(I wrote this PEOPLE Magazine piece in 1998. Have those 13 years made a difference?)
By Richard Jerome
Taunts, Bashings, Fear and Confusion: For American Teenagers, Coming Out Can Be a Harrowing—Yet Ultimately Liberating—Rite of Passage
Compact, with faintly Cagneyesque features, Jamie Nabozny has the look of a Dead End Kid and the soul of a social worker—which is what he wants to be someday. Certainly he has some familiarity with the field. At age 11, depressed and withdrawn, he ran away from home in little Ashland, Wis. He was quickly retrieved but tried to kill himself that same year, swallowing a handful of his mother’s Midol and prescription painkillers. By ninth grade, Nabozny had made two more suicide attempts and had spent three stretches in psychiatric wards.
Compounding his anguish was the abuse he endured at the hands of his schoolmates—taunts, shoves, beatings and, in his freshman year in high school, a galling humiliation. One morning when he went to the bathroom, he was accosted by two boys. “One pushed his knees into the back of mine,” says Nabozny, now 22. “I fell into the urinal, and another kid started peeing on me. I just remember sitting there, waiting for it to get over with.”
Nabozny’s shame, confusion and relentless persecution all grew out of one simple fact: He is gay.
Even in the best of circumstances, adolescence is a purgatory of hormonal and emotional turbulence. But for teenagers who are homosexual—and various estimates place their number at from 5 to 10 percent of U.S. high school students—it is a time of fear, shame and potentially devastating emotional hazards. According to the most comprehensive poll of randomly chosen youths—a 1995 survey of more than 4,000 students conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Education—the high school years are rife with abuse of homosexuals, some of it self-inflicted. Gay males and lesbians were five times more likely than straight kids to skip school out of fear for their safety and almost five times more likely to use cocaine. Even more alarming: According to the survey, a stunning 36.5 percent of gay and lesbian high schoolers try to kill themselves each year—this in an era when the openly gay Rupert Everett is a rising movie star and Elton John practically defines middle-of-the-road pop culture.
“People ask, ‘Well, isn’t it better today than it was a generation ago? Ellen is out on TV and so on,’ ” says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit clearinghouse for gay issues. “Some things are better, but there’s a tremendous backlash. As young people take courageous steps in coming out, they get slammed against a wall for doing it.”
Indeed, many Americans continue to view homosexuality as a character defect to be controlled or reformed. In June, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott likened gays and lesbians to “sinners, addicts and kleptomaniacs.” But the weight of research indicates that people don’t select their sexuality. “The evidence we now have strongly suggests that this is determined,” says University of Massachusetts (Amherst) professor of neuroscience Geert J. De Vries. “It’s not purely genetic, but there doesn’t seem to be any choice in the matter. One thing that is clear is that the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals appear to be different. Studies suggest that homosexuals in many cases developed neurologically in a way that made them more likely to become homosexual.”
The issue of sexual orientation generally lies buried until kids enter puberty, when they find it increasingly difficult to ignore impulses that may seem strange and unwelcome. “I kind of started getting a feeling when I was in sixth grade—like walking down the hall I was supposed to be looking at Sue, and instead I was looking at John or Bob,” says Nathan Postell IV, now 21, of Raleigh, N.C. “By the time I was 14, I knew I was different. There was no question about it. I had crushes on my teachers—I just thought, you know, how attractive or masculine Mr. So-and-So was. I was like, okay, I’m gay, so now what do I do? One day I was watching Divorce Court, and this guy was leaving his wife for another man. He was swishing around and doing this whole thing, so I was kind of practicing how to swish. I just thought that was how you were supposed to do it.”
Sixth grade was also a pivotal year for Kelli Peterson of Salt Lake City. “I had a crush on my [female] friend instead of the boy all the other girls liked,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t even have a word for what I was feeling. But then when I was about 13, I started hearing kids call other kids ‘fag,’ and I learned what it meant.” More than anything, she was terrified. “I thought all homosexuals were men and that they all had AIDS and were child molesters and lived in San Francisco,” says Peterson, now 20. “I also thought all of them were going to hell. I started going to church and praying not to be gay.” Working at it, she plastered her walls with pictures of Luke Perry and other heartthrobs. “Boys, boys, boys,” she told herself, “I’ve got to think about nothing except boys.” She even started dating them, but when kissing time arrived, she says, “I’d just turn my brain off. I couldn’t bring myself to get close to them.”
