Greg Whiting, a fifteen-year-old with red curly hair and blue fingernails, has come out as gay three times: once to his parents, once to his school and once to a national television audience on 48 Hours. Asked what it was like to discuss something so personal so publicly, Greg smiles. “Quite the ego boost,” he says. Why? “Well, let’s think about this one. National TV: hmm…” He laughs. “That’s about it.”
We’re sitting in a living room with two of Greg’s friends. Tara Conroy is fifteen, small, busty, cheerful, with steel studs in both ears. Dylan Parker is sixteen. He’s quiet, toweringly tall, with jeans ripped at the knees and shiny Frankenstein shoes. Tara and Dylan came out the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of television. While Greg searches for his 48 Hours videotape, Dylan and Tara tell their coming-out stories. Every gay teenager I speak with has one: For many of them, coming out was the most charged few hours of their lives, the moment the theoretical part of homosexuality ended, when being gay was no longer something over there, it was you. Dylan tells me that he never worried about what his family would think; his school concerned him. His parents – “my mom especially,” he says – are “pretty open people.” This is a distinction I hear often from gay teens: The world is split not into gay and straight but into open and closed. About a month after Tara told her mother she was gay, the Catholic school that Tara attended called her parents in and explained that they weren’t comfortable having a lesbian ninth-grader in their institution. “And I was so glad that I was out then,” Tara says, bugging her eyes, “because if I hadn’t been, they would have outed me to my parents. They would have literally said to them, ‘Your daughter’s a lesbian, and she’s not welcome here.’ “After Dylan came out, school became a nightmare for him. Once a teen comes out as gay, other students are usually eager to remind him of it. Dylan’s home was egged. People called him on the phone, said “faggot,” hung up; in the halls, students would bump him and whisper, “You’re gonna die.” For a year, no one at school would talk to Dylan, even girls. “That actually surprised me,” he says mildly. “Of all people, why should it bother them?”
Greg has found the videotape and pops it into the machine. “Now you get to see me with long hair,” he says. Greg is usually fidgety when he isn’t talking – fiddling with his shoes, clicking his tongue stud against his front teeth – but as he watches himself on TV, his body calms. CBS’ Paula Zahn asks Greg’s parents whether being gay is the life they would have selected for their son. “No,” his mother answers. “I wouldn’t have chosen this.” His father adds, “You know, you tend to want your kids to have a good life, and part of that is not having people hate you.” His mother explains, “I worry about him being hurt.”
Then the image freeze-frames on Greg and some teenagers outside their high school. Greg gets excited and points: “That’s my friend on the right, blowing out a puff of smoke.” Greg, like Tara, like Dylan, is a smoker. Most of his friends are smokers. But his parents asked him not to smoke on camera: “My mom said, ‘I know you do this. But I just don’t want to see you on national TV smoking.'”
Tara nods: “I understand where she’s coming from.”
In 1998, parents might be more unhappy having friends and relatives know that their child smokes than that their child is gay. It’s a watershed time: As adolescents have their first sexual experiences at younger ages (fifteen is the average), gay teens are addressing their sexuality earlier and earlier. They’re forging the pattern and template for gay teenage life in America the same way their predecessors did for gay adult life in the Seventies and Eighties. It’s all uncharted territory – how to have boyfriends and girlfriends at school, how to introduce parents to lovers, how to learn to be in relationships at the same time that you’re learning so much else. I spent nine months traveling the country and talking to gay teenagers in the West, the Midwest, the North, the South. Gay adults, like high school teacher Doug Wortham of Salt Lake City, spoke of having had very different childhoods from those of gay kids now – of being teenagers in hiding. “It was a lost youth,” he says. “Friends my age all felt the same way – it was something other people had that we never did.” Gay teenagers today are having their youth now.
The teens I met didn’t talk much about AIDS – everyone seemed up-to-date on the necessity of the condom. But adolescence is a time of sudden, combustible dramas, when it often feels as though it’s you and your friends squaring off against the world; gay teens know there are portions of the world that really are against them, and I felt as if I were walking into one explosion after another.
