The bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth isn’t a new phenomenon. What is new is the number of young people who are willing to speak out about their experiences -- and the number of adults and allies who are listening.
We Are the Youth, a photojournalism project sharing the individual stories of LGBT youth, is about the lives of young people who happen to be gay. For many of the youth, they couldn’t accurately share their stories without including the pain of being bullied. Some have been picked on because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others just because they are perceived as a little outside of the mainstream.
Michelle, age 20, from the Bronx, N.Y
My fiancé and I had a discussion about me dressing up as Michelle. When I told him I wanted to be fully transgender, he said he didn't want me to have the operation. Tom's worried about my safety. I would like to start hormones, but I feel like I pass as a woman already. I have man boobs. I've had them since I was 11 years old. My fiancé and I met last year when I was living at the Ali Forney Center. Ever since then, we just started calling and talking to each other. Living in a shelter, things get stolen. My money, my wallet, and my IDs were all taken. When I finally told Tom, he said, "Move in with me." I said, "OK." Ever since then, we've grown a little more. He proposed in March. It was a total surprise. I think I have a total Cinderella package. Tom is 43. Some of my friends grill me about the age difference. Age is nothing but a number. You're not going to pass up the opportunity for having true love. He is guiding me right now. He loves me no matter what. Other than Tom, I also get strength from my grandfather, who pushed me to take what has happened and give me a chance for freedom. He calls me sometimes, but he knows I'm kind of in hiding from my immediate family. I can't say I don't miss my family. I will miss them, especially my little brother. They don't pick up their cell phones. I've left emails, messages, etc. It really hurts, but I have to live with it. I think my mom is upset that I left her. The fact is that I was the one that did everything for her. I'd make coffee, make breakfast, do homework, get the other kids ready. After school, I'd go to work, come home, and do the same thing over again. She's pissed because she lost the one kid that did anything for her. A lot has happened with my family. The story starts in my home town, Mobile, Ala. I came out as gay to my mother at 13. She knew my stepfather wouldn't like the fact that he had a gay son, so she didn't tell him until I was 18. She was right. I got kicked out when he found out. The next night I had to sleep in one of the sheds at Home Depot. I walked 23 miles to get to my grandfather on the other side of town. My grandfather paid my way to come up to New York by bus. In New York I was living with my cousins, but we got into some arguments and disagreements, and I had to leave. My grandfather had to go back to India, so I didn't have his help in the same way anymore. After I left my cousin's place, I went to the Belleview Men's Shelter, but I was too young. They referred me to Sylvia's Place, where you have to sleep on the floor. Then I got accepted into Ali Forney. Through friends at Ali Forney, I became a member of the activist group Fierce. It was actually at Fierce's annual Halloween party that I first dressed up as a woman. I feel more comfortable in women's clothes. Ever since I was a kid, I've always played with my mother's high heels. Fierce has helped me become an activist and a better person. Through Fierce, I also volunteer for Queers for Economic Justice. Now I want to become a psychiatrist. I want to defend the people that can't really defend themselves. I want to give them what I learned. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in the Bronx, N.Y., 2011</em>
Audri, Age 15, Laurel, M.S.
I'd always been that weird kid in class who no one really liked that much. I was called He-she, It, Dyke, Transvestite, Sir. This is from people I went to school with since kindergarten. I got pushed up against a wall in eighth grade by a girl I'd known since third grade. From the time I was in school until my mom pulled me out to be home-schooled, I was really, really, really angry. I acted stupid. After I left school I started to calm down more, and was happier. Less punching holes in walls and throwing hissy fits about everything. I didn't have to deal with people calling me names. I felt more free. One morning about two years ago my mom tried to wake me up to go to school and I refused to go. And she's like, "If you don't go you're grounded, blah blah blah." I told her, "You don't know what it's like to go to that hell every day." Every time I went to the bathroom someone was calling me a man or tormenting me. My mom went to the school and called me back 30 minutes later. She said, "Well, you're not going there anymore." I was living with my dad before, and I don't think he realized the extent of the bullying. He basically laughed at me and said, "You're gonna deal with high school like everyone else." My mom realized a little bit more. I came out at, like, 12-years-old, first as bisexual. I thought I liked guys a little bit but I really did like girls a whole lot. I came out to my mom before I came out to everyone at school. I was like, "I have something to tell you..." and I couldn't get it out. And she said, "You're not sexually active, are you?" And I'm like "God no. I'm kind of bisexual." She's like, "You're 12. You don't know what you're talking about. Go back to sleep." But now my mom is a PFLAG mom and has rainbow stickers all over her car. And I was kind of scared to tell my dad. But he was like, "Whatever tricks your