Sexuality in an intolerant world


Photo by: Ludovic Bertron

By Elianna Cohen

As my dad made a jarring right at the intersection, I noticed the gray sky and the gray parking lot, abandoned by all the cars that would have made it colorful. I was alone with my dad, sitting in the passenger seat. His cheeks sagged against his fake smile and his eyes stared blankly, not focused on anything. We were discussing the issue of whether he would attend family therapy or not. In a monotone voice, he told me it wasn’t worth his time and he wouldn’t come. My eyes opened widely and my eyebrows furrowed as the news sunk past my brain and into my heart and stomach. I felt a sinking feeling, as if I were too heavy for the seat.

Things with my mom weren’t much better. She was equally preoccupied with her four-year divorce with my dad. Caught in the crossfire of emotionally unavailable parents in households of chaos, I was a girl who never found the space to talk about my emerging romantic feelings for girls. I also didn’t have a model for healthy relationships to look up to. Searching for the loving source of support I never had, I sought out connections in other types of relationships.

I found a “friendship” with a person whom I will call Abigail to save her any unwanted attention. Back then, I wasn’t sure what the difference was between people whom I wanted to be friends with and people whom I wanted to be more than friends with. From the first day I met Abigail, I put her on a pedestal, admiring her brown wavy hair and face that seemed perfect. Subconsciously, I felt that if I could become “best friends” with her, I would feel valued, and all the pain I felt would go away. Expecting more out of her, I always wanted to be around her, be invited places, and as our relationship deepened I relied on her to “rescue me” from my family troubles.

“Abigail, something’s gone horribly wrong,” I said into her voicemail after the car ride with my dad. Later, we talked on the sidewalk that stooped low in the back of the school. “Aww hun, I am so sorry for you,” she said. I loved that Abigail was there to comfort me with her “aww” comments that made me feel better about myself — or so I thought. Although I had opened up, I had a hunch from the beginning that since the sharing wasn’t mutual our relationship wasn’t equal. Eventually, when I gathered the courage to ask why I wasn’t part of her core group of friends or barely invited anywhere, she responded, “Well, you know you’re different, right?” puncturing me with the word “different.” I had began to realize that she was counseling me to make herself feel better.

Photo by: Ludovic Bertron

As I walked home from school one day, I thought “No one really cares about me.” I could feel my heart sinking inward. My eyes shrank smaller as my thoughts transformed to worries that life would be like this forever. Although it was a bright, sunny day that beautified the wetlands around me, all I saw was a dark, gray, never ending path. I walked slowly on it, slouching as my heavy backpack weighed me down. I collapsed to the ground, in between the marshland grass that grew high and hid me completely. I was clearly too depressed to do my homework. I already felt that there was something “wrong with me” because I didn’t have a tight-knit group of friends that everyone else seemed to, and I wasn’t thinking endlessly about guys. I was suicidal and didn’t have the space to deal with my emerging sexuality.

I wasn’t the only one. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens are suicidal. In fact, 36.5 percent of LGBT teens have attempted suicide and 58 percent have had suicidal thoughts, according to an LGBT organization called Youth Pride Inc. Everyday situations weigh LGBT kids down, making them feel less connected. I felt plenty of that disconnection.

“Have you kissed anyone yet?” Matt asked me in eighth grade on the bus coming back from Disneyland. I had kissed someone, but not a boy. I scrambled to make something up and said the first name that came to mind.

“Morgan Freeman,” I said.

“Isn’t he an actor?”

“No, not that I’m aware of.” This is just one of the many times throughout elementary school and middle school when I got asked by friends and family members if I liked anyone, had a boyfriend, or who “the hottest guy in class” was.

Feeling disconnected from what everyone else my age was thinking about, and without support, I certainly thought a lot about killing myself, even to the point where I had a plan. Although this is a really dark place for me to recall, it is important to address the fact that there are students at Tam and in the community, some of whom you may know, who have or have had thoughts about suicide. Some of them have confided in me. Most of the time these thoughts go unspoken. I remember wanting someone to talk to who would just listen, without emphasizing the significance of how big a deal suicide was. I found that through conversing with my friend Jenna Tuttle, I was able to stay present in reality and to stop my spiraling, anxiety-producing thoughts about the future. I also tried calling an anonymous hotline, but when I did so the advisor said she was busy with another caller and would call me back later. I didn’t bother trying to talk to her again because it took so much courage to dial the number for the first time.

Why didn’t I seek help from in-person professional guidance? People often are shocked by the topic of suicide, which made me feel uncomfortable and not want to bring it up. It’s embarrassing to admit suicidal feelings, especially if you feel like you look normal, wearing the clothes that everyone else has, unlike the media’s image of goths in all black. No one would have expected me to be contemplating suicide. I wore a smile that made me look happy from the outside. As a matter of fact, my seventh grade teacher told me I was known for my smile. But my smile covered up the reality of how I was feeling. I didn’t yet know the saying, “You have to go through a problem, not around it.” I wish I did though, and I wish I had talked to a counselor at the time because I would have started solving problems earlier. Instead, I didn’t speak up and stayed in debasing relationships where I felt helpless and dependent.

