Growing up gay
Bostonians open up about the homophobia, fear, and isolation they endured as teens — and how they made it through
A spate of gay teen suicides, including that of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, has focused attention on homophobic bullying and resulted in the “It Gets Better’’ project, a YouTube campaign aimed at offering support to gay teens and young people. We asked several well-known Bostonians to share their memories of growing up gay, and they accepted, revealing the fear and loneliness they lived with and the strength they’ve achieved. Here are their stories, in their own words.
Author of many books, including ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’
I always wrote. Took my cue from “Harriet the Spy’’ in fifth grade and never looked back. But like many kids, I wasn’t introspective. Didn’t question my own identity. I came of age in a liberal time (early ’70s) in a progressive Catholic environment (not always an oxymoron) among good people who were tolerant of many things as long as they went unnamed. So I remained basically clueless about myself.
For a while, in high school, a cadre of friends caught my writing habit. We scribbled approximations of our real feelings in the safety and pretend anonymity of our journals. Then we circulated these notebooks for peer review, scrawling appreciative comments or jokes in the margins. A way of sharing private apprehensions and affections in a safe environment. A pre-electronic community blog, you could call it. Nixon-era Facebook.
I’d always gone about my own business, a cheery loner of sorts, enjoying female friends who were never, somehow, girlfriends. I’d never been part of a team or a male mob. Junior year, this seemed to change; I started hanging out with three musicians, teenage guys. One February afternoon, after a basement jam session, we took some hot chocolate into the parlor. One of the boys I later realized I’d had a crush on closed the doors. They cleared their throats and the spokesfellow said, kindly as possible, “We’ve been thinking about it, and we’ve decided that guys writing in journals is a faggy thing to do. We’re going to stop and we think you should, too.’’
What happened next? I suspect I left the house with a polite excuse, masking my shame and the pain of rejection. I didn’t hesitate, though. If to be a writer meant to be a loner, I would be a loner. I cried all the way home.
Years later, I would hear Elphaba sing on Broadway, “Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game.’’ Sing it, sister. Now, I realize I committed myself to becoming a writer that awful afternoon.
Of course, it wasn’t just a writer I was choosing to be. I was choosing to be myself.
Actor/playwright and cofounder of theater group The Gold Dust Orphans
I thought of suicide many times as a teenager. I grew up in a factory town in Connecticut, where the only fun to be had was either sex or stealing your mother’s car. There, like so many places with no imagination, “faggot’’ was the worst word you could use.
The first time I heard the word “faggot’’ of course it was directed at me. Who else? I was 12 years old. It was summer, I remember, because I never wore shoes in the summer, even to the movies. Walking barefoot along a guardrail, a sort of bridge from my house to the candy store, I remember thinking myself a great acrobat. I always had these thoughts, that I would somehow escape the torture of being what I was, a sort of swishy “halfbreed’’ among spitting, strutting “cowboys.’’
They were the “real’’ people, these high school sports stars with their glossy cheerleaders dragging two steps behind. They owned the world where I didn’t belong. Because of this, it was naturally their birthright to despise me, mock me, the moment I came into view.
The beer bottle hit me just above my eye and yet it didn’t break until it hit the pavement below. It hurt a bit but not much. Then the word “FAGGOT!’’ screamed from another hero’s window as they passed, speeding on into adventures and secrets not meant for creeps like me.
And so it went. Most of my time in high school was spent not learning but working out my plan of escape. Through which door would I exit the building today? Who would be waiting there to slap my back, shove me down, spit at me? Should I try the front door, in plain sight of the bus drivers? Would they stamp out their cigarettes today? Grow a lion’s heart for the moment it would take to protect me? No.
Should I just go for it, then? Throw down my books and run? How many times can you pray for rain, if only for that hour at the end of the school day? Rain enough to get you home. They don’t follow you home in the rain.
