Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coming Out in Middle School

September 23, 2009

Austin didn’t know what to wear to his first gay dance last spring. It was bad enough that the gangly 13-year-old from Sand Springs, Okla., had to go without his boyfriend at the time, a 14-year-old star athlete at another middle school, but there were also laundry issues. “I don’t have any clean clothes!” he complained to me by text message, his favored method of communication.

Austin, 13, near his school in Oklahoma.

When I met up with him an hour later, he had weathered his wardrobe crisis (he was in jeans and a beige T-shirt with musical instruments on it) but was still a nervous wreck. “I’m kind of scared,” he confessed. “Who am I going to talk to? I wish my boyfriend could come.” But his boyfriend couldn’t find anyone to give him a ride nor, Austin explained, could his boyfriend ask his father for one. “His dad would give him up for adoption if he knew he was gay,” Austin told me. “I’m serious. He has the strictest, scariest dad ever. He has to date girls and act all tough so that people won’t suspect.”

Austin doesn’t have to play “the pretend game,” as he calls it, anymore. At his middle school, he has come out to his close friends, who have been supportive. A few of his female friends responded that they were bisexual. “Half the girls I know are bisexual,” he said. He hadn’t planned on coming out to his mom yet, but she found out a week before the dance. “I told my cousin, my cousin told this other girl, she told her mother, her mother told my mom and then my mom told me,” Austin explained. “The only person who really has a problem with it is my older sister, who keeps saying: ‘It’s just a phase! It’s just a phase!’ ”

Austin’s mom was on vacation in another state during my visit to Oklahoma, so a family friend drove him to the weekly youth dance at the Openarms Youth Project in Tulsa, which is housed in a white cement-block building next to a redbrick Baptist church on the east side of town. We arrived unfashionably on time, and Austin tried to park himself on a couch in a corner but was whisked away by Ben, a 16-year-old Openarms regular, who gave him an impromptu tour and introduced him to his mom, who works the concession area most weeks.

Openarms is practically overrun with supportive moms. While Austin and Ben were on the patio, a 14-year-old named Nick arrived with his mom. Nick came out to her when he was 12 but had yet to go on a date or even kiss a boy, which prompted his younger sister to opine that maybe he wasn’t actually gay. “She said, ‘Maybe you’re bisexual,’ ” Nick told me. “But I don’t have to have sex with a girl to know I’m not interested.”

Ninety minutes after we arrived, Openarms was packed with about 130 teenagers who had come from all corners of the state. Some danced to the Lady Gaga song “Poker Face,” others battled one another in pool or foosball and a handful of young couples held hands on the outdoor patio. In one corner, a short, perky eighth-grade girl kissed her ninth-grade girlfriend of one year. I asked them where they met. “In church,” they told me. Not far from them, a 14-year-old named Misti — who came out to classmates at her middle school when she was 12 and weathered anti-gay harassment and bullying, including having food thrown at her in the cafeteria — sat on a wooden bench and cuddled with a new girlfriend.

Austin had practically forgotten about his boyfriend. Instead, he was confessing to me — mostly by text message, though we were standing next to each other — his crush on Laddie, a 16-year-old who had just moved to Tulsa from a small town in Texas. Like Austin, Laddie was attending the dance for the first time, but he came off as much more comfortable in his skin and had a handful of admirers on the patio. Laddie told them that he came out in eighth grade and that the announcement sent shock waves through his Texas school.

“I definitely lost some friends,” he said, “but no one really made fun of me or called me names, probably because I was one of the most popular kids when I came out. I don’t think I would have come out if I wasn’t popular.”

“When I first realized I was gay,” Austin interjected, “I just assumed I would hide it and be miserable for the rest of my life. But then I said, ‘O.K., wait, I don’t want to hide this and be miserable my whole life.’ ”

I asked him how old he was when he made that decision.

“Eleven,” he said.

As the dance wound down and the boys waited for their rides home, I joined Tim Gillean, one of Openarms’s founders, in the D.J. booth, where he was preparing to play the Rihanna song “Disturbia.” An affable 52-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, he founded Openarms in 2002 with his longtime partner, Ken Draper. In addition to the weekly dances, the couple lead discussion groups every Thursday — about self-esteem, healthy relationships and H.I.V./AIDS.

Support: Austin, a gay 15-year-old from Michigan, with his mother, Nadia.

When I asked Gillean if he ever expected kids as young as Nick and Austin to show up at Openarms, he chuckled and shook his head. Like many adult gay men who came out in college or later, Gillean couldn’t imagine openly gay middle-school students. “But here they are,” he said, looking out over the crowd. “More and more of them every week.”

I heard similar accounts from those who work with gay youth all across the country. Though most adolescents who come out do so in high school, sex researchers and counselors say that middle-school students are increasingly coming out to friends or family or to an adult in school. Just how they’re faring in a world that wasn’t expecting them — and that isn’t so sure a 12-year-old can know if he’s gay — is a complicated question that defies simple geographical explanations. Though gay kids in the South and in rural areas tend to have a harder time than those on the coasts, I met gay youth who were doing well in socially conservative areas like Tulsa and others in progressive cities who were afraid to come out.

What is clear is that for many gay youth, middle school is more survival than learning — one parent of a gay teenager I spent time with likened her child’s middle school to a “war zone.” In a 2007 survey of 626 gay, bisexual and transgender middle-schoolers from across the country by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (Glsen), 81 percent reported being regularly harassed on campus because of their sexual orientation. Another 39 percent reported physical assaults. Of the students who told teachers or administrators about the bullying, only 29 percent said it resulted in effective intervention.

A middle-school counselor in Maine summed up the view of many educators I spoke to when she conceded that her school was “totally unprepared” for openly gay students. “We always knew middle school was a time when kids struggle with their identity,” she told me, “but it was easy to let anti-gay language slide because it’s so imbedded in middle-school culture and because we didn’t have students who were out to us or their classmates. Now we do, so we’re playing catch up to try to keep them safe.”

As a response to anti-gay bullying and harassment, at least 120 middle schools across the country have formed gay-straight alliance (G.S.A.) groups, where gay and lesbian students — and their straight peers — meet to brainstorm strategies for making their campus safer. Other schools are letting students be part of the national Day of Silence each April (participants take a vow of silence for a day to symbolize the silencing effect of anti-gay harassment), which last year was held in memory of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old gay junior-high student in Oxnard, Calif., who was shot and killed at school by a 14-year-old classmate.