In hindsight, at least, Jamie Nabozny recalls feeling the first stirrings of homosexuality long before puberty. “I was like 6 or 7,” he says. “I was in school, and we played house. Everybody played house. It was the normal thing. But I knew I wanted to be married to a man. I said, ‘Why can’t I be a guy and marry a guy?’ I think the teacher looked down on it—like, ‘Well, that’s not how things are supposed to be.’ ”
It was the beginning of his downward spiral. “Once I realized I was different—and that other people realized—I became very introverted,” he says. Instead of socializing after school, Nabozny remained cloistered in his room: “I was afraid that if I participated, people would know more about me. That scared me.”
Most daunting of all was the prospect of discussing his sexuality with his family. Nabozny’s first impulse was to avoid the issue: One day when he was 11, he ran away to a friend’s home, a couple of miles from his family’s. He was brought home by a sympathetic juvenile officer who, after hearing Jamie’s story, lifted his burden and told Carol and Robert Nabozny their son was gay. “My parents started crying—they said they loved me and it didn’t matter,” Nabozny recalls. “But my dad said, ‘I think he’ll change. I think it’s a phase.’ ” Robert Nabozny concedes he was caught off guard. “It struck me hard,” he admits. “My first thought was ‘Not my son—ain’t no way.’ ” But Carol wasn’t surprised: “Being his mother, I knew something was different about him.”
For many young gays, gaining acceptance from their immediate families has gotten easier than it might have been a few years ago, though the moment of reckoning remains fraught with enormous anxiety. “How could I tell my parents I was gay?” says Kelli Peterson. “I didn’t even dare to admit it to myself.” But Randy Peterson and his wife, Dee, both 45, were actually relieved when, at 17, Kelli sat in a cafe and tearfully poured out her heart. Like Nabozny, Kelli had weathered taunts, schoolyard fights and despondency, and in March 1994 she had overdosed on painkillers, leading to a brief stay in a psychiatric clinic. “Suddenly I knew why she’d been so depressed, and my heart just ached for her,” says Dee, a mailroom supervisor at the University of Utah Hospital. “I was more upset when Kelli told me she was a socialist,” adds Randy, a copy editor at The Salt Lake Tribune who now believes that gay adolescents should come out sooner rather than later. “Pull the Band-Aid off all at once,” he says, “instead of a little at a time.”
Nathan Postell experienced the relief of full disclosure at 16—with a little help from the cable guy. “He had to rewire my room and my mom had to move my bed,” explains Postell, whose family was living in Brandywine, Md., at the time. “She found certain reading material.” A short time later, Sandra Gibson questioned her son while driving her car. “I said, ‘I’m gay—I like other men,’ ” he remembers. “I was sick to my stomach. I was nervous. I was shaking and I kept saying, like, ‘Oh, my God’ over and over.” But his mother proved broad-minded. “Her main question was, ‘So I’m never going to have grandkids?’ By the time we got home, she said, ‘Nathan, it’s going to be okay. I still love you.’ ” Says Gibson simply: “He was still Nathan.”
Yet the world outside the home is often less tolerant. Sometimes insult turns into assault.
At 16, Willi Wagner didn’t blend easily into the crowd on the streets of Fayetteville, Ark. Six feet tall, with shoulder-length hair and two-inch nails (often polished in glittery colors), he was fond of dressing in eccentric garb—including long robes. “I just loved the whole Egyptian thing and that angular look,” says Wagner (who at 17 now favors a clean-cut style). He has been open about his gayness since ninth grade and has no regrets. “The better you know who you are, the better you’re going to be with other people,” he says.
Still, he paid for his candor. Mostly the harassment was verbal, and Wagner gave as good as he got. “They’d call me a faggot and I’d call them a hick,” Wagner says. “One time a guy wrote ‘Willi is a fagot’ on the blackboard. I just loved that he couldn’t even spell it—I never let him forget that.” But things turned ugly, as police photos attest, on Dec. 2, 1996. At about 11:30 a.m., Willi and some friends were walking to Fayetteville’s Hog Wash Laundry (a coin laundry that serves hot dogs) when eight teenage boys piled out of a car and a blue pickup. After one hollered “Come here, you f—king faggot,” five of them formed a circle around Wagner while the others attacked him. “One of the kids was kicking him in the back with cowboy boots,” says Fayetteville Police Det. John Gentry. “That’s pretty bad.” Wagner was left with a black eye, bruised kidneys and his nose broken in two places. “I could feel my nose crack,” he says. “It was not a good feeling.”
