Saturday, May 14, 2011
MIDDLETOWN — In an age of progress in the fight for full equality for gay and lesbian citizens, it is not unusual to see openly gay students in high schools.
But for many teenagers, coming out remains a step fraught with worry. This is especially true for student-athletes, and many say the sports culture is the last frontier to be crossed, even in a progressive state like Connecticut.
“I think it’s easier for female student-athletes to come out,” said Trevor Charles, the head coach of girls and boys swimming and Ultimate Frisbee at Middletown High School and the adviser of the school’s 10-year old Gay-Straight Student Alliance. “For boys, there’s that macho-thing about sports and it’s just very tough. Still, I’ve had and I have gay and lesbian kids on all my teams.”
There were gay kids on the teams Charles was on at MHS when he was a student there, he said.
“I’ve had kids come out to me, I’ve had kids that I knew were gay, but it was never openly acknowledged and with some, I honestly knew before they did,” Charles said.
At the professional level, few athletes have come out, although many pro athletes acknowledge that they played with and against gay athletes. Former gay Major League umpire Dave Pallone, in his book “Behind the Mask,” talked of encounters with pro baseball players, but the code of the locker room was not to talk about it.
Studies show that high school students often stay in the closet because of the fear of losing friends or family. Teens who came out to parents have been thrown out, and some have resolved to harming themselves.
In a study done by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1989 under the administration of President George H.W. Bush, it was estimated that 30 percent of teen suicides were gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered kids.
Mary*, a 17-year-old Middletown High athlete who self-identified as a lesbian in eighth grade, is out not only to her friends but also to her family and to the school population at large. A star swimmer, she is involved in two sports and plans to swim at college.
“All the girls on the team are really supportive,” she said. “They treat me as they treat any other person and I have all kinds of friends, both straight and gay. My best friend identifies as straight. It’s mostly been a non-issue.”
Mary knows she is not alone. Her current girlfriend is also an athlete at MHS and her former girlfriend is a student at Mercy.
“I know of other gay kids at other schools,” she said. “I went to Edison Magnet School and met kids from other towns. I also am active in True Colors [a statewide youth group] and I’ve met kids through that. I also belonged to the GSA my freshman and sophomore years. Through all that, I’ve met a number of gay kids, some who are athletes and some who aren’t.”
Mary said she has experienced very little real harassment, but also said, “I hear little things here and there. Early this year, one of the other teams was making jokes about my girlfriend, but that issue was taken care of.”
The teaching staff at MHS is essentially “neutral,” she said, but Charles and her freshman science teacher, Richard Pelczar, are very supportive.
“Mr. Pelczar told me he had a lot of respect for me because I was open about who I am,” she said. “But I think a lot depends on what school you go to. If I were to go to a much less diverse school than this one, I suspect it would be difficult.”
She encourages all middle schoolers, regardless of orientation, to come to Middletown High.
“I find it very accepting,” she said.
But not all agree.
Mike*, who self-identifies as gay, is on three teams at MHS and is out to his parents and family. He hears vicious insults frequently, he said.
“I got a lot of garbage last year and at the beginning of this year,” he said. “I’ve been called ‘faggot’ and other things. I went to my coaches and the captains and they were helpful.”
Mike also said he has friends he can go to, who serve as his support system.
“I love being an athlete and I love sports, so I’m willing to put up with the names because I like it so much,” he said. “I’m happy when I’m participating.”
But he thinks he might be happier somewhere else.
“I’d rather be in a different school,” he said. “It’s not very pleasant here for me.”
Mike said he has not gone to school personnel other than his coaches, and expressed reservations about the wisdom of doing so. He said he was unaware of youth support groups such as True Colors or GLSEN — the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a group made up largely of educators dedicated to making schools safe for GLBT youth.
Middletown High has a Diversity Week each year and a number of teachers have gay-friendly rainbow stickers in their classrooms. But aside from the Gay-Straight Alliance, there is no ongoing program of assistance for GLBT youth.
