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When Life Lets You Down

Paul Pellerito

I'd like to introduce you to my friend Joe. He's pretty much your average teen. His interests range from soccer to Rock music to computers and the Internet. You would probably walk past him in the hallway and not pay much attention to his medium build, light, wavy brown hair and deep green eyes. Don't be mistaken, Joe's not one who likes to blend in... he's quite the character if you know him. He's usually well-behaved in class, but can tend to get a little wild if he's stressed out or trying to cheer himself up. Like I said, he's probably not much different than your friends, except that he's gay. It's not much of a well-kept secret anymore, but it used to be. Back before he really knew anything about what being gay was all about. It was the summer before his freshman year in high school, Joe, then fifteen, tall and slender, first sat down to talk about it with his best friend's mom, a lesbian that had been as much as a mother to Joe as his own. Joe trusted her, at least enough to confide in her something he had known about himself for as long as he could remember but yet couldn't bring himself to talk about it. Joe was unhappy then, scared of the person he was, scared of what he might be. His friend's mom explained to him what it meant to be gay, that it was all right, even that it was okay to be confused. That little talk helped Joe overcome most of his fears, and helped him through his freshman year. But the years ahead held some surprises Joe wasn't yet ready to deal with on his own.

Unfortunately, his friend moved away, and Joe was left without anyone to talk to. He suddenly found himself tearfully alone, and didn't know what to do. He turned desperately to his friend Leslie, a girl he had met at a dance only a few month before. He told Leslie of his gayness, reaching out to a peer for the first time. She didn't have a problem with it since she had been raised by parents who were very understanding. In fact, she was quite excited to have someone other than her usual circle of friends to discuss guys with. Joe needed someone he could discuss his feelings with, sort out crushes and vent frustrations. He found he could use Leslie as a sounding board, and vice-versa.

Things went well until the end of the school year when he decided to come out to one of his closest friends, Jason. Joe held off on the idea until exams, and on the last day of school he finally had the courage to do it. Jason was having a big swim party for all his friends, and Joe decided to help clean up afterward. Once everyone had left, he tried to get on the topic, but instead ended up blurting out "I'm gay, and I wanted you to know."

Jason was shocked. He ran into his house and left Joe. When Joe followed, Jason let him phone his parents for a ride, but they both waited in silence. Joe nearly cried because he couldn't stand the loss of one of his best friends. The two spoke briefly during the summer, but Jason never came to Joe's seventeenth birthday party in July. Well, with soccer camp Joe's summer ended quickly and before he knew it he was a junior.

The first few weeks of school went well, but soon Joe began to hear rumors about him being gay. Joe wasn't noticeably effeminate, so no one had said anything before. His friends just assumed he'd rather do well in school and soccer than have a girlfriend. Joe came out to most of his friends in those first few weeks of the school year, and even discovered that one of his best friends, Kyle, a senior, was bisexual. Joe was thrilled and they started an on-and-off relationship that never really ended. But just when everything was going well for Joe, things took a turn for the worse one sunny day in late October.

Joe was alone on the soccer field at lunch time, kicking goals just to pass the time. The field was rather far from the school, out of view of most people. Joe didn't spot the group coming toward him until they were almost to the field, and Joe walked up to say hi. They said they had heard he was gay, and started shoving him around. Joe didn't want any trouble, so he tried to walk away. When he went to get his soccer ball, they kicked him in the face and left him there. Since no one had seen the incident on the soccer field, the assistant principal said there wasn't much he could do. He was officially "outed" the next day in front of half the school at lunch period. By then end of the week, everyone knew. It seemed that Jason had told a few of his friend that summer, and the rumors built up during school and finally reached critical mass that mild day just before Halloween. Joe started getting beaten up almost every day, and on the days he wasn't assaulted, he was harassed at school, soccer practice, and even started getting crank calls at home. He decided to go to his parents for help.

As is turned out, they had know since late summer when Jason's mom had called to voice her concern over the "situation" with Joe's sexuality. Joe's parents had decided to keep quiet until Joe was ready to tell them, kind of in a state of denial. When he approached them, they sat him down and told him that they felt he was old enough to make his own decisions, but they wouldn't do anything about the violence because Joe had chosen to come out. Joe knew this was probably just his parents' inability to accept him at that time, but not having the support of his parents was a fatal blow to Joe, and there were bigger ones to come.

That next day Joe decided to go to the school administrators and tell them about the violence, but they too told him that coming out was his decision and he should find ways to deal with his problems. The beatings and harassment continued, and some of Joe's friends had also gone to the principal to voice their concern. No one realized that the worst part of the harassment was the emotional toll it was taking on Joe.

In mid-November he was assaulted after school in the parking lot. The "crazies," as Joe put it, broke his nose and did some damage to his car. This was the last Joe could take. He decided that he would not be returning to school after Thanksgiving break. That same day, a few days before their vacation, Kyle told Joe that he would have to end their relationship and that he was going to prom with a girl like his parents had wanted him to. This on top of everything else was too much for Joe, and he sunk deeper into depression. That Thanksgiving eve Joe decided to take his own life. In a letter he wrote to Leslie just hours before he died, he said he could not take the pain and heartache of this life and hoped for happier times in the next.

Late in the night of the 22nd of November, Joe drove downtown and parked his car in a commuter lot just off the highway. In the morning, his mother woke up early to being cooking for Thanksgiving, but found that Joe's car was not in the driveway. Joe died around one in the morning on Thanksgiving. It doesn't matter how or where he killed himself, only that he did. Joe killed himself because his parents, after learning that he was homosexual, refused to support him. He also received no support from his school, and some but not enough from his close friends. All of his friends, including Kyle, have spoken out against their school's policies in order to ensure that this never happens again. A proposal was made to the school board to change their policy regarding homosexual students (there isn't one) but was still being deliberated into the 1996 school year, or what would have been Joe's senior year.

This story isn't entirely fiction. Sadly, it illustrates the very real problems faces by gay and lesbian youth in the school system today. Only Massachusetts has a statewide program that support and protects gay youth in high school. California, Indiana, Texas and New York also have partial programs in some schools. This story is based on an incident that occurred in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1995.

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