Gay Teens Fight Back
Jared Nayfack was 11 years old and living in the heart of conservative Orange County, California, when he told his best friend from school that he was gay--"and my friend then came out to me," says Jared. When he turned 15, Jared celebrated his birthday by coming out to his parents and closest friends. By then, he was attending a Catholic high school, and on a school-sponsored overnight field trip, Jared and his schoolmates decided to spend their free evening at the movies seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "Some of us had decided to get all costumed up to see it, and when the teacher who was with us saw us she threw a fit: She forced me to get up in front of the other twenty-one students--many of whom I didn't know--and tell them I was gay. Most of the kids supported me, but later that evening, one of them--a lot bigger than I was; he had a black belt in martial arts--came into my hotel room and beat me up. I was a bloody mess, and he could have killed me if another student hadn't heard my screams and stopped him." Instead of punishing Jared's assailant, the school's dean suspended Jared and put him on "academic and behavioral probation." "The dean told me that even though I was forced to tell the others that I was gay, I was at fault because I'd 'threatened the masculinity' of the kid who'd beat me up," Jared recalls.
In fear, Jared transferred to a public high school, the South Orange County High School of the Arts. "I thought I'd be safe and could be out when I came there--after all, it was an arts program. Boy, was I wrong. Within two weeks people were yelling 'fag' at me in the halls and in class. I was dressed a little glam, if you will--nothing really offensive, just a little makeup. But when I went to the principal to complain, she did nothing about the harassment and told me that I was 'lacking in testosterone,'" Jared explains. To fight back, Jared and some gay and straight friends formed a club called PRIDE, which made a twenty-five-foot-long rainbow banner to put up in school decorated with multicolored hands and the slogan, hands for equality (the banner was banned). The club also made beaded rainbow bracelets that many students wore--"even a lot of the football players," according to Jared--but the club was forbidden by the administration "because it didn't have anything to do with the curriculum." The harassment got worse--so bad that Jared had to leave school two months before graduation. "I had to fight to be before I could study," Jared explains, "but I left there feeling really let down and like a failure--we hadn't gotten anywhere."
When he enrolled as a freshman at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Jared says, "I was embraced by a huge and loving queer community. They told me, 'It's OK to be angry'--that's something I hadn't heard before." Feeling a bit burned out, for his first six months at Santa Cruz Jared avoided gay activism--until the day he attended a conference of gay youth. "There were kids pulling together--I just knew I had to help out." He attended a youth training institute run by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); began working with Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) at two high schools near the university; edited and xerox-published an anthology of adolescent writings about AIDS; created a performance piece, as part of his self-designed major in "theatrical activism," about homophobia with a cast of seven straight boys to the hit song "Faggot" by the rock group Korn; and now speaks to gay youth groups around the country. Today Jared is only 18.
Jared's story is fairly typical of a whole new generation of lesbian and gay adolescents: brave, tough and resilient, comfortable with their sexual identity and coming out at earlier ages, inventing their own organizations--and victimized by violence and harassment in their schools. Says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC), an alliance of local and national service agencies working to empower gay youth: "Five or ten years ago, kids would go to a youth service agency and say, 'I need help because I think I'm gay.' Today, more and more they say, 'I'm gay and so what? I want friends and a place to work on the issues I care about.' Being gay is not their problem, it's their strength. These kids are coming out at 13, 14, 15, at the same age that straight people historically begin to experience their sexuality. But they are experiencing more violence because of that."
Quantifying the number of assaults on lesbian and gay youth isn't easy. In most states, gay-run Anti-Violence Projects are woefully underfunded and understaffed (when they have any staff at all), and students are rarely aware of them, according to Jeffrey Montgomery, the director of Detroit's Triangle Foundation and the spokesman for the National Association of Anti-Violence Projects. Teachers and school administrators most often don't report such incidents. After pressure from state governments sympathetic to the Christian right, the Clinton/Gore Administration's Centers for Disease Control removed all questions regarding sexual orientation from its national Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Now the only state to include them is Massachusetts.
There, according to its most recent questioning of nearly 4,000 high school students by the Massachusetts Department of Education, kids who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual were seven times more likely than other kids to have skipped school because they felt unsafe (22.2 percent versus 3.3). A 1997 study by the Vermont Department of Health found that gay kids were threatened or injured with a weapon at school three times more than straight kids (24 percent versus 8). And a five-year study released in January by Washington State's Safe Schools Coalition--a partnership of 74 public and private agencies--documented 146 incidents in the state's schools, including eight gang rapes and 39 physical assaults (on average, a single gay kid is attacked by more than two offenders at once).