Gay Teens Coming Out to a Different World
CRESSKILL, N.J. - -- At first blush, it seemed like just another teen dance in North Jersey. Lights were flashing. Lady Gaga was wailing over the sound system. And 70 or so brightly dressed teenagers were jumping around, laughing, tearing up the dance floor and waiting for the pizza to arrive.
One notable difference: All of the teens at this event at the Cresskill Congregational Church of Christ identify themselves as LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The teens, who hail from about 20 towns in North Jersey, are also members of The Rainbow Cafe, an LGBT social program created four years ago by the church in collaboration with the Bergen County chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG is the nation's largest support organization for gays and their loved ones.
These youths seem unlike previous generations of gay teens, who hid or submerged their sexual orientations. But that could be because their world is so different from their predecessors'. From legislation to mainstream pop-culture depictions, society has changed how it views and integrates these kids, just as it has affected how they view themselves.
Last weekend, when Michael Sam celebrated being the first openly gay football player drafted by the NFL by kissing his boyfriend on the lips, video of that kiss aired repeatedly on ESPN and the NFL Network; morning TV's top-rated show is headlined by Robin Roberts, a lesbian who frequently discusses her partner on the air; the right to be married is legal in 18 states (including New Jersey) and the District of Columbia; and gay characters and actors are the leads of many primetime network TV shows, as opposed to 1997, when there was one.
The Record (http://bit.ly/1kf9rWV) reports that Rainbow Cafe member Michael Morell, 17, of Fort Lee was not quite 10 months old in 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres made headlines outing her character (and herself) on the sitcom "Ellen" to friends, family members and a television audience of 43 million people.
Today, Morell (who said he didn't even know DeGeneres had a sitcom), is an openly gay student at Fort Lee High School and a self-described activist, who is involved in a variety of school organizations, from the Spanish club, color guard and fashion club to his school's chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which he founded two years ago. He's also senior class president and, in the words of his principal, Dr. Frank Calabria, "super-involved, extremely mature and a young man we can always count on to get things done."
Morell is one of more than 25 of the teenagers at the dance who talked to The Record, shared their personal journeys and explained why they're "out of the closet" -- to their friends, their parents and, in some cases, their entire high schools. Or, their entire middle schools.
Morell said he waited until high school to be open about his sexuality, because, "in middle school, it was different."
"I was confused," he said. "But as I got older ... it's great to come out for your emotional and physical health. Keeping that secret, which means you're basically lying all the time ... creates an unhealthy atmosphere."
While Morell has a real interest in the post-Stonewall gay rights movement, he said at least one buzzword from that era makes him bristle: "'Tolerance' is not a word I'm comfortable with," he said. "If you don't like me because of my personality, that's fine. But not accepting me because I'm gay? No. Being gay or black or Hispanic ... doesn't mean you have different values or morals. And there's no way I'm going to walk around saying, 'I'm Hispanic and I'm gay. Tolerate me.' That's not what I'm looking for. That's not who I am."
There are now about 2.7 million school-age LGBT young people in the U.S., according to the national organization Lambda Legal, which notes that, based on recent studies, the average age for gay and lesbian young people to come out is now 16 -- down from 19-23 years old, previously. (There are no numbers available for North Jersey, specifically.)
Some of these openly gay millennials came out in the spirit of activism. But most said they were simply tired of lying and hiding who they are. Either way, they're part of a trend that Michael Hellegers, a high school English teacher from Totowa, attributes, in large part, to the national shift in attitudes toward lesbians and gays, as well as the immense influence of social media -- which today's teens use to share almost every aspect of their lives.
"To today's kids," Hellegers said, "everything is an announcement."
All of the gay and bisexual teens interviewed by The Record agreed there is no one-size-fits-all way of proclaiming one's sexual orientation in school -- assuming a student even wants to. Among kids who are "different," observed one, "everyone is different."
Some of these students, like 16-year-old "Ron," came out cautiously: "I told one friend, and then he told someone else. It was slow. A process." Others, like 15-year old "Gina," took the go-big-or-go-home route: "I just put on Facebook, 'I like girls.' That pretty much took care of it."
Paulie Boranian, a 17-year-old student at Teaneck High School, said he's been out since middle school, although he didn't tell his parents until he was 14. "I came out in seventh grade to a straight boy I had a crush on," Boranian said. "I tried to be nonchalant about it, but three days later, the whole school knew. I didn't mind that everyone knew about me, but I minded that everyone was making fun of him. I found that really weird."
All of the teens said that it is generally easier for female students to come out as gay or bisexual than it is for males. Michael LaSala, the author of "Coming Out, Coming Home" agreed. "Generally, homosexuality and/or cross-gendered behavior among males has always been more stigmatized than that for females. People think tomboys are cute. But do you ever hear a parent say, 'Look at my little sissy boy, isn't he adorable?'" said LaSala, who is also the director of the masters of social work program at Rutgers University.