trigger. Just don't be tricking it too early." Then we'd be checking out girls at Wal-Mart. My dad died last year so he didn't get to see all of the activism I'm doing and what I've accomplished. When I came out, I dated all these girls and maybe two guys. Being the only gay person out in school, girls would come up to me and say, "So I'm gay." Even if I was just friends with someone and walked them to their locker, there'd be a rumor they were gay. The girls I dated weren't out and they were very feminine. I dated a cop's daughter and the youth group leader's daughter. That was when I was in school and I was kind of a little player and confident and cocky. The year after I left, a lot of girls at my school came out. They didn't really get teased, because they dressed feminine. A lot of people aren't comfortable with a girl who dresses like a guy. I know I'm a female, I just look like a guy. I know I'm not transgender. And that's what people around here don't understand. I got involved with gay activism last year. I watched LOGO a lot and I saw a movie, I can't remember what it was about, but they mentioned PFLAG in it. And I was like, "I wonder if that's real?" So I went and googled it, and I found a chapter in Laurel. Then at the second meeting at PFLAG, the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition came. I wanted to get involved more and help people not have to go through what I went through. I want other kids to be able to go to football games and pep rallies and have the high school experience. I've gotten to go around Mississippi and speak to people. I'm 15 years old and talking to college kids. And I'm like, "This is the problem and here's how we're gonna fix it." It made me grow more and learn. There are some things I missed out on by being home-schooled. Me and my friends drifted apart a little bit. I did think about going back but I don't regret being taken out of school. I've done so much at 15. I want to start college next year so I can get out of this stupid town which I can't stand. I'm ready to get started and get on with the rest of my life. And this is gonna sound bad, but it kind of warms my heart that all these people that picked on me are idiots that are barely passing. They'll be starting 11th grade and I'll be a freshman in college. I want to stay in Mississippi for college. There's gay flight in Mississippi because everyone thinks it's so horrible so they leave. And nothing ever changes when all the gay people leave. And conservative people will never be used to a butch lesbian holding another girl's hand, or two guys holding hands if they don't see it. There's lots of work that needs to be done and it really makes me happy to get to do it. Visit Audri's We Are The Youth <a href="wearetheyouth.org/profiles/audri-15-laurel-ms/" target="_hplink">profile</a>. <em>As told to Diana Scholl.</em> <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Laurel, M.S., 2010</em>
Corey, Age 16, Millburn, NJ
I've always been very adult-like. I had different interests than other kids. I did well in school, but wasn't athletic or into sports, and that's what people talked about. Once I started middle school, the bullying got worse. I wasn't out as gay in middle school, even to myself, but people suspected. But even if I wasn't gay, it would have been something else. They'll find anything. The teachers didn't do anything to help, so my parents got involved. In seventh grade, the bullying got so bad. I was so depressed. I planned to kill myself. I told my parents, and I was admitted to a hospital for a couple of weeks. That was really scary. I was home schooled for the rest of the year. It was kind of difficult, but better than being at the school. So I transferred to the Hudson School, a small private school with 25 kids in each grade. It's been a great fit. I haven't had any problems, and everyone is so supportive. I'm president of the Gay Straight Alliance. For Ally Week we had almost the whole student body participate. It was pretty cool to see. LGBT activism is an important part of my life now. I'm involved with Garden State Equality. Last year, right after Tyler Clementi committed suicide at Rutgers, an anti-bullying bill was introduced to the legislature, bullied students testified for the New Jersey State Legislature and shared their experiences. Garden State Equality asked me to testify before the Legislature about my experiences. The bill passed the State Legislature and Governor Christie signed it. I have the strength to tell my story and be an activist,because I know that I'm fighting to make the lives of other people better. I don't want anyone to have to go through anything remotely as bad as I went through. Garden State Equality announced that I will be a recipient of the Lt. Laurel Hester Prize for Citizen Courage at this year's Legends Dinner. I'm very proud and happy that I'm able to have such an impact on people's lives. But I'm a pretty modest guy . Now that a lot of middle schoolers at my school are aware of what I'm doing, some kids in the younger grades feel comfortable coming to me when they're being teased or anything. I listen and try to help them out as best as I can. I talk to teachers and administrators on their behalf. It's a bit of responsibility. But I really enjoy helping people. I really want to start seeing a shift in culture away from bullying. I know that won't happen overnight. But I think we need to educate children from a young age that you can be whoever you want to be, and to accept people for who they are. Visit Corey's We Are The Youth <a href="http://wearetheyouth.org/profiles/my-story-corey/" target="_hplink">profile</a> <em> Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Millburn, NJ, 2011</em>
Quincy, Age 18, Montevallo, A.L.
