The kids are alright



Living without fear

Queer kids get the straight dope on gay life in Montana

The teens sit facing each other, cross-legged in a circle on the lawn. They seem oblivious to the warm Indian summer sun, and to the bustle of collegiate activity around them on Missoula's University of Montana campus.

These young people don't say much. They keep their eyes fixed on the ground, fiddle with their shoelaces, blades of grass, dead leaves. They are here, having traveled from all over the state, to talk about sex.

It is the second annual Reaching Beyond Fear conference, held at UM last weekend. A crowd of 50 high school and college students and their advocates are gathered to talk about the challenges life presents to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people (or "lesbigay" for short).

During the course of the weekend, the apprehensive visage will melt away as these young adults, some still in high school, others barely out of their teens, gain confidence. The conference is designed to not just identify lesbigay issues, but to help attendees move beyond the social constraints that grow out of living in a state which has only recently knocked down the legal wall which made gays and lesbians into felons.

But before the conference finds its comfort zone, most of the talk is marked by fear. For the most part, these youth have been taught to fear their desires, as well as what can and does happen on a nearly daily basis -- bigotry, abandonment, beatings and suicide.

Kids and sex is a difficult topic for any sort of conference, especially when the kids themselves are in attendance. But when you toss in the largely taboo topic of homosexuality, you've got one scary situation.

If it weren't for the life and death situations that gay teens face on a regular basis, it's probably an issue educators, advocates and parents would keep hidden in the closet.

A recent survey of Seattle schools conducted by the state of Washington revealed that gay kids are twice as likely to consider and plan for taking their own lives, three times as likely to follow through with an attempt, and four times as likely to need medical attention afterward.

According to the same study, they are 75 percent more likely to be threatened with a weapon than their straight peers; three times as likely to be injured in a fight to the point of needing medical attention; two to three times as likely to have skipped school out of fear.

But in Missoula last weekend, two days spent in the company of others with similar problems was enough to dispel the shadows for a while. By the conference's end late Saturday afternoon, a dozen or so kids under 18 were hamming it up for a group photo for the Independent, giggling and jostling with new-found friends.

The stories at the conference range from the hilarious to the horrifying. There is only one set of parents accompanying their child through the workshops -- which underlies the lack of support many of these out teens receive.

For these kids and their advocates -- teachers, counselors, activists and parents -- fear is part of everyday life.

For their families, it's not just a fear that their offspring will be unhappy, but that they'll get hurt. For the youth themselves, there's also the potential that they'll lose friends and family -- at a time when, according to their advocates, support is most needed.

None of the high schoolers sitting in Saturday's so-called "mentor group" have horror stories of physical violence -- or if they do, they've chosen to keep such moments private.

Meanwhile, many talk of varying degrees of estrangement from their parents. Angie Love, a self-possessed high school senior, has been living on her own in Kalispell for two years. She balances classes with a full-time live-in job as a nanny for a physician's family.

Her mother is also a lesbian, but Love says she doesn't get along with her mother's current girlfriend. Her father, she says, doesn't love her at all. From an early age, she adds, she knew that she was queer.

"I did have a boyfriend in the third grade, but I knew then it wasn't for me," she says over lunch. "I told my mom, and she's like, 'You know my friend? Well, she's more than a friend.' And I knew that anyway.

"I thought my father was going to stop breathing. He just looked at me then left me in a big park in central New Jersey at 10 p.m."

Just the same, the 18-year-old seems to have life pretty well figured out. She doesn't like to be called a "kid" and doesn't have a girlfriend.

"It's the last thing I need right now," she says. "I'm the only out female I know of at school. There are two boys who are out, and a zillion others who pass you in the hall and give you that look out of the corner of their eyes.

When she's not working or in school, Love volunteers for the Flathead Valley Alliance gay group, welcoming newcomers to the area and serving as the organization's women's outreach coordinator.

Mariah Drogitis' story strikes a contrast to Love's, reflecting a more stereotypical experience. An 18-year-old from Spokane attending college in Helena, Drogitis told her father that she was coming to Missoula for a Toastmasters meeting in preparation for a school project.

