In 5th grade, I had a friend who told me that she was bisexual. I had no idea what it was and I asked her. "It means I like boys, but I like girls too," my 12-year-old friend told me.
I had never heard of such a thing and I found it intriguing since I had only seen straight couples in my life. It didn't occur to me that people might see anything wrong with same-sex relationships. Years passed and I began to see more people who were interested in members of the same sex, including a few of my mom's friends. These friends were some of the nicest people I'd ever known, so it was clear to me that there was nothing "bad" about being gay.
Yet in my middle school, there were a few people who were thought to be gay, and they were made fun of. They weren't physically bullied, but they frequently faced name-calling and taunting. When my mom's friend's daughter came out to me, I admired her bravery to accept who she was and just be herself, in spite of the teasing she'd probably face on account of it. There weren't many opportunities in middle school to support gay rights, but I kept an open mind.
In 9th grade, I saw my first chance to do something positive: My high school had a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), so I joined it. We were a small group, and we'd try to think of things that we could do in the community and in my school to raise awareness about discrimination and promote equality for all orientations.
There were gay members, there were straight members, and there were questioning members. A lot of times, the group ended up just being a place where we'd feel comfortable enough to talk about anything. We'd talk about what our families believe about gay rights, whether we'd ever experienced discrimination either for being gay or for supporting gay rights, and how we could stop the ignorance and show people that being gay is just one part of who someone is. Being in the GSA taught me that for any cause you support, there will always be others who share your beliefs—maybe more people than I had initially believed.
The main thing we participated in was the Day of Silence. It's a national, student-led event held every April, during which participants refrain from speaking for a day to raise awareness of the silence that the gay community must keep when they cannot be themselves.
In tragic cases, having to keep their true selves hidden leads some gay teens to depression, and sometimes even suicide. (A Columbia University study published in 2011 found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens were five times as likely as heterosexual teens to have attempted suicide at some time in the previous year).
When I heard about the Day of Silence I immediately thought, what better way to promote acceptance than by doing something so noticeable and powerful? It was also the first time I'd found a way to do something proactive for a cause I believed in.
Members of the GSA wore a red Day of Silence shirt, a pin, and a red bracelet to show support. But other people who were not in the GSA ended up making it a competition to see who could stay silent the longest, and some people used the day as an excuse to stay silent in class in order to avoid answering questions.
Their idea of humor was my idea of ignorance. The day was meant as a reminder that people are suffering, and I found it totally disrespectful to make a mockery of the day. A lot of people tried to get me to talk; I just ignored it.
Aside from this, it was a positive experience. I especially liked watching more people get involved as we handed out pins and bracelets, and later discussing the day with other people who took part. We talked about why we'd wanted to play a part in the Day of Silence, why it mattered to us, and how we felt the day went.
It felt especially important to support the cause since it was by no means unanimously favored in my school. Even many teachers weren't supportive (though some did wear the Day of Silence pin themselves). In the three years that I've now participated in the Day of Silence, I've heard, "I ain't doing that f-ggot sh-t," "That's corny," "Are you gay? Why are you supporting them?"—all from students. I've also seen countless eye rolls, from teachers and students, when I answered their questions about why we were doing it.
I was a little surprised to get a negative reaction from teachers. I thought that adults would be more open-minded and would appreciate young people standing up for something that mattered to them. But none of the reactions ever intimidated me, made me want to stop or made me embarrassed to support the gay community. Getting involved in things you feel passionate about is the way to stay true to yourself, and I had nothing to be ashamed of.
Time for Equality
In my junior year, I attended the 2010 AIDS Walk in Central Park. Anyone can become infected with HIV/AIDS, but in the U.S. it has historically been more prevalent in the gay community. I walked five or six miles with a group.
It was a fun experience; there were gay couples, straight couples, single people, and walkers of all ethnicities. I even spotted a man dressed in a suit with glued-on condoms, spreading the message of safe sex. There was something powerful about walking with a large group of people, knowing that I was participating in a cause. No one was there to judge or to tease; we were all walking for the same reason.
I find it silly that debates still go on about equality for the gay community. Whether or not a person decides to love someone of the same gender, everyone deserves to be treated fairly and have their rights respected. I'm glad I've been able to express this belief publicly through my participation in GSA.