Lambda Chi doesn't care if you're gay or straight, or what race or religion you are. My big brother in the fraternity's also gay. He's the fraternity president and dating the rush chair. At mixers we can bring a same-sex date. I really like the brotherhood events and the stories I've learned from my fraternity. I went through rush and got my bid from Lambda Chi. Lambda Chi is the first frat that said no to the pledge system, because it leads to hazing. They don't even call us pledges. I'm an associate. When I was looking at colleges, I didn't think I'd want to go to Montevallo, because it's in a small town in Alabama. But then I saw how represented the GLBT community was. It's been wonderful. When I started school I wanted to be a choral director. I was classically trained at piano, and still sing in the choir concert. But I switched my major to social work and psychology. I realized I really want to help people. It's so great to be in a place that's open and cool. It's definitely a change from high school and middle school. I moved from Michigan to Tuscaloosa in eighth grade. Throughout high school there were people whose parents were like, "We're not racist but...we don't want our kids to date people of a different race." I got picked on, especially in the South. This guy in eighth grade rode our bus and hit me upside the head. We took it to the police and met with the middle school administrators. Then I had to go to high school with him. I reported every single thing he did to the school counselor. He eventually dropped out of high school. I was always really quiet and more feminine, so people thought I was gay, but I didn't want to be. My local church was really conservative. I was really afraid I wasn't going to make it to heaven. In tenth grade, I was dating someone, but wasn't open about my relationship. During that time, I was really depressed a lot. I can honestly say I thought of ending everything. There was one day, I got in a fight with my mom. I remember crying so hard that day. Then later, I was clenching a bottle of her painkillers. I really think it was divine inspiration that I didn't die. I just sat there and eventually calmed down. I thought about how I wanted to be a music teacher, and if I died I wouldn't be able to do that. I talked to a school counselor. I never did tell my mom about that. After that, I tried to become more optimistic. My absolute bff was raised Unitarian, and she got me involved in the Unitarian Church. I met a lot of other gay people there who gave me lot of inspiration. I still believe in God. Around tenth grade I started telling a lot of my friends I was gay. I'm kind of glad. Before then I was scared, but once people were like, "whatever" I could be more open. That was really great. My dad is really cool about it and my mom has gotten better. I brought my last boyfriend around, but we don't really talk about it. My grandmother's amazing. She's a member of PFLAG. She just wanted to understand. I'm so happy with how things are now. I'm in one of the best schools ever. I feel really good about myself. I think I'm making a lot of good decisions. Visit Quincy's We Are The Youth <a href="http://wearetheyouth.org/profiles/quincy-18-montevallo-al" target="_hplink">profile</a> <em> Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Montevallo, A.L., 2010</em>
Sara, 19, Ardsley, N.Y.
When I started college last year, I only knew two people out of the 8,200 students who go to Oswego. It was good to have a clean slate, and be able to completely start over and make new friends. In high school, a lot of people didn't like me. I'm super-outgoing and wasn't afraid to share my views. I'm the type of person who raised her hand so much the teacher refused to call on me. Some guys in my classes would disagree with me just to piss me off. When I did talk in class, someone would raise their hand and say "I disagree with everything Sara says!" My freshman year of high school, two guys cornered me on the stairs and one tried to slam his backpack into me. He'd already written "Let's snuff that psycho dyke bitch" about me on Facebook a few days earlier. The guys got detention and that was it. Then they left me alone, and I never had a problem with them again, but I still got chills every time I walked past them in the hall. But one of the worst parts was what they called me. I hadn't even really admitted my sexuality to myself. It scares me that they figured it out before I did. I've kind of always known I was interested in girls. I've always felt a deeper connection with girls, but I never thought much about it. Then in middle school I toyed with the idea that I was bisexual. Then sophomore year I was dating this guy for nine months. It was pretty serious, and he was the first person I ever told I liked girls. Then the next year we weren't together and I came out as bisexual my junior year. Nobody really said much. A lot of people weren't surprised. It was nice when I told my mom. She pulled me over and gave me a hug and said "Thank you for trusting me with that. That must have been hard for you." It didn't surprise me that she felt that way. I was always raised that you don't have to have a man to be happy. Life lessons in the cereal bowl. I didn't really come out to my dad until Spring Break this year. His response was "Am I supposed to be surprised?" He said he doesn't care as long as I'm happy. I realized it was stupid that I didn't tell him before. I honestly don't know why I made a big deal about it. I've dated more guys than I have girls. But I realized this year I'm not really interested in guys. In relationships I had with guys I always felt something was missing or something was off. I like being equals. My girlfriend and I are both very small. I don't feel like either of us need to be the dominant one, and there doesn't have to be a power play. We're not trying to be better than each other. It's more comforting for me to be with another girl. I feel like I connect better with girls. I've just sort of accepted I'll never be happy with a guy. I like being with someone who understands, relatively, how a female mind works. Visit Sara's We Are The Youth <a href="http://wearetheyouth.org/profiles/sara-age-19-ardsley-ny/" target="_hplink">profile</a>. <em>As told to Diana Scholl. Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Ardsley, N.Y., 2011</em>
Anna, age 19, from Tuscaloosa, Ala.