Massachusetts, in the liberal Northeast, is one of the friendliest places on the planet for gay teenagers. Before Christmas, I drive to the home of Michael Caniff, a fifteen-year-old sophomore in Hopedale. In the Caniff living room, the gold star on top of the Christmas tree brushes the ceiling, and Michael’s young sister keeps sending a battery-powered toy reindeer cantering across the rug.
“Ever since I was in fourth grade, I’ve been kind of feminine and stuff like that,” Michael says. “So I was nicknamed the school fairy and fag.” Michael is slightly built and handsome, and dresses like an apprentice club kid: black hair, black warm-up pants, black polo shirt, black Dr. Martens. He came out to his mother two years ago, more or less by accident. His boyfriend had been in a car wreck, and Michael was talking to him on the phone in front of his mother and grandmother. “I was flipping out,” Michael remembers. “Then he told me, ‘I’m all right, I’m all set. I’ll talk to you after dinner. I love you.’ And I’m like, ‘I love you, too, bye.'” When Michael hung up the phone, his mother was staring at him. “Who were you talking to?” she said. Michael turned red. His mother followed him into his bedroom. “I think he expected me to flip out,” she says. “And I just went and sat down and put my hand on Michael’s back. I said, ‘I know, but you’ve got to tell me. I want to hear it from you.'”
At first, Michael’s mother didn’t want her son to be too open. “But I’m a normal, rebellious teenager,” Michael explains with a laugh. He dyed his hair purple, started wearing dog collars, platform shoes. “When he came out,” his mom says, “he went from zero to bitching in thirty seconds. He was going to the malls and doing everything but wearing a shirt that said, ‘I am gay.’ I tried to explain that there were people out there – skinheads, rednecks – who would kick your face in just because you’re gay or because they think you are.”
Michael made friends with another gay student at his high school, and together they founded the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance. “‘Cause I was being harassed, and other kids were being harassed,” he says. “It’s just, at Hopedale [High School] there were a lot of mean people who really weren’t open-minded or anything like that. I wanted them to know that gay people exist.”
While we’re talking, Michael’s brother returns home from track practice; the brothers are entirely comfortable around each other. He is straight and speaks with a strong regional accent, which Michael doesn’t have. None of the gay kids I speak to in Massachusetts has the flat New England accent. When I ask a Massachusetts gay organizer about this, she laughs: “You wouldn’t catch a gay kid having a Boston accent – it’s the aesthetics. They’ve got way too much taste for that.”
And that’s true of the gay teenagers I spend time with in Utah, in Indiana, in Georgia. They never have specific accents: They speak the language of Starbucks, the Gap, MTV and Barnes & Noble – the universal language of the American progressive class. Social change comes to different areas of the country at different rates, like weather systems or getting hooked up for cable. But these kids all seem to live in the same perfected, accentless version of America. In the Caniff house, Michael’s nine-year-old sister is the one person who doesn’t know he’s gay: not because his family is embarrassed – Michael’s angry contention – but because it would raise questions of sexuality that his parents don’t feel she’s ready for yet.
Michael lives a high school life that’s a mix of studying, hanging out with friends and attending gay support groups. One of the programs he sometimes attends is the weekly meeting of FRAGLY – the Framingham Regional Alliance of Gay Lesbian Youth – which is held in the basement of a Unitarian church on Thursday nights. (There are about fourteen regional groups, or AGLYs, in Massachusetts.) I stand on the church steps just before 6:30 one night. The kids quickstep toward the entrance – looking this way and that, looking at their shoes – and when they see the other kids smoking on the church steps, they smile. They arrive driving in beat-up station wagons or with their parents in new four doors. Tara is here; Greg Whiting is here; Dylan slams a car door and clicks across the street with his boyfriend. Somebody asks a kid named Sam whether he’s interested in one of the other members of the group. Tara giggles. “Of course you’re interested,” she says. “You’re interested in anything with a penis.” And Sam – a hugely built kid with an earring and a goatee – snaps her on the back of her jacket. A new arrival walks to the steps, and one of the girls sizes him up. Their gaydar – slang for the ability of one gay person to recognize another – keeps them aware of other gay kids in the area. “You work at the Star supermarket, right?” the girl asks. Greg Whiting looks at the new kid and says, “Marshall’s.” “That’s right,” the girl says. “I knew I’d seen you someplace.”