Both G.S.A.’s and the Day of Silence have been controversial in places, as some parents and faculty members object to what they see as the promotion of homosexuality in public schools and the “premature sexualization of the students,” as a lawyer for a school in central Florida that was fighting the creation of a G.S.A. put it. But there is a growing consensus among parents and middle-school educators that something needs to be done to curb anti-gay bullying, which a 2008 study at an all-male school by researchers at the University of Nebraska and Harvard Medical School found to be the most psychologically harmful type of bullying.

“I certainly don’t believe school districts should force a sexual agenda on the community,” says Finn Laursen, the executive director of the Christian Educators Association International, “but we can’t just put our heads in the sand and ignore the kind of harassment that’s going on.”

The challenging school experience of so many gay and lesbian students — and the suicides last spring of a sixth grader in Massachusetts and a fifth grader in Georgia, both of whom were relentlessly bullied at school for appearing gay — reinforces the longtime narrative of gay youth in crisis. Studies in the ’80s and ’90s found gay teenagers to be at a significantly higher risk for depression, substance abuse and suicide than their heterosexual peers.

When I went to work in 1998 for XY, a national magazine for young gay men, we received dozens of letters each week from teenagers in the depths of despair. Some had been thrown out by their families; others lived at home but were reminded often that they were intrinsically flawed. My arrival at XY (at 23, I was only three years out of the closet myself) coincided with the founding of the Trevor Project, which runs a national 24-hour crisis and suicide hot line for gay and questioning youth, and with the firstlarge wave of G.S.A.’s in high schools. (They are now in more than 4,000 high schools, according to Glsen.)

But by the time I stopped writing for the magazine nearly three years later, the content of the letters we received was beginning to change. A new kind of gay adolescent was appearing on the page — proud, resilient, sometimes even happy. We profiled many of them in the magazine, including a seventh grader in suburban Philadelphia who was out to his classmates and a high-school varsity-football player from Massachusetts who came out to his teammates and was shocked to find unconditional support.

That’s not to say that gay teenagers didn’t still suffer harassment at school or rejection at home, but many seemed less burdened with shame and self-loathing than their older gay peers. What had changed? Not only were there increasingly accurate and positive portrayals of gays and lesbians in popular culture, but most teenagers were by then regular Internet users. Going online broke through the isolation that had been a hallmark of being young and gay, and it allowed gay teenagers to find information to refute what their families or churches sometimes still told them — namely, that they would never find happiness and love.

Today, nearly a decade after my time at XY, young people with same-sex attractions are increasingly coming out and living lives that would be “nearly incomprehensible to earlier generations of gay youth,” Ritch Savin-Williams writes in his book “The New Gay Teenager.” A professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, Savin-Williams told me recently that being young and gay is no longer an automatic prescription for a traumatic childhood.

In particular, openly gay youth who are perceived as conforming to adolescent gender norms are often fully integrated into their peer and school social circles. Girls who come out as bisexual but are still considered “feminine” are often immune from harassment, as are some gay boys, like Laddie, who come out but are still considered “masculine.” “Bisexual girls have it the easiest,” Austin told me in Oklahoma. “Most of the straight guys at school think that’s hot, so that can make the girl even more popular.”

Still, the younger they are when they come out, the more that youth with same-sex attractions face an obstacle that would be unimaginable to their straight peers. When a 12-year-old boy matter-of-factly tells his parents — or a school counselor — that he likes girls, their reaction tends not to be one of disbelief, dismissal or rejection. “No one says to them: ‘Are you sure? You’re too young to know if you like girls. It’s probably just a phase,’ ” says Eileen Ross, the director of the Outlet Program, a support service for gay youth in Mountain View, Calif. “But that’s what we say too often to gay youth. We deny them their feelings and truth in a way we would never do with a heterosexual young person.”

I was guilty of my share of that, too, the first time I met Kera — then a 12-year-old seventh grader — and her 13-year-old best friend, Justin, last spring in a city in New England. Kera had small, delicate features. Justin had freckles and braces. They seemed like kids. Yet there they were at a bookstore coffee shop after school, talking nonchalantly — when they weren’t giggling uncontrollably about one of their many inside jokes, that is — about their sexual identities. Kera said she was bisexual. Justin said he was gay. The effect was initially surreal to me, and before long I heard myself blurt out, “But you’re so young!”

My reaction surprised me. After all, I’d known on some level that I was gay when I was their age. If I were growing up today, it’s possible that I would feel emboldened enough to confide in my parents, or at least a close friend, that I was gay. I’d also spent the morning of my visit reading a handful of studies about when gay and lesbian youth first report an awareness of same-sex attraction. Though most didn’t self-identify as gay or lesbian until they were 14, 15 or 16, the mean age at which they first became aware of that attraction was 10. Boys tended to be aware about a year earlier than girls. (Of course, not all kids with same-sex attractions go on to self-identify as gay.)

Those findings are consistent with what many adult gay men have been reporting for years: they may not have come out until adulthood, but they knew they were attracted to the same sex as early as elementary or middle school. Kera and Justin knew that, too, but they’re among the first generation of young gay adolescents to take on an identity that many parents and educators associate with adult lifestyle choices.

Kera says she was 10 when she realized she was interested in both sexes. “It was confusing for a while, because for some reason I thought that you had to be straight or gay, and that you couldn’t be both,” she told me at the coffee shop. “So I thought about it a lot, like I do about everything, and I went online and looked up bisexuality to read more about it. I realized that was me.”

She told her mom soon after (more on that later) and then came out to her close friends at school, including Justin, who she had suspected was gay. Last year, the entire school found out when she briefly dated a female classmate. “We didn’t think we had anything to be ashamed of, so we didn’t want to go around hiding,” she told me. “It was a whole big drama at school. Some guys made fun of us, others hit on us. Most middle-school guys are total, complete morons.”

Though he wishes he could be as “brave” as Kera, Justin is out to only a few friends at school. “I lie when people ask me if I’m gay,” he told me. “Sometimes they leave me alone after that, but other times they still call me names.”

Kera doesn’t back down when someone harasses her or one of her gay friends. “I don’t want to be a bully back, but if I get mad, I will say mean things back,” she told me, adding that she has gotten into two fights at school.

Middle school was even worse last year for another boy named Austin, who lives in a small town in Michigan. A tall, heavyset 15-year-old now in his first year of high school, Austin said his eighth-grade classmates regularly called him the “gay freak.” They groped themselves in front of him. Not a day went by when someone didn’t call him a “fag,” sometimes with teachers present. And at a football game last fall, several classmates forced him off the bleachers because it wasn’t “the queer section.”