Two juveniles were sentenced to probation for the assault, which was covered widely by local media. (“I’m the local famous fag,” says Willi sarcastically.) Wagner and his parents, Bill, 44, a Wal-Mart optician’s assistant, and Carolyn, a homemaker, who turns 45 on Aug. 15, have received abusive phone calls and had anti-gay screeds stuffed in their mailbox. Enraged, Carolyn pressed area merchants to post “Hate-Free Zone” signs. “I have to work every day,” she says, “at not hating the haters.”
The travails of kids like Willi Wagner and statistics on gay adolescent suicide moved some Dallas educators to open Walt Whitman Community School, “the only private school in the nation for gay teens,” says director Becky Thompson, 47. After a year her enrollment numbered 15 students, and this fall she expects it will rise to 20 or 25. “Right now,” Thompson says, “we’re on a hope and a dream.”
Despite all the obstacles, it is still possible to grow up gay, healthy and safe within the educational mainstream. At 20, Jeremy Ferguson, a native of Everett, Wash., north of Seattle, appears fully at ease with his homosexuality. “My school had a respect policy,” he says. “There was zero tolerance for harassment.” Ferguson thrived in that climate, editing the school paper and getting himself elected a student parliamentarian. He was secure enough to bring a male date to the senior prom—they wore matching tuxedos—and for a year or so Jeremy sold ads for the Seattle Gay News. (He now works for a San Francisco pharmaceutical company.) He also spoke on behalf of Hands Off Washington, a group that worked unsuccessfully to pass a gay rights bill in Washington state. “I knew Jeremy was going to do something big with his life,” Julie Ferguson, 42, says of her son. “I just didn’t picture he’d be a gay activist.”
In fact, an increasing number of young gays have become activists, on the theory that society may not fully accept them unless it is pushed. Kelli Peterson—who once begged God for deliverance from her homosexuality—might seem an unlikely firebrand. But after coming out to her parents and peers (“I’m a lesbian!” she blurted to her startled drama class one day, exasperated by years of innuendo), Kelli grew more at ease with herself. Soon, Peterson and about 20 other students formed a gay-straight alliance, which they hoped to have formally recognized by their school. “When Kelli tried to start the club, I started calling her ‘Kelli Rosa,’ as in Rosa Parks,” says Barbara Murdock, then her creative-writing teacher. “She refused to sit at the back of the bus.”
The Salt Lake City School Board was not enthusiastic: Rather than recognize Peterson’s group, it voted 4 to 3 to ban all extracurricular clubs—the only way it could ban the club without running afoul of federal civil-rights statutes. “I took the board’s decision as a declaration of war,” Peterson says. “It made me an activist.”
Now studying psychology at Salt Lake City Community College—and dating schoolmate Mary Callis, 17—Peterson speaks frequently at gay-rights rallies. She succeeded Greg Louganis as spokesperson for the Gay/Lesbian Straight Teachers Network) and in 1997 won a $5,000 Playboy Foundation Hugh Hefner First Amendment Person of Conscience Award. (“No,” she says, “you won’t be seeing me as centerfold.”)
But no American adolescent has had more of an impact on the plight of his gay peers than Jamie Nabozny. After a beating in his junior year forced him to undergo exploratory abdominal surgery, he left Ashland High for good. Time and again, he and his parents had complained to school officials about the relentless harassment, but nothing was done to protect him. Finally Nabozny sued the Ashland school district. The case was thrown out, but in July 1996 he won a landmark victory in a federal appellate court in Chicago, which held that schools and school officials could be sued for failing to address anti-gay abuse. “That blows my mind—it was the first time the government ever acknowledged gay teens,” says Nabozny. He pursued his action in federal court, which found the administrators guilty of discrimination but did not hold the school district liable. Nabozny settled for $900,000 and now tours the country speaking on gay issues. “This one kid in Texas came up to me and said, ‘When I was in high school, I had the biggest picture of you on my locker. Every day the thing that got me through all of my classes was knowing you were going to be there.’ ” Jamie Nabozny knew how important that was, because nobody but his family had been there for him.