The meeting is group therapy – like the hundreds of other weekly gay-teenager support meetings around the country, which are usually held on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (evenings when no one is planning for a weekend or recovering from one). Under ice-cube-tray fluorescent lights, at five round tables, the twenty members of FRAGLY discuss what’s happened during the previous week. Sam has just come out at school. He got an orange thrown at him in the lunchroom, but beyond that things went OK. Someone asks why he chose this particular time, and Sam shrugs: “I don’t know. I just got brave one day.” This brings a round of respectful applause. Becky Kent, the group’s adult adviser, asks, “And how about your family? Have you talked to them?” Sam blushes, blinks, sighs: “I don’t even want to go into that.” The room laughs.
The meeting runs so smoothly, it’s hard to imagine that none of this existed half a decade ago. The gay youth civil-rights movement got its start because of a number. In the mid-Eighties, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a study on youth suicides, which had tripled since 1950. A San Francisco-area social worker named Paul Gibson was invited to contribute an essay on the particular issue of gay-teenager suicides. He stated that gay teenagers were three times more likely than their straight counterparts to attempt suicide (there are 500,000 total annual attempts nationwide) and made up about thirty-three percent of each year’s 5,000 “successful” teen suicides.
It was a startling percentage. Gibson blamed what he described as the isolation and negative self-image of gay teenagers, and suggested that parents, churches and other groups should take conscious steps toward promoting a more positive image of homosexuality. Official response to the study – released in 1989 as the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide – was quick and negative. The head of the Department of Health and Human Services publicly disavowed Gibson’s findings and added that he had no plans to reprint them.
But the number took hold in the gay community, mobilizing advocacy groups across the country. If gay teenagers were at risk because of their invisibility, the solution was to make them visible. One development was the formation of the Gay-Straight Alliance – clubs in high schools, like the Hispanic society or the chess club, that would have three functions: help straight students understand that they had gay peers; demonstrate that gay teens were supported by their schools; and end the students’ isolation by helping them recognize that they weren’t alone. At the beginning of this decade, there were no Gay-Straight Alliances in public high schools. By 1997, 400 alliances had registered with the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and there are countless more in addition to those. In 1996, the National Education Association voted to include “sexual diversity” in sexual-education curriculums. Counselors were trained, and groups like FRAGLY – away-from-school support groups – blossomed throughout the country. Surveys were commissioned, and they estimated that among America’s 15 million high school students, about nine percent of teenagers identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or “questioning” – the technical term for thinking it over.
Gibson’s numbers have since been challenged; his conclusions were based on the questionable assumption that if gay kids are three times more likely to consider suicide, then they naturally account for a third of suicides. Mental-health workers, however, consider suicide attempts and actual suicides as distinct phenomena, and in 1994 several government agencies convened a panel to revisit the issue of gay teens and suicide. Their conclusion was that there is no connection between sexual orientation and suicide. Other studies, however, have corroborated the idea that there is an increased likelihood of destructive behavior among gay teens: Twenty-five percent leave home because of conflicts over sexuality; a similar percent drop out of high school because of intolerance. But the three-times-more-likely statistic continues to be cited as the most compelling evidence that gay teens are in trouble. When Ellen DeGeneres appeared on PrimeTime Live during the week of her sitcom’s coming-out episode, anchor Diane Sawyer turned to the camera, quoted the number and said that the evening’s broadcast was “in part to hold on to them.”
Nowhere was the impact of the 1989 study and Gibson’s essay stronger than in Massachusetts. After reading the report, then-Gov. William Weld funded the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, the first such commission in the nation. In late 1993, when Weld signed the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights bill, Massachusetts became the only state to provide full legal protection for gay teenagers (Connecticut, Vermont, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have since adopted similar regulations). In 1996 schools found a new incentive to be careful about the issue. A few years ago, Jamie Nabozny, from Ashland, Wisconsin, sued his school district for not protecting him from harassment. Nabozny had been verbally abused, mock-raped and kicked unconscious in a hallway. In the school bathroom, some kids had pushed him into a stall and urinated on him. The Ashland school district settled out of court for $900,000.