When I was little I wanted to be a boy, and I would call myself Sam. I'd go to Sunday school and people would be like, "Is that a little boy or a little girl?" My mom would be like, "Why does it matter?" My older sister Genny told me, "Mom and Dad didn't think you'd be a lesbian. They thought you were going to be transgender." As I got older I realized I was comfortable being a female. And researching the gay community, I realized what I was feeling was the butchness of being a lesbian. I like short hair and hate dresses. It's more of a masculine appearance than a masculine action. If I'm anything, I'm a soft butch. It's more common here for lesbians to be more feminine. I don't know if it's societal or what. I never try to do anything just to be weird or individual, but people have come up to me and told me I'm brave for dyeing my hair. I'm like, "Soldiers are brave. Firefighters are brave. I just dye my hair funny colors." But so many people are scared to do strange things with their appearances. I started dyeing my hair when I went to high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (AFSA). I felt so pent-up at middle school. It was all a football culture, and everyone was wearing Abercrombie. It was like if I went to the University of Alabama but it didn't have the small, artsy community to be part of. I had wanted to be out in middle school, but I was scared, because when my girlfriend Brittany first came out, teachers had to walk her to class. Brittany and I dated for like, a month, but I wanted to keep it a secret. I started hearing rumors about us and got ticked about it and broke up with her. But my high school was such an open place. It was easy to be out. You were seen as uncool if you were discriminatory to gay people, or if you were really religious. Anything seen as cool in Alabama is seen as weird at ASFA. It was awesome. When I started high school, I was 14 and shouting that I was a lesbian from the rooftop. I became the big lesbian on campus and the big activist. I helped found the school's gay-straight alliance and started my school's participation in National Day of Silence. I realized I was gay when I was in fourth grade. I had seen a music video for the band t.A.T.u. I looked them up on the Internet, and it was the first time I had seen the word "lesbian." Then I went to a Girl Scout sleepover at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and I had t.A.T.u. written on my hand, because I thought writing on my knuckles was really cool. This girl said she really liked them. Then I started staring at her all night. I realized, "I don't just want to be friends with her. I think I have a crush on her. I think I'm gay." People say that t.A.T.u. are fake lesbians, but, hey, they helped a lot of people! I came out to my parents and my sister when I was 13 and they have been incredibly supportive. My mom is very active in the community, and she went to PFLAG meetings. My dad wants to be more of an activist than me. He goes off on anyone who says anything anti-gay. My parents are liberal for Alabama. They met on a Democratic political campaign. I'm part of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition. So coming to the University of Alabama, everyone kind of expected me to take a leadership role. And I'm like, "I just got here. Chill." But I've found gay people very quickly. I marched in the homecoming parade with the gay group, Spectrum. We were holding hands so we wouldn't get separated, and someone wrote a letter to the school paper saying, "I'm a fan of free speech, but I don't want to see guys kissing and holding hands." And no one was kissing! You can't kiss and walk at the same time. But the environment here is surprisingly all right. I haven't walked around holding a girl's hand yet, but I've had my "Legalize Gay" shirt on. I know there are homophobes because I hear about them. I think it's a generally accepting campus. I'm excited to be here and take courses that will help me have a career in zoo education. My mom forced me to volunteer somewhere in high school, since I spent all summer watching TV. My friend volunteered at the zoo, then quit. And I ended up volunteering there for five years. I love pretty much any animal, except sharks. When I was in high school, usually when I was with a large group of people my age, we were there to talk about diversity. It was nice that at the zoo, instead of talking about how different we are and how much we loved each other, we were there to talk about the animals. So many people in my senior class of high school had this drive to get out of Alabama. But I feel like if all the liberal-minded people leave, it's a haven for bigotry. But I don't know if I'll stay in-state after I graduate from college. I want to work in zoo education, and when it comes down to what I want to do, the Montgomery or Birmingham zoos are my only options. Surprisingly, my dream zoo is in San Francisco. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2010</em>
Patrick, age 18, from Auburn, Ala.