“I would have preferred that he not come out in school, but he wanted to be honest — he wanted to be true to himself,” Austin’s mother, Nadia, told me. “So I took a job as the lunch lady at school because I felt like I needed to be his bodyguard. It seems like I spent the entire year in the principal’s office trying to get them to protect my son. But they would say things like, ‘Well, what did he do to provoke them?’ We live in a very conservative area with very vocal parents, and I believe the school didn’t want to be seen as going out of their way at all to protect a gay student.”

The school’s principal would not comment specifically about Austin, but he insisted that the school “does not tolerate harassment and bullying of any kind.” He did concede that teachers don’t react to anti-gay language as consistently as he would like, which is something I also heard from a counselor at Kera’s school. “We have veteran teachers who have been teaching for 25 years, and some just see the language as so imbedded in the language of middle-schoolers that it’s essentially unchangeable,” she said. “Others are afraid to address the language because they feel like it would mean talking about sexuality, which they aren’t comfortable doing in a middle school setting.”

Jennifer Mathieu Blessington, who teaches at Johnston Middle School in Houston, said she has been forced to address the issue in her class. “Many boys at that age are so unsure of themselves and are incredibly worried about being perceived as gay, so they call everything and everyone else gay,” she told me. She relayed to me a recent incident when a boy in her class held up a book with a pink cover and said he wouldn’t want to read it because it “looks gay.” “Everyone in the class started laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard,” Blessington continued, “but I said: ‘We don’t use the word “gay” in a negative way in this classroom. Gay people are human beings, and that’s the way we talk about them in here. Is that understood?’ ”

By far the most common usage of the word “gay” in middle schools is in the expression “that’s so gay,” a popular adolescent phrase that means that something is dumb or lame. The phrase has become so ubiquitous in the culture of the average middle school that even friends of gay students sometimes use it. Still, the expression is offensive to many, and last year Glsen and the Ad Council embarked on a media campaign to combat it. (Glsen would have preferred to go after more incendiary language, “but broadcasters would be very reluctant to let us say the word ‘faggot’ on television,” Eliza Byard, Glsen’s executive director, told me.)

Though the commercials (featuring the celebrities Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes) are aimed at teenagers, many of those who work with gay youth say that teachers also need to get the message. “Teachers would never let students say, ‘That’s so black,’ ” says Eileen Ross from the Outlet Program in Mountain View, “but I’ve had teachers look at me like I’m crazy when I suggest that they should say something to a student who says ‘that’s so gay.’ They’ll say, ‘If I have to stop what I’m doing every time a student says that, I won’t have any time to teach!’ ”

A few years ago, when I first heard from educators that young adolescents were coming out of the closet, I visited a middle school in Northern California where three eighth graders (a gay boy named Justin and two heterosexual girls, Alison and Amelia) took me on a tour of the school. They wanted to show me how many students were gay, bisexual or “confused,” but they wanted to do it discreetly — or as discreetly as middle-schoolers can.

All three were members of the school’s G.S.A. “Even though this is a liberal area,” Alison explained, “it’s still hard to be gay at this school. Most people won’t even come to G.S.A. meetings because they don’t want people other than their close friends to know they’re gay or lesbians, even though straight people also come to meetings. I get called a lesbian all the time even though I’m not.” She continued, “People are totally paranoid.” She suggested that they “come up with some code words on the down low so we can tell you what’s up without anyone knowing what we’re saying!” (They settled on “paw” for gay and “woof” for bisexual.)

As we walked past the gym, a group of boys came rushing out. Justin pointed to a short, muscular eighth grader in a baseball cap. “Paw!” he said.

Alison looked surprised. “Isn’t he a woof?”

“No, he just thinks he’s a woof,” Justin said.

Amelia looked confused. “What does woof mean again?”

A minute later, they fixed their gaze on a boy sitting against a wall listening to his iPod. “Paw,” Alison told me. “I mean woof!”

“Yeah, he’ll make out with anyone,” Justin confirmed. “Totally bisexual.”

“No, he’s not!” Amelia said, apparently distraught by the news.

“Oh, stop getting all mad just ’cause you like him,” Alison told her. “Everyone knows he’s a woof.”

After pointing out a handful of girls who are “definitely woofs,” Alison turned to me and recalled a recent “lesbian moment” of hers. “I totally had the hots for this girl in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ” she said with a giggle. “I was, like, ‘Whoa, I’m really attracted to you right now!’ ”

“Jesus was hot in that, too,” Justin offered.

Midway through our tour we were joined by Sayre, a handsome and soft-spoken 12-year-old. Sayre was one of the few students at the school who was out to everyone, which had earned him the respect of the G.S.A.’s dozen or so members. “I really admire him,” Justin told me as we walked. “I’ve only come out to my close friends, but Sayre doesn’t care what people think.”

I asked Sayre if he was interested in any boys at the school. “I like this one guy over there,” he said, pointing toward classmates playing soccer on a grass field, “but I think he’s straight, so that’s probably not going to happen.” A few minutes later, Sayre added that he was in no rush to start dating. “It’s not like I have a lot of options anyway,” he said, echoing what I would go on to hear from many gay middle-schoolers. “I like guys who are nice and caring and don’t act like jerks to everyone. But this is middle school, where guys think it’s funny to pick their nose and fart really loud and laugh.”

As we came to the end of our tour, we approached a handful of boys sitting in a circle on the pavement eating lunch. “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!” Justin said, barely able to contain himself. “They’re all woofs.” One boy heard him and turned to us. “What’s a woof?” he asked us.

“Never mind,” Justin said.

“I don’t think he’s really a woof,” Alison told me, referring to a boy in the circle. “I think he’s straight but just confused.”

“He’s not confused,” Justin assured her. “Hes confused,” he said, referring to another boy in the circle. “He doesn’t know what he is. He changes his mind a lot.”

I was certainly confused trying to keep track of it all, but Alison told me not to worry. “We can’t even keep up with who’s gay or bi and who’s into who, and we go to school here!” she said.

All of this fluidity, confusion and experimentation can be understandably disorienting for parents and educators. Is an eighth grader who says he’s gay just experimenting? Could he change his mind in a week, as 13-year-olds routinely do with other identities — skater, prep, goth, jock — they try on for a while and then shed for another? And if sexuality is so fluid, should he really box himself in with a gay identity? Many parents told me they especially struggled with that last question.