Michael Caniff explains how the Massachusetts protections work. When he was a freshman, four students would harass him. One kid, Sean, would walk up to Michael in the halls and say, “‘Die, fag,’ ‘faggot,’ stuff like that,” Michael says. He asked Sean to stop. Then he went to the guidance counselor, who told him to write what’s called a letter of harassment. “I was really nervous about it,” Michael says. “I didn’t think it would work. I expected – if anything – for him and everyone else at school to laugh at me for writing this little note saying, ‘Please stop harassing me.'” The next day, administrators pulled Sean out of class, showed him the letter and asked him to write a letter of apology. If Sean told anyone about the exchange of letters or harassed Michael again, he would be suspended. If the harassment continued after that, he would be expelled. “It stopped it dead,” Michael says. “Now it’s just like, no big thing.” I ask him what it would have been like going to school before the laws existed – when his choice would have been to come out as gay and get picked on or to keep quiet and wait. “I would have been suicidal,” he says after a moment. “I probably wouldn’t have lived through it – because I’m not really good with bottling things up. And if I can’t be myself in a certain situation, I’m very uncomfortable, and I get very depressed. It would have been a living hell.”
No one knows how the Abbey – a two-room coffeehouse ten minutes from downtown Indianapolis – became that city’s center for gay teenage life. On weekend nights, kids sit on the curb smoking and hugging each other, answering pages (nearly everyone carries a pager – a way to cut down on parental involvement with the telephone), comparing clothes, drinking lattes, splicing together plans. The Indianapolis kids aren’t old enough for bars; this is their alternative. I’ve never seen more embracing than I see at the Abbey. It’s like being backstage at the Academy Awards.
It’s a Friday-night crowd evenly split between male and female; couples inside are sharing booths and pricey sandwiches. For the unattached, there’s a strong sexual vibe, a feeling of possibility in the evening. Some kids are trying to mount a trip downtown for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, more than two decades after its release, is still going about its business of titillating and reassuring teenagers – a kind of Grateful Dead show of transgressive sexuality. Leaning against a car, I talk to Wendy Craig, a high school junior who’s just been kicked out of her parents home. Wendy is blond and pretty, and dresses like someone in student government. “There’s been this thing lately,” Wendy says, “of all these girls cutting their hair off and trying to be a little more butch, trying to act a little more manly – as if that’s how they have to be to get accepted by other lesbians. They think you have to fit into a mold. I haven’t fallen into that. I’m happy to have my hair long, and I love my nail polish. I love perfume.”
Wendy’s parents learned about her sexual orientation in a fairly common way: They found the books she’d checked out from the library about coming out – how to tell parents, how to tell friends – and some brochures from IYG (the Indiana Youth Group), which is the primary gay-teen support center in Indianapolis. She’d been hiding it all under her bed. “For a while,” Wendy says, “they’d been dropping hints about it. I thought it was my parents saying, ‘Come on and tell us, it’s OK.’ But as soon as I told them it was true, they were disgusted.” Wendy’s parents – her stepmother especially – are extremely religious: Homosexuality is wrong, simple as that. Wendy was prom queen last year at the IYG spring dance; her parents found the photographs – “my prized possessions so far” – and burned them in front of her. For a while, Wendy subsisted on tapes of Ellen and the lesbian crime thriller Bound – she rented it so often that she eventually bought a copy, watching it on the downstairs VCR, flicking the set off and running upstairs whenever she heard her parents pulling into the garage. Before she was kicked out of the house, Wendy was forbidden to talk with other lesbians, go to IYG meetings. So she would hit the Abbey.
