Munster, Indiana, is a town in northwest Indiana, not all that far from Chicago. The Northwest Indiana Times ran a series of articles yesterday, "Young, Out and Proud"
The articles are superb. I encourage you to take a look at the whole set, including the photos of the kids in the stories, but I am reproducing two of the stories -- unedited -- because the two, together, are as good as anything I've seen in a newspaper on the subject recently.Young, out and proud
BY OLIVIA CLARKE
Northwest Indiana Times
June 26, 2005
The first time Justin Basile told a friend he was bisexual, it took forever to get the words out.
He didn't want to come out and just say it. Instead, he described how one of his friends was actually more than a friend. He dated him.
But after several conversations with different friends, the words came easier.
"I wasn't worried about it anymore," said 15-year-old Justin, who attends Munster High School. "I wasn't worried about them not accepting it. It is just a big thing to tell someone. It is like telling your biggest secret."
Growing up can be tough enough for a teen.
But life's challenges only compound for many gay teens who must defend their sexuality to friends, family and society. They face constant questions, stereotypes and mean words like "queer" and "fag."
They lose friends and sometimes even resort to suicide because they feel so alone.
Some young people grow up in a luckier world where their parents and friends understand their homosexuality. Others live in fear of their parents finding out and no longer loving them.Their stories
Whiting junior John Stangel doesn't like to label himself as the typical gay person, even though some of his friends initially tried to.
When John first revealed he was gay, some friends assumed he would enjoy shopping with them. But he would rather be part of the rock music scene than the mall scene.
Some people also wrongly assume all gay guys like each other and all gay people get along, he said. Many of his friends are straight and he spends much of his time working, going to school, volunteering and listening to music.
John, a lanky teen with edgy hair, learned he was gay at age 12 after listening to the radio program "Loveline." He heard guys describing their homosexuality and realized he could relate to them -- something that scared him.
When he told his mother, she told him it was just a phase he would grow out of. He didn't.
"I remember the first time I realized it. I thought, 'I can change it. I can change it,' " he said. "(Today) I'd rather be gay and get all the harassment than be straight."
Being gay has taught him to see all sides of a person and not prejudge others.
He attended Whiting High School, a small high school with a graduating class of about 60 students. He was one of only two openly gay male students during the recent school year. He plans to transfer to Crown Point High School because it has a larger academic and social pool.
He used to get upset about the comments and name-calling, but said he now he takes pride in himself. He remembers when someone threw a condom at him at school. He smiled at the person and said, "Thanks for noticing."
"The biggest hurdle is people's ignorance," he said. "If I get called 'queer,' it's not their fault they were raised to be that way. ... It's getting easier in Whiting, but it's nowhere as easy as I wish it would be."
Hobart High School senior Mallory Fiegle and her mother argue back and forth about what to say about Mallory's life.
Her mother wants to protect their family from the hate. Sure society tosses around words like diversity and unity, but Mallory's mother describes another world where her daughter's car could get trashed or the neighbors talk behind their backs because she's gay.
Mallory said she's pretty much known her entire life that she's gay.
She said she's not embarrassed by her sexuality, but she didn't come by her courage easily.
When she told a friend in seventh grade, she didn't realize her secret would spread throughout the middle school halls.
"I got really depressed because these people were my friends," she said. "I didn't know what to do.
"A lot of people I thought were my friends, they talked about me. They thought it was something really, really bad."
Her parents found out when another parent thought Mallory was giving love poems to their daughter -- a situation that turned out to be a misunderstanding. Her mother confronted her with the poems. A two and a half hour conversation filled with crying ended when she told her parents she was sexually confused so they could just stop talking about it.
Both parents told her they loved her no matter what.
Last year, she broached the subject again. She told her mother she was gay. Since then, she said her mother has been very open about talking about Mallory's relationships. Her father is less open; maybe he's ashamed or maybe he was raised to not talk about such subjects, she said.
"He'd rather see me get married to a guy and have children like everyone else," she said.
People wrongly assume teens are too young to feel attraction to the same sex and others believe gay people are infected with HIV, she said.
Today, she occasionally gets called names. But more students and teachers have "come out, making it easier to find people who understand what it's like being gay, she said.
"There are more people that accept it, but then there are people who still think it's the worst thing ever."
Lake Central senior Jeff Haupt, Munster sophomore Justin Basile and recent Munster graduate Allison Hassellof share laughs and milkshakes at a local Steak 'n Shake while talking about the gay culture in high schools.