Nadia, the mother of Austin in Michigan, told me that she and her husband “blew up” at him when he came out to them. “I really lost it, and my husband took it even harder than I did,” she said. “We just couldn’t wrap our heads around the idea that Austin would know what he was at 13, and that he would want to tell other people.”

A year earlier they asked Austin if he was gay after they discovered his call to a gay chat line. He promised them that he was straight, and he promised himself that he would cover his tracks better. It’s not uncommon for gay youth to have their same-sex attraction discovered thanks to a rogue number on a phone bill or, more often these days, a poorly concealed Internet search history. “We see a lot of kids get outed by porn on the computer,” Tim Gillean told me in Tulsa. “I knew one kid who told his mom: ‘I don’t know how that got there. Maybe it was dad!’ ”

Austin eventually ended up telling his parents he was bisexual, which he knew was a lie (he wasn’t attracted to girls) but which he hoped would lessen the blow. But the plan backfired. “My mom said something like: ‘What does that mean, you’re bisexual? Do you just wake up in the morning and willy-nilly decide what you’re going to be that day? Straight yesterday, bi today, gay tomorrow?’ ” Austin recalled. “For the next two months my parents tried to convince me that I couldn’t know what I was. But I knew I was different in second grade — I just didn’t really put a name to it until I was 11. My parents said, ‘How do you know what your sexuality is if you haven’t had any sexual experiences?’ I was like, ‘Should I go and have one and then report back?’ ”

While Austin’s mother correctly assumed that Austin wasn’t yet sexually active, other parents heard the words “gay” or “bisexual” and immediately thought “sex.” In reality, many of their kids hadn’t had any yet. Some (including Kera’s friend Justin) hadn’t even kissed anyone. Those who had been sexual in some form often reported that it was with a heterosexual friend who they presumed was just experimenting.

Though many of the parents I spoke to needed a period of adjustment before accepting their children’s announcement that they were gay or bisexual, others offered immediate and unequivocal support. “The biggest difference I’ve seen in the last 10 years isn’t with gay kids — it’s with their families,” says Dan Woog, an openly gay varsity boys’ soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., who helped found a gay-straight alliance at his school in 1993. “Many parents just don’t assume anymore that their kids will have a sad, difficult life just because they’re gay.”

That was certainly the case for Kera’s mother, who told me she hardly batted an eye when Kera came out to her. I visited them last spring in their small two-story house on a quiet street in a middle-class neighborhood. We sat at the kitchen table. Kera’s mother, who had just finished her shift as a nurse, hadn’t had time to change out of her blue scrubs.

Kera handed me a poem she wrote for her mom a year earlier. “It’s not one of my best,” she insisted, covering her ears in embarrassment after she agreed that I could read a portion of it into my tape recorder.

I like girls. I know it’s true

I like girls, I really do

Not just boys, but girls as well

I’m bisexual as you can tell

“My first reaction to the poem, which she slipped under my bedroom door before going to hide in her room, was that she seemed really worked up about this,” her mother recalled. “But I knew I was interested in boys when I was her age, so it didn’t strike me as unusual that Kera might know she’s interested in boys and girls, put two and two together and call herself bisexual. Kids just know what those words mean a lot earlier than when I was growing up.”

On the national Day of Silence last April, I visited Daniel Webster Middle School in Los Angeles, one of 21 middle schools in California with a G.S.A. California is one of only 12 states that have passed laws to protect students from bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. (In May, Representative Linda Sanchez of California introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal anti-bullying bill that would require schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies that include protections for gay students.)

I arrived at Daniel Webster, a school of some 850 students, most of them Hispanic or African-American, at lunchtime. About 50 kids milled around two large wooden tables at the center of the school’s leafy courtyard. Many of them wore pink T-shirts, and some filled out cards that would later be strung together and displayed: “You Are What You Are — Embrace It,” “Never Put Someone Down, and Never Let Someone Put You Down.” Others communicated using hand gestures or by writing notes to one another. But most had given up trying to be mute. “Good luck getting middle-schoolers not to talk,” the school’s counselor and G.S.A. co-adviser at the time, Ruben Valerio, told me with a smile.

One of the loudest students at the tables was Johnny (a nickname), a tall, handsome seventh grader. A leader of the G.S.A., he had only managed to stay quiet for about 30 seconds that morning. “It’s just really exciting to be at a school where it’s O.K. to be gay,” he told me as he bear-hugged his friend, an outgoing seventh grader known to her friends as Lala, who’d come out earlier that year as bisexual. At his previous school, Johnny didn’t feel safe and had little support when he came out to his mother. “She would go back and forth between saying things like: ‘I love you. I just don’t understand why you would choose this lifestyle at this age,’ to ‘It’s disgusting what you’re doing. Are you a faggot now?’ No one would ever use that word here.”

Johnny estimated that there were about 35 girls and 10 boys at Daniel Webster who were out as bisexual, lesbian or gay. (The vast majority of those girls identified as bisexual.) He introduced me to a handful of them, including two members of the G.S.A.: Tina (also a nickname), a seventh grader who considered herself bisexual and was dating a boy at another school; and a popular eighth-grade girl who used to date Tina.

They were joined at the tables by dozens of their straight friends and a handful of teachers. One teacher, Richard Mandl, approached me and asked what I thought of the school. I told him that I’d never seen so many happy gay kids in one place. “It’s a little disorienting,” I told him. “I feel like I’m in a parallel gay universe.”

He laughed. “Yeah, it’s pretty unusual what’s happened here,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t always this way.”

When Mandl began teaching at the school in 2002, he said that there weren’t any openly gay students — and that it was common to hear anti-gay language. “Kids would run by you and be screaming at another kid: ‘You fag! You’re so gay!’ ” he said. “It wasn’t until a few years ago when the faculty sort of came together and said: ‘You know what? We need to stop this.’ ”

That became a lot easier two years ago when one of the school’s most popular boys came out to his classmates. Because he was so well liked, and because so many of his friends rallied around him, “it became cooler at Daniel Webster to be accepting and open-minded,” Mandl said.

The principal, Kendra Wallace, told me that she didn’t hesitate when the school’s science teacher approached her (on behalf of the boy and several of his friends) about starting a G.S.A. “I had some staff who were livid at first, because they thought it would be about sex, or us endorsing a lifestyle,” she said. “But the G.S.A. isn’t about that, and they’ve come around. This is a club that promotes safety, and it gives kids a voice. And the most amazing thing has happened since the G.S.A. started. Bullying of all kinds is way down. The G.S.A. created this pervasive anti-bullying culture on campus that affects everyone.”

