a big, big issue here."

"I wore shirts that let people know about my sexuality. People never bothered me, people don't care. Here, I don't dare do that," said Lopez-Serrano. "My boyfriend was also not from the U.S. and did not know how big of a deal it is to be gay here. He was very out and got a lot of stuff for that -- screamed at, pushed, beat up… America is known for its liberty and freedom. That was my mentality when I came here -- but it doesn't seem that way."

According to Jessea N. Greenman, a student affairs officer at U.C. Berkeley and a member of the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on LGBT Affairs, many medical students and graduate students at Berkeley are not "out" due to the increasingly hostile social climate.

"They don't feel they can be out and still be successful in their careers right now," said Greenman. "And that's very sad because when people aren't out, they're afraid, and they put a lot of energy into hiding, which could make them less successful."

On March 28, 2005, the Oscar Wilde House, the LGBT-themed housing co-op on U.C. Berkeley's campus was vandalized with hate speech. The writer of the abusive signs later physically assaulted one of the house members.

Looking Ahead

"The biggest issue they face is their school system," says Kenneth C. Decker, youth coordinator of Project 100, the LGBT youth center of Hartford, Conn. "A couple of our kids have been told that obviously their school is a bit too rough for them and the administrators don't feel they can provide a safe environment, if they continue to be out as they are." Decker says a typical question kids hear posed by teachers is, "Why don't you drop out of school and go to adult ed, or get your GED?"

"Religion is also a big barrier. There's a lot of 'You're going to hell,' around here," said Nicole Hoagland, youth programs director of TimeOUT Youth in Charlotte, S.C. "We've had youth go to church … and everybody lays their hands on them and basically hope that the devil comes out of them."

The lack of sex education or abstinence-only approach in many parts of the country means that sexual orientation or gender identity are never discussed in the classrooms. "We were speaking with a couple of counselors from elementary and middle schools and I suggested putting up 'Safe Zone' stickers [to promote awareness and protection of LGBT youth]. They said, 'Well, that's not appropriate,'" said Hoagland.

Candace Gingrich, youth outreach manager at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington D.C. said that we often focus on the anti same-sex initiatives around the country and fail to notice crucial victories. "There were 14 state legislatures that rejected [same-sex] marriage amendments on Election Day. But all we hear about are the 13 that passed them," said Gingrich. "We need to get these facts out there."

"The conversation about marriage has really only just begun. We've been talking about discrimination, hate crimes, and health issues for 30 or 40 years. We've really only been talking about marriage for a second," Gingrich added.

In addition to spotlighting success stories for the general public, sharing personal essays and editorials helps to dismiss fear often caused by misleading stereotypes. "Some of our youth have offered their own testimonies to local newspapers on why same-sex marriage is an important issue for them even though they may only be 15 or 16," said Decker.

And many activists continue to work in their communities to provide legal advice and protection for same-sex couples. Carrie Ross-Stone is one of the founders of Rainbow Law, an online legal resource, based in Wallace, West Va. Carrie and her partner Elisia provide low-cost state planning documents, such as powers of attorney, living wills, and trusts. They also work to raise legal awareness in their Rainbow Rides Across America, which have been documented in the film Lesbian Grandmothers From Mars In Search of Marriage Equality, premiering in San Francisco in June.

"In the long run, the U.S. government cannot preach to the rest of the world about freedom and democracy if they are demonstrably not practicing themselves. They cannot legitimately make the claim that U.S. rights can be restricted based on traditional religious grounds, especially as European countries move towards increased rights for LGBTIQ people," said Christine Johnson, coordinator of TransAdvocate.org based in Olympia, Wash.

In the meantime, "It's important to realize that there are many resources out there," said Jessie Gilliam, program manager for the Youth Activist Network at Advocates for Youth in D.C. "And there are many people out there who will support a young person's right to live the life they feel is best. I would suggest contacting community service groups or LGBTIQs, if there is one in your area or getting in touch with ours. There are a lot of groups, and general youth groups, that are progressive and will help out LGBTIQ youth."

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