Allison, who lets giggles escape when she looks at Jeff, is not gay. She enjoys hanging out with those who are, even though it can sometimes confuse people outside her circle of friends.
Jeff, a member of the track team who describes himself as outgoing and artistic, revealed he was gay at 14. At 17, his parents still don't accept it because it goes against their religion, he said.
"I believe being gay is not a choice," Jeff said. "Many people believe it's a phase. But why are you attracted to the sex that you are?
"People don't have to talk to us. They don't have to believe anything. We just ask for their respect."
Justin, a laid-back teen who enjoys theater, swimming and karate, said he's never really "come out" to his family, but they know. He describes his family as liberal and comfortable around those who are gay.
Most people do not immediately know he's bisexual, Justin said, because he doesn't act as feminine as some gay men do.
Both Justin and Jeff had girlfriends before they "came out," but now they date male teens. Justin also dates girls, but has been seeing more guys lately.
They meet other gay teens through parties or the Internet. They watch out for each other by screening photos or by hiding out at another table when their friend meets someone for the first time.
Last year, Jeff had a boyfriend at school and was one of the only openly gay teens at Lake Central. People look to him as a role model and this year more people admit to being gay, he said. His friends do not have a problem with his sexuality and he said the track team accepts him.
Several months ago, Munster teens started a Gay Straight Alliance that meets at their school, a rarity among high schools, they said. So much so that Jeff, who attends Lake Central, wanted to know if he could attend.
"It helps you know of a lot more people than you think who are OK with it," Justin said about the alliance.
Portage High School juniors Jeanne Brys and Stephanie Beam walk up to Barnes & Noble holding hands.
They've been dating for five months. This is Stephanie's first girlfriend, Jeanne's second.
With a round rainbow-colored button pinned to her collar and her tennis shoes painted in rainbow colors, Jeanne is comfortable with being bisexual. The colors are traditionally linked to gay pride. It's not unusual for her to wear T-shirts with sayings like "I love lesbos" or "I'm not gay, but my girlfriend is."
Jeanne said she's always been "boy crazy," but she's also attracted to girls. She admitted she was gay to her family and friends two years ago during the summer before her ninth-grade year.
Coming out to her loved ones wasn't too painful because they chose to accept it, she said. Her brother had a more difficult time because he would get teased at school. He hated her for a while, she said.
"His friends, whenever they came over, would call me names and say stuff to him about it later," she said. "I totally understand, but I can't help it."
School isn't too bad except for the names she gets called by senior boys in the hallways.
"I wish everybody accepted it and would leave us alone," she said. "We are not hurting them. We are not flaunting it. I don't understand why they have to torment us."
Jeanne counts herself lucky that her family was so accepting, when so many parents are not.
Stephanie said her mother always knew she was gay and even asked her before she admitted it last year. But her mother worries for her safety when Jeanne and Stephanie hold hands in public, she said.
Jeanne said she doesn't always like to show her girlfriend affection in public because she doesn't want to make other people uncomfortable.
She said she wants people to understand that gay teens are just like any other teens.
"We are regular people. We are not like aliens," Jeanne said. "We just have a different sexual preference."
Jamison Liang told his brother first that he was gay.
He meticulously planned how and when he would tell him. He visited his brother at college during spring break of his junior year. He talked to someone from a gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered group on the college campus beforehand.
"When I told my brother, I was exceptionally nervous and shaking and practically in tears," said the recent Homewood-Flossmoor High School graduate. "This was the first person I ever told in my family. I know there's lots of instances where kids are shunned or even kicked out of the family for being gay. I was pretty confident my brother would be OK, but I didn't know for sure what he would think."
His brother told him he would always love him.
"There were so many things in the back of my mind that I worried about," he said. "Once he said it, it put those worries to rest."
He told his mother last summer and told his father last. He made sure his brother was there for each conversation.
His parents told him they would support him, but he said there are varying stages of acceptance.
"Initially, it's very easy to say 'I'm very fine with it and I still love you,' " he said. "It's one thing to tolerate it and another thing to expect it. Once I have a boyfriend, that's going to be something my family is going to have to deal with."
Jamison has known his entire life he's gay. He said he wants people to realize that he's no different than anybody else. In high school, he was on the varsity tennis team and a member of National Honor Society.
Meeting people can be difficult because his high school only had a handful of openly gay male students, he said. He's never had a boyfriend and has started attending a group to meet other gay teens.
Jamison became local news when he and several friends started an awareness day at their high school where students wear T-shirts supporting gay students. This year, as participation in the day grew, students who opposed being gay decided to wear T-shirts condemning homosexuality.