And when you get home and they ask why you are crying, what do you tell the woeful father? The frustrated mother? The ones that only see you as a letdown. For I am not the high school sports star. Me, dressed in wet clothes I despise, covering a body I’m ashamed of in a house that turns its back on something it really doesn’t care to understand. Suicide? . . . As the cowboys say, “Sounds like a plan.’’
Meteorologist, WCVB-TV Channel 5
Growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, I thought I was the only gay kid. In junior high I was picked last in gym class, made fun of for playing the piano, and tormented by the older kids. I moved after the seventh grade to a suburb of St. Louis, with a hope that things would improve for me. It wasn’t any better. I didn’t fit in because I was the new kid. I didn’t fit in because I joined the choir and not the football team. Deep down I knew the reason why I didn’t fit in — it was because I was gay. Still, I wanted to fit in more than anything.
In junior high I was beat up in the halls because I was different. Coaches who were supposed to be looking after and supporting students mocked me because I would rather be in school plays and choir than run track.
It slowly turned around in high school. I was president of my senior class. But it wasn’t until I came out to myself and my family that it got better, and that wasn’t until after I graduated from college.
Life improved, and continues to do so. I have a wonderful partner, two incredible children, and a career and activities that I love. Although I was mocked for performing in student plays rather than running track, I’m happy to say that in the end, the mocking didn’t matter. I just completed my second marathon last week. I have the life that I dreamed about in junior high. I’m happy to say that it gets better.
Chef at Rocca Kitchen & Bar, former contestant on ‘Top Chef’
My teen years were spent in northern California. While the majority of the California population is seen as flag-waving liberals, the flags I was most aware of were the Confederate ones affixed to pickup trucks that burned rubber pulling up to the school parking lot. There was an inherent fear that I felt around all of those young men.
At the time, I didn’t openly identify as gay, but there was a brotherhood of bigotry. It made me nervous and I steered clear. I knew I was different, but saying the word meant target. It meant zero assimilation; no cheerleading, no prom, no sleepovers, no parties. It meant self-imposed exile in the day-to-day life of high school that was already socially and emotionally unbearable.
It was only 15 years ago, but in the progression of the social and cultural landscape of America, it’s been a lifetime. Not one of us came out until after high school. It was as liberating as it was difficult then, but any earlier would have been sheer hell. We weren’t cowards; we were trying to survive and fit in. Even when you stand out in high school, you still want to fit in.
In the last few years young people are finding courage to say the word — gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender. Maybe there are no Confederate flags, but there is still quiet opposition, sneering, name-calling, bullying, and worse. These kids are heroes. They need support, love, and kindness. They need friends that stay, parents that love without judgment, teachers and community leaders that provide resources and safe spaces. Gay youth need mentors that they can talk to, relate to, and remind them that it does get better.
The world is full of infinite possibilities and hope. I just got engaged to the love of my life. I am happier than I have ever been and cannot wait to become her wife. The American dream is for all of us. Stay with us, define it for yourself. There’s so much love and joy just around the corner. It truly does get better.
Event planner, oversaw the recent high-profile nuptials of Chelsea Clinton
My defense mechanism for growing up gay was to be the best little boy in the world. The shame I carried with me for years was suffocating. For so much of my childhood I was often running from the fact that I felt different.
It was not simply that I was not as fast or tough as the other kids, it was an underlying feeling that I was different. Coupled with the fact that so many people around me would confirm this as well. I excelled at most things “artistic.’’ Singing, painting, acting, and the like. Often I would hear statements like: “Bryan is ‘special.’ ’’ “Bryan is not like the other boys’’ was a frequent pronouncement.
I could be convinced that those statements were genuine and that I was a special kid. But for some reason, I always felt there was something between the lines, and it was not necessarily a good thing to be different.
I was intimidated by athletics and would shy away from competition. Coming from a family of five kids there was plenty of competition to go around, and plenty of Little League, pee wee hockey, and basketball. I was pretty terrible at all three and still am, but it has taken me a long time to figure out it had nothing to do with whether I liked girls or guys.
