Philly's LGBT Kids Fight Back

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Nov. 2, 2010

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Photo by Aaron Kase

William Bailey had been fighting off haters since he was a kid. “I’m more flamboyant than most people,” says the 22 year old, smiling and pointing to his crazy, picked-out afro.

“[As a kid] I didn’t play sports … I wanted to play with dolls and hang out with the girls.”

Bailey, who lives in Camden, has been openly gay since 10th grade, and says he’s been talked about and bullied for as long as he can remember.

“It was relentless at times,” he says. “I’d get called a faggot … I’d go to the bathroom and cry.”

As he speaks, Bailey looks around at the five other young gay men—ranging from their late teens to early 20s—sitting in a circle at the Attic Youth Center, an after-school space in Center City for LGBT youth. The group, led by life-skills counselor Tara Rubinstein, is immersed in a conversation about bullying, homophobia and the recent wave of suicides by gay youth. Bailey tells the group that he came out in his sophomore year at Camden Academy high school because he was “done trying to deny it.” The backlash was immediate.

One of his best friends told him she wished he would get AIDS and die, then stopped speaking to him. Others kept up the harassment. “I was picked on every day, multiple times per day,” he confides, adding that kids threw things at him on the bus, and every once in a while he was forced into minor scuffles with his tormenters.

“Bullies are bullies,” says Bailey, who learned to deal with the persecution over time. “Call me something I haven’t heard, then I’ll try to be affected by it.” Disparaging comments be damned, he even performed in a high school talent show as Janet Jackson and wore a tutu.

The news of recent suicides by gay teens weighs heavily on the kids at the Attic. Each youth in the circle has faced the same taunts, threats, assaults and rejection as the suicide victims. A few days previously, the group held a big meeting to talk about what happened and how society responded: The It Gets Better project, a collection of online videos inspired by Seattle-based sex-advice columnist Dan Savage featuring adults telling queer youth that life will improve with age.

But the Attic kids say it’s hard to look forward to a future when it’s so difficult to get through the present.

“For us, it’s not it gets better someday,” says Rubinstein, 28. “We need it to get better now.”

So the group decided to make their own set of videos called It Gets Better When, available soon online, to share what helps them survive the daily barrage of homophobia they face in school and at home. Rubinstein says the idea behind the videos is to create something positive from the onslaught of bullying and suicide news over the last few months.

“They’re about more than just overcoming bullying. We’re showing a gay youth culture that’s positive, with youth out doing great things.”

The group added a twist to the videos, showing the kids looking in a mirror and describing what they see.

“It’s powerful hearing how they see themselves, whether primarily as gay, or an artist, or a student,” Rubinstein says.

On a recent day, the group rehearses what they want to say on the videos. Rubinstein leads the discussion, posing questions to the kids:

“What are some more things we’ve learned from our experiences about how it gets better even when things are bad?” she asks.

Bailey says that for him, “Your skin gets tough and your heart gets warm. The words stopped hurting as much when I heard them over and over and realized it doesn’t mean much.”

Kemar Edwards-Jewel, 19, can’t hide his glowing smile despite the heavy subject matter.

“Family doesn’t necessarily have to be the people you share DNA with,” he says.

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Comments 1 - 3 of 3
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1. Bill said... on Nov 3, 2010 at 02:34PM

“Wow. Thanks, Aaron. What I really like about this story is that I've been wondering how high school kids who have lives that seem like dead ends, are supposed to react to the It Gets Better project. I kept thinking 'Most of these people making videos are successful white adults.' How does that give kids like the ones in this story any hope? Anyway, this story makes me want to volunteer and I just might.”

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2. Erica said... on Nov 4, 2010 at 11:39AM

“As someone who works with LGBTQ youth, I am really happy to see the Attic Youth Center and the struggle of this population in general highlighted in the PW. However, I was really put off by the quote that was chosen to end this story. The article expresses a lot of hope and the overall tone is positive- you're speaking about a hopeful future for LGBTQ youth. To end the article with such a sentiment of despair- regardless of the fact that it was was said by an LGBTQ youth- made for quite a bizarre ending (Nazis? really? ) to an otherwise wonderful story.”

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3. Kate said... on Nov 7, 2010 at 02:17PM

“I find the name of this youth center pretty ironic. You come out of the closet to hide in The Attic. lol

But really, I'm really glad that there is a place like this for kids and young adults to go to in their time of need. I, unfortunately, didn't have one. I hope you post a follow up when the film actually comes out. I'd really like to see it!”


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