I actually did enjoy my high school experience. I never experienced the whole "everything sucks, I hate everything" thing of high school. I've never really experienced bullying. I don't know why. I'm pretty flamboyant, so you would think I'd be the ultimate target for anti-gay slurs. But even since coming to Auburn, this big, football school in the Bible Belt, I haven't even gotten a word. I'm sure there's comments behind my back. I'm not that dumb or idealistic. I joke that maybe it's because I'm a long-haired Mexican person, so everyone thinks I'm in a gang. But really, I think people leave me alone because they think I look down on them. I was talking to my ex a couple of days ago about this. He was saying in high school I put on airs, as though I'm above everyone. I'm a quiet person. And I'm not a social person. I'll wait for someone to ask me out. And I always say, "God willing, it will happen." I'm like that with friendship, too. I'll talk to people who talk to me. I can be a hermit, but I still need to have some sort of social life. During the first week of school I went to an orientation event. I first waited to see if anyone would come up to me. I was wearing one of my flashier outfits. I'm a very hard-to-miss person most of the time. My friends say every time they see me, I'm in half-costume. When I was in Texas in the earlier years, I wore old-style collared shirts and just slacks. I didn't wear jeans until I was 17. I just like accessories. I'm always with a scarf or a hat, or both. My parents aren't very supportive of this. Or rather, my father isn't supportive. My freshman year of high school I got my first real scarf when we went on a trip to New York. It's a black velvet one. It's more of a shawl than a scarf, but I cut it. That was my first real, flashy item. Since then, I've been collecting scarves when I'm not with my parents. And now I'm not with my parents 24/7. Against my will, my parents know that I'm gay. I put that I was gay on Facebook, because I'm open to pretty much everyone but my parents. I didn't think my parents would look me up online. However, spring of last year, my senior year of high school, my mom told me, "Your dad's not having a good time finding out you're gay. He looked you up online." From there it got worse. He had been answering my emails, emailing my mom behind my back about finding psychologists who still took gay-to-straight patients for conversion therapy. But nothing ever came of it. My father and I had one talk about me being gay, when I was bringing the trash to a recycling place. He told me, "I used to think that way when I was your age until I met the right woman, and then I never looked back." He thought he was gay, and then one girl asked him out. He never had a boyfriend. During this whole conversation I remember thinking, "I want to go away, but I'm trapped in this car going home." My father will get angry when you disagree with him, but he'll say you're the one getting angry. And that actually does make you angry. I was listening to him, but I can't say I would take his advice. My mother has no problem with me being gay, but he makes her talk to me about it, and he's making her look like the bad guy. It's a sad story. My mother is the only person I'd call my family. My sister is 11, and I love her. I have no reason not to love her, and I'd protect her. But my mother's probably my only support system within the family. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., 2010</em>
Isaac, age 16, from New York, N.Y.
Coney Island is definitely my favorite place in New York City, if not the world. I live in TriBeCa, and in the summer I try to go once or twice a month to Coney Island. It's such a great place to spend the day. You can go on the rides, go to the side show, get food, go on bumper cars, go to the arcade. I love the arcade. I don't go alone. That would be a little awkward. I'd just be sadly eating my hot dog alone. I go with friends. I like my friends in high school a lot. I hated my middle school. I didn't really have many friends. It wasn't my place to be. There were only 20 kids in my grade, but everyone was best friends, and I was an outsider. I went to the school since I was 2, and liked it a lot until I was 11. Then in sixth grade everyone started changing. I definitely changed. That was the year I basically started to transition. In the end of sixth grade I watched Barbara Walters: My Secret Self. It was all about transgender kids. I tried to convince myself that wasn't me. I didn't want to go down that path, because it seemed so difficult. But every day it was something I thought about more and more, until there was no other option. Until I saw that, I was confused about how I felt. I didn't feel like a girl, but I didn't feel very masculine, either. I never played sports, I didn't like cars. I didn't like stereotypically "girl" things, either. I liked music and making videos and things that are ambiguous, I guess. I told my parents about the Barbara Walters special, and about how I felt like those kids. I also talked to my therapist. We came to the conclusion I shouldn't tell people I'm having these feelings, because it probably wasn't true. Well, they came to that conclusion. My parents were hesitant at first. They didn't want me to tell anyone if it was just a phase. By seventh grade they were getting that it wasn't a phase and would have a big role in the rest of my life. I was just starting puberty during this time. After I was on hormone blockers, there was a pill I had to take daily, and I missed it one day. I got my period, and I'd never had it before. It was pretty traumatizing and lasted for a month. I wasn't with my parents; I was with my grandparents in North Carolina. I was terrified. I didn't want to tell my grandparents, because I thought it would be too awkward. I was only there for three days and kind of stayed in bed the whole time, which I felt kind of bad about. It was the last time I spent a long period of time with my grandfather before he died. It was kind of depressing that I didn't get another chance. I'm sure my grandparents would have been really supportive, but I didn't feel comfortable telling them I got my period. It was one of those reality-check things, where I was living as a guy and had never experienced these things before. Then this thing that defines women was happening to me. Not fun. I was so young when I started transitioning that I didn't really think about my sexuality. I had little crushes on girls and stuff. Now I'm attracted to girls exclusively, but I haven't dated anyone. I feel like a girlfriend's not going to happen until college. I think people in high school are less open to having a transgender significant other. It really reduces your options. It would be one thing if I was significantly attractive. I think it's less because I'm trans and more because I'm short and ginger and nerdy. I think I try to use the trans thing as an excuse for not having a girlfriend. College will definitely be a blossoming period. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Montevallo, Ala., 2010</em>
Trevor, age 20, from Montevallo, Ala.