Because the Abbey functions as the center, it attracts gay kids from a wide area. Patrick Pearson drives thirty minutes to the Abbey on weekends. He’s a seventeen-year-old junior from the tiny agricultural town of New Palestine, Indiana: cornfields, filling station, convenience store, church, and then you’re driving to the next town. “There’s maybe about a thousand people there now,” Patrick says, “surrounded by corn and hog farms.” The social center of New Palestine is the Taco Bell, which is nestled inside the Gas America station; students sit there and gossip. Patrick’s father is retired and lives in Indianapolis; his mother drives the New Palestine school bus. Patrick is about six feet tall, with a football lineman’s massive build. He has a wide, handsome face that vaguely follows the Patrick Swayze mold; inside the V-neck of his velour polo shirt hangs a big gold cross. He comes from a classically large Catholic family: five brothers, six sisters. He’s maybe the least likely gay person in the world. Right now he’s in a funny spot. New Palestine is the kind of place where everyone shows up for the Friday-night high school football game and puts away some beers – a hard town to be gay in. “I was in the closet and then out, and now I’m …” Patrick laughs. “I’m in right now. A couple of people know: one of my sisters and two of my best friends. I kinda hoped for a while that maybe I was thinking I was something that I wasn’t. But then as soon as I start just trying to date girls, I realize. I’m willing to try it, but I just like girls to talk to ’em. They just aren’t as interesting to me as guys. I don’t feel that buzz.” Patrick began guessing he was gay when he was seven or eight. Last year his sister (“who has a big mouth”) started telling people, and soon everyone at his school had heard, Patrick says. “And then I was criticized so much about it, and I really didn’t know what all was going on. I had, like … really bad relationships. So I just kinda thought I’d stick with girls.”
The kids at his school weren’t any help. “A lot of the girls were cool,” he says, “’cause I’m really good friends with almost all of them. But the guys were complete punks. They never did anything physically to me’ cause they knew that I’d be able to beat them up.” He laughs. “I know if I was, like, a weenie, I’d be beaten blue and straight by now.” In Spanish class, when Patrick’s teacher introduced the Spanish verb jugue, which is pronounced who-gay, the class snickered and someone said, “Patrick.” Patrick is a member of the swim team. For a while he played linebacker with the New Palestine football squad, but he was uncomfortable showering with the rest of the team, and when he told them why – because he’d had many piercings – the guys laughed, and he didn’t much want to play football anymore.
“It was OK,” he says. “I just didn’t want to take showers with them. I’d had my nipples pierced, and – well, I’d gotten my left thing pierced. And they were like, ‘Man, I want to see it.’ And I was like, ‘You’re not going to be seeing anything.’ ‘Cause I was so used to them being jerks to me.” Patrick discovered the Abbey last year when some friends from New Palestine brought him around. At first he didn’t like it. “All the guys were kind of feminine looking,” he says. “And I don’t really get into that.” Around that time, he started to think that being gay was perhaps causing him more problems than it was solving. “I just didn’t want to be criticized the rest of my life,” he explains. He read an article about how a person’s whole future can be determined by his influences. “And psychologically, I thought, maybe it was just because with my parents divorced, I didn’t have a guy role model. So I thought if I started hanging out with my brother a lot, things would be better. We went to Panama City, did all kinds of crazy stuff there. Partied a lot. Coming back here, I just thought, ‘I’m not gonna mess with it anymore.'”
And here’s how Patrick went back into the closet. His mother, driving the school bus, was taking a lot of flak. “She was so miserable about everything,” Patrick says. “She wanted me to be with a girl. She would come home crying from the bus because people would say stuff about me on her route. They’d say, ‘Your son’s gay, he goes to gay bars’ – although I’ve never been to a bar in my life. And she didn’t know how to react to ’em. I just wanted my mom happy.” Patrick spent a few nights last spring writing an essay about himself for New Palestine High’s Crimson Messenger. The editor gave the piece its title: Pat says his Acting Job is Over. “I just wrote that I wasn’t what they thought anymore. Kind of let them believe it. I just wanted to stop the rumors. I just said, ‘I’m not what you think I am.’ I described everything that had happened – that I had tried different things, and I didn’t like it. And that I’m back like everybody else, really. That’s about the extent of it.” His schoolmates read the essay; his mom was OK on the bus. Patrick doesn’t intend to bring it up again. “I don’t really plan on saying anything else to her,” he says. “I want to let her know what I’m really like – but then again, I don’t want to burst her bubble. I just want her to be happy. I’d like to say something, but I’m just not going to mess with it.” Patrick plans to keep dating women in college: “I’ll let her know about the girlfriends I have, but with the guys, I just won’t say anything.” I ask Patrick what being gay means to him. He sighs, and what he says is touchingly romantic: “It’s just where two people can be together under whatever circumstances. You know, they have to put up with a lot to be together, and they care about each other.”
