My name is Sam, and I'm a gay high school dropout. It's not because I wasn't smart, or couldn't do the work. Until about middle school, I was the kind of straight-A apple-polisher who made Lisa Simpson look like Ralph Wiggum. It was the bullying. If you're reading this article, you probably know what I'm talking about. Not a single class period went by without someone slinging anti-gay slurs at me. Not a single day went by without someone hitting me, tripping me, or pushing me into a locker. Though my parents called the school repeatedly about it, nothing was done; in fact, the faculty blamed me for the abuse because I was too "different." As if I could transform my entire personality overnight. As if any kid should be expected to.
So I dropped out. And the horrible thing is, I didn't have to. I had options that I didn't know about. And by not taking advantage of those options, I made my life much harder than it had to be. I couldn't get the good, well-paying jobs available to those with a college degree. I'm not the only one, either. According to GLSEN's recent survey, bullied LGBT youths are more likely to drop out and less likely to plan on going to college. The sad irony is that college is a much safer place for us; even big, football-obsessed state schools don't have the kind of relentless, torturous bullying that happens in high school. The Advocate's even got a whole book dedicated to LGBT-friendly colleges.
It's important for LGBT kids to know that college is not just more of the same: it's your ticket to a better life, and it's a place where you can find belonging. Now that I'm in college, finally earning that degree and trying to get my life back on track, I want to make sure that LGBT kids know that they have hope. You don't have to stay at your high school for all four years. Real life is nothing like high school, and the sooner you get out of there, the happier you'll be. So without further adieu, here are the options I wish someone had told me about when I was your age:
Option 1: Homeschool
It's not just for fundamentalist Christians - and it doesn't necessarily cost a lot of money, or require one of your parents to quit their job. Did you know that some states have free online charter schools? Here's a list of the states that do, with links to more information.
Don't live in one of those states? You can still get a legitimate high school diploma through a private online charter school. They're not too expensive by private school standards (anywhere from $1,000-$6,000 a year), and you can do your own work at home and at your own pace. In fact, there's one just for kids like you. It's the brand-new GLBTQ Online High School. Created specifically to serve LGBT and gender-variant kids who are driven out of school due to bullying (and don't live in New York City, where they could attend Harvey Milk High School), that school offers a GLBTQ Studies class, a scholarship, and even free coming-out counseling whether you're going to attend the school or not.
Of course, part of your problem might be that you're not out to your parents - or they're just not accepting enough to enroll you in a "gay" school. That's fine; there are other online charter schools that might be more palatable to your parents. Here are some of the best:
Laurel Springs School covers grades K-12, so if you're in middle school, you can get out ASAP. Founded in 1991, they're one of the first pioneers of online education. They'll work with you to customize your classes to suit your interests and learning style. You can also earn credit for life experience: classes taken elsewhere, projects you launch independently, trips you take with your family can all earn you high school credit.
The Keystone School is an online middle school and high school. Like every school on this list, they offer AP, Honors, and college prep classes, but seem to have less flexibility than Laurel Springs. They are, however, much cheaper than Laurel Springs. Their curriculum also emphasizes 21st Century Learning Skills: critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation.
Oak Meadow School is the weird hippie school of the internet, and I mean that in the best possible way. Like Laurel Springs, it runs K-12 and encourages you to get out of the house every so often. Their curriculum "includes assignments that ask children to read, write, and think, and also to paint, draw, play music, write poetry, and build things, encouraging balanced and healthy development."
Christa McAuliffe Academy School of Arts and Sciences is an elementary, middle, and high school. It's the most expensive school on this list, but it offers personalized education for every single student. They'll tailor existing courses for your learning style, or you can work with them to design your own courses. If you want to take a queer studies class in high school and your parents won't let you enroll in GLBTQ OHS, this is probably your best bet.
