Being Gay in High School Today
For gay teens, life isn't easy. They're one of the most common targets for bullying. Their suicide rates are higher than any other youth group. And many struggle to find acceptance at school, at home and within. But three southeast Michigan students hope that it can get better, and they're leading the way with the love and support of their families.
This story originally appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Metro Parent.
Pictured above, from left: Erin Cooper, 18, of Novi; Cassidy Creech, 17, of Canton; Chase Stein, 16 of Birmingham. Photos by Jose Zamudio.
Cassidy Creech was only 13 when he considered suicide. He feared a world where no one would want anything to do with him – even his church-going parents, whom he worried wouldn't accept him for being gay. This feeling was already a reality in class, where he was relentlessly bullied at his small-town Jackson County school despite not having gone public with his sexuality.
Several attempts at writing suicide notes were already made. But this would be Cassidy's last.
He had the scissors. He had the pill bottle. But he didn't have the hopelessness.
In the back of his mind were his parents and how hurt they would be if he followed through. And then the thoughts stopped.
"I came really close, but I just couldn't go through with it," says Cassidy, now 17. "I spent most of my childhood tormenting myself and praying to God that I'd be straight."
Then his family moved to Canton and a new start awaited him at Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, where – with more than 6,300 students – he had a better shot at blending in. But he was done trying to be something he wasn't. When he came out, straight guys befriended him. Girls loved him. Still, the bullying persisted.
In his junior year of high school, a bunch of boys flung sharp pencils at Cassidy's neck and barked gay slurs at him. They called him "disgusting" and referred to him as a "thing." Lunch wasn't any better. One time, students filmed him on their phones like he was the star attraction at the local zoo. "Look at the gay kid," they mocked. The rest of the year he ate lunch outside.
Unfortunately, Cassidy isn't alone. Nearly two-thirds of students reported feeling unsafe and ostracized in school because of their sexual orientation, according to a recent study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. And unlike Cassidy, many surrender to suicide as their only way out. Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts, according to a study released in Pediatrics in 2008.
And bullying-provoked suicides among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the United States seems to be on the rise – or at least the media coverage is. In one two-month period in the past year, there were reports of 10 children and young adults who took their lives because of being bullied for being gay. One of the most notable examples was Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who was tormented when his roommate used a hidden camera to broadcast his sex life on the Internet. Clementi threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.
The suicide of Tyler Clementi and 13-year-old Seth Walsh of California, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Indiana and all of the other tragic cases recently reported have prompted attention, concern and some action.
Actors, musicians and everyday folks posted videos on the web promising bullied kids a turnaround as part of the It Gets Better campaign. Pop culture did its part – an episode of Glee, which had its gay character so tormented by a jock that he switched high schools, raised awareness. Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe filmed a PSA for The Trevor Project, a resource for LGBT youngsters considering suicide. And even President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stepped in, holding a White House conference on bullying prevention that was posted on Facebook in March.
In the address, President Obama said, "No child should be afraid to go to school in this country."
But they are. "Students need to feel safe, and they need to feel supported by their schools," says Jim Toy, a social worker who's led the Ann Arbor chapter of GLSEN for 20 years. "When they don't, their human dignity and their human worth are comprised. Their learning is comprised. The stress can cause their immune system to be comprised. They may feel depressed and suicidal.
"But many of them are hopeful and committed to changing this situation."
"I was so sick of it," says Novi High School student Erin Cooper about the group of guys who harassed her for being a lesbian. The 18-year-old knew she wasn't alone, which is why she couldn't stand for it anymore.
With the help of two teachers, she launched a gay-straight student alliance, a club for LGBT students, at her school. Administration, she says, was hesitant to approve the after-school support group at first. "They were skeptical of what parents, other school members and faculty would say," Erin says. Now the group draws around 25 students weekly.
"It's really helped a lot of people," Erin says. "We're like secret friends – a whole different group of people outside of our regular friend group that we can trust."
And they also try to teach tolerance. Recently, Erin and the club presented their equality mission to faculty, hoping to achieve a greater level of inclusion at Novi High School. The club also has adopted GLSEN's "Safe Space" program, which requests that teachers post stickers outside their classrooms to symbolize a homophobic-free zone. Plymouth-Canton Educational Park runs the same program. And they have a GSA, too. Cassidy heads it.
Before, when the Canton student wasn't overseeing the group, he was too embarrassed to report incidents of bullying. But as president, he now has a responsibility to. "I realized that if it's happening to me, it's happening to other people," he says, "and I need to speak up, so the school knows it goes on and they can stop it."
The school takes such complaints seriously, says PCEP principal Bill Zolkowski, who oversees the three-building campus. This year, "the park" rolled out a week of activities to address the rampant bullying issues and remind students that intolerance won't be allowed.