I'm closer with my twin brother than anyone else in the world. When he came out to me as gay after high school, I had already been out since I was 16. He had seen what I had gone through, but he never told me he was going through the same thing that I was. At the time I felt like it was a betrayal. But it was harder for him to accept he was gay than it was for me. He realized one day and didn't know what to do. For me, I had realized for so long, so I was ready for it. When I told my mom I was gay, she said, "When you were 3 years old you put a bra on your head and walked out in my heels and said, 'Mama! I want to be a woman.'" She always thought I'd be transgender. And now that I've been doing drag a little bit, she's like, "You're gonna like it too much. You're going to want to be a girl." But I assured her that, no, I don't want to be a woman. I feel more comfortable when I'm in drag. I've always been more feminine than my male peers. It's not that I'm transgender or anything, but in the society we live in, I feel more anxious holding hands with my boyfriend as another boy than I do when I'm in drag. When I'm out of drag I dress kind of androgynous, in tight pants and a V-neck T-shirt. When I went to Auburn I could tell people would look at me kind of funny, like, "There's that gay guy." But when I was dressed as a woman no one looked at me twice, unless I was getting cat-called. But now that I live in Montevallo, there are so many gay people here. So I'm leaving drag behind a little. At first my boyfriend didn't know how to feel about me doing drag. Michael's more masculine, and I've seen pictures of his exes. They've always been pretty feminine, and lately all of them have been turning into drag queens. But he's very supportive. Michael worked at Disney World with my twin brother. We went to a club and started dating the next month. That was two years ago, and he transferred to Montevallo this year. We've been talking about getting engaged, so we want to make sure we can live together first. He has the ring, but he won't show it to me. He wants it to be a surprise. My parents adore him. My dad's a really nice guy, but he scared the crap out of Michael. Both of my parents were in the Air Force, and my dad was deployed to Iraq, so he had a gun in the house. He was like, "What are your intentions with my son? If you hurt him, I will have to shoot you." My dad's not that kind of guy, but he was doing it to make fun of Michael. I'm very, very lucky my parents are so accepting. The military's very focused on equality, but more about race and not about homosexuality, which is why I was scared to come out to my parents. It would have been an instantaneous thing if we had talked about it more. But as liberal as they are, it wasn't something they felt comfortable talking about, I guess. Because my parents were in the Air Force, we moved around a lot. I was born in Utah, and have lived in Japan, Germany, Texas, Virginia, and Alabama. I really liked moving around. I make and break friendships very easily. So I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. But I got to experience different cultures more than other people get to. When I was young and naïve I thought I'd be a Judge Advocate General. Then I realized I'm way too individualistic to be in the military. I'm just a protester at heart. I don't want to stand in line just because people tell me to. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Montevallo, Ala., 2010</em>
Hot Sause, age 17, from Nyack, N.Y.
