A Note on Youth

I graduated from high school in 1991. Why, all these years later, is this a part of my website? Because it still matters. Because as much as i hated high school, there are youth out there who had or are having a significantly worse experience. And because fixing middle and high schools is a part of a broader movement. It’s not all about me; it’s all about social justice.

All About Me (for a few minutes, anyway)

In some ways, i had a miserable time at Viz, which is the short name for the Catholic, all-girls, conservative, almost all-white, college-prep school in St. Louis County that i went to from fifth through twelfth grades. Socially, it was a hard place for me, although i loved it academically.

Me in 1990, a junior in high school wearing a jean jacket sporting many political patches and buttons, as well as a couple musical theater buttons
Me in the spring of 1990, as a junior in high school

I was an outcast in so many ways.

I liked my classes and teachers, i actually did my homework and got relatively good grades, i eschewed sports but did theater and chorus, i didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs, i stopped shaving my legs and armpits during my senior year, i was one of the only students in my school to oppose to Gulf War in 1991, i started calling myself a feminist in sixth grade, i openly supported “homosexual rights” (as i then termed them), i read constantly, i eschewed makeup and didn’t care a whit about clothes, i didn’t date, i wore a “Question Authority” button (which, surprisingly, turned out to be quite controversial among my teenaged peers)….

And all this while i wasn’t even out – to myself or to anyone else. Even so, I got “accused” of being a “lesbo” or a “lesbian” a couple times. (I do wonder what those accusing classmates would do if they knew where i’m at today.)

My qualities and values were unlikely to make me popular in such a school. So i didn’t have many friends. But by the time i graduated, i had some very valuable relationships that included a small crowd of good friends and an amazing best friend.

And there were things about Viz that i loved – the classes (most of them, at least), the faculty (ditto), those friends, theater, and chorus. And i had spaces outside of school that gave me other “homes” – community theater, a local Catholic youth group, and the “Peace Child” plays that i did. Those all helped me be much happier than i otherwise would have been.

I can’t imagine what my high school experience would have been like if i had known i was queer. As many LGBTQ folks say, i definitely knew that i was “different.” I just didn’t think that i was different in “that way.”

I still resent the close-mindedness of my peers at Viz, as well as my school for being somehow unable/unwilling to create a more tolerant and diverse environment. Their actions and inactions affect me to this day, albeit much less so than in the past.

Now, as an adult, i’m truly happy. College helped a lot: i finally was in a place where i was accepted not in spite of, say, my feminism or my politics but because of them. Vassar was incredibly liberal and, compared to Viz, a veritable cornucopia of diversity (race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, etc.). College is also where i started coming out to myself. And that helped tremendously in beginning the process of putting various labels on my feelings and truly starting to come into my own.

And as a middle-aged adult, i will say that, while my 20s were challenging, my 30s rocked and my 40s are going well so far, too.

I’m no longer angry about my middle and high school experience, although those memories can still bring a twinge of sadness and regret. I’ve grown and matured over the years. I hope that my former classmates have done the same and are no longer the small-minded, petty people they were back then.

All About Youth and Social Justice

Aside from my own unhappy middle and high school years is the much more important fact that mine was not an isolated experience. Innumerable youth are, at this very instant, dreading going back to school because their lives are so much more wretched than mine ever was.

Listening to the stories of LGBTQ youth, it angers and deeply saddens me that i have to be grateful that i “only” felt hated by most people in my class, because my physical safety was never in danger (except when that volleyball was hurtling toward me in gym – my lack of athleticism was well known among everyone in my class). And i never suffered anything worse than being ignored, laughed at, teased, or left out.

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network logoSadly, the same cannot be said about LGBTQ or gender non-conforming youth today. For instance, according to the 2013 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:

  • 71% of the 7,900 participating LGBT student respondents heard “gay” used in a negative way;
  • 33% heard negative remarks about trans people;
  • 56% heard derisive remarks about their own gender expression (not being “feminine enough” or “masculine enough”);
  • 74% were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and 55% because of their gender expression;
  • 49% were harassed or threatened by peers via electronic media;
  • 56% of students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 38% felt unsafe because of their gender expression;
  • 35% avoided bathrooms or locker rooms because they felt unsafe;
  • 30% skipped at least one entire day in the month before the survey because they felt unsafe;
  • 62% of students who reported an incident to staff said that nothing happened in response; and
  • LGBT students who were frequently harassed had GPAs half a grade lower than students who were harassed less frequently (2.8 vs. 3.3, respectively).

These bullied students are at very high risk for self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-mutilation, cutting classes, skipping school, unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancy, and suicide – not because they are or may be LGBTQ but because they are in a socially and emotionally unsafe environment that leaves them isolated, lonely, and depressed.

At the same time, of course, i am bowled over by the courage, integrity, and activism of many LGBTQ youth. They are not sitting around waiting to be victimized by their peers or hurting themselves. A great number of them react in positive, productive ways to the harassment, isolation, and physical and sexual assault that they face. Many are active in encouraging their school administrations to improve their school environment. They form Gay/Straight Alliances and support each other. They come out and stay out despite harassment and assault. They are giving and receiving role modeling and peer support that i never could have imagined experiencing.

And, of course, LGBTQ youth aren’t the only ones to face ostracism, harassment, and physical and sexual assault at school. Other young people are bullied, too:

fat students, smart students, stoner students, immigrant students, punk students, Goth students, neuro-atypical students, learning disabled students, physically disabled students, short students, tall students, poor and working class students, non-white students, non-athlete students, girl students, students with only one parent, students with “same-sex” or poly parents, and a host of others who don’t fit what our culture defines as the “norm.”

None of these youth deserves to be harassed or assaulted at school. So our fight cannot be solely about LGBTQ teens, although that group is among the most targeted. We – youth and adults both, working in partnership with each other – must confront homophobic and transphobic bullying head-on while simultaneously working to make middle and high school a better experience for every student. We need to radically alter the structure of high school and of adolescence in this country so both are not something on which so many people look back with the phrase, “I hated it.”

And we cannot focus just on schools. We must make the lives of LGBTQ and other youth better in their homes, their neighborhoods, their religious communities, their extracurricular activities, and everywhere else they spend their lives. Focusing on schools in isolation will not fix the larger problem – for the larger problem isn’t about schools; it’s about our homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise hateful, hardened, and bigoted larger culture. Fixing that must be the prize on which we keep our eyes.