But in those moments where I wanted to kill myself, I remembered different things that my teachers had said in class, along with a bit of optimism, to gather my inner strength. I remembered my journalism advisor Mr. Steinhart saying how selfish it was for people to commit suicide after we watched a clip from the documentary, “The Bridge.” I also remembered my freshman Social Issues teacher Mr. Church, who referenced the LGBT campaign called the It Gets Better Project, and said that it’s true; it actually does get better.

Knowing that, I started to take control of my life. I took a step back when I stopped going to Tam for a couple grading periods and transferred to Tamiscal, with its limited class time and focus on independent study. When I was ready to come back to Tam and face my fears, it took courage to truly open up to a school therapist. I never thought I could make it through four years of a full-time high school, but now I’m about to graduate. ”

“Society expects people to be heterosexual, unless they are told otherwise,” said my therapist Lizzie Stevenson when I expressed my dismay over the fact that I felt like I was supposed to like guys. I finally felt heard. I still hope we can change the assumption that everyone is heterosexual.

Change starts here in our community and first in yourself. Straight confidants can help their LGBT allies feel comfortable with themselves by not assuming their friends to be straight. But first and foremost, we must accept our sexuality even if we are afraid of the repercussions of not following society’s tradition. By saying, “I’m a girl who likes girls,” or a “boy who likes boys,” even casually to yourself, you begin to undermine the fears associated with being labeled “gay” or “lesbian.” I know I was afraid of being looked down upon, being seen as “different,” and being called the hurtful words that get tossed around, even here at Tam.

But acknowledging to others that you are a LGBT teen is really the next step towards embracing yourself.

“If you hold your head high and don’t let the haters get you down, no one can stop you. I don’t need everyone to like me to feel secure about myself,” said senior 2012 President of Tam’s Gay Straight Alliance Liza Brusman.

I’m also glad I’m open about whom I like. I used to feel like an invisible person without a real place, but now I feel more confident in myself. “I like this person,” I used to say, without giving a gender to the person. I would get responses such as “Girl, boy?” I responded with, “Boy!” giving a, “isn’t it obvious?” kind of look. I have come a long way. Now I can say, “I like this girl.”

If you are looking for ways to come out to others, here are some ways to approach it that I’ve personally found to work. Say that someone asks if you have or want a boyfriend. Instead of responding, “No, I’m lesbian, bisexual, or gay,” you can say, “I’m a member of the LGBT club.” In my experience, people seem to be more comfortable with the name of the club than the associations that may go along with the titles of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. You can also take someone of the same sex to prom, even if you stand as just friends. For me, I didn’t really feel any reason to go with a guy to prom, so my childhood friend, who knew my orientation, was my “date.” We had a good time, and I don’t regret not fitting in with the prom tradition at all.

Society expects people to be heterosexual, unless they are told otherwise

If you have fears of doing something courageous such as coming out, know that the Tamalpais High School community offers support. Tam offers Peer Resource, which provides support to issues that teens face, and a Gay-Straight Alliance club, which aims to educate students and faculty about LGBT issues. Tam also offers private, confidential counseling with therapists from Bay Area Community Resources, which is how I met former BACR counselor Lizzie Stevenson. All this support definitely helped me with my personal growth and acceptance.

I won’t lie to you though. Even though we live in Marin where many espouse tolerance and liberal ideas, not everyone will be accepting, and there are still people who feel uncomfortable around LGBT issues.

“Unfortunately, Tam is just like any other high school, and is going to have it’s population of kids who are a bit bullyish,” said senior Colin Walton. “That’s usually out of ignorance rather than malice.”

But the situation improves all the time. President Obama recently came out in support of gay marriage. National approval on gay marriage has also been increasing. In 2004, Americans under 30 stood slightly against gay marriage. Now, 65% of people under 30 support it. Although gay rights still divides America as we go into the presidential election, the country is begginning to move past this civil rights issue in the same way it has moved past others. The U.S. has given rights to women and minorities, so I’d like to think that gays and lesbians will be next.

I also believe that not only is there hope for the future, but that LGBT teens can do things in the present to be happy. Real happiness is about relationships with people whom you can emotionally connect to and feel understood by, even if you can’t put a label on a relationship or anticipate what it may become. In high school, where people may not be sure about what their orientation is, connections with people whom you like talking to are especially fulfilling. Once you go to college, you can join the LGBT community present at most college campuses, and some colleges offer gender-inclusive housing. I look forward to experiencing the LGBT community this fall when I attend the University of Southern California.

After finally embracing myself, I do not feel ashamed of who I am. That is why I am writing this piece and putting my name on it.