“I don’t know of any other gay students in school,” Mike said. “And I don’t know of any on any teams.”
While Mike feels uncomfortable and alone at MHS, star swimmer Clayton Curran said he thinks the school and its students are very accepting.
“I have — we have — no problems at all, especially on the swim team,” said Curran, who identifies as straight. “We’re a family. Sure, I know we have had gay kids on the team, but no one cares.”
Curran was genuinely surprised to hear of the harassment suffered by Mike.
“That wouldn’t happen on the swim team,” he said.
Because of the negative effects some students’ experiences, others wait until high school is over before coming out.
Bob*, a recent graduate of an area high school and a key member of a highly successful team, said he first came out to his friends, then to his family. The experience was successful, he said, and he has support from both friends and family.
But his concerns transcended school. He predated his coming out by refusing to attend church services. He said he was tired of hearing about how he wasn’t welcome. Another former area student-athlete, now in his 40s, said, “I stopped going a long time ago. It’s clear they don’t want me.”
Tom* graduated from MHS back in the Tiger days. Now 46 and with a partner since 2000, he was a baseball player in John DeNunzio’s program.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was in high school,” he said. “Then I was confused about my sexuality, but as I reflect back on it, there was no doubt I was gay.”
Being on the baseball team and going to gym class were sometimes difficult, he said.
“There were a lot of cute guys,” Tom said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it, and I really couldn’t figure it out. As I look back on it, there were no role models, no one to learn from, no one to go to. I had to live my own life and figure it out by myself.”
He tells the story of how he and his best friend, an athlete who went to Xavier, met each other at their part-time jobs at the local Caldor department store.
“We became very good friends, but I wasn’t out to him or anyone else,” Tom said. “Then, in my senior year we were at a party at a friend’s house whose parents were away — that kind of party happened all the time — and after a couple of drinks, I came out to him. And right then, he came out to me. I didn’t know and he didn’t know. It was one of those ‘Oh My God’ moments. That’s what it was like back then.”
Another student-athlete was a big-time track star at his school in the mid-1990s. More than that, he was a school leader, and was elected to leadership positions of several major school organizations. Afraid to come out, he instead wrote an anonymous letter to his school newspaper. In it, he wrote that he “might be your teammate, I might be your class officer, I might be sitting next to you in class, I might be your friend, so be careful of what you say, you never know who you are hurting.”
After high school, he came out to his parents and had a very difficult time, he said.
Another student at an area high school reported that he has relatives who “refuse to believe me” and another who “asks me questions all the time.”
Another, now in his 50s, said that when he was a football player on one of Bill Montanile’s football teams at Woodrow Wilson High, the pressure to be straight was so powerful that he dated a girl and ended up making her pregnant. His daughter became a very good and popular student, and dad and his partner attended her graduation from high school.
“She is cool with everything,” he said. “But in high school? No way back then.”
And while Middletown High School today is more accepting of gays and transgenders, there are schools in the state for which not much has changed since the 1980s.
“There are places where it is not smart to come out,” said Amanda, a 30-year-old lesbian speaker from the Stonewall Speakers’ Bureau, a group of GLBT speakers and their allies who sent speakers to MHS for Diversity Week. “I was called all kinds of names, and there was no place for me to go.”
MHS basketball coach Dave Sytulek said he has had to address the issue of name calling in the past.
“Several years ago, we had a male cheerleader and the guys on my basketball team said things,” Sytulek said. “I stopped that immediately. I talked to them about respect for differences and acceptance.”
And acceptance is what Charles, along with his wife Nicole who teaches social studies at the school, are trying to teach.
“We have zero tolerance for that kind of stuff on my teams,” Charles said. “Maybe we’ve had bigoted kids — and I know there are some here — but I don’t hear it. Occasionally I’ll hear the line ‘That’s so gay,’ but that gets a quick turn of the head from me and that’s the end of that.”