LGBTQ+ students need support as they leave privacy of virtual learning and face harassment at school

Emma Schardt

“What if I get kicked out? Where am I gonna live? With my homophobic dad? I live with fear that I won’t be treated the same.”

These thoughts ran through senior Ateeyah Abdul-wasi’s head as she contemplated telling her mom about her sexuality.

Among the chaos that existed in 2020 due to the global pandemic, and all the effects it had on the world, no one would’ve thought that something good could come from this. Yet, the increase in the amount of people who have come out and revealed their sexuality this past year suggested the pandemic provided a safe place for people in our community. Quarantine not only protected us from Covid-19 but also from those who are unaccepting. Over the past year I had many people come out to me who trusted me as someone to share their sexuality.

It was December 1st. I remember it so vividly. On my way to surprise my childhood friend with Starbucks, I called my best friend Joyanti Maun to rant about my day. When I walked into my friend’s room I saw that he was on facetime with a few people he had introduced me to before. I have built a connection with them over the previous few weeks and we all got along well. I had immediately integrated myself into the conversation with Joyanti. I was used to their dark humor; however, they had made a joke regarding him using self harm as an outlet to release some of his pain, which I took very personally.

I had asked his friends, “Is this true?”.

Everyone went silent.

I started freaking out and felt the tears forming in my eyes. Panic overtook me, and, I needed to find the painful answer to my question.

I gazed at my friend, blinking away my tears. I saw regret and fear flash in his eyes, and, in that moment, I knew that it was true.

I had always thought my first heartbreak would be from a boyfriend or something, never from hearing about the pain of someone so close to me. I remember not knowing what to say or what to do at that moment. I frantically questioned my friend, asking why he thought this was the only escape. I automatically took on his burdens as my own and felt the immediate need to know why he felt this way. I felt even worse that he didn't even feel he could tell me himself. His best friend, confirmed that his suicidal thoughts came from his struggle with his sexuality, and his terror about coming out to his parents as bisexual. Overwhelmed with thoughts and questions I quickly made my way out, onto the front porch. Immediately I looked down to my phone screen and saw Joyanti had heard the whole conversation. The tears I was poorly attempting to hold back flooded my cheeks as I sobbed to my friend. After a few moments, I began to collect myself before we started talking. I had dealt with similar situations in Germany a few years ago, when a few of my friends had turned to self harm as a release. I had just never expected it from him. About 15 minutes into our conversation, Joyanti said, “You know Emma, if he ever needs anyone, I know you're closer to him than I am, but, if he needs someone you can tell him that I’m here to talk. I’ve been in the same boat. I’ve gone through self harm, and I’m bisexual too.I know that it’s not easy. If he needs someone, just tell him that I’m here whenever,” Joyanti said

Although I was in shock and deeply sad for my friend, I felt a spark of happiness knowing that she had trusted to tell me that she was bi as well. Joyanti later on mentioned that I was the only one who knew, she had no intentions of telling her parents or friends in the foreseeable future. I just felt so honored. There’s no feeling like knowing that, out of all the people she could have told, Joyanti chose me to know this significant and essential piece of her identity. I will always cherish that Joyanti told me first this significant but private part of her identity.

I had never realized how hard it truly is for someone to come out. I still won’t ever fully understand the courage it takes to reveal this part of yourself, but knowing that these people in my life felt that I was a safe person to talk to and could create a comfortable situation for them, honestly changed much about who I am as a person. I have become more aware in the way that I have researched about the LGBTQ community as to how to be supportive, how to properly use pronouns, what all the different identities mean. Through this I have become more understanding as well.

After Joyanti had first revealed her true self to me, she has continued to let me in on how much of a struggle it was for her to not have anyone know but how the fear of her parents knowing was greater. Similar to this Ateeyah Abdulwasi also explained her hardships when coming out to her parents.

“Fear of my parents, but specifically my mom not accepting me and just my household. I try to be as open as I can with my parents, specifically my mom because I live there. And I was scared. There were a lot of things running through my mind, some of them irrational but they seemed rational to me at the time. I thought: “What if I get kicked out? Where am I gonna live? With my homophobic dad?” Just the fear that I won’t be treated the same, like I won’t be able to have friends who are girls over anymore even though they are just my friends. Those are definitely a fear. Just the fear that I couldn’t share a part of my sexuality and gender identity with my mom and that I’d have to hide that from her.” Abdul-wasi said.

I think it’s important to realize how afraid many people are to reveal their sexuality, and once they do how much time and bravery it took for them to actually say it out loud. There’s a difference between telling yourself ‘This is who I am, and I need to accept that this is what I feel,’ and actually saying it out loud to someone. Once someone’s gender identity is revealed, there is no coming back from it. Usually, the first people you tell are someone you trust and feel comfortable around, knowing that they also won’t tell everyone and be careless with the information.

