Alone among hundreds
FARMER’S KORNER – Former Summit High School student Dylan Gregorak is no stranger to harassment.”As far as I knew, I was the only openly gay person there – I was kind of an exotic figure,” Gregorak said of his days at the high school, adding that he’s dealt with bullies and harassment all his life.Gregorak said he was “annoyed” by the verbal assaults he experienced, but that he only went to the high school administration after someone threw a rock at him. And the harassment stopped after he reported it.”I don’t think punishing someone for saying something intolerant is a way to get rid of intolerance,” Gregorak says. “Education about gay issues should begin much earlier in life. A lot of people are homophobic because their parents are that way.”Gregorak said he doesn’t think Summit High is lacking in education and awareness efforts. He found plenty of support among his classmates when he came out of the closet, during the second half of his freshman year. Not surprisingly, the information spread like wildfire through the school, he said.”It gave me a really good buzz,” Gregorak said of his coming out. “A lot of people came up and gave me hugs.”But he suggested that a few students do display intolerance, based on their lack of contact with openly gay people. The vibe is quite different at Boulder High, for instance, where there are “plenty of openly gay students,” he said.For lack of reliable statistics, it’s hard to say how representative Gregorak’s experiences are of the climate at Summit High. Unlike Gregorak, many teens are reluctant to discuss or report incidents of harassment based on sexual orientation at their schools, in some cases even covering up physical attacks.But Summit High health teacher Pat Foote, a 30-year veteran of the school, said students are very tolerant and open-minded.”We’re pretty lucky,” Foote said, adding that Gregorak told her that he felt safer at Summit High than anywhere else he’d been at school. For all that though, Foote said Gregorak is the only student she’s known at Summit High who openly acknowledged not being straight.”Most of them are pretty lonely,” Foote said. “Of so many of the students that have graduated, I was the only one who knew they were gay.”
Life and death questionsThe teenage years can be tough on anyone, but some national studies show that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youngsters are far more likely to succumb to life-threatening despair during that crucial formative age.In 1989, for example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported epidemically rising suicide rates among 15 to 24-year-olds, with gay and lesbian youths accounting for one-third of the total.”Gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers,” the report concluded. According to the study, suicide is the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth. If these statistics apply in Summit County, then issues of sexuality, alienation and self-esteem can literally become matters of life and death for some children.”The first thing that occurs to me is that we think we have a kind of liberal accepting place here,” said Lynn Morrison, a Summit County resident and child/adolescent therapist who has spoken with a number of gay and lesbian youth in recent years. But she explained that generalization doesn’t hold true in all cases, particularly among young people, for whom differences tend to be “very, very important.””Kids who are or who appear to be gay are gay-baited. It’s usually done very publicly – on the bus, in the pit, in an intentionally embarrassing way,” Morrison said.In her professional capacity, Morrison has seen the results of harassment related to sexual orientation. Often, it begins with a cry for help from parents.”They say, ‘My child is really struggling, and I don’t know why,'” Morrison said.When she talks to the youngsters, she often finds a sense of humiliation and self-doubt. “In extreme cases, they even question whether they deserve to live,” she said. “I think our innocence as adults gets put to the test.”
Suffering in silence”I think the high school tries to address the issue when it’s made aware, but kids often don’t tell. Kids suffer in silence trying to make the best of it,” Morrison said. “Anyone who is different in any way is victimized.”Because of this reluctance to speak out, it’s difficult to measure exactly how prevalent this type of harassment is at the high school. Principal Frank Mencin said he can recall only one incident in six years, but acknowledges that some harassment may go unreported.That’s clearly the case nationally, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a group that tracks statistics from around the country. In a 2003 report, the organization concluded that harassment at schools is the rule, not the exception, with 84 percent of gay and lesbian students reporting being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation. According to the report, 39 percent of the gay and lesbian students said they were physically harassed. The organization also looked at links between school climate and performance, finding that students who were frequently subject to harassment had grade point averages 10 percent lower than students who didn’t experience harassment.The report also emphasized that gay and lesbian resources, school policies and support systems make a difference; that when supportive faculty or gay and lesbian resources are available, the students do better in school and are much more likely to attend college.Weaving in supportThe key to buffering the emotional turmoil gay teens face is in weaving strands of tolerance and support through all levels of society, from homes and families to government, schools and churches, Morrison said.
At Summit High, some of that support comes from the local Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group – known as PFLAG – and health teacher Pat Foote, who have teamed up to offer gay and lesbian programs as part of the curriculum. PFLAG passes out flyers and brochures with specific guidelines on how to avoid harassment and what to do if you’re being harassed or if you witness harassment.And Summit School District’s policies and guidelines include explicit language prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.”In terms of the high school student body as a whole, I think it has become more accepting and more liberal,” said Summit Cove resident and PFLAG co-founder Keith Bond. “I think it’s a reflection of society in general. But there are still pockets of discrimination, in school as in society.”Developing a support system is crucial, Morrison explains, saying that no one should have to face adolescence alone. The most important thing for young people facing what can be excruciating questions is to normalize their feelings and thoughts. When she talks with gay and lesbian teens, she tells them, “This is how you were made. There are lots of people like you,” and offering examples of positive gay and lesbian role models from the wider world.And she tries to put sexuality issue in the context of other challenges that are part of growing up, calling it one of those “life struggles” that are part of everyone’s existence.Morrison said she tries to dispel the notion that sexual orientation is somehow a lifestyle decision.”There’s a lot of propaganda out there right now that it’s a choice,” she said.Editor’s note: Some sources in this story chose not to use their real names, due to the extreme sensitivity of issues surrounding teen homosexuality.Vail, Colorado