Not all principals have reacted as enthusiastically to students or teachers hoping to start a G.S.A. (Teachers often wait for students to make the request, because they don’t want to be perceived as “having a political agenda,” as one school counselor told me.) At a middle school in Massachusetts, the G.S.A. adviser told me that the school’s principal initially balked when students asked to observe the Day of Silence and start a G.S.A. “She argued that it wasn’t age-appropriate, and she worried about having to deal with negative editorials in the local paper,” the adviser said. But because the school had other extracurricular clubs, “the principal was made aware that blocking a G.S.A. from forming is against the law.”

Indeed, courts — citing the Equal Access Act, which requires public schools to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs — have consistently ruled against schools that try to block G.S.A.’s from starting. (The 1984 law was the brainchild of Christian groups fighting to allow students to form religious clubs in schools.)

When Yulee High School in northeast Florida was forced by a federal judge last spring to let a G.S.A. meet on campus, the school asked students to change the name of their proposed club to something other than Gay Straight Alliance. The students refused, and a court backed them up in August. Administrators at Austin’s middle school in Michigan used the same tactic when he tried to start a G.S.A. there, he said. “They told me I needed to change the name to something ‘less controversial,’ ” Austin recalled. “I didn’t feel like fighting them, so I just called it the Peace Alliance.”

And because there were so few openly gay students at Austin’s middle school last year, all but 2 of the 15 or so students who attended each meeting were straight. At G.S.A. meetings at Daniel Webster, gay and straight members spend two periods a week reading and discussing news stories about gay issues, organizing events like the Day of Silence and talking about navigating the outside world — which isn’t always as supportive as their campus. Lala, for example, said the backing of the G.S.A. was critical when she came out to her family.

“They’re a lot better now, but the first thing one of my relatives did when I told them I was bisexual was hit me on the head with a Bible,” she told me. “So while I was dealing with that insanity at home, I at least had a safe place at school to talk about what was happening.”

Later that day, as I sat in a conference room with a handful of the G.S.A members from Daniel Webster, they spent a lot of time talking about dating. Asking 13- or 14-year-olds if they think they’re old enough to date is a little like asking them if they’re old enough to stay up past 11, so I didn’t even bother. I was more interested in learning how their parents reacted to the news that they not only had gay kids — but also that those kids had same-sex boyfriends or girlfriends.

Tina surprised me when she said her father actually prefers that she date girls. “His biggest fear has always been that I’ll get pregnant before I’m 18,” she told us, “so my dad’s really supportive of the girl thing.”

Johnny said his mom has made it very clear that he’s not allowed to bring a boyfriend over to the house. “She’s like, ‘O.K., I accept you, but you better not bring any of those people around,’ ” he told me.

That’s one of about 50 “rejecting behaviors” identified by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, who has spent the last eight years studying the link between family acceptance or rejection of gay children and their mental health in early adulthood. (Ryan found that teenagers in “rejecting families” were significantly more likely to have attempted suicide, used drugs and engaged in unprotected sex than those who were raised in accepting families.)

Of course, many parents of middle-schoolers don’t want their child dating yet, no matter their sexual orientation. But several parents I spoke to conceded that it wasn’t always easy to fashion the same rules for their gay and straight kids. Their instinct was to tell their gay children to wait longer before they could date. Austin from Michigan said he could see the struggle playing out in his parents. “When I came out, they said I couldn’t date anyone until I was 18,” he said. “Then I think they realized that was ridiculous, so they changed it to 16.”

In a rural area outside of Tulsa a few years ago, I visited a mother and her 14-year-old gay son, Ely, who were struggling to fashion the rules of when, and in what context, he could date. I listened as Ely tried to persuade his mother to let his latest crush spend time in his room (“With the door shut,” he clarified):

Ely: So, can we hang out in my room?

Mother: I don’t trust you two alone in there. Period.

Ely: What about if there are no body parts touching?

Mother: You don’t have that kind of self-control.

Ely: Yes, I do!

Mother: No you don’t. How old is he again?

Ely: 15.

Mother: And he has a shaved head and piercings everywhere. Is this who you really want to date?

Ely: All kinds of people have shaved heads.

Mother: I don’t think you’re ready to have a relationship right now.

Ely: Ugh.

Mother: I know, I know, you can’t wait to move away from me. You have the most unfair mother in the world!

As I listened to them bicker, I couldn’t help remembering what Ritch Savin-Williams, the professor of developmental psychology at Cornell, told me the first time we spoke: “This is the first generation of gay kids who have the great joy of being able to argue with their parents about dating, just like their straight peers do.”

Though dating and sexual activity were a reality for some of the middle-schoolers I spent time with, others were more concerned with simply making gay friends their age. Those who attended a school with other openly gay students or who lived near a gay youth group (Openarms in Tulsa, for example) were the lucky ones. But many, like Austin in Michigan, had never met another openly gay boy.

“He has his close girl friends, but he doesn’t have any gay friends,” his mother told me. To meet other gay people, he has gone with his father to nearby meetings of Pflag (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), where gay kids often accompany their parents. And in June, she agreed to let him attend the gay-pride parade two hours away in Chicago.

“I told Austin he could go if either me or his dad went with him,” she recalled. “So he chose his dad, probably because he knew it would be the thing his dad would want to do least in the world. But off they went, and I give my husband credit, because he will do anything for his son. He doesn’t totally understand why Austin is gay, or how he can know for sure at his age, but he’s trying to be there for him. And he’s rarely seen Austin happier than at the parade. Austin warned his dad, ‘You can’t get mad at me when I scream at cute guys in Speedos!’ And boy, did Austin scream. He was in gay teenage heaven.”


Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of “America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life.” His new book, “American Voyeur,” a collection of his writing, will be published in January.

Photos by Brent Humphreys for The New York Times

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Iowa Same-Sex Marriage Poll: 92% Say It Hasn't Impacted Their Lives

Iowa Poll: Iowans evenly divided on gay marriage ban


© 2009, Des Moines Register and Tribune Co.

September 21, 2009

Iowans are almost evenly divided about whether they would vote for or against a constitutional amendment to end marriage for same-sex couples, according to The Des Moines Register's new Iowa Poll.

