When Elizabeth Katz was 14, she had an experience that forever changed her life. "I had an experience I don't think very many people have," she says, now 18 and a first-year student at Vassar College.
"It was some sort of voice in the back of my head," she says. "I was sitting on my bed, alone in my room and the little voice said: 'Hey, know what? You're gay.' And it was just boom, everything made sense.
"A lot of my friends don't quite believe me, and I wonder how it took that little voice. I'm not even sure what tripped it off."
Katz finished her high school career as the head of the gay/bisexual/straight alliance. She was also a co-chair of the youth committee of Massachusetts Governor William Weld's Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth, where she helped to plan and lead the first gay youth pride march. At Vassar, she is one of four interns for the school's gay, lesbian and bisexual center and is the co-head of the lesbian and bisexual women's group.
Katz began her gay activism as a closeted sophomore, when she wrote an anonymous letter to the school's Gay Straight Alliance. "At that point, there weren't any out kids in the school," she says. "And (in the letter) I said 'This is what it's like being a gay teenager.' Being able to say that without identifying self was really powerful.
"The letter was printed in the school paper with a really positive response. It was the first time in a few years that there had been an out student voice, whether or not it was connected to a body at that point," she says. "There certainly was a lot of conjecture about that body. It was printed actually the same time the school was undergoing a multi-cultural assessment of the curriculum and that voice, I think, was taken into account by the people who were evaluating the school."
A year later, Katz came out at her all-girl high school, and an activist was born. "Once I came out, I guess I was an activist. In senior year, I headed the gay straight alliance in my school," she says.
Gay straight alliances are becoming commonplace at many high schools across the country. Katz feels they can play a vital role in queer youth accepting themselves as well as helping heterosexual peers better understand gay issues.
"There were mostly straight kids at our gay straight alliance," she says. "I was the only out one for a long time. I went to a very small all-girls school, so I would be hard pressed to say my experience was typical.
"But the way the group works is that it offers three things: education, activism and support. Last year, it was very much about curriculum, issues and visibility," she says. "It was letting students know there were gay people who have done things besides have sex. That there was culture, there was history."
Katz feels fortunate her high school was progressive. "I was really lucky. My high school was incredibly supportive," she says. "The administration was supportive. I had out teachers."
By the end of her senior year, there were three out students.
Katz had her first lesbian experience at an early age, reading feminist books. "I identified as a feminist really early on, I don't know how much that had to do with being in a girls school," she says. "In seventh grade, I was reading feminist theory, which does deal with lesbianism."
And, surprisingly, she also heard about homosexuality at her Hebrew school in seventh grade. "And it wasn't 'God damns all homosexuality,'" she says. "It was 'there are gay people and we shouldn't make fun of them.' And 'if you are gay, more power to you.'"
Katz never dated any of the girls at her high school, although she did date through her senior year. Her school had two brother schools for proms, but Katz went with a female friend. "I went with friend of mine, we promised each other we'd be each other's dates all year," she says.
Katz took the girl to her semi, and Katz went to the Boston Alliance Youth prom with her. "We got harassed at every dance we went to," she says. "One dance, we had people throw things at us. The next day, I went into school, and said 'Look, this thing happened.' Everybody said 'That's outrageous, it shouldn't be happening at our dances.'"
Katz said her women's studies have showed her that women tend not to physically confront one another. "There was never fear for me of physical assault. Verbal assault is another story," she says. "One of the things about being in a women's school in a women's space is people don't get physical with one another.
"As women, we're taught that when you have problems and differences, it's something you don't confront others about. When I was harassed at high school, it was anonymous, and that's how women express anger, fear and pain."
She said her sexuality would mostly be addressed in the rumor mill on campus, and anonymously.
"Five days after I came out, I received an anonymous hate note," she says. "I was really lucky. The administration took immediate response, held an assembly for seventh through twelfth grade. The head of all schools spoke, I spoke, and there was an incredible outpouring of support from the community.
"I was never confronted by people who had a problem with me," she says. "I think that is a very common experience among gay women, this anonymous harassment."
An activist is born
Katz says once she accepted her sexuality, activism just came naturally. "It definitely colors everything. I couldn't be gay and not be an activist," she says.
Part of her work with Weld's commission, helping to improve Massachusetts' schools for gay students, changed her life.
"The fact that kids had the power to change their school systems impacted everybody, it gave gay kids the same rights as any other minorities," she says. "Once I started doing that type of activism, it changed the way I looked at everything. That was definitely the best part of my senior year, that activism, because it gave me a chance to get really savvy about the things you don't get to see when you're 17 or 18, about the practical applications of activism."
Her activism also led to what Katz calls "the best day of my life" -- the Youth Pride rally at the state capitol. Katz spoke at the rally, which brought 1,500 teachers, parents and youth together for a common cause.
"We were walking down the street, and this woman who was walking on the street saw us and just started crying," she says. "It was such a tangible and real way of seeing support for kids."
Katz has never been to a gay pride festival. But her campus has many gay-themed activities, such as the "Homo Hop."
"It's an enormous dance, the whole campus comes," she says. "The walls are covered with gay poetry, pictures and history. It's a remarkable event. Vassar is really gay-positive. It's a real great community to be at school in."
That's no accident. Katz knew she wanted to attend at a queer-friendly school. When she arrived at Vassar, there was a huge piece of paper on a wall. One side said, "I am lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered," and the other side, "I know and love someone lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered."
Katz said both sides of the paper were filled with people's signatures. She says sexuality is integrated into the curriculum throughout the school. She is taking Lesbian Literature this semester as an English course. Allen Ginsberg is identified as a gay poet in classes, and next year the school is offering a gay history class.
"Dad always asks if I'm seeing anybody"
Katz came out to her parents in a letter she sent after her junior year.
"They were really supportive. My whole family has been very loving," she says. "It takes any family a little bit of time to adjust. I think now, if I were to do it differently, I would have liked to be there with my parents."
Her parents attended the Pride March and they cut out all her newspaper clippings.
"If anything, my parents are afraid that I'm too one-issue," she says. "But they're wonderfully supportive. Dad always asks if I'm seeing somebody."
Katz emphasizes that her story is not typical, and that teens need to reach out as much as they can to find support.
"There are systems out there for people. There are too many people who have been through it, who are out there with open hearts," she says. "Nobody's looking to shut anyone out."
But if teens feel they aren't ready to talk face-to-face with someone yet, Katz recommends something more anonymous.
"Find the books in the library, find the biographies. The library was my resource coming out," she says. "Those dark stacks in the back that nobody goes to, they were my friend. The card catalog is your friend.
"The information is out there. It's on the computer, in the books, in the pamphlets at the guidance counselor's office," she says. "It takes time to find it."
Katz remembers finding a gay radio show that played weekly in Boston, and each week she'd put on her headphones and listen.
She doesn't know if she would have made it had people not been so supportive in her life.
"I think any gay youth, everybody knows the (suicide) statistics," she says. "I would have hoped I would have made it, but the numbers are against it for gay youth that have no support. Thanks God there are organizations for us. And I have so much respect for those who have made it."