Her father, she says, thinks of Drogitis' sexual preference as just a phase. "He says it's immoral -- that God didn't intend it to be," she says. "I agreed with him for a while, then I finally came out and said that I don't even believe in God."

Love adds: "It's like, you tell your parents and then you want to agree with them, kiss their ass, because you've been such a good girl or boy all your life. And then, even though you're sick of it and you tell them the truth, you still want to kiss their ass at the same time you want to piss them off."

A handsome young man with spiky blond hair, blue eyes and a disarming smile, Jonathan was 14 when his father asked him to step out for a minute, to come have a conversation down at the office.

When he got there, Dad had a question: Are you gay? It was a query born of suspicion after his father found a phone number sitting on his son's desk -- the number for Montana's PRIDE! organization.

The difficulty of that first conversation between father and son -- and the subsequent family talks that followed -- is belied by the easy smiles both Jonathan's folks direct at him as they sit on a grassy knoll outside the University Center, discussing those first hard weeks two years ago.

"The way he told me," his mother says, "was that he got back from the office, walked in the house and said, 'Mom, I'm either bisexual or gay and I'm going to go talk on the phone. You have 15 minutes to come up with questions.'

"We had many long discussions for many evenings in a row," she says. "I was trying to understand; he was trying to explain. We had some heated discussions, some loving discussions, some tearful talks, sometimes yelling at each other."

And despite their own acceptance of their son, the family remains afraid to have its real name printed. They have relatives living in the Missoula area, says Dad, and it might open Jonathan's grandparents to harassment.

"It was an emotional rollercoaster," his mother says. "But I came to the basic conclusion that I really care for my child -- that I love him, and his sexuality is a very small part of a very big person."

Even as his parents' "snooping" forced the issue of his sexuality into the open, it was a scary time for Jonathan. "[Homosexuality] was never a topic of discussion in our family," he says. "I thought they might freak out. I'd heard some really bad stories of people getting kicked out of their houses. I heard of one guy who tried to kill his son."

The thought of this visibly bothers his mother: "When do I ever freak out?" she asks. "I get more upset with you're home five minutes late."

"Yeah," Jonathan replies. "But I didn't know that then. This was different. It was big. I was only 14-and-a-half, and didn't want to risk losing everything."

Jonathan now feels comfortable enough with his parents to confide in them about his crushes. "I always thought that when my son grew up," his father acknowledges, "it would be fun to help him figure out how to meet girls.

"Then we went for a walk one evening and I found out there was a young man he liked and he wanted my advice," his father says, obviously tickled by the incident. "I didn't know what to tell him, but the feelings are the same. It's just the details that are different."

As the interview ends, the break between sessions just about over, Jonathan's father allows that he is disappointed that he and his wife are the only parents there accompanying their child to the conference.

"This is what I hoped for -- how can we, as parents, make high school safe for our kids? We came here to learn how to deal with adolescent issues, and there's nobody here going through what we're going through to talk about it with."

In the conference rooms, the formal program itself combines a delicate balance of educational workshops with trust-building exercises. Attendees split up into smaller groups to talk about things like generation gaps, school safety and the gay political movement.

Once it's established that everyone knows how to put a condom on a cucumber, for instance, an AIDS presentation focuses on how couples communicate. In a "talking circle" led by Crow tribal member Eric Lefthand, participants are encouraged to think of something in nature they feel a bond with. Lefthand says this is a way of helping outsiders feel like they belong.

"I was taught by my parents and by elders that we all come from the earth, and we need to treat all living things with respect," Lefthand says, explaining that despite having spent his entire life on the reservation, he always felt out of place. "I began to feel that I belong to all that is living when I found my place in the world."

Those sitting around the edges of the classroom choose objects of attachment running the gamut from agate stones ("because they're beautiful on the inside and that's what I am") to rabbits ("because rabbits have holes, and they can look out first to see if there's any danger and explore the world, but they still have a safe place to run back to").