Forty-one percent say they would vote for a ban, and 40 percent say they would vote to continue gay marriage. The rest either would not vote or say they are not sure.

The most intensity about the issue shows up among opponents. The percentage of Iowans who say they strongly oppose gay marriage (35 percent) is nearly double the percentage who say they strongly favor it (18 percent).

The overwhelming majority of Iowans - 92 percent - say gay marriage has brought no real change to their lives.

Sixty-three percent say candidates' stands on other issues will be more important in making their decisions in the 2010 elections.

This is the first Iowa Poll to examine opinions on the issue since the Iowa Supreme Court in April overturned the state's statutory ban on same-sex marriage.

The newspaper's poll of 803 Iowans ages 18 and older was conducted Sept. 14 to 16 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines.

The poll has a possible margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The poll shows that 26 percent of Iowans favor April's unanimous court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, 43 percent oppose it and 31 percent don't care much or are not sure.

Despite the 43 percent opposition to the ruling, 61 percent of Iowans say other issues will influence their decision on whether to vote to retain Iowa Supreme Court justices in the 2010 elections.

"It's really none of my business what other people do in their lives," said Curt Goodell, 38, a Johnston resident.

He identifies himself as a Republican but said he worries his party will try to make marriage a key issue in coming elections. "I don't have any judgment toward people who want to get married: gays, straight or whatever," Goodell said.

John Smith, 50, a Republican from Clarinda, opposes gay marriage because of religious reasons, but he supports civil unions.

"I'm going to nursing school now, and part of the nursing code is to be nonjudgmental," Smith said. "In hospitals, if a same-sex partner couldn't visit or get information about their partner's health? I just think that's wrong."

Immediately after the April ruling, Republicans in the Iowa Senate and House lobbied for a vote to amend the Iowa Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Democratic leaders blocked those attempts.

The court decision turned national attention to Iowa, the first Midwestern state to make same-sex marriage legal.

The issue has taken on prominence in the early stages of the 2010 race for governor, as potential Republican candidates jockey for favor with primary voters.

Also on the 2010 ballot are all 100 Iowa House seats, 25 of the 50 Senate seats and the positions of state treasurer, auditor, secretary of state and attorney general.

Few poll respondents who described themselves as Republicans say the court decision is the single most important issue in the 2010 elections. But more than a third of Republicans say it is among several important issues, while only about a quarter of Democrats put it in that category.

Former state Republican Chairman Mike Mahaffey said the poll shows that, as the party searches for a winning message, the economy trumps marriage among voters.

"I think all of the candidates are going to state that they believe the people ought to be given the right to vote on a constitutional amendment. That's a reasonable approach," Mahaffey said. "I also think when it comes down to it, the overriding issues are going to be what can we do to create jobs and put ourselves in a better position fiscally."

Celinda Lake, a national Democratic pollster, has polled on the issue of gay marriage in Iowa since 2004. She said the minority of Iowans who consider the court decision a top ballot-box issue is consistent with her research.

"What we found is Iowa has always had fewer single-issue voters on gay marriage than a lot of other states even in the Midwest," Lake said. "Now what we're seeing nationwide, the issue has really receded. So, people are not particularly focused on it as a voting issue."

National advocacy groups for and against the ruling have spent tens of thousands of dollars campaigning in Iowa. The Register's poll could perhaps give hope to both sides, since it indicates a close contest if a vote were held now.

"Wherever this has been put on the ballot, there's been a pretty spirited education campaign on both sides," said Chuck Hurley, a former Republican legislator and now president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, a group opposing gay marriage.

David Redlawsk, a former political science professor at the University of Iowa, took note of the finding that almost all Iowans say the ruling has had no impact upon their lives.

"Given how hard it is to amend the constitution, by the time a vote will happen, this will be the new normal," Redlawsk said. "There's a core that oppose it and always will, but, for most people, they're ready to move on."

Census sheds light on same-sex marriages

Census sheds light on same-sex marriages

150,000 couples reported being in 'husband' and 'wife' relationships

Image: Ethan Collings and his spouse Stephen Abate hug
Ethan Collings, left, 32, and his spouse, Stephen Abate, 36, hug as they celebrate their wedding anniversary on June 16 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters file

From The Associate Press -
September 21, 2009

WASHINGTON - Nearly 150,000 same-sex couples reported being in marriage relationships last year, many more than the number of actual weddings and civil unions, according to the first U.S. census figures released on same-sex marriages.

About 27 percent of the estimated 564,743 total gay couples in the United States said they were in a relationship akin to "husband" and "wife," according to the Census Bureau tally provided to The Associated Press. That's compared with 91 percent of the 61.3 million total opposite-sex couples who reported being married.

A consultant to the Census Bureau estimated there were roughly 100,000 official same-sex weddings, civil unions and domestic partnerships in 2008.

Analysts said the disparities are probably a reflection of same-sex couples in committed relationships who would get married if they could in their states. The numbers are also an indicator of the count to come in the 2010 census, a tally that could stir a state-by-state fight over same-sex marriage, gay adoption and other legal rights.

Nationwide, about 56 percent of the 149,956 total same-sex marriages in the census survey last year were lesbian couples. Same-sex spouses were reported in every state; specific breakdowns weren't immediately available.

"Even though in 2008 there were only a few states where you could get legally married, a large portion of same-sex couples either were married or chose to use that term," said Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA who is advising the Census Bureau.

Preparing for 2010 count

Gates reviewed the number of marriage licenses issued and other factors to estimate the number of same-sex couples in legal relationships. During 2008, same-sex marriage was legal in California, Massachusetts, Iowa and Connecticut, while a handful of other states recognized civil unions and domestic partnerships. U.S. same-sex couples also can marry in Canada and other foreign countries.

Curtis Chin, 41, and Jeff Kim, 43, of Los Angeles, are among those who plan to report to the census that they are spouses. The two were planning a big wedding for 2009 but rushed into a private legal ceremony last fall when it became clear that California voters would soon ban same-sex marriages. Chin says he and Kim won't feel like they are really married until they do a follow-up ceremony in front of family and friends but believe it's important to get a full count.

"Gay couples are getting married or in committed relationships, and we are out here," he said.

The numbers come as the Census Bureau prepares to make an official count of same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships for the first time in the 2010 head count, following the Obama administration's decision to provide the numbers under pressure from gay-rights groups.

The figures provided to the AP also included higher, previously unreleased numbers for the three previous years.