Patrick decides he wants to go to Rocky Horror – he’s never seen it – and we drive downtown. After about half an hour of the movie, he’s had enough. The transvestism makes him uneasy, puts him off – and he gets up and leaves. This isn’t his vision of what being gay is about. Outside, I run into nineteen-year-old Alex, a small sixteen-year-old girl named Christie and a slim Hispanic high school senior named Sidney. Christie is nervous; no one can find her friend Jacob Eiler. Jacob is essentially homeless; he crashes at the homes of people he knows through the IYG. Lately, Jacob has been staying at her house, and Christie doesn’t want him to end up sleeping outdoors. “He’s used to having stuff of his own,” she says. “He used to live somewhere. And he lost it. He woulda had to stand in line for a homeless shelter. So I was like, ‘Look, you can stay at my house.'” We pile into Sidney’s car – or, rather, the car Sidney is borrowing. It belongs to an older friend, the man who owns the real estate agency where Sidney works part time. It’s a new Lincoln Continental, license plate: MORGAGE. It smells like baby powder.
As we drive through the deserted streets of Indianapolis, Sidney tells me why he has this car: His thirty-five-year-old boss has been in love with him for a long time. He bought Sidney a Chevy Cavalier; he pays for Sidney’s cell phone so they can keep in close contact; he bought him rings and a gold watch; today at work, he left flowers on Sidney’s desk. Sidney isn’t sure he likes the situation but doesn’t know how to break things off. Christie lunges between the front seats, picks up the phone, dials a number she reads from her pager and finally locates Jacob. Ten minutes later, Jake gets into the back seat, and the five of us drive to an all-night Denny’s just southwest of the city. Sidney and Alex were reluctant to go there at first (they were hassled by some skinheads at the restaurant on Friday night), but the waitress knows about them, accepts that they’re gay, so they decide it’s OK.
At the table, there’s a lot of joking but some real sadness. These kids don’t have the assurance that the schools in Massachusetts give their students – that being gay is OK, a part of them like an ethnic background or the neighborhood they’re from. Jacob tells me how he came out – his parents flipped out and have still not accepted him – and I can understand his often hurt look. Alex came out at school during his sophomore year, just because he was “tired of everyone accusing me and not really knowing. So I was just like, ‘Fine, fuck you. I’m gay.'” When people followed Alex in the halls, calling him a fag, asking him about boyfriends, he would turn around and say, “‘You’re just jealous because you can’t get up in my butt.’ It just kind of, like, stumps them.” One boy hit Alex. Alex punched back. Both students were suspended; when Alex returned to school, the rumor in the halls was that the principal had taken the other boy to the bathroom and asked what it felt like to hit a faggot.
When men walk by, Alex and Jake lean across the table and whisper. “See his ass? Nope. He didn’t have one,” Alex says. Jake responds, “Never mind that – you don’t have the booty, you’re not getting me.” Alex muses, “I want my butt to go away. Just because that’s all I ever hear: ‘Nice ass.’ ‘Your butt is big.'” Christie laughs. “Gay guys are bitches,” she says. “Lesbians are so much cooler than gay guys – oh, my gosh, they’re just so much fun.” Then she whistles, “I’m a Barbie girl.” Sidney explains to someone on his cell phone that he’s driving the Lincoln this weekend. Then they start teasing Alex – in a strange, reversed moment – because three years ago, at fifteen, he had sex with a girl. They tell him he’s a closet heterosexual. “She raped you, huh?” Sidney asks. “How could you get it up for a girl, anyway?” Jake asks. Then they accuse Alex of having liked it. “I didn’t,” Alex says. “For real I didn’t, guys. I didn’t.” The check comes; Sidney stretches: “OK, girls, shall we leave?”
