By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
Junior high school brings changes to any student's life -- new expectations, new teachers and, for some, even a new school district. For Craig Jessup, now a 15-year-old ninth grader in Larkspur, Calif., seventh grade brought with it something even more eye-opening -- a new sexual identity.
"Right before I came into the seventh grade at St. Patrick's, two people who were very close to me came out to me. It was at that point that I started looking back at my life and seeing all these times that I had these thoughts but had no labels to identify them with," he said. "And I began to kind of take a look at the label of 'gay' and see what that meant for me, and see how I could adapt it to my life. And it was pretty much a solid fit right from the very beginning. I could see that that was who I was, and that was pretty shocking."
Not wasting much time, he came out to his parents the night before he entered seventh grade.
"It all happened in one big swoop. It was a really wild, crazy night. I had a hard time sleeping, but I went to school the next day. And I became the flaming queen I wanted to be after being what I now realized was sexually repressed for so long," he said. "I didn't come out, but I left myself go and started being the person I wanted to be. I think they started catching on when I would start doing Talula Bankhead impressions in class. I was quite entertaining, although not out yet."
He also came out to his best friend that year, once she prodded him. She had told Jessup that she wanted to ask him a question she was embarrassed about, so she said she would ask him in a note. Jessup said he knew what the note said before he even opened it.
"She wrote 'Are you gay?' And I wrote YES really big and underlined it and threw it back at her," he said. "We smiled at each other and it was my first coming out experience in school with one of my friends. I proceeded to come out to four other girls in the class that year, and left it at about that."
Becoming a man
Prior to entering eighth grade, Jessup became involved with LYRIC, the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center in San Francisco. Jessup credits the youth group as "where I learned to grow into myself as a gay man and queer activist."
At LYRIC, Jessup learned about National Coming Out Day, an annual holiday where people are encouraged to come out on October 10. Jessup liked the idea behind the holiday and decided to come out to his school. At this point, he was his school's Religious Affairs Coordinator, which he said added to the fun of coming out.
"So, I came to school wearing my little coat that I had and I walked around saying 'Today's a holiday for me, I'm gay.' I just went around saying that to people," he said. "I was really surprised, they took it well. The guys in class had a little bit of a problem, but they were all pretty much accepting of it and supportive.
"I came out probably to about 60 people from the seventh and eighth grade. Through that, it filtered through to the faculty and they said 'Craig, I heard you made an announcement.' And I said, 'well, yeah, it's true.' That was my coming out experience, and it just snowballed and pretty soon I was out to everyone."
From there, he started being featured in newspaper articles, especially when he attended Youth Lobby Day, an annual day when California queer teens go to the state capitol building to let their voices be heard.
Starting all over again
Jessup decided to go to a public high school after junor high ended. He made the decision because he had hoped to graduate early, and figured it would take less work than private school. The decision would mean he'd have to enter a new school as an already visibly out student, due to the articles written about him in the local newspapers.
"I was pretty freaked out, because I had no idea what the atmosphere would be like. For all I knew, I thought I'd be pulled into the bathroom, raped, beaten up. I had no idea what would happen and I was pretty scared," he said. "I walked in the first day and had some friends that I had built up, and then I met all these new people. And, within the first ten minutes, two people came up to me and came out to me. So, that was really odd and kind of made my day a little bit.
"So, I went around and instantly the name-calling started. I'd get 'fag' and 'queer.' And people would start congregating and getting organized, I guess. A big bunch of jocks would yell '1-2-3.. faggot.' And they'd get the whole football team in on it. That was pretty shitty," he said. "At the beginning, it wasn't that big a deal, but after a while, it started taking its toll. People would be lined up down the hallway, kind of, not strategically placed, but I would just walk down the hall and get "faggot," "faggot," "faggot," "faggot," "faggot." I would turn my head after it would happen and go 'Whoa, what just happened?'"
Jessup never used the bathrooms at school, because he was concerned for his safety. The school also let him skip physical education that year, with a note from his doctor, because he said a lot of abuse against queer teens happens in locker rooms. Next year, however, Jessup will have to attend. During this time, his social issues teacher asked him if he would talk to his class about his coming out.