In 2007, 341,000 out of 753,618 total same-sex couples reported being in a marriage relationship, even though only about 11,000 marriage licenses had been issued in the country. The numbers were even higher for 2005 and 2006; about 390,000 each year reported being in a same-sex marriage out of nearly 780,000 reported gay couples.

Martin O'Connell, the Census Bureau's chief of the fertility and family statistics branch, attributed the higher numbers in previous years to a confusing survey layout and formatting errors. He said those problems were corrected for 2008.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Florida’s LGBT seniors seek resources, face concerns

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Magazine

Sep 9, 2009

SAGE South Florida is one of several organizations that advocate on behalf of the Sunshine State’s growing population of LGBT seniors.

SAGE South Florida is one of several organizations that advocate on behalf of the Sunshine State’s growing population of LGBT seniors.

Aging is a sensitive subject for any person. It often presents a difficult set of health challenges and life changes as one matures. For gay men and lesbians, however, a number of often unique issues exacerbate these concerns, but they remain taboo because of a failure to admit immunity to the aging process.

In South Florida, which is home to one of the largest populations of LGBT seniors in the country, SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) is one of several groups working on their behalf. And SAGE members are set to celebrate their 15th anniversary on Sunday with its annual cabaret dinner and dance at the Marriott in Fort Lauderdale.

SAGE of South Florida, which is part of a national network of similar organizations, offers a range of social and educational opportunities that including an annual cruise, discussion groups, dinner and theater meet-ups and a monthly series that features guest speakers and discussions about issues that affect LGBT elders. The organization’s membership is booming with more than 400 people.

South Florida SAGE president Carl Galli said he feels the organization makes a conscious effort to appeal to the varying interests of LGBT seniors, and to meet what he described as their palpable need for social interaction.

"When you start to be our age, it’s hard for some of us to find ways to socialize with people of our same attractions," Galli said. "We care about one another. If one of us is ill, we send out a get-well card or visit them. There’s an element of kinship and friendship to it which I believe is a very important part of what we do."

The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida also hosts a number of programs catered to aging LGBT persons. These include SAGE’s own weekly drop-in meetings and several other events including a support group, exercise program and an interactive "Name That Tune" event.

Ken Merrifield, chair of the GLCC Senior Advisory Council, agreed the Center’s senior programming plays a crucial role in the lives of those who turn out.

"We had someone who was near suicide, the most depressed person I’d ever seen ... We took him under our wing and has had a major turnaround."
"Many of them are retired, live alone and aren’t working so they need and want social contact," Merrifield, who spearheaded the effort to integrate senior events into the GLCC’s calendar, said. "They’d prefer it, of course, with other gay people and that’s a big reason why they come to the events."

Social events aside, serious health threats to the ever-growing numbers of LGBT seniors, who often have a harder time securing insurance benefits than their straight counterparts, persist. People over the age of 50 today make up the fastest-growing segment of those living with HIV. Between the years of 1990 and 2005, Local Department of Health studies report the number of AIDS cases among those over 50 have increased 700 percent, and a large percentage of those infected are gay.

"You don’t typically see prevention messages that relate to [seniors] and tell them to get tested," Michael Ruppel of the Tampa-based AIDS Institute said. "They’re getting diagnosed while under care for other issues that come with the aging process."

Depression also presents a major problem. It can be linked to increased substance abuse, suicide and other risk factors.

"As lesbians and gay people grow older, they may not have families and we increasingly see senior citizens dealing with isolation," Equality Florida spokesperson Brian Winfield shared. "This can be dangerous in terms of their physical well-being by not having someone to check in on them and also mentally. It’s so important to keep a social network and have friends in order to avoid depression issues."

Indeed, it seems it is truly the simple things-coffee, conversation or just a bite to eat-can make all the difference for aging LGBT seniors. When asked what he considered to be SAGE’s greatest success Galli recounted his experience with a man who recently came to a drop-in meeting.

"We had someone who was near suicide, the most depressed person I’d ever seen... We took him under our wing and has had a major turnaround," he said. "To see that someone can turn their lives around into a more positive outlook on life is more important to me than the number of people coming to any one group."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment in the Windy City.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Palm Beach: America’s First Resort Destination

by Ray Hunt
TripOut Gay Travel

Yes, yes… You’ve heard much about Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but if you want to experience a truly classic Florida resort destination you must check out Palm Beach. The easternmost town in Florida and truly a tropical paradise, Palm Beach is located on a barrier island across the Intercoastal Waterway from its less exclusive, but just as fabulous, sister: West Palm Beach. And get your glam self ready, as Palm Beach Island is the hideaway for the very rich. With neighbors like Elton John, Donald Trump and Ivana, too, you know that this town has everything a mogul or aspiring mogul, could want and need.

Palm Beach is considered “America’s First Resort Destination,” even historically so. At the turn of the century, Henry Flagler, the Standard Oil Company magnate, single-handedly created this opulent destination, building two hotel destinations to provide a winter escape for the well-heeled passengers escaping northern winters aboard his Florida East Coast Railway. What was once a desolate jungle of an island was quickly transformed to this playground for the rich and famous.

These days you’ll still find glamour and opulence in Palm Beach. Sun yourself on white sand beaches, stay at gorgeous hotels (resort or boutique), shop at famous couture houses and eat at some of the best restaurants that Florida has to offer. The best part is, once you have had your fill of high-end shopping, sunning, and relaxing, you can take a short ride across the bridge to West Palm Beach and immerse yourself in tons of gay activities, too.

Poshness aside, Palm Beach County is also a gay rights oasis in Florida. Since the early 1990s, the Palm Beaches have secured tons of rights for the LGBT community, including the oldest gay rights ordinances in effect in Florida. Laws that include affirmative action, housing anti-discrimination and domestic partnership are a part of what makes the Palm Beaches so attractive to the LGBT community. The gay rights pioneers of South Florida are even on the cutting edge of trans rights. In 2007, the Equal Opportunity Ordinance was extended to include gender identity and expression. Definitely check out the beautiful new digs of Compass, Palm Beach County’s LGBT center. It is the largest LGBT community center in the south east and the seventh largest in the nation. Providing tons of essential services to Palm Beach County, Compass truly is the heart and pulse of gay Palm Beach.

