William Bailey had been fighting off haters since he was a kid. Im more flamboyant than most people, says the 22 year old, smiling and pointing to his crazy, picked-out afro.
[As a kid] I didnt 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 hes been talked about and bullied for as long as he can remember.
It was relentless at times, he says. Id get called a faggot Id go to the bathroom and cry.
As he speaks, Bailey looks around at the five other young gay menranging from their late teens to early 20ssitting 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 havent heard, then Ill 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 its hard to look forward to a future when its so difficult to get through the present.
For us, its 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.
Theyre about more than just overcoming bullying. Were showing a gay youth culture thats 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.
Its 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 weve 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 doesnt mean much.
Kemar Edwards-Jewel, 19, cant hide his glowing smile despite the heavy subject matter.
Family doesnt necessarily have to be the people you share DNA with, he says.
Originally from Jamaica, Edwards-Jewel says that when he came out two years ago, the reaction from his family was swift and harsh.
He tells the group: My grandmother told people I died my mom said she wished she had an abortion.
His family told him to leave the house, and he now has his own apartment and says he barely communicates with them.
Family are the people who are trying to watch you grow and become a better person, he says. I started coming to the Attic and found other people like me.
Zachary Podietz, 18, waits quietly for his turn to speak. It gets better when? Rubinstein asks him.
When your friends are there to stick by you and guide you, he answers.
Podietz, the only white guy in the group, says he was bullied more for his buckteeth than his sexuality, but also struggled with suicidal thoughts. The other guys in the circle nod their heads in recognition.
Nineteen-year-old Jared Martinez, sporting eyeshadow and earrings in both ears, says he had thoughts of suicide while growing up in a small Maryland town. He moved to Philadelphia this year after finishing high school, and says it got better when he started accepting and loving myself. Trying to fit in led me to places I didnt want to be. He adds: You need to learn to love yourself because thats key to growing tough skin and have bullying fly by. If you love yourself you can say I dont give a shit.
Though gay teen suicides have been in national headlines more than usual lately, they are no new trend. Federal youth risk behavior studies dating back to 1989 suggest that LGBT kids are consistently two to four times more likely to kill themselves than their straight peers.
The thing that annoyed me is everybodys acting like school bullying and suicides just started yesterday, says Carrie Jacobs, founder and executive director of the Attic, who has counseled kids on the edge ever since the center opened in 1993. Many kids are suicidal prior to coming, or have attempted suicide, she says recalling one of the Attics members, a female-to-male transgender kid named Scott, who committed suicide after he had left the care of the youth center to embark on his adult life. Scott struggled with his identity before he found the Attic as a teenager, but Jacobs says he seemed to find some peace and was ready to move forward. He went to college, got a boyfriend, started feeling really good about his life, she says. Scott had graduated, was working and living on his own when his friends at the center heard he killed himself.
None of us knew he was that depressed, Jacobs says. Thats what was so puzzling about it.
Fortunately, Scotts story is the exception, not the rule. While engaged in programming we havent had anyone who committed suicide, Jacobs says.
Though they deal with serious issues, the Attic is generally a high-spirited place. Every weekday afternoon, 30 to 50 kids ages 14 to 23 show up for counseling, clubs or just hanging out. Gay, lesbian, transsexual, black, white, Latino, they all have something in common, seeking a safe space to escape humiliation at school and rejection at home, the very problems that drive their peers to end their lives.
The walls of the youth center are crowded with news clippings and posters advertising LGBT resources and safe-sex advice. Offices and conference rooms fill the four-story building, overflowing with kids running around, flirting, laughing and otherwise enjoying themselves. The youths positive relationship with staff members is palpable, joking and playing games together one moment and sharing serious, personal stories the next. Rubinstein says common experiences bond the kids and staff. Like several of the youth, she got kicked out of her familys house when she came out at 15. Ive been through some of the things theyve been through, she says. But the bigger thing is, Im an adult who cares and accepts and celebrates them for who they are.
While many of the teens have finished high school, have moved out on their own and are looking back at past struggles, others are in the middle of it, still at the mercy of hostile peers and sometimes less-than-sympathetic adults. One of the kids in the It Gets Better When circle, Matt, is a junior at a North Philly high school. A skinny 16-year-old, well-dressed in slacks, a blue blazer and shined shoes, he tells the group about his own battles with suicide. When I have suicidal thoughts, I rely on counselors and friends, he says, a hint of nervousness in his voice. He squeezes his boyfriends hand, and continues. Its really good when you have friends to talk to, he says, Its hard, being harassed about sexuality. Not really fitting in at home.
Rubinstein listens carefully. Serious, concerned, she speaks warmly. Were really glad that youre here, she tells him. Others nod.
The kids then continue talking individually about the problems they face at school. Matt goes into the story of one of his worst moments this fall. A classmate walked by and criticized his Adam Lambert binder. Thats a dude, the student said to Matt. What are you, gay?
Duh, Matt answered.
The other kid, somehow unaware that Matt had been out for a year, leaped from his seat and ran to the teacher to complain. He said he wasnt comfortable sitting around me, Matt says, crossing his legs as he sits in an office chair. The kids reaction, while far from the worst slight Matt has faced, brought up all at once his struggles in school and at home as an out teenager.