Bur, once it’s out there; it’s out there. Coming out is like a social media post in a way. You can’t take back what you said; you can try and hide it as long as you want, but your sexuality and gender identity are a part of you and can’t be changed no matter how hard you try.

This is also why I don’t support conversion camps, or forced sessions with religious priests of any kind. Those forced to go these camps or sit through these sessions won’t magically stop being who they are one day, they will live their life oppressed and lie to themselves by forcing themselves to be someone they aren’t. These people will only live their life in fear, and as someone they aren’t instead of becoming this “ideal”, narrowly defined person.

Like Joyanti, junior Alex Warren shared with me the challenges he faces as someone who is transgender.

“Oh my god, I sorta cannot go to the bathroom anywhere. Like at school, I will still get harassed if I go anywhere near any of them. I’ll be followed, or people will knock on my door even if they know that I’m in there.” Warren said.

Warren said that the unisex bathroom is often not open and that he has had worrying experiences in the boy’s bathrooms.

“I’m more afraid of something bad happening in the stall. Like someone hitting me or something. No one has yet, but I have had people bang on my door repeatedly as I was in there or try and open the door. But I have gotten weird threats about the bathroom. I’m not saying who. It’s not even people that I know. It’ll be randoms who find out that I’m transgender and then make comments such as ‘watch yourself” or ‘you’ll regret it if you go in there’. I also received intimidating looks. Most times it’s the other way around, like people don’t want a trans-women or a trans-girl in a bathroom with biological girls. But for some reason, it’s also the other way around" Warren said.

This is horrifying. Imagine knowing that you have to walk into school everyday, and prepare yourself for the reality that you won’t drink for at least 7 hours because it is more of a guarantee that the bathrooms won’t be open than that they will.

Going to the bathroom isn’t something cis gendered students think about, especially regarding which bathroom they are allowed to go in. Yet, those who are transgender have to live with this daily and fear going to the regular bathroom because of potential results it can lead to. As Alex mentioned above, he fears going into the men's bathroom because of the terror that someone might hurt him. The results of these frights, has led to Alex dehydrating himself when we were still in-person prior to Covid.

Even worse is that the school technically has multiple unisex bathrooms available around the school, but the bathrooms aren’t able to be used because for the most part they are locked.

Given, that we still have a few weeks, before our return to in-person learning, I would encourage the school takes this time to create policies that ease the life of the transgender kids who attend our school. As we know, Covid has presented our world with numerous challenges, many of which are still waiting to be overcome. Implementing, new policies, such as unlocking more unisex bathrooms, and discussing the school’s guidelines towards the transgender community for lockerrooms as well would decrease the number of challenges transgender kids have to face.

As a transgender student, Warren is still not clear which locker rooms he can use.

“So I was like uhh where do I gotta change? I took gym online because there was no locker room policy,” Warren said.

Alex is unsure why the unisex bathrooms are closed or the locker room policy hasn’t been made clear to him.

Alex had to take an online gym course out of fear because he was afraid of harassment in the locker rooms.

By continuing this unhealthy lifestyle, Alex has created for himself to steer clear of bullying, and avoid his fears, the hardships he has to live with in these challenging times have only become worse. It might be easier for kids to take gym online than to create a policy, but living this way isn’t easy. Having to wonder what bathroom they are going to use and whether or not they will be able to change safely is a hardship that could be avoided if more unisex bathrooms were unlocked and the school were to inform Alex of their policy regarding transgender students.

Simply creating an understanding and enlightened environment could make a huge difference at Groves.

After Alex first told me his story, I did research because I wanted to be aware of what he went through and what things are considered respectful and disrespectful as far as pronouns go, questions that can be asked, how to be supportive and more. Among my research I also learned about pansexuality, asexuality, being genderqueer and more. Someone who is pansexual doesn’t base their attraction to someone off of gender and sex. Asexuality is the lack of attraction to others. Being non-binary or genderqueer is not having a fixed gender identity. To ensure respect to these people, one should be aware of their preferred pronouns and respect them. Although, someone may be curious to know certain things about another person and their identity, some questions are considered inconsiderate. For example, asking someone who is transgender what their original name was is inconsiderate in the way that it can trigger anxiety. This has definitely made it easier for me, as more of my friends have come out to me or online and revealed their sexuality or gender identity. I was more quickly able to make the adjustments needed to make others feel comfortable with who they are. This also helped ensure that I don’t make others uncomfortable by being unaware.