Independent Study High School is just a high school - but it's one of the oldest and most respected correspondence high schools in the country. Run by the University of Nebraska (and it's a very good sign when a school is run by a college), it's got almost a century of experience in distance-learning education. It's also cheaper than every other school on this list, especially if you live in Nebraska and especially especially if you use their print-based courses instead of their online ones. At Laurel Springs or Christa McAuliffe, your tuition is almost a thousand dollars per course. At Independent Study High, it's less than $300.
There are far more online and distance-learning high schools out there. Here's a few of them: Ashworth College High School, Forest Trail Academy, Great Lakes Academy, University of Missouri High School, University of Miami Global Academy, and University of Oklahoma High School. Stanford University also runs an online school for grades 7-12, but you have to be extremely bright to get in. They don't admit just anyone.
Most of these schools offer two options: you can enroll in their school and earn a diploma, or you can simply use their curricula in your homeschooling. If your parents are willing to homeschool you, you could theoretically take science classes from Laurel Springs, English and social studies classes from Oak Meadow, foreign language classes from the Keystone School (they offer Japanese and Mandarin Chinese! How cool is that?), and math classes from Independent Study High School - or any other combination you like. Most of these schools also offer print-based courses - which are more portable and often cheaper than online courses.
But you don't even necessarily need to enroll in another school - or use a traditional curriculum, for that matter. Read The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn to learn how to take control of your own education through "unschooling." Parentally-speaking, this will almost certainly be a harder sell than the online schools or traditional homeschooling, which is why I tacked it on at the very end. And honestly, if your parents are the type to let you unschool, you probably don't need this article to begin with. But hey, it's worth a shot.
Is homeschooling not an option? That's okay - you've still got alternatives.
Option 2: Transfer
You may have already thought of this, but I figured I'd include it anyway. Right now, open up a new tab and go to your school district's website. Look to see if it's an "open-enrollment" district. If it is, jackpot! There's a possibility you could transfer to another school in your district that's less homo- and transphobic. There will probably be links to websites for all the schools in your district: click on all the high schools, and also check out any charter, magnet, or option schools. Look for arts-based charter or magnet schools. (I know it's a stereotype, but art schools really are frequently more LGBT-friendly.) Scan the schools' club lists for Gay-Straight Alliances. If it doesn't have one, you don't want to go there. If it does, contact the GSA's president or faculty advisor. Tell them that you're thinking of transferring, and ask about the atmosphere at their school. Ask how seriously the administration takes bullying, and how severe a problem homophobic bullying is. You might be able to transfer to a safer school and make new friends before you even get there!
If your school district isn't open-enrollment, or none of the other high schools are any safer, maybe there's a private school in your area that's more enlightened. Google for private schools in your town or county. If you see any words like alternative, Sudbury, Waldorf, Montessori, or phrases like "experiential learning," that's a good sign that your queerness will be welcomed with open arms.
While religious schools are generally to be avoided, an exception to this is Quaker schools. Quaker schools are generally really liberal and LGBT-friendly. (One famous example is the elite Sidwell Friends School, where the Obama daughters go. Sidwell's GSA was started in 1994. And not by students, by the school. I'm serious.) For those who love Quaker schools and also desperately need to get away from their parents, Oakwood Friends School in New York and Scattergood Friends School in Iowa are both boarding schools.
Obviously, the downside to private schools is that they tend to be expensive. But rest assured, there are scholarships for that. Your local private schools might even have scholarships of their own, and I know for a fact that both of those Quaker boarding schools I mentioned above offer financial aid. You may be able to afford private school. But you'll never know unless you ask.
Option 3: Go to college. Go directly to college. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
Are you super-smart? Is high school agonizing not just because of the bullying, but because the academics are completely unchallenging? Could you do your schoolwork in your sleep? Well hey, guess what? Stop looking at other high schools to transfer to and just go right to college. Bard College at Simon's Rock is the nation's only early college, accepting students after tenth grade. It's also one of the most gay-friendly colleges in the country, according to the Princeton Review. Alumni include lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Take the SATs a few years early and see if they won't let you in. Don't worry - you don't have to be a super-genius with 10 AP classes under your belt by sophomore year. They understand that smart kids often fail in high school out of sheer frustration (just look at Albert Einstein), and since they're a magnet for creative, unconventional types, they understand that "different" kids can face social challenges that distract them from their schoolwork. Just show them what a smart, cool person you are in your essay, and you'll likely get in.