We gradually drop everyone off. Alex picks up his own car at the Abbey. Jacob and Christie search for her father’s truck in the parking lot of the building where she lives; when they don’t see it, they smile in relief and slip upstairs. Driving me to my hotel, Sidney gets momentarily silent. The Lincoln’s blue clock tells me that it’s 3:20 and sixty degrees outside the car. Sidney carefully asks whether, in talking to gay people in other cities, I’ve found that there’s a history of abuse: “Have you found if anything happened to them as a child or something?” That, like, had a major impact on their life, that made them change the way they were, made them so they’re gay or something?” As he makes his way through the Indianapolis streets, he tells me that from the time he was seven until he was eleven, his teenage brother would sleepwalk into his bedroom at night and rape him. His mother never believed Sidney – “I’ll never forgive her for it. I mean, there’s no way I could. ‘Cause I don’t know what I might have turned out to be; it’s just one of those things” – but over the holidays a few years ago, his brother admitted it. I offer Sidney the standard helpful, truthful line: that most people I’ve talked with are happy and satisfied with the way they are. He watches the road. “I mean, I’m happy the way I am, too,” he says. “But I’d like to have seen what would have happened if that wouldn’t have happened. ‘Cause I don’t know if this is the way I would have turned out or not.”
Three years ago, when Salt Lake City high school senior Kelli Peterson decided to start up the first Gay-Straight Alliance in Utah, she didn’t know what it would lead to: hearings, walkouts, the ACLU, the conservative Eagle Forum, the New York Times, NPR, U.S. senators, Today, the White House. She wanted “to save myself and maybe fifteen high school students from a little hurt and loneliness. That was it.” She knew a handful of other gay kids: Erin Wiser, Nathan Faulkner, a flamboyant sophomore named Jacob Orosco. (“With Jacob, there was never a big coming out,” Kelli remembers. “The closet burned down around him.”) In the fall of 1995, they found their faculty sponsor and filed club paperwork with the East High School principal. During Christmas break, local papers learned about the club request, and for half a year, Wiser remembers, “it became the Salt Lake City version of the O.J. trial.” For months, the Gay-Straight Alliance seemed to be the only news in Salt Lake City.
As home to the Mormon Church, Salt Lake is one of those deeply conservative cities in which it is easier to believe in angels than in the existence of gay teenagers. One of the city’s newspapers ran articles calling homosexuality “an abomination.” The school board and the state legislature held panicked secret meetings aimed at stopping the GSA. Some students at another local high school formed an anti-homosexual league, SAFE (Students Against Faggots Everywhere). Gay students were nervous attending in-school GSA meetings because TV cameras were always there. Kelli Peterson was the spokeswoman for the group, and Jacob was always a useful ally: “He was strong. He wasn’t victimized or traumatized by being gay – if someone at school said, ‘You’re a fag,’ he’d say, ‘Are you interested?'” For shyer members of the gay community, Jacob was “a liberator,” says his friend Nathan. “He brought me out of my shell. He made me an outgoing person.” The school board wanted to ban the club, but a 1984 law called the Equal Access Act stood in its way. The law had been sponsored, ironically, by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch as a way to allow Bible-study clubs in the schools. The basic idea was that high schools had to allow any club with a faculty sponsor (like the GSA) or they could allow no clubs at all. State senators like Craig Taylor led the fight against the group. “It’s being orchestrated by the adult homosexual organizations,” he said at a hearing. “Since they can’t reproduce, they have basically said, ‘We will seduce and sodomize your children.'” At the end of February, the Salt Lake City school board voted to ban all clubs in all high schools – including groups like chess clubs and SADD (Students Against Driving Drunk). At the time, Kelli told reporters, “This is not the end but the beginning of another fight. We will not sit down, give up or be quiet ever again.”
With the help of the local ACLU chapter, Peterson and the GSA organized a one-day Salt Lake City student walkout; a thousand students marched on the state Capitol. In the spring, the group reached an accommodation: Following a state law, the GSA would be permitted to rent space from the school after hours. By the fall of 1996, the Gay-Straight Alliance was the only club meeting at East High School.
That year, Erin Wiser (Kelli’s girlfriend at the time) was head of the GSA. After she graduated, the momentum of the group resided primarily with Jacob Orosco, who had always been one of the organization’s most active members. But on September 3rd, 1997, a few days after school had started, Jacob went to his family living room and, with no warning and no note, fixed a rope to the ceiling and hanged himself.
Jacob’s memorial service is being held in a small Unitarian church in the western district of the city. When I arrive, I learn that the press is barred from the service;