I got my nickname when me and my friends were taking hot sauce shots one day. It became some craze, and now everyone calls me that. I spell it "Hot Sause" since my name is Keana, but it's not spelled like other names. People can still refer to me as Keana. But I feel like the name puts me into a box. I like that my nickname is gender-neutral. I feel like I'm not really a boy or a girl. I don't think people understand that. I'm performing in Guys and Dolls in my high school musical. I'm playing the character of Big Jule, which is supposed to be a guy. But since I'm playing it, they changed it into a girl's part, and changed the pronouns from "he" to "she." I wish they had just kept it a guy's part, though. I don't know why. But it's the director's decision. I love being in the show. I love practicing and acting. I'm very musical. I've been writing music since I was in the third grade. I started rapping recently, and I'm actually performing at my school this Sunday. It's a song I wrote called "Breathe." It's a rap inspired by all the things I've heard on the news about kids getting bullied and facing violence. One of my verses, I say, "Stop the violence." It's really a radical poem. I love music, and I love helping people. I think I want to be a music therapist. It goes hand-in-hand. I want to bring joy into the lives of people who feel like they're forgotten. At Common Threads, I just grabbed the mic at the dance and started DJing. It was my first year going, and I was nervous when I got there. But I felt so comfortable. Everyone in the whole place hugged me, and I felt that love. At the end I cried, because I couldn't stay there. If it was a town, I'd want to live there. I had to leave all those good people who care about me and go into a world where people are not as nice. I have friends at school, but not anyone I can relate to. Most of my friends at school are straight. They'll talk to me about my issues, but they won't get into detail. We don't really talk about who I like. Maybe they don't feel comfortable asking me about it. I go to Rockland County Day School. I'm not sure if there's any queer-identified people besides me. That's what a gay-straight alliance should be for. It kind of upsets me that they don't have one. They should have a queer safe and friendly place. I'd love to talk to other people like me, and maybe they could introduce me to people. It's kind of hard for me to date. I'm kind of shy when it comes to talking to other girls. There's not a lot of people I can talk and relate to. I can't just walk up to a girl and know what her preference is. I was in a relationship that was unhealthy. I met her online, and it's not really good to do that. We were going back and forth and back and forth. She was confused about her feelings for me. She didn't like the way I was referring to myself. She hated when I referred to myself as "he" sometimes. She didn't really understand that. But I stayed with her, on and off for five months, because I had feelings for her. That relationship took a lot out of me, emotionally. Maybe if someone comes along, it would be cool. But now I'm just focusing on school and performing and acting. And just trying to get out of high school. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Stony Point, N.Y., 2011</em>
Braxton, age 20, from Auburn, Ala.
I highly hold onto my evangelical roots, even though they sort of slapped me in the face a little bit. But I grew up believing certain things, and just because I'm gay doesn't mean they don't make sense to me anymore. There are some things I have to rethink and put different spins on. And people will say, "Well, you didn't think homosexuality was right until you came out of the closet." Well, I wasn't open to discovering new things, and this puts the scripture into a different light. Until I started at Auburn, I went to a private, evangelical Christian school in Memphis. I realized I was gay in probably the seventh grade. But if I had come out then, I would have been expelled. The general consensus at my school, from Romans 1, was that it wasn't a sin to be attracted to men, but that it was a sin to act on that attraction. And so I always said to myself, "I'm in the clear as long as I don't do anything or tell anybody." Even since coming out, I am still more conservative than a lot of college students about sex and sex acts. I had a phase where I experimented, but I'd never say it was whorish or slutty. I had to think, "It's not legal for me to get married, so what is marriage for us?" I decided it's when two people are completely devoted to each other. It's completely exclusive. I plan on not having serious sexual relations with someone until I get to that point. I think this cuts down on the drama and makes emotional detachment a lot easier, and I think it makes it more special. My grandmother always raised me to be a Southern gentleman. She kept pennies in her purse, and any time I said, "Yes, Ma'am," or, "No, Ma'am," or held a door, she gave me a penny. I am a gentleman, and I think that intimidates some guys. I came out by accident last year, during my first semester at Auburn. I was studying for a test with a friend, and he was like, "I have a question and you just have to be honest: are you gay?" I thought, I can lie like I've done a million times before, or I can tell somebody and see how it feels. I said, "Yeah, I find other guys attractive." And he's like, "Oh, I was just wondering." I was like, "That was it? No pitchforks or fire?" My first kiss with a boy, we'll call Boy X, since he wouldn't want his name used. After I joined the Auburn Gay-Straight Alliance (AGSA), I thought this boy was cute, so I asked if he'd want to hang out in my dorm some time. We watched Milk. And I had some beer shoved in my closet. And Boy X is a big fan of beer. And we're sort of chit-chatting back and forth. I'm asking what it's like to be gay. I asked if he'd ever kissed anybody. And he said... actually, I forgot what his response was. I was too focused on saying, "Do you mind if I kiss you now?" And he said yes. And that was my first kiss with a boy. My dates never last more than two weeks. I do want a relationship, but I have a full life on campus. I'm a zoology major. I came to Auburn because their zoology program is well-regarded. I've known I wanted to work with reptiles since I was 5. Both my parents are veterinarians, and my mom had a snake in college. His name was Alex, and I'd see pictures, and I was mesmerized. When I was 9, my mom let me have a snake. I was like, "Having a snake would be the best thing." The next year I bought one with my own money. And it just kind of snowballed. I've taken care of over 100 reptiles between then and now. Tiki is 8. It's the only one I have here. He's about to hibernate soon. I'm also the political affairs director of AGSA. One of my projects this year is getting a local Episcopalian church more involved with the group, because a lot of people have been really stung by their church and given up on religion. Now that I'm so involved with AGSA, there are a few people who are the face of the gay community, and I'm one of those people. I've been thrown out of fraternity parties before. I carry a knife with me, because I'm such an open figure on campus. Still, any university you go to is kind of a liberal pocket. We're supported here. Anything outside of campus is different. On campus we only face opposition from highly religious groups and good ol' Southern boys who are ingrained in what a man looks like and feel threatened by anything else. But when people walk by the AGSA booths and say "faggot" or something, we are just like, "Really? You mean I'm gay?" We're kind of smart-asses about it. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Auburn, Ala., 2010</em>
Magda, age 17, from Brooklyn, N.Y.