What worries me about the level of acceptance at Groves for LGBTQ students, however, is that I had published a poll on social media and multiple students responded to the question: “Do you respect other people’s pronouns?” with “No”. I personally have great trouble comprehending why someone would intentionally make people uncomfortable by misgendering them. It baffles me that we live in 2021 and people continue to spread this hate that has no reason. It is plain disrespectful in my eyes, and infuriates me to know that some of these people live in our community.

Alex contrasts the support he receives when he simply stated his sexuality to when he was ready to transition.

“First of all my grandma was more supportive than my parents technically, but then once I wanted to change my name she was like: “Oh my god, no.” Which was the same thing my parents had done. They had said: ‘Ok, yeah you’re trans whatever’, but once you try and actually start transitioning that’s when they are like: ‘No’. My original name was my grandma’s, no, great grandma’s name. My parents were being unsupportive because my new name would be replacing something sentimental with something that had no value at all," Warren said.

He then continues to explain that his parents weren’t unsupportive of him and his transitioning, but more on the basis that they would be losing something that had so much meaning to them. The name that they had originally given Alex at birth had value to them, but in his first steps of transitioning he had wanted to change his name. This was a hardship for both his parents and his grandma because they felt with the name they were losing their child, which wasn’t the case.

“My grandma was the same way. She was like: “Uh no, I’ve known this person my whole life under this name. Don’t change the name,” but it’s still me. So, that’s a memorable moment, like people not wanting to use the real name, not because they’re trying to be disrespectful but because they think that they’re losing somebody when they’re not,” Warren said.

Alex always thought his parents didn’t support him when the reality is his parents viewed his transition as the loss of a child.

“When I went to my new gender therapist, Valerie, she had another transgender teenager who didn’t have supportive parents. She wanted me and my parents to give advice to both the parents and the kid. My mom was telling my counselor, my therapist and this really helped me understand where she was coming from when she didn’t want to change my name because from the time period I was thinking: “Oh my god, she’s transphobic, she doesn’t love me, that’s why she doesn’t want to change me name,” but really it’s you feel like you’re losing somebody. You feel like your daughter’s dying because you think that somebody, that they’re not gonna be the same person, when they really are, but you can’t see it like that. So she said: ‘I had to come to terms, it took me a long time to come to terms with it and it’s not like I’m losing a child, it’s just they’re going by a different name and different pronouns, but it’s still my kid.’ So, that was a memorable moment for me when she said that because it really helped me understand where she was coming from and not be so angry with her for having a certain mindset in the beginning,” Warren said.

As Alex said, many feel as if they are losing someone, but the reality is, it’s still the same person they have always been. Many people don’t realize that, when someone comes out and reveals their sexuality or preferred gender, those close to them, such as family members, friends, coaches, teachers, etc,. also have to make big adjustments. While, it will never compare to emotions felt by the individual coming out, it definitely changes things. When coming out the person doesn’t want to be looked at differently, but initially every person has to come to terms with the fact that this information truly does change a lot.

I do not understand the reason for phobias against the LGBTQ+ community. At the end of the day it isn’t someone else’s life, and no one is forcing you to join the community or even be friends with members of the community. However, is it too much to ask to show them a little bit of respect? While many might say that their religion says it’s a sin, or science proves that this isn’t normal, there is no reason to treat them any different from anyone else. At the end of the day they are still human, their sexuality shouldn’t be a deciding factor as to how they get treated. Many also believe that if a friend of theirs come out as bisexual or gay or lesbian, that that is their way of telling you they like you. But yet, this is almost never the case and honestly a rude assumption.

That being said, I also admire the continued growth in our community, especially with our Gay Straight Alliance. I’ve seen the increase in the LGBTQ+ community as well as the community’s rising support and soon enough the anti-LGBTQ people will become the minority. Along with the increase in members comes the growth of awareness regarding the LGBTQ community.

Coming out to someone is a serious thing but also takes a lot of courage from those coming out to you. It isn’t said lightly and it isn’t an easy thing to do. It always depends on your relationship with the friend of course, but I’ve heard from friends that their biggest fear when coming out is not being accepted or being looked at differently. By making comments such as, “Does this mean you like me?”, already shows that you are looking at your friend differently. In addition to this, the person who is telling you, especially when it’s early on, has sought you as a person to tell because they are comfortable with you and want the same acceptance and love they received beforehand. Your reaction to the news is like you being the first person someone sees after they wake up from a coma. That reaction is imprinted in their memory. It won’t be forgotten because they had put so much effort and thought into how their coming out to you would impact your friendship. Covid-19 helped more students come out from hiding and tell close friends about their LGBTQ identities, knowing that isolation from the large community offered them a blanket of protection.

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