"We want this place – as big as it is – to be safe and comfortable for every single one of our students," he says. "Color, creed and sexual preference just shouldn't keep that from happening for anyone. We do whatever we can to make that the case. Sometimes it's a little harder because we live in a society that tends to turn a blind eye on certain kinds of discrimination, and that's unfortunate. But we certainly don't ignore those things here."
Cassidy's parents wouldn't let them, anyway. When he showed signs that the bullying was bothering him, his parents approached him for a talk. His mom, Heather Creech, remembers him immediately breaking down into tears. When she found out why, so did she.
"That was such a huge turning point for Cass," she says. "He was able to get so much off of his chest and even come more into his own, confiding in us that this was going on."
The 2008 Pediatrics study on suicide prevalence and mental health issues of gay teens indicated that acceptance and support – particularly from parents but from others as well – was a significant factor in lowering a gay teen's risk for depression, addiction problems and suicide attempts.
After Cassidy's parents had a sit-down with the administration regarding their son's bullies, the school routinely checked in with him to ensure his safety.
"Seeing that the school wasn't going to put up with that meant a lot to him," Creech says. Zolkowski admits that decades ago that probably wouldn't have happened.
"Twenty years ago, people who worked in education might have been dismissive of a gay student's claim that he was being harassed," he says. "I don't think anybody at this park is going to be dismissive of a claim like that today. We want every young person here to feel comfortable."
What the law says
No law currently exists in Michigan protecting LGBT youth from bullying – although there have been attempts to pass an anti-bullying law. Michigan is a minority; it's one of only five states without anti-bullying legislation. Jay Kaplan, staff lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, calls the law's rejection "inexcusable."
If passed, the law would mandate that schools adopt anti-bullying policies, but the Senate leadership never allowed a committee hearing. "It was about politics," Kaplan says. "It wasn't about what kids need."
Those against the law said that it went too far in holding schools and teachers accountable for students' bullying behavior. Some were simply against the law because it included sexual orientation in the list of characteristics that schools must protect from bullying. A new law that doesn't include language about protected groups is being considered, but many anti-bullying groups are opposed to it, seeing it as too weak.
Regardless of the status of a Michigan anti-bullying law, Kaplan says schools should enact their own anti-bullying policy.
"More and more school districts have been found liable for their failure to adequately address incidents of bullying," Kaplan says. "Schools need to have a detailed plan in place as to how incidents of bullying are going to be dealt with – and also demonstrate the need to train both staff and students regarding this issue."
Cassidy's school enforces both an anti-bullying and discrimination policy. A student is ensured that issues related to either will be fully investigated and the bully will, at the very least, receive one to five days' suspension.
"Policies like these gives students the confidence to know that if a situation arises, they can be certain that it will be dealt with, swiftly and dependably," Zolkowski says.
But is it enough? As the old adage goes: Practice what you preach.
"The thought that a law or a policy in the books is going to alleviate the problem of bullying in schools is a bit naive," Kaplan says. "Even school districts that have anti-bullying policies still have a problem in their school districts, and it just points out the very important need to also have training for both staff and students."
The first step, he says, is simply recognizing that LGBT students are there to learn, too. That alone goes a long way. "If you can't acknowledge that people exist in your school, how are you going to adequately address the bullying problem?" he says.
Besides a school assembly to raise awareness of the bullying issue, Zolkowski keeps his office door open to all students, appears at LGBT-related campus events and walks the park's path himself to ensure that students are safe.
How bad is the bullying?
When it comes to bullying, Michigan has some work to do: "I hear a lot of bad reports," Toy says. "And a few good ones."
GLSEN's report – the 2009 National School Climate Survey, an analysis of 10 years of data – found that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year. One-third of the 7,261 middle and high school students surveyed also skipped a full day of classes because they felt unsafe.
Erin, who dealt with depression her sophomore year, was so afraid of coming face-to-face with bullies that she missed five days of school.
Her father, Ron Cooper, remembers that period as "a very, very difficult time" – one that affected the whole family.
"We've worked together for her on this. But for us, that's what family's all about. We couldn't be prouder of the choices that she makes, the decisions that she's made and the role model for other kids that she's become."
His advice for other parents in his shoes? "I just think it's being there, being present, and helping her understand that this house is the same place – and that our love for her is unconditional."
Creech says sometimes that means setting aside your expectations of who you thought your child was to see them for who they really are.
"Once I got out of my head and just really listened to Cass and to what was going on in his life and let go of my own views, our relationship grew even stronger," she says. "Trying to push your views on your kids just doesn't work. I didn't want to hurt him and I didn't want him to feel ashamed of who he was at all."
