School of Hard Knocks

by Paul Pellerito
June 1996

First of all, I'd like to thank all of you who wrote me mail these last two months. It's great to get feedback. I've replied to all the mail I've received, but I had a time early in May when my ISP's Email was down and I couldn't get any mail. So, if you sent me mail and didn't get a reply, please please please send it again. I'm happy to answer any of your questions or give some advice. This month, I'd like to give you a glimpse into my school.

Between classes. Cruising down the hallway in a dark blue flannel shirt, baggy 550 blue jeans, with a heavy backpack slung over one shoulder and a quick slam Mountain Dew in hand, I stopped in right my tracks when I saw him. Almost six feet tall, dressed in a tee-shirt that showed off his pecs, with light brown hair and beautiful green eyes, I had to stare. After about ten seconds, reality crashed back down on me and I remembered where I was going, and tried to put the thought out of my mind.

Since it's near the end of the school year, I've seen almost every cute guy in my school, and I've tried to hit on at least half of them. But I had never seen him before. Wow. Every time I'm blown away by someone, it's a big reminder that I'm not out at school, and just how suffocated I feel at school. Right when things appear to be getting better, I'll see someone who looks just fabulous, and then I'm reminded how hard it is to find anyone, especially in my school.

Words like faggot and homo are still used in my school to mean bad things, and there are plenty of supporters of the Christian right. Sometimes I think coming out might change some minds, but it sure wouldn't make things easier for me.

Those of you who are out are the voice for us all. I remember how it was last year when there was an openly gay senior there, it seemed like I wasn't so alone, like I had someone I could identify with. Even though I didn't have the courage to talk to him, knowing he was there was a comfort. Now he's gone, and no one's stepped in to take his place. I'm beginning to wonder if I should be the one. Perhaps by writing in here, I'm reaching out to someone in my school inadvertently. I hope so.

Lunch. The time where school partitions off into cliques and little mini-societies. Half of the student body (except for seniors), about 600 people, crowds into our small cafeteria. Cute guys everywhere. What can I do? Nothing, of course. I sit with my friends and my brother at the end of a table every day. The menu is almost always the same: single size pizza, milk, Little Debbie snacks. The conversation ranges from Monty Python to history to physics, math, astronomy, the weather, or lectures from our other classes. The usual stuff smart kids talk about, I guess. We know better than the sports maniacs in their Nike sandals, Fila jackets and all that. We're focused on an education. Our school is centered around sports, though, and if you're not in sports, you're really a nobody. But what do I do? I act. Not just on stage, but every day. I end up acting straight in some of my classes, more gay in others. At lunch, I'm mostly myself. Two of the five people I hang out with at lunch know about my gayness, and are cool with it. Unfortunately, I don't yet feel very free to discuss things, although we send each other signals.

We'll joke about how the tables are always crooked, and I'll make the inevitable comment about how I don't like straight things anyhow. We'll talk about things from movies like The Birdcage and Jeffrey. Brent doesn't have a clue, but Matt and Brad get the idea.

Band. The last hour of the day. Everyone's waiting to leave, everyone's talking about one thing or another. My greatest friend is in band. Fred. Fred's not a guy, she's a gal. We've both done our share of crying on each other's respective shoulders, and we'll always be there to support each other. John(not his real name) is there, too. I really feel close to John, because he's the first person I didn't know very well that found out about my orientation. He will always be my friend. There are a few others in the room that I like, but mostly it's not very fun. I've got John there to remind me of how hard it is to find anyone, and people calling each other faggots and queer without taking any note of who might be in the room. Someday I hope to be free of this feeling of loneliness and being closeted, but until I feel like I really can acknowledge to the whole world, I'll remain at the mercy of my heterosexistic peers, and a school that has no support for people like me.

We have a peer listener program, but I don't really need someone to talk with, I need a way to meet other people. There probably will never be any after school groups, no books in our library, no resources that a teen would be able to easily access and find things out. Our school's mission is supposed to provide an environment which "challenges students to excel and to understand and respect all people" yet there is no mention of homosexuality in any sexual education class. How can you truly respect someone who's gay when you don't understand what makes them that way? You could try reading a book. But resources from the library are almost non-existent, and if you want to ask a teacher, there are maybe two or three you would feel comfortable with, but they don't offer much help. Maybe if you think you're gay you could talk to a guidance councilor.

Over at Byron Center High School in Byron Center, Michigan, their music teacher, Gerry Crane, was almost fired from his job because of his orientation. Students were urged to consult the guidance councilor if they wanted to drop his class, instead of the teacher as what would usually be recommended. A few weeks after the school board decided to do nothing but monitor Gerry Crane's actions, a video, detailing the 'evils' of homosexuality, was mailed to parents of all kids in his music classes. It turned out that the high school guidance councilor had helped mail out these videos. Who would you be most likely to turn to if you thought you were gay? I would trust my guidance councilor. But after what's happened with the Gerry Crane thing has left me in serious doubt. What sort of advice could a bigoted councilor give a gay teen?

Despite progress by the adults, nothing has been done for us. There are no books in the library at our school, no after school groups, no brochures in the guidance office. The school administration in my conservative town are too concerned with bond issues and their new Internet access to really be concerned about a handful of confused teens that `don't exist.'

Statistically, there are 140 lesbigay teens at my high school, in a class of 1400. In the library you could find books about African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. We have four black kids at our school. There are about twenty Asians, no Native Americans, and a handful of Hispanics. We're not a racially equal school, but if some books have information about these minorities, why aren't there any books about gays? Why can one find Malcolm X's biography in the library but not Greg Louganis'? Uncle Tom's cabin can be checked out, but not Joining the Tribe or Beyond Acceptance. You can find Dean Koontz's new book, but nothing by Allen Ginsburg. We've got And the Band Played On, but it's only been checked out three times, by me. Right now I'm organizing a petition to get some of these books into the library so kids like me can use them.

School is supposed to be a learning experience, but for many gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, it can be hell. Unfortunately, many adults in my town don't know any facts about homosexuality, so they're afraid we'll be converted or recruited. I wasn't recruited, I enlisted. I've been gay since I birth, there's nothing I can do to change that, but there are some things our places of learning should do to help my gay peers to accept themselves, and my non-gay ones to accept those who are gay.

What can you do? Some of it's simple, some of it's not. Find the kids that are out at your school, or ask around. If there's a peer listening group, try there. But don't come out unless you're ready and you'll think you'll survive. Write an anonymous letter to the school board, write many. Have other people write, too. Start a petition for books, maybe even a youth group. Make some noise, but only when you're ready. But just because you're not out doesn't mean you can't be proud.

Paul Pellerito, 16, is a sophomore at Jenison High School, outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. He can be reached via e-mail at paul@oasismag.com. Even though he's not out on his homepage yet, you still might want to go there at http://grnet.com/edge/.
General information: Jeff Walsh
Design and HTML: Jase Pittman-Wells
©1996 Oasis. All Rights Reserved.