12 March 2003

Article - Homophobia Causes Gay Youth to ''Shut-Down''

Adolescence is a difficult and exciting time, full of new experiences and challenges — like close friendships, dating and first kisses. But many LGBT youth must “sit out” this part of their lives because they do not feel comfortable or safe enough to be themselves, according to panelists at Teens Speaking Out, a panel discussion about LGBT teen issues. The panel, which took place April 12 in New York City, was co-sponsored by the New York Times, SHiNE (Seeking Harmony in Neighborhoods Everyday), and Upfront magazine.


“I wasn’t really alive. I basically shut off, and spent all my time reading,” said Alex Aborlleile, 18, of his adolescence. Aborlleile left an abusive home life in Philadelphia a year ago and hopped a bus to New York City. With no money, friends or place to stay, he worked as a hustler in order to survive. His story was chronicled in the New York Times Magazine in September 2000.

Aborlleile grew up in a religiously strict family. “I went to a Baptist school,” he said. “I was told my entire life I was going to hell.” Feeling guilty for his attraction to other guys, Aborlleile developed rituals to convince himself he wasn’t gay. “If I thought about a man, I’d have to think right away about a woman, to balance it out in my mind,” he explained. Finally, Aborlleile came out. “I was holding onto that last shred of trying to be straight. It wasn’t working.” When his family found out he was gay from the article in the Times,they accused him of ruining the family name.

Kevin Jennings, the founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a student advocacy organization, blamed schools for not cultivating an accepting, safe space for LGBT students. “The adult institutions that are supposed to serve young people, frankly, don’t,” he said. “Most LGBT youth in our schools are expected to turn themselves off until they get out of school. What a ridiculous price to pay for survival.”

Corey Johnson, another panelist, had a coming out experience starkly different from Aborlleile’s. While captain of the football team at Masconomet High School in Massachusetts, Johnson came out to his teammates, a brave act that landed him the front page of the Timesin April 2000. Though his family, teachers and peers easily accepted him, the years leading up to his coming out were wrought with anxiety and depression. “I struggled with coming out,” he said. “I thought, how can I be gay if I play football? In my mind, then, it didn’t add up.” Although Johnson was popular and active in sports, he retreated to the Internet to find other young gay people. “Before I came out, I was depressed. The only consolation during the day was connecting with other gay and lesbian teenagers on the Internet, especially those who played sports.”

Gay and lesbian students who “turn off” in order to survive adolescence — emotionally and physically — later face the daunting challenge of learning the skills they missed out on. “It’s very difficult to enter into a loving relationship with somebody, to turn yourself on,” Aborlleile confessed. “Most of my relationships have been for power or money.”

The story of panelist Tony Hall, 30, an employee of the youth outreach organization, SHiNE, underscored how destructive it can be to deprive gays and lesbians of normal adolescent development. “After high school, I didn’t date any guys under 30,” he explained. “And I didn’t know how to negotiate a sexual relationship.” As a result, Hall became infected with HIV at age 21. “Now I have such strong issues to be dealing with everyday,” he added. “I will always be dealing with them. It’s sad.”

One way to help young gays and lesbians is to provide them with age-appropriate venues in which to meet and socialize, said Verna Eggleston, the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the world’s oldest and largest multi-service agency dedicated to LGBT youth. “Teens and young people fall in love about 56 times a week. The good news is they don’t have to fall in love in a bar.” The Institute is one of several places in New York City that offers LGBT youth this kind of social environment.

However, meaningful changes cannot take place without the help of school faculty and administrators. “LGBT teens are harassed everyday. Teachers don’t intervene. Some teachers use words like ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke,'” said Jennings. Laws and sensitivity training will make the difference, but the laws are not in place and teachers are not trained in LGBT youth issues, he added. “The system has a long way to go.”

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