In a "generation gap" discussion guided by Bozeman counselor Kathy Sewell, there is much talk of labels. Older generations prefer "homosexual" and "lesbian" to "queer," "fag" and "dyke." These terms that younger folks sling about with ease sound derogatory to their elders; the more traditional names come across as clinical and sterile to many of those under 30.

Linguistics notwithstanding, the consensus is that it's crucial for older gay men and women to provide support. Likewise, some point out, younger people ought to learn about, and appreciate, the difficulties faced by those who have gone before them.

The differences are indisputable. Sewell, who works for t he Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, was married in a church ceremony to a 33-year-old female teacher who remains closeted in their community by necessity, she says. Sewell's wife, she explains, uses images of gay men and lesbians in popular culture -- in movies and on TV -- to get her students talking about such issues.

"She's lucky she hasn't been fired yet," Sewell says. "We're living on the edge." During an earlier discussion, Sewell says, a young woman raised her hand and said, "'I just don't get this not being out thing.'

"I was like, 'Thank God you don't,'" she continues. "That's all I could say. Thank God you don't have that fear in your life."

The only group political discussion all weekend was encouraged by Tacy Aaron Hans, a keynote speaker brought up from Boulder, Colo., to talk about being a transgender person. Hans, who started out life as a girl, told the group that eliminating homophobia comes down to building alliances with other oppressed groups.

Hans, a handsome, compact young man, says he was 6-years-old when he asked his mother if there was an operation that would turn him into a boy. Later in life, she realized her dream of becoming a he.

"I had been out as a dyke for two years by the time I graduated in '95 from Penn State, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that didn't fit," he says. "I would walk down the street and have one person call me 'he,' the next would call me 'she' and I never knew what was going to come out of the third person's mouth.

"Gender is probably the hardest thing for people to touch, because it's hard to define what it means to be a man or a woman."

That ambiguity, Hans says, is what disenfranchises transgender people, as American culture is only now beginning to accept the fact that gay people deserve civil rights -- never mind the fact that cross-dressers and transsexuals are stuck on the fringes of even most gay and lesbian social and political support groups.

"There's so much infighting around the idea that there's only this pie, that African-Americans get a piece this big, women get this much, and transgenders don't get anything.

"But there's not only this piece of pie because everyone in this country can have civil rights. Everyone could come to the table, forget the pie, share their stories and work together."

Hans urged the Missoula audience to see their struggle as both regional and universal. "You just have to speak up when someone says racist, sexist things," he says.

"People in power will pit people outside of power against each other, so they can't stand together and get power for themselves. In a place like rural Montana, it's important to start by looking at issues you can stand with -- maybe welfare, abortion, sexism -- and then when you need it, those people will stand with you."

Once the teens separate for a final session in their mentor group, the talk veers sharply, immediately from politics. Their mentor, Kevin Masterson, was in a seven-year relationship; it was, he says, as difficult for him and his lover to separate as for his parents to get a divorce.

This intrigues the high schoolers: what is marriage, after all? A few scoff that it's only a piece of paper, the legal means by which a corrupt court system ensnares people. Others disagree: "They're not going to let us get married," the young lesbian Drogitis says, "but people will still feel it in their hearts."

"This may not be the best example," continues another girl, "but the scene in Natural Born Killers where they stand on the bridge and cut their hands and their blood mingles? I think that's what it's really about."

Masterson stops the chatter for a moment, asking if they are happy they came. Everyone answers affirmatively. Love pretty much sums it up for the group at that point: "What this conference is about is being ourselves, having a voice."

Photos by Jeff Powers

Most of the kids at last weekend's Reaching Beyond Fear conference say they were surprised to find so many others like themselves.

In the small discussion group, the high schoolers talk about the support they get from some of their straight peers.

Keynote speaker Steven Lanzet, who directs Idaho Planned Parenthood's HIV Testing and Counseling Program, hugs a conference attendee after his presentation on "A Life Without Fear, or Ellen... Where Were You When I Needed You?"

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