Novelists and psychologists describe the teen years as a tumultuous time of self-discovery. The stress can be even greater for young people who are gay or uncertain about their sexual identity.
Adam Denney grew up in Monticello, a small town in south central Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. As a child Denney understood his life would follow a pattern very similar to the one his parents had followed.
“I already had a set idea of how my life’s going to be laid out. I’m going to grow up, I’m going to go to school, I’m going to find a girl, I’m gonna get married and I’m going to have this nuclear family.”
There was one problem:
“I’ve know since I was extremely small that I was gay,” Denny said.
Denney soon saw he wasn’t likely to follow the life laid out for him.
“Something starts clicking, like, uh, this isn’t going to fit in, this is not the path that you’re supposed to go, this is something completely different that’s going to make your life a living hell.”
At first, Denney fought to fit in.
“I used to get in lot of fights in middle school actually. Somebody would call me a queer walking down the hall and I would be like ‘oh, I gotta stand up for myself, if I just let it go people are definitely going to think I’m gay.’”
Issues about sexual identity turn up at an earlier age these days says Eef Fontanez, who has been a high school counselor in Berea for eight years after teaching middle school for several years.
“We are seeing students come to terms with their identity earlier and earlier, some in middle school, some in early high school.”
One of the students he counseled was Farah Ardeshir.
“Growing up in a rural area it’s difficult for a young person because you don’t have other people to identify with. Your parents, they’re straight, your brother, he’s straight, too and then if you go to church that’s not going to be discussed regularly, and if it is you’re going to hear something like homosexuality is a sin, if you’re thinking about it you’d better quit,” Ardeshir said.
She lost friends.
“I had one friend tell me they couldn’t really be friends with me anymore because they had to pick the Christian way, her mother wouldn’t let her befriend me because I was openly gay.”
Denney and Ardeshir are co-presidents of the Alphabet Center at Eastern Kentucky University, which describes itself as “an open and affirming space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex.”
They both say their families were extremely supportive and accepting when they came out in their teens. But that wasn’t the experience for everyone.
Ardeshir told this story: “I had a friend in high school, he was gay but he wasn’t out and he told me that he couldn’t tell his parents, he couldn’t tell his dad, he could never open up to them. What a life! What a life that is, right, not being able to be yourself on a daily basis, day in day out you go to school, you go home, you’re constantly lying to everybody, that’s so painful.”
Fontanez, the counselor at Berea High School, says that pain is dangerous.
“The research shows and what I have seen is students who are dealing with their sexual identity are more apt to suffer from depression, are more apt to attempt self-harm, are more apt to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just because there are those feelings of self-isolation, rejection”
Fontanez, Denney and Ardeshir all say life is are getting better. The Internet gives isolated teens a place to connect, there are more role models in popular culture and Lexington has an openly gay mayor.
But there there’s still a reason that young gay people attempt suicide at twice the rate of their straight peers, Fontanez says.
“I think it’s getting easier but it’s not a bed of roses, by no means.”