I hated myself, he says. It was nothing he said or did, but a boxed-in bunch of stuff that happened in the past. It all came out.
Losing control, Matt rushed from the classroom. He entered the stairwell, looked over the railing and contemplated hurling himself over. On the verge of jumping he paused, and composed himself.
I did some breathing techniques, then returned to class and put my head down, he says.
Soon a counselor came and talked to him. Matt says his school counselor is extremely supportive. But that doesnt stop the bullying. Last year, someone wrote on his locker: Go home fag. God doesnt like gays. The writing stayed on his locker for the last month and a half of school.
The Philadelphia School District did not respond to PWs requests to speak to school administrators.
In the meantime, the testimonials continue. Khalil Nelson, 18, a senior at Kensington Culinary Arts, talks about getting beat up after he came out in sixth grade at John Paul Jones.
I got jumped by half a schoolyard of boys, he says. There was always someone calling me a faggot, or gay. Every day.
Nelson says he managed to carve out a niche by standing up for himself, fighting back both physically and intellectually. Ill debate my teachers on topics like gay marriage and Dont Ask, Dont Tell, he says. If Im not comfortable, I will make myself comfortable.
Allison Buehler, education manager for the Mazzoni Centers Ally Safe Schools Program, says the district is trying to make schools safer, with more welcoming spaces for LGBT students and families. Buehler is a member of the Districts LGBT Advisory Committee, which holds training sessions for faculty and staff to encourage them to create supportive environments, and to help students who want to create Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. What it boils down to, Buehler says, we have this mandate from the school district that every young person is to be protected and valued regardless of how they identify. Since 1994, there has been a policy on Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education that forbids harassment or discrimination of students for reasons related to races, ethnic groups, social classes, genders, religions, disabilities, sexual orientations (perceived or known) and gender identities (perceived or known). And the district bullying policy, just updated this year, again explicitly forbids bullying for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity. Consequences range from a warning all the way to suspension or expulsion.
And there are allies in public office. In August, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act to the Senate. We must enact legislation to do a better job of protecting children, especially those children who are being bullied every day because theyre gay or lesbian, Casey said at last Mays Equality Forum here in Philadelphia, acknowledging the frequency with which queer students face physical or verbal attacks. In a 2007 national survey, 86 percent of LGBT students reported harassment, and 60 percent said they felt unsafe at school.
The bill has been lurking around the House for a year and a half now, lingering in committee. But if it somehow gets through the contentiously partisan political climateonly a handful of Republicans are among the bills 126 mostly Democratic sponsorsit would force all schools receiving federal money to implement and enforce strong anti-bullying rules, including for reasons related to sexual orientation, a big boost for struggling kids to make things get getter now, not later. Its so important for Safe Schools act to pass. It would apply to all schools across the country, Buehler says.
While here in Philly we already have strong anti-bullying rules in placereally comprehensive ones, according to Buehler the school district doesnt have the greatest track record of enforcing its policies. We are absolutely not satisfied with current climate in schools, says District Spokesperson Fernando Gallard. We have incidents happening in our schools that should not happen. They need to be immediately confronted, Gallard says, citing policy that requires school personnel to take action against bullying or harassment.
But in the meantime, the consequences of bullying can be grave. A sharp reminder came at last months Outfest, the annual coming-out festival in the Gayborhood, where more than 100 people came together at the William Way Community Center for a vigil to mourn the recent teen suicides.
Outside, on a stage set up amidst the thousands of milling masses, a man in an oversized purple suit and enormous top-hat put out a call for openly gay high school kids to come up and join him on the stage. We need them to know that we love them and were here for them no matter what, he told the crowd. It doesnt matter how you love or who you love, only that you love. The resulting cheer was deafening.
Matt attended both events, and says hearing about the suicides got me in the mood to cry.
Like his family at the Attic, he wants to use the It Gets Better When videos to show others that they are not alone, because even at 16 he has seen enough to know the future is promised to no one. Someday that might be me in the news, he says. You dont know the future ... maybe the Nazis will take over in two years and eliminate gays.
Resources for LGBTYouth
Attic Youth Center
Counseling, support groups, drop-in, life skills, HIV testing and counseling. 255 S. 16th St. 215.545.4331. atticyouthcenter.org
COLOURS Organization Inc.
HIV-prevention education and social activities; 40 Acres of Change: a support group for LGBTQ youth of color 112 N. Broad St. coloursorganization.org
Around the clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. 866.4.UTREVOR. thetrevorproject.org
GLBT National Hotline
Peer-counseling and local resources. 888.843.4564. glbtnationalhelpcenter.org
Provides comprehensive health and wellness services for youth and adults, HIV testing and counseling, support groups and health education and outreach. 21 S. 12th St. 215.563.0652. mazzonicenter.org
Runaway Youth Program
Hotline and emergency service for homeless and runaway adolescents. 1526 Fairmount Ave. 800.371.7233. ysiphila.org
Philadelphia School District Hotline
24-hour a day hotline to report bullying, violence, harassment and threats in the Philadelphia School District. 215.400.SAFE
Reaching Adolescents Via Education (RAVE) addresses teenage issues through peer-based interactive workshops. Provide HIV prevention and health education services for transgender, transexual, gender-varient and gender-nonconforming people. 1207 Chestnut St. 215.851.1822. galaei.org