30 June 2008

Article - Gay teens coming out: it's talked about more, but still difficult

It was a black, stretch-velvet dress that outed Shawn Fowler at the age of 14. Hours earlier, the sexy number had been tucked secretly away in his bedroom – along with a wig, lipstick and mascara. Yet there was his sister, sashaying through his grandparents’ house, only she was donning the frock.


“That was the catalyst that started me talking to my family about being gay,” Fowler, now 29, recalled.

Knowing of no other venues to socialize, he had figured that if he dressed as a drag queen, bouncers at the local gay bar wouldn’t dare card him. But his mom found the stash first.

Negotiating the revelation with his family was one thing; at high school there were other issues. Students set a suspected gay peer’s hair on fire in the cafeteria, and guys sometimes followed him home, yelling “faggot” every time a car passed.

“In the last 15 years, things have definitely changed,” he said. “But you still hear stories of youth being beaten up, or called out for any number of reasons.”

“It’s not an ideal world, even if we do have Will and Grace.”

In 2008, more gays and lesbians are depicted in mainstream media, and annual gay pride events are more popular than ever. In major urban centres, there are often gay-positive shops, restaurants and hotels, as well as support centres and performance spaces. But greater visibility doesn’t necessarily equate to greater acceptance.

“A lot of kids aren’t out to their parents, a lot of kids aren’t out to their friends in school, because of the stigmatization and because of the homophobia and transphobia that still exists,” said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada. “I’d say it’s talked about more, but it’s still as difficult as it was 10 years ago.”

In the first national survey on homophobia in Canadian schools, released last month by Egale Canada, participating LGBTQ2S teens – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit, queer and questioning – overwhelmingly said they’re not treated as equals in the classroom. More than two-thirds, for example, reported feeling unsafe at school based on their sexuality, as opposed to one in five straight participants.

More than half of LGBTQ2S participants reported being verbally harassed, about half said they had mean rumours spread about them, and a quarter reported being physically harassed.

Although there are some positive social changes, like Canadians gaining gay marriage rights in 2005, the teen survey results show that LGBTQ people still aren’t treated as normal, Kennedy said.

This could explain why half of LGBTQ teens surveyed said they’ve told either only a few friends, or no one, of their sexual orientation. Still, some say they’ve seen improvements.

“I think it’s a bit easier now for youth to come out,” said Chris Jai Centeno, 23, who lives in Toronto and attended a high school with a strong anti-harassment policy. “But speaking to friends growing up in small towns, their experience was completely different from mine.”

Where you live makes a huge difference in what resources and community groups are available, Centeno said. Since Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal have a smattering of LGBTQ options – from drop-in centres, to theatre, art or writers’ groups, to mentoring programs – teens may head for the big city.

That’s why four years ago, Centeno and two friends founded a dynamic showcase of visual art, fashion, film, spoken word and music composed of LGBTQ youth contributions in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Dubbed the ARTWHERK! Collective, they created the niche event – running all of Pride Week until June 30 – to fill a void they experienced when they were teens.

But without family support, too many end up homeless, said Clare Nobbs, at Toronto-based Supporting Our Youth. Despite this, she believes more LGBTQ youth are coming out these days.

An event called Pride Prom, for example, had its biggest turnout ever this year, with more than 400 youth getting gussied up compared with about 240 last year, she said.

“The fact to me the numbers are swelling is a reflection of how much more open-minded young people are.”

A rise in Gay-Straight Alliances and sensitivity workshops at high schools has also eased the coming out process for some, while the Internet brings together teens in ways never possible before. For example, Spiderbytes has online volunteers who answer questions about sex and sexuality in real-time over MSN chat.

Consensus is, however, that it’s going to take a lot more before youth feel truly comfortable expressing whatever sexual orientation they are.

Acknowledging homophobia and transphobia is key, Kennedy said. So is educating teachers about gay rights, history and how to help LGBTQ youth who are bullied. Gay support resources should be extended to multicultural communities, and celebrating everyday gay role models would show teens it’s OK to be who they are. Plus, parents need help to relieve unfounded guilt and support their children.

Fowler, who now works with teens at Planned Parenthood Toronto, said he hopes the time will come when LGBTQ youth are raised with the same value, worth and respect as their heterosexual peers.

“I would hope for … a world where there doesn’t have to be fear, or recrimination or broken families, just because somebody expresses who they want to love.”