Reaction can be everything when gay teen confides

By Elizabeth Clarke, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2003

You're young, gay and finally ready to tell someone.

Where do you start?

Chances are you'll choose a safe peer, typically a best friend.

But the process has just begun. Most people come out in layers, says Paul Lesnik, youth services coordinator for Compass, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender support organization in West Palm Beach.

If that first conversation is OK, a high school kid will generally confide next in a family member -- a sister, brother, aunt or uncle, but usually not their parents.

If that person reacts well, they may move next to a trusted adult. That's usually a teacher, therapist, clergy member or parent, Lesnik says. Many times, it's a school nurse.

But if any of those conversations go badly or kids feel they can't begin the coming-out process at all, stress builds.

Many withdraw. Some turn to alcohol or drugs, drop out of school, become depressed. Suicide is a risk. Lesnik says kids questioning their sexuality are 30 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those who aren't.

Harassment at school only adds to the problem. Lesnik recently sat with a family that allowed their son to drop out of high school because he was so miserable there.

"This kid's doing great now," Lesnik says. "Can you think of any other situation where the best option for a kid is to drop out of high school? That's why things like Compass are so important."

Compass is one place gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids turn for support as they negotiate adolescence as an outsider. But the acceptance they seek could just as easily come from someone in their neighborhood, a school, church or synagogue.

At a place like Compass, they find role models, guidance and camaraderie. The organization's HOPE youth program, for example, provides an informal gathering place. Kids meet weekly and discuss anything and everything: family life, relationships, friendships, teachers, harassment and -- of course -- sex.

Lots of sex.

"In any club, that's what teenagers end up talking about," Lesnik says. "On the basketball team or whatever. (Straight kids) really do have those outlets too."

And don't worry, Lesnik says, gay kids and straight kids have lots in common when it comes to sex: "The kids here, they talk about sex, they talk about sex, they talk about sex. But half of them are still virgins."

Third on the list

Lesnik spends much of his time educating adults, mostly those who fall "third on the list" for kids who come out. His most important message: Your reaction is crucial.

That means clergy men and women too. Not just teachers and guidance counselors.

"I do think that gay kids go to their pastor or to their rabbi," he says. "And it depends on what kind of reception they get whether they feel that was a good decision. You may save their life based on how you react."

Many young Compass members participate in their church youth groups, Lesnik says, and might turn to those leaders for guidance. But others begin to steer clear of organized religion or even abandon their faith as they absorb negative teachings on homosexuality.

"I think a lot of my friends are anti-religion just due to their (sexual) status, which I think is sort of sad," says Danny Ruth, a non-religious gay student at South Technical High School. "They say it's better to just reject that whole portion of your life just because you're going to have to deal with so much rejection."

Some wrestle with the contradictions and hypocrisy they see in the Bible and hear from the pulpit.

"It's like, Jesus says to love everybody, yet people will tell you he says to hate these certain people, and so there's a contradiction," Ruth says. "And then God makes everybody just the way they're supposed to be but you're not supposed to be gay. What happened there?

"I feel that I was made this way for a reason ... If he's our creator, then apparently he wanted me to be this way."

Several Compass students feel thankful they weren't raised in strict religious households. They don't feel guilty about their sexual feelings, they say, and have the freedom to choose a religion, if they want one.

By design, Santaluces freshman Esme Wallant-Pereira received little religious training growing up with a Jewish mom and Christian stepfather. Her parents wanted her to decide her faith on her own. Today, she calls herself a pagan who borrows some practices from Wicca.

"It's the religion that I most agree with the values," Wallant-Pereira says. "It's really moral and focuses on nature."

Still other students regard their religion like any other organization: a bunch of friends who might love the same music but no way will agree on clothes or piercings or some other issue. They still get along.

That was the Rev. Richard Nolan's approach to his Episcopal faith when he was a sexually confused and repressed teen whose church rejected him.

"Surprisingly, that did not cause me a great deal of conflict," says the retired priest, who lives in West Palm Beach with his partner of almost 50 years. "I found a great deal of comfort in the relationships at the church. I just figured the church was absolutely incorrect when it came to matters of human relationships. And I think I would hold to that today."

Ultimately, however, gay and lesbian teenagers find their greatest support where teenagers have always found it: with their friends -- gay or straight.

"Support is support," Lesnik says. "Ninety percent of the world's straight. That's one of the charges I have, to let them know they need to build allies everywhere -- and that not everybody's out there to hurt them either."