Still, the lesbian teens interviewed saw things a bit differently. "I think it's because we're just girls," said one 15-year-old with a sigh. "No one cares."
Her girlfriend, also 15, agreed: "The boys just smile, or whatever, when they find out you're gay. They don't take it seriously. And they think it's hot. But they think everything is hot. Do you know any 15-year-old boys? They're like 3-year-olds, with sex."
The teens said that while it is easier for the either the more attractive or feminine-appearing girls to come out, it is easier for boys who can "pass" for straight to remain in the closet.
Morell said two athletes at his school have come out to him, privately, as gay, "because they just wanted to tell someone."
"But they don't see coming out to everyone as something they have to do," he said.
Boranian wishes that wasn't the case. "I think it would be great for all of us if the gay jocks came out, but they won't because they want to fit in," he said. "I don't fit in and I don't care, but it bothers me, in a way, because I think that, in my school, I'm what straight people think all gay people are ... and that's not the case.
"People refer to me as 'flamboyant' because that's what I am," Boranian continued. "Sometimes I have a beard, or I wear makeup or whatever. I can be abrasive and loud, but I think my persona protects me. Sure, people say things and talk behind your back, but that's high school. Everybody talks about everybody, anyway."
Eric Hanken, 25, didn't come out in high school and said it's something he thinks teens shouldn't consider at all. Hanken, a regular attendee at monthly meetings of PFLAG in Washington Township, lives in nearby New City, N.Y., and divides his time between his parents' house there and his boyfriend's home in Oakland.
Hanken said he began to question his sexuality around age 15 -- but no one else did. "I wasn't the flamboyant type," he said. "I was really into cars and all that. I finally told one friend when I was 21, then I went on a binge and told everyone. My mom didn't have a problem with it. She was a cop and her best friend was a male cop who was gay. But, in high school, many of my friends were homophobic. There are plenty of bigoted teachers, too. As for the other kids at school -- you may be mature for your age, but that doesn't mean they are."
Dr. Lauren LaPorta, chairman of psychiatry at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, concurred. Although straight kids may be more familiar today than they were years ago with gay issues, LaPorta said, "they're still kids."
"And kids, in general, are not nice," she said. "They pick on each other, tease each other, they bully. Beyond that, teenagers don't have much life experience. They have access to the Internet and all of this other information (about gay issues), but that doesn't mean they can process it maturely and intelligently."
Henry Van Kooy, a social studies teacher at Fair Lawn High School, and the faculty adviser for its Gay-Straight Alliance, an after-school club, said that if a student came to him and said he or she wanted to come out as gay, "I wouldn't discourage them, but I'd want them to consider the potential consequences. We have all this talk about tolerance and acceptance. But gay kids (who come out in school) can't assume that everyone is going to accept them with open arms. There has to be acceptance and tolerance on both sides."
Acceptance at home isn't a given, either. Nationally, between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless teens and young adults are gay, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In New Jersey, the numbers range from 10 to 30 percent, said John Mikytuck, interim executive director of the civil rights group Garden State Equality.
"The biggest cause of displacement is family conflict," Mikytuck said, adding that those conflicts are due in part to the fact "a lot of them are coming out at 14, 15 and 16."
David Bocock, the pastor at the Cresskill Congregational Church of Christ and a co-director of the Rainbow Cafe, said, "We hear these stories from time to time and the conflicts are usually based on religious beliefs, that being gay is evil and wicked, although that seems to be changing -- and I think shows like 'Will and Grace' and 'Modern Family' have made a difference. The kids don't watch these shows, but their parents do and I think seeing all these gay characters on TV has helped them be more accepting."
Bocock said he believes that same-sex marriage has significantly altered the landscape. All of the gay millennials who spoke to The Record said they hope eventually to marry -- an option that makes this generation of gay teens view their sexuality, and their decision to be more open about it, in a way that is significantly different from what their predecessors experienced.
The Rainbow Cafe sponsors four dances a year at the church, in addition to other activities. "All the events, like tonight's dance, have adult chaperones," Bocock said, "and we've had no negative feedback. In fact, since we started in 2010, volunteers in other areas have contacted us to set up Rainbow Cafes to serve their gay teen communities. We have one in Morristown, one in Sussex, and Asbury Park wants to start one, too."
When the pizza finally arrived -- to cheers -- and the dance floor cleared, Bocock grinned. "We do get good pizza," he said. "But we're also giving these kids an opportunity to experience dating and relationships while they're still in high school, just like other kids do -- something most of them wouldn't be able to do otherwise, and something that previous generations of gay kids didn't have at all."