I was born in Poland, and I've lived in Williamsburg most of my life. There used to be nothing here but factories. I used to hate it. But now there's so much going on, I don't want to leave for college next year. I'm going to Poland this summer to stay with family for six weeks. I definitely won't tell them I'm gay. Poland is one of those places where being gay is really not tolerated. My mom's really cool about it, though. I came out to myself my sophomore year, and to my mom recently, two months ago. I wasn't really worried about telling her because I knew she'd accept me. But I just didn't feel like I needed to tell her before that. I do Junior ROTC after school. I have two uniforms, the regular one and the camouflage one. They had Junior ROTC at my school, and I always saw them in uniforms. And I've always loved uniforms. All the sergeants want me to join the army, but I don't want to. Mostly because, can't you get kicked out if you're gay? That would be kind of bad. And I don't want to serve. I kind of like living. All the sergeants know I'm gay, indirectly. They joke around about it, but they love me, so they don't care. I'm one of the team leaders. I can do 80 push-ups in two minutes and run two miles in 13 minutes. I don't want to brag, but, you know, that's pretty good. I also play basketball, and this year the soccer team wants me. I like basketball. It's fast-paced, and I'm good at it. When I'm not in my uniform, I've always dressed in boyish, baggy clothes. My mom used to dress me like that when I was a kid, even. It's my comfort zone. I love high school. It's awesome. Everyone at school is accepting. I go to a big school with 4,000 people. It's overcrowded. There's a lot of diversity, so there's a lot of gay people, I guess, but there's a lot of everything. I have a lot of friends. And the thing with me is I flirt with everyone, I don't know if they're gay or not. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Brooklyn, N.Y., 2011</em>
Joey, age 19, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Joan Rivers made an absolutely ridiculous comment that there are no gay men at Occupy Wall Street, because we care too much about how we look, or whatever. She might just be trying to be funny, but it got on my nerves a little bit. When people say things like that, sometimes I want to be like, "Oh my god, shut up. I know you're trying to be funny, but it's incredibly disrespectful." A teacher at Pratt didn't think there was enough of an openly queer presence at Occupy Wall Street, and we wanted to show that that's not the case. That's why I was under the rainbow banner at Zuccotti Park last week chanting, "We're here, we're queer, we're not going shopping!" The 99 percent includes everyone, including us. Occupy Wall Street has been the biggest thing I've ever been involved in. I've always been ultra-liberal and wanted to get more involved with activism, but there were never things going on around us. I helped with phone-banking for Obama, and I was involved in queer activism at my high school in Baltimore. My high school had a gay-straight alliance, and the Westboro Baptist Church protested us. No one knows why. They do it kind of arbitrarily. But it brought the school together. The school did a huge counter-protest. But life happened, and activism didn't feel like the priority. I first got really involved in Occupy Wall Street the day when people got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. I just went to photograph it, and we thought we were going to be fine. Then we were walking too far. We just ran and got off so that we wouldn't get arrested. After that it started to feel more real. I've been going down to Zuccotti Park at least once a week. My friends and I go there and yell so loud and so much that I've been losing my voice a lot. I'm trying to get other people active and not feel apathetic toward it. I've been beating myself up a little bit for not going more, but midterms happen, so I can't go as much as I can. I plan on going until it's over, and hopefully it won't be over for a long time. I don't want it to fade away or be shut down. A lot of people I know are very critical of Occupy Wall Street, because they don't seem to understand. People think it's a group of lazy hippies who want to sit around in drum circles. But you see people of all different ages. A lot of people want to influence change. At Pratt, we have general assemblies. We had the student walkout and march. Pratt's a good school, but it has problems. A lot of us have issues with where the funding goes. My family's fairly financially secure now, but we've been in a situation where my parents were separated and my mother wasn't working. A lot of people struggle and can't get out of their situation. It doesn't work that way that everyone has the same opportunities as everyone else. I have an $18,000-a-year scholarship to Pratt, but I go to an expensive school, and all my other costs are student loans. It's all money we'll have to pay back. I want to be an artist. I study figurative oil and printmaking. It's essentially the only thing I've been able to see myself doing. Almost all the time I think, "What the hell am I going to do? Should I switch to a different school? Should I switch to a more commercial major?" But I think I'm good enough that it's going to work out. <em>Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in New York, N.Y.</em>