Editor’s note: The student identified as “John Smith” in the following story was identified as such out of consideration for his family, not because he wanted to hide his identity. No individual by the actual name of John Smith was interviewed for this story.
Feeling like you don’t fit in is almost a rite of passage for teens in high school. If you stand out from the crowd in any way – your skin color, religion, social class, or even something as simple as your taste in clothing – high school can be a rough time.
Gay and bisexual teens especially may struggle to find acceptance in high school. However, many feel that Fairmont High School offers a friendly and accepting environment for students of all sexual orientations.
“I take pride in knowing that our teachers and faculty treat boys, girls, gay people, whoever, with the same respect as anyone else,” said senior Scott Lewis.
Social Studies teacher Beth Bultemeyer says she thinks the high school environment has definitely improved in recent years. “Kids today don’t seem to care too much about someone’s sexual preference,” she said. “I do think that there are a lot of adults who aren’t comfortable with gay or bisexual people, and they may not create an open culture for students who may need support.”
Not everyone thinks Fairmont is where it should be, though. “Fairmont seems similar to the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” said English teacher Michael Togliatti.
Indeed, some of Fairmont’s openly gay students have felt the sting of occasional harassment. “People have yelled things in the hall, and I hear mumbles and grumbles here and there. But I just ignore it and walk away with my head held high,” said Fairmont student John Smith, who has been openly gay since middle school. “I’m not ashamed and I don’t hide from everything. I don’t let people tear me down because I don’t want a hidden and rough high school experience.”
Creating a good environment
Students and teachers at Fairmont agree that teachers play a key role in protecting all students from discrimination or harm. “A teacher’s job is to make students feel comfortable in their classes and to protect them from negative criticism from other classmates,” said senior Alexis Garybush.
Several teachers emphasized that maintaining a good atmosphere in their classroom is critical in promoting acceptance. “What I do in my room is try to create an environment where everyone feels safe,” said Bultemeyer. “I would advise that teachers not ignore negative, harmful remarks – that they address the issue head on.”
Some of these harmful remarks include, for lack of a better term, “gay jokes.” Many feel that the U.S. culture has a blatant double-standard when it comes to certain types of discriminatory humor. “Gay jokes, in general, are more accepted by adults than race-related jokes,” said English teacher Kristen Allen. “That makes it hard for some students. Hearing their parents making jokes like that, it makes them feel like it’s acceptable.”
Some teens say students themselves are also responsible for creating a positive environment for each other. “The job of an average student is to focus on mainly themselves and work on building their own character, rather than bringing down others for building theirs,” said Smith.
Lewis emphasizes keeping an open mind. “Do not assume that everybody in the room is the same as you. Fairmont is really diverse,” he said.
Some of the biggest roadblocks for non-heterosexual people are stereotypes and false assumptions. “My main pet peeve is that our society tends to believe that there is a specific way gay people should ‘act,’” Lewis said. “Homosexuality relates to a person’s sexuality – that’s it. The way a gay person, or a straight person, chooses to act is up to them, not their preference of women or men,” said Lewis. “Everybody should be judged based on their character, not their sexuality.”
Politics influence teens’ confidence
Society can affect the confidence of teenagers questioning their sexuality, and potentially prevent them from coming out and being honest with the people in their lives.
Coming out can be a difficult process, and some say it’s only made worse by the country’s political climate. “I only know of one or two people who are afraid to ‘come out,’ and I think it’s because of discrimination and a lack of rights,” said Smith.
A lack of rights for homosexuals is readily apparent in the United States. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, legally defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It also says that no state is obligated to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex, even if the marriage was performed in a state where gay marriage is legal. So while the act doesn’t ban gay marriage on a national level, it doesn’t prevent individual states from banning it. Currently, gay marriage is only legal in five states – and Ohio isn’t one of them.
“It drives me bonkers that two people of the same sex can’t get married in this country,” said Math teacher Julie Fisher. “That affects insurance, retirement benefits – heck, if one is in critical care and only family is allowed in the room, that excludes the partner. How stupid is that?”
There’s also the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prevents openly gay U.S. citizens from serving in the military. President Barack Obama promised to repeal this policy in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign’s National Equality March in October, although he has not offered a specific timetable for the repeal.
But even though the country is experiencing a growing awareness of homosexuality, the same cannot be said for other non-heterosexual orientations. “Some of the other groups, like transgenders and transsexuals, are still lagging way behind compared to the advances made by the homosexual community,” said Togliatti.
Despite the hardships that come with this lack of rights, Smith encourages all teens to accept themselves. “I understand that it is a harder life and you can’t just turn back,” he said. “It’s who you are, though, and I think people should take pride in that.”
Lewis stresses that sexuality shouldn’t be viewed as a defining characteristic of anyone. “I define myself as myself,” he said.
Some schools across the nation have extracurricular clubs and organizations to help raise awareness about equality issues and to give students a safe and comforting place to discuss sexuality-related topics. The most common of these organizations is the Gay/Straight Alliance.
According to gsanetwork.org, Gay/Straight Alliances aim to “create safe environments in schools for students to support each other and learn about homophobia and other oppressions, educate the school community about homophobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues, and fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools.”
Fairmont students formed a Gay/Straight Alliance in the 2005-06 school year, but it has since dissolved. The club originally branched out from Fairmont’s Growing Peace club, which has also since disbanded. Interest in forming a separate organization to focus strictly on sexuality issues arose in the student body after some backlash over Growing Peace’s participation in the Day of Silence, and Allen became the GSA’s adviser.
“The Day of Silence was an event against hate crime, period. But some people misinterpreted it – it was not ‘Gay Day,’” said Allen. “There was some backlash from the community over the Day of Silence, which got students interested in supporting their friends.”
The first meeting of Fairmont’s Gay/Straight Alliance drew a crowd of more than 70 students and faculty members. “It was a really nice moment, and it showed how supportive people are of their friends,” said Allen.
However, after the original group of students who started the GSA graduated, interest in the organization weakened and the remaining members disbanded the club.
Allen looks back proudly on what the GSA accomplished. “For those involved at the time, it saved them from depression and loneliness, and it gave them a voice,” she said. “I think it was a turning point in their lives.”
Some students and teachers alike think Fairmont would benefit from the revival of such an organization. “I would love it,” said Bultemeyer. “I’m all for it. The mission should be to educate people that gay and bisexual people are no different than anyone else.”
Senior Joseph Yahna feels the same way. “It might cause people to think about sexuality-related issues more and gain a better understanding of them,” he said.
Garybush thinks that such a group’s purpose should be well-defined, relevant to the student body, and geared more toward acceptance than education. “Its mission should be to help people who have trouble accepting their sexual orientations become more comfortable with sharing it with other people,” said Garybush.
Whether or not an official organization like the GSA exists at Fairmont, many just agree that acceptance, both of yourself and of others, is crucial.
“Do what makes you happy,” said a bisexual female student, who asked to be anonymous. “I struggled, but then I just decided it’s how I am, and I had to embrace it and make it part of who I am. My friends accepted me, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be my friends.”
Smith says it’s important for everybody to accept their sexuality and to stay optimistic. “People just need to know that who they are is something special and unique and they should never be ashamed,” he said. “There will always be people tearing you down, but there will be more who would love nothing more than to build you up, and you can’t forget that.”