But though Simon's Rock is the only residential early college out there, it's far from the only early college program. There might be one near where you live, which will come in handy if your parents are concerned about you moving to rural Massachusetts at the age of 16. Here's a big ol' list of 'em.
Option 4: Graduate early
If you can't go to an early college program for whatever reason, you can still graduate high school in three years. Gay author Alex Sanchez did it. Lesbian author Amelia Atwater-Rhodes did it (while writing a novel!). And so can you. It will require a much larger course load than you're used to. It will probably require summer classes with not-so-smart kids a year older than you - which may expose you to more bullying. But what's worse - a single summer or a whole school year with those trolls? On the bright side, you'll look very attractive to colleges: it takes a hard-working, dedicated student to graduate high school early.
Talk to your guidance counselor about graduating early. But don't tell them it's because you want to escape bullying, or because you're miserable in school. Adults have this bizarre notion that high school is "the best years of your life," and that you'll regret missing out on your senior prom forever (as opposed to sighing in relief that you didn't get lynched for going with a same-sex partner). Be positive. Emphasize that you want an academic challenge, that you feel you're ready to move on to the next phase in your life. If your guidance counselor brings up the stupid "prom" argument, talk about the many dances and social opportunities in college, where you can befriend people who are closer to your intellectual level and share your interests. It's probably wise not to mention your sexual orientation or gender identity, just in case your guidance counselor is homo- and/or transphobic.
Option 5: Drop out
Are you at least 16 years old? Do you live in a state where it's legal to drop out of school at your age? (Some states require you to be as old as 18 before you drop out.) Can you take the G.E.D. test immediately afterward? (Again, some states require you to be 18.) Do you have literally no other options? Then get out of there before you kill yourself.
I know, I know, I dropped out of school and it didn't end well for me. But I was dumb enough to stop at the G.E.D. Dropping out isn't the end of the world - you just have to have a plan. Here's a good plan: first, drop out. Then immediately take your G.E.D. Then enroll in a community college the very next semester. Go there for two years, earn your associate's degree, then transfer to a four-year school to get your bachelor's. You'll get the same diploma as all your classmates, but for less money and in less time and without having to put up with all four brutal years of high school. It's the cheaper, less prestigious alternative to those early college programs, and it works.
This may not be an option for everyone. Again, find out how old you have to be to drop out of school, and how old you have to be to take the G.E.D. test in your particular state. And you won't be able to get into as good a college as you otherwise may have: many colleges look down on the G.E.D., or will wonder why you couldn't finish high school. The good news is, community college ain't exactly chopped liver. Though they've got a bad reputation as everyone's safety, that's just because they teach everyone who will learn - not because they're not as good as four-year colleges. Here's a list of America's top 50 community colleges, any one of which could give your average state school a run for its money.
And you don't even have to go to a community college in your community! Did you know that City College of San Francisco - the largest community college in the country - also has the oldest Gay and Lesbian Studies department in the country? Naturally, it has a vibrant LGBT community. And after two years, you can very easily transfer to San Francisco State University or any of the University of California schools.
If you've exhaustively researched all the possibilities above, and you're completely sure that there is no way out of your current high school, guess what? I've still got good news.
It really does get better.
Please don't give up on your education - or your life. College will be so much better than high school if only you give it a shot. Keep focused on the bright future that's waiting for you beyond those school doors. Distract yourself from the bullying by studying hard and planning out how you're going to get to that LGBT-friendly college, that LGBT-friendly town. Call the Trevor Project at 866 4-U-TREVOR. Read some I'm From Driftwood stories. Watch ten It Gets Better videos a day if that's what it takes. You can do it. You can live through this and emerge a stronger person, ready to take control of your own destiny. Good luck.