Who knows if it’s the LGBT rights track record or the tropical weather that brings the gays to live in the Palm Beaches? Either way, this warm and welcoming LGBT community loves to share what makes their neck of the woods Shangri-La. There is a wide array of activities always on offer, such as the ritualistic Thursday night pre-dinner cocktails at The Colony, evening drinks and cruising at HR Roosters or The Lounge, and shows by well-known cabaret artists at The Royal Room Supper Club. You can view the illustrious homes on Billionaires Row, shop on the exclusive Worth Avenue, do some world-class dining, troll along Antique Row, take a spa treatment at the new and gorgeous Eau Spa at the Ritz Carlton, or take a leisurely stroll through the Norton Museum. And, when you need some downtime, there is always the beach.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Where's The Change? Gay Activists Ask

National Public Radio September 1, 2009 2:17 PM

Vermont on Tuesday joined five other states that have given same-sex couples the right to marry. That situation was almost unimaginable a decade ago, when, after rancorous debate, the state became the first in the union to enact same-sex civil unions.

But despite the historic gains made by the nation's gay community, this year has largely been one of disappointment for many whose hopes were pinned on President Obama's promise of change after two terms of an openly hostile Republican administration.

"People were shellshocked from the last eight years," says Michael Joseph Gross, a New York-based writer whose recent piece about Obama and the gay community, "Hope and History," appeared in The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newsmagazine.

Obama supports civil unions, but he has never come out publicly in support of same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, Gross says, the gay community saw in Obama a fierce ally in the White House. And as recently as June, the president pledged to "bring the full spectrum of equal rights to LGBT Americans."

"This was supposed to be the easy part," Gross says.

It hasn't turned out that way.

Shock And Setbacks

Nearly eight months into Obama's administration, the gay community is restive.

The tone was set on Inauguration Day, when the newly elected president had megachurch Rev. Rick Warren, a vigorous opponent of same-sex marriage, deliver the invocation.

Warren's appearance on the dais with Obama came on the heels of California's Proposition 8, a voter-approved constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage mere months after the state Supreme Court had affirmed same-sex-marriage rights. Warren and Proposition 8 amounted to what many activists described as a one-two punch.

The punches, they say, continued. By May, Justice Department lawyers, obligated to respond to a court challenge in California, wrote a strong brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the federal law that bars same-sex couples from marrying or receiving benefits that typically flow from marriage.

Big Democratic donors, furious at the contents of the brief — which, in part, compared same-sex unions to incest and pedophilia — boycotted a major Democratic Party fundraiser in Washington. David Mixner, a former adviser to President Clinton, asserted that the brief "could have been written by the Rev. Pat Robertson," a conservative Christian who has said that gay marriage could lead to child molestation and bestiality.

Justice Department lawyers rewrote the brief last month, toning down the language and asserting that the administration views DOMA as "discriminatory and supports its repeal."

Go Slow, Or No Go?

The administration's slow action on issues important to LGBT Americans has also sown divisions and confusion within the ranks of movement leaders and grass-roots networks.

"There are divisions over what people think should be priorities," said one national organizer, who asked not to be identified.

Many generous donors, tapped out by the massively expensive and unsuccessful battle against Proposition 8, have opposed a movement to challenge the California ban next year, preferring, they say, to regroup for a 2012 presidential election-year push.

Some are questioning the costs of a planned October march on Washington, which has not drawn the support and enthusiasm organizers had hoped. Others are agitating against complacency, urging leaders and grass-roots activists to become more visibly demanding of Obama.

"We can't wait for someone else to do this for us," Gross says, adding, "President Lyndon Johnson didn't wake up one day and decide to do the right thing for blacks in America. American blacks forced him."

Don't Ask, Don't Tell — Well?

No issue has drawn more attention and acrimony than Obama's slow walk to changing the U.S. military policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bars openly gay Americans from serving in the armed forces. And no issue, LGBT leaders say, provides the president a cleaner path to action.

"The political reality is that the president and the secretary of defense have made promises based on pressure from the gay community," says Aaron Belkin, director of the Michael D. Palm Center, a public policy think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Those promises," Belkin says, "have gone nowhere."

Belkin is among those calling on Obama to issue an executive order halting the implementation of the policy, while efforts at legislative change chug through Congress. At least 265 service members have been dismissed because of their sexual orientation since Obama became president; more than 13,000 have been ousted since the policy was adopted.

During the campaign, Obama said he would ask the Defense Department and senior command in every service branch to develop an "action plan" for repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He also pledged to develop procedures for bringing back into the military those ousted because of their sexual orientation.

His campaign promises came at time when national support for repealing the policy hit 75 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in July 2008, on the 15th anniversary of the policy. It marked a dramatic shift in public opinion over the life of the policy: In 1993, the pollsters said, only 44 percent said they believed that openly gay Americans should be allowed to serve.

Obama has said he would like to see the policy repealed "sooner rather than later." But he has resisted calls for an executive order, preferring, he says, to allow the matter to move though Congress for a more durable fix. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he would consider rewriting Pentagon regulations to relax the policy, though nothing formal has been released.

That's not good enough for Belkin and Gross, who both talk about the ouster of West Point graduate Dan Choi, a member of the Army National Guard and fluent in Arabic. After returning from Iraq, Choi was booted from the military when he came out as a gay man.

Opportunity Slipping Away?

Advocates like Belkin see little chance for congressional action, given the competing policy initiatives on the Hill this fall — from health care to climate change — and a rapidly closing window of political opportunity as the 2010 midterm elections approach.

But the next time a soldier is ousted for being gay, Gross says, activists should put down their rainbow flags and head to the service members' military base.

"Let's just stand there until we're moved and put into jail," Gross says. "Let's get to the point where the government has to do something with us, and the nation has to see that we're willing to give up our freedom for our freedom."

Gay leaders cite some progress under the new administration: Obama has promised to sign proposed federal hate crime legislation that would include people attacked because of their sexual orientation. He also extended some benefits to domestic partners of federal employees, though the provision of health coverage would require congressional approval. And he has voiced support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend federal employment discrimination protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has promised an Armed Services Committee hearing on Don't Ask, Don't Tell this fall. And Gross sees the gay community regrouping on its agenda and tactics.

One thing Obama has accomplished, Gross says, is shattering the hatred of the past eight years.

But with Obama's popularity slipping, and predictions of potentially significant Democratic losses in Congress next year, there remains great anxiety of a lifetime opportunity slipping away.

"We should and have to be outraged that we've been waiting so long for equality and have to act and strategize and push on that basis," Belkin says. "But we also have to have a realistic sense of what's possible, and act and strategize and push on that basis, too."

Related Links

Source: NPR