But there was only so much Creech could do regarding the bullies at school and, as a result, Cassidy says he felt unsafe. He says that for a long time he felt the easiest way out was on that bed – with the pills.
"The ultimate tragedy is a young person taking their own life because they feel like there's no help," Kaplan says. "But there's also the tragic consequence of a young adolescent who does continue to go to school, but feels not welcome and not supported and is not able to focus on learning."
Chase Stein, 16, actually finds comfort among his peers. "I found a lot of support in my educational environment," says the Wylie E. Groves High School student. Chase, born Rachael, identifies as "genderqueer," a term used in the LGBT community to signify someone who identifies as both sexes, opposite their birth sex or someone who eschews gender labels.
"I think that while 'man' and 'woman' are terms that the vast majority of people can identify with one way or the other, a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum," Chase says. "That is how I feel – somewhere in the middle."
Teachers at his Beverly Hills school have responded positively to him, he says, something that's the case for many of the LGBT students in the school. "Most of the gay or bi students I know don't actually experience much harassment and actually receive a lot of support from staff and peers."
That's not to say it doesn't happen. Stein still felt threatened when "aggressive" words were scribbled on his locker. But the administration took immediate action – they installed cameras.
"It didn't happen again," Chase says.
For Cassidy, though, the bullying didn't stop until this year, his last in high school. The senior says that Zolkowski still checks in on him, and it helps that he's close with a lot of the teachers.
"I know that there are a lot of kids who have it a lot worse than I do," Cassidy says.
Out and proud
Part of being in high school is the end-of-year rush – the making of summer plans, the finals and, for the senior class, the prom. For any heterosexual couple, there's the dinner arrangements, the stress of looking spiffy, picking out the perfect corsage and posing for paparazzi-like parents. But gay kids have one more thing on their minds – what will people think?
"I was worried," Cassidy says. "I didn't want to embarrass my date or get beat up. Prom should be a fun night, so I just stayed away."
Erin attended the prom at Affirmations, the gay and lesbian center in Ferndale that has held a prom for LGBT students for nearly 20 years. She didn't want to embarrass her girlfriend's sister, who's also a senior.
"I really didn't want to ruin it for her," Erin says.
Mississippi student Constance McMillen refused to sit out last year, fighting – with help from the ACLU – her county school board for denying her and her lesbian partner entrance to the Itawamba County Agricultural High School prom. The school board decided to call off the entire dance, citing that a student's date must be of the opposite sex.
PCEP has no such rule, according to Zolkowski. "I would do whatever I had to do to make sure that couple would be safe at the prom and through the entire evening," he says.
Zolkowski faced a similar situation while presiding over Thurston High School in Redford, where one of Zolkowski's favorite students, a male junior, attended prom – in a dress. People responded "wonderfully," Zolkowski says. And the next year, the student was elected to homecoming court.
"Young people investigate their sexual identity, and some are in environments – like this boy was – that are much more supportive, so they can be a little freer," Zolkowski says.
With the support of the administration, Chase can figure out who he is. And the kids are OK with his spiky faux-hawk, taste for men's clothes and masculine mannerisms.
"I usually talk to teachers individually about (my gender), so that teachers will start calling me a certain way," he says, "and students usually catch on."
At nearly 6-feet tall, there's no hiding. Not that Chase ever would.
"Kids aren't exactly understanding, for the most part," says his father, Wayne Stein.
Stein's always been supportive, he insists – even when Chase came out as a lesbian to him at age 13 and he had trouble believing his daughter was old enough to understand what that meant.
"I'm proud … very much so," he says. "But just like a lot of things, if you are a frontrunner or if you're going to be leader, you're going to take some flack."
According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the average age LGBT youth comes out is 16 – in the '80s it was between 19 and 23. "In the 40 years since 'gay liberation' started, the visibility, acceptance and the support of transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay and queer students has increased decade by decade," Toy says. "More students are coming out because of the increase of societal support for LGBT concerns, the increase in the number of GSAs and the opportunities for finding support via the Internet and social networking."
Still, if a student is considering coming out at school, Toy asks him or her to carefully think it over and seek a support system – be it family, classmates or administrators.
"If the student comes to me with this concern, I will help them to weigh the pros and cons, but I will not tell them yes or no," Toy says. "That's taking away their power of decision."
When Cassidy made that painstaking choice, he was afraid. Afraid of what classmates would say. Afraid of what his parents would think. But it all worked out in the end.
"It was scary, and it was hard," Cassidy's mom recalls. "My husband said to me, 'Anything that I feel about it is something I need to work through on my own. This is who Cass is.' It's so true. He doesn't own our feelings. He's just being who he was born to be."