I think we can all agree that shame can be a deadly weapon at any age, but incredibly damaging when you are a teenager. Feeling different can be both empowering and devastating. I managed to turn my shame into strength, but many around me growing up were not so lucky. I have twice experienced friends turning to suicide because they could not cope with being gay. One is still alive, and one is not.
Sure, I was definitely bullied by the boys (and girls) at recess for being different. Some experiences were more painful than others, but I survived, and, in fact, I think I came back a stronger, more powerful person because of it.
I have learned to forgive those around me for not understanding how painful it was to be treated as though I was not good enough. That being gay made me somehow less of a person and that because I was gay I would never be as “happy’’ or successful as they would turn out to be. For me, feeling less than or not good enough somehow gave me strength to prove everyone around me wrong. I want to be the best at what I do (whether I am gay or not).
It wasn’t until I was 16 that I was able to confront my sexual orientation. I am one of the fortunate ones who was completely accepted by my immediate family, and was encouraged to seek outside help for my own emotional health during the last two years of high school.
I have a specific memory of being harassed in Boston. I was probably around 17 or 18 years old (see the picture). I was in the Harvard Square T station waiting to catch a train when a young man coming up from the train reached over the rail and smacked me yelling, “Faggot . . . [expletive] lesbian . . . [expletive] gay freak.’’ I was terrified. I felt completely powerless and lonelier than I have ever felt. No one did or said anything. No one asked me if I was OK. No one stood up for me. It became very clear to me that I was alone in this. I sometimes still am.
Feeling afraid to be who you are for fear of your life is a terrible way to live and no one deserves it. I believe being true to who I am has made me a more accepting and compassionate person and for that I am grateful. One day I hope everyone will realize that hating others does nothing but breed anger, fear, and more hatred. It is a constant challenge to live securely enough in yourself to be able to accept others as they are, but if we, as adults, don’t stop hating each other for being different, what else would we expect from our kids?
Jarrett Tomás Barrios
President of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
Like the other Barrios kids, I was a late bloomer. Hit my growth spurt when I was 15. Shaved for the first time when I was 17 on the day of my first date.
His name was “Teddy.’’ At my friend Samantha’s birthday party the week before, he had spied me across the room and got Debbie, Samantha’s girlfriend, to make an introduction.
“Hi’’ was all he said as we stood over the RC Cola and ginger ale bottles. The crooked smile plastered across his face was an invitation for me to say something. Goofy, I thought as I walked away.
He followed me out to my car a half-hour later. “Hey.’’
I turned around and saw the crooked smile. I smiled. “Hey,’’ I answered. It was a “hey’’ that said I was happy he had said “hey.’’
“Want to go to a movie next weekend?’’ He looked at the ground as he asked me.
We spoke a couple times on the phone that week. He was 21, I learned, and had dropped out of school when he got an offer to become the shift supervisor at the Kmart. His parents had kicked him out of the house, and he lived with a girl who he called Fred. At the movies the following Saturday, he paid for the movie tickets.
When I got home, my mother was waiting in the front room. “Who’d you go out with?’’ she asked. “A friend.’’ I lied. My smile must have betrayed something more.
Teddy and I talked Sunday about music. He was all about Prince and I rambled on about Morrissey. On Monday, he told me about his dad’s drinking problem and I told him about my college plans. On Wednesday we made plans to go to a party the next weekend.
After doing the dishes on Thursday, I ran to my room and called him. He was telling me some story about a crazy customer at Kmart when another voice on the line spoke up: my mother. It was an icy voice. “Jarrett, who is this man you’re talking to? Get off the phone right now and come here.’’
It was the last time I ever spoke to Teddy. By the time my mother came to accept and understand me, I had already gone to college.
I think about Tyler Clementi, who took his life after having his most personal experiences broadcast over the Internet to the world. Part of the tragedy has been discussed broadly as bullying. But there’s more there still about what society denies gay kids and what gay kids learn to conclude about themselves as a result: that they aren’t OK. I remembered Teddy as I read about Tyler, and lament the losses — not just the lost lives — of the countless gay teens.