"I said I'd love to, so I talked to the class for an hour and a half and she loved it, so she asked me to come to the next class," he said. "Then, somewhere along the line, I decided the school needed a queer support group. So, I formed one with one of the counselors at the school. It was a closed-off group with kids who came in.. they weren't all gay, but it was a safe place for boys to talk about their boyfriends, girls about their girlfriends and a straight kid could talk about his issues, but it was a place where nobody could judge."
One of the school administrators asked if he would like to speak on a panel about gay issues and his coming out to 200 to 300 students with two other women and another gay man. He naturally accepted.
"We spoke for a while and answered a lot of questions and that was really incredible, because it was the biggest group I had spoken to at that point. After that, I could totally tell the difference in how people were reacting to me in the hallway. They were much more supportive," he said. "People were saying hello to me that I didn't even know. I had this whole crew of girls who wanted to be just like me. They would come up to me and say 'Craig! What'supper?' and wanted to be gay men and were really exaggerating themselves. I took it as a compliment and played along a little bit."
But, as you might expect, complacency isn't in Jessup's dictionary (although there are several pages dedicated to the word 'fabulous' in it), and his next mission was to start a Gay Straight Alliance at his school. The group meets every Tuesday. He was then asked to speak at a larger assembly at his school about discrimination and homophobia for a multi-cultural program.
"I wrote a speech and read it in front of the entire school. That was fabulous. After that, it is safe to say I haven't heard anything. No 'fag,' no 'queer.' I still get funny looks sometimes, but it's not in my face anymore, which is great," he said. "I know it happens behind my back, but I don't care at this point. Because I have nothing to lose. Before I came out, I was getting crap for being overweight, because I was this chubby, little kid, for not having as much money as everyone else, for whatever reason. So, people don't give me that kind of crap anymore because I told them I don't care."
And he hasn't limited his speaking to his school district. As part of a speaker's bureau through Spectrum, a local gay community center, he speaks at other schools about his coming out and experiences.
"There are no other openly gay students at my school or in the district, so I'm the poster boy and I go to other schools and I talk. It's extremely empowering. My therapist tells me all the time that I'm putting myself in an extremely vulnerable position, but to me it's the ultimate power trip. It's like a little gay boy's dream of being a star, having hundreds of people sit in front of him and have to hear his life story."
He said his parents are very supportive of him through all of his coming out and activism. "They're concerned for my safety is what it comes down to," he said. "They just want to make sure I'm not getting my ass kicked."
Jessup may even confuse some of his classmates more this month when he goes to the senior prom... with a girl.
"I know that it's going to be a spectacle, but I'm kind of looking forward to it," he said. "I'm a freshman, so I can't go to the prom. I got invited."
He was trying to get a senior male to take him, "but he's not ready to make that statement," Jessup said.
Becoming a queen
In addition to his speaking duties, queer activism and, of course, school work, Jessup also found time to write his own zine, Queen Zine, or the full title: "The ever-fabulous Queen Zine, a guide to fabulousness for boy queens, girl queens and everyone else."
"My friend writes a zine called Suburbia, which is a really, really popular zine. She's distro'd all over America, and in Norway of all places. She told me I should do one, so I put it together," he said. "And my Queen Zine #1 is being distributed with her Suburbia #7, so everywhere hers is sent, mine is sent, too. So, I'm getting fan mail and it's really fun."
So, the zine does beg the question, does Jessup think he's a queen?
"Am I a queen? That's what I call myself, but I use that description very loosely. I use queen as a metaphor for really special people. The whole thing with it is I'm tired of teen angst," he said. "I'm concerned about the fact that people are feeling sadness, and blah blah blah, but I don't necessarily want to read about it. I wanted to have an outlet for people to hear something happy. I tried to make it funny and light-hearted."
Looking for his king
Despite being his school's queen-in-residence, his monarchy still isn't complete. Jessup's a single boy, looking to put an end to that status.
"I'm seeing people off and on, but nothing's been steady," he said. "It's so difficult for me to find the right boy, especially if you're looking for someone around your own age, especially at 15. There aren't a lot of guys coming out at my age."
But until his prince arrives, Jessup will continue to make his mark on Marin County, and, at the rate he's going, the national headlines bearing his name can't be far behind.
Oh wait, you just read the first one, didn't you?