His high school has a Gay Straight Alliance for students and the school board agreed to include sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination policy.
"Our administration likes to emulate other very good high schools in Illinois," he said. "When I talk to people who go to those schools, they are definitely quite a bit more progressive. I know we can't be like them just yet. But I hope in the coming years, we can sort of bridge the gap."
The tough side of being gay
Sidebar: Beyond Munster
As background to the next story, here are some statistics. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, released its National School Climate Survey in 2003. According to the survey:
- Four out of five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported being verbally, sexually or physically harassed at school because of their sexual orientation.
- Those lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths who report significant verbal harassment are twice as likely to report they do not intend to go to college and their GPAs are significantly lower.
- 24.1 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who cannot identify supportive faculty report they have no intention of going to college. That figure drops to 10.1 percent when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students can identify supportive staff at their school.
- 84 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation.
- 83 percent of students report that faculty never or rarely intervene when present during harassment.
- 90 percent of youths reported hearing homophobic remarks in their school.
- Three-quarters of youths reported feeling unsafe in their schools because of one or more personal characteristics, most often because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
- More than half of the youths reported never telling their parents or guardians when they were harassed or assaulted in school.
BY OLIVIA CLARKE
Northwest Indiana Times
June 26, 2005
They get called names in the school halls.
Parents tell them they no longer love them.
And bullies beat them up after school.
All because these local teens are gay.
Many teens face depression, ridicule, harassment, abandonment and even suicide when they choose to publicly admit they are gay or bisexual.
They enter a world that is not always accepting.
People do not always understand or respect their sexual orientation. Some hate them, and others want to condemn them for going against religious beliefs.
The story of college student Matthew Shepard, who was tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998, pistol-whipped and left to die because of his homosexuality made national news. But other, less violent but not less painful stories exist in Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs.
"It's a depressing lifestyle with all the negative feedback," said John Stangel, a gay teen who lives in Whiting.
One parent, who would not give her name, said her son is not gay even though he says he is. Homosexuality goes against the family's Christianity and they do not accept it or support him, she said.
A Lake Central student said her parents did not want her to speak about being gay because they feared she would not be able to get a job or college scholarship.
When high school junior Stephanie Beam was an eighth-grader at Griffith Middle School a friend was jumped and beaten up by a group of teens because he's gay, she said.
Other teens described similar situations.
"They beat him up bad enough to put him in the hospital," Stephanie said.
Gay youths are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youths. And one-third of teen suicides are by lesbian and gay youths, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Gay teens face a sense of isolation because they cannot find the needed support, said Brad Becker, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline.
"In rural or conservative areas, they are not really hearing anything positive," Becker said. "They are just not hearing anyone say it's OK to be honest about their lives."
The hot line, open eight hours a day, receives about 1,000 calls a month, and half of the calls are from people in their teens or early 20s, he said. People are admitting they are gay at younger and younger ages, which means they are in greater need of support, he said.
Munster junior Mary Carp said many teens do not publicly admit they are gay because they are afraid of ridicule. She helped start a Gay Straight Alliance that meets at Munster High School so teens would learn they are not alone.
"It's hard to accept yourself when other people are not accepting you," said Mary, who said she and her girlfriend get rude comments because they are gay.
"If you don't know anybody, it's hard to come out. I actually know people at this school who refuse to come out because they are afraid of what other people will think."
Mary said some people now are more open about homosexuality. But others still have a way to go.
Society, she said, "just needs to realize that it's just like anything else. It's the same as the civil rights movement in the '60s with African-Americans. You can't help it. You are no different than anyone else."
Becker, from the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline, said the country is taking a step back in its access to good health care information. Students are being taught abstinence-only programs and that they should not have sex unless they are married. And he said teens are being taught that gay people cannot get married.
If safer sex is being taught, he said, it is only being taught in the context of heterosexual relationships.
"You are denying them access to information, combined with the kind of common feeling of being invincible. You are just seeing a lot of people making bad decisions," he said.
Gay and lesbian teens receive little specific information on STDs, according to the American Social Health Association.
"That doesn't make STD and HIV prevention seem like an important issue," according to the association. "But, think for a minute. Some estimates suggest that one in five HIV-positive men were apparently infected during their adolescent years. Also, one in four sexually experienced teens has an STD."
John said sex between two men or two women is not talked about during sex education. Sex, in general, can be a taboo subject in schools, he said.
"It is almost shunned. You don't talk about it," John said. "If you don't think about it, it's not going to happen."