I grew up in the middle-of-nowhere outskirts of Cincinnati, OH. This combined Ohio's love of xenophobia, racism and rivers catching on fire with the vernacular and dental work of Indiana and Kentucky. Don't get me wrong. I've got mad love for my hometown and get a little misty-eyed when anyone mentions Skyline or 98 Degrees, but it was also a terrible place to grow up sometimes, especially for an awkward-looking queer kid who was really into Agatha Christie and Drew Barrymore. I didn't really have the luxury of hiding my sexuality, because my giant lisp kind of spread the word for me, and I learned a lot from being the only Super Out guy around. Thus, if you plan on packing your Britney or Tegan and Sara CDs with you to school, this is how to deal.
1. Immerse Yourself in Your Interests and Study Your A** Off
When I was 12, I couldn't really talk to other people at school without it ending in being mocked or having my backpack thrown in the garbage. I had one real friend -- who did the morning announcements -- and Beanie Babies to stand in for the rest of a friend group. Sometimes, I found fleeting friendships with people, and I made up for a lack of community by finding that in books and movies, learning to inhabit other worlds where I could experience what love was like. And when I got to high school, I read almost every book our teacher recommended; I was that kid who asked for more homework.
I wasn't so into math at the time, but I got obsessed with what I was interested in, and it paid off come college application time. It also helped that I enrolled in almost every school organization I could, which meant that I didn't have to have that many friends and could cherish the few real friends I did have. Who even had the time to be popular?
2. Work on Your Coping Mechanisms
Queer kid, ice cream and reruns of Gilmore Girls are about to become your best friend for six years. When life, school and everything gets you down, you need to find those special places you can go to, those things that always make you feel good no matter what. Although other people can be great and helpful, learn to rely on yourself for your own happiness now.
3. Find Supportive Friend Groups
If you live in a Queer Narnia -- like that boarding school in Glee -- where everyone loves you, awesome! Be thankful for how lucky you are, because middle-school me would totally hate your guts.
For everyone else, don't make the mistake I did: Don't try too hard to be liked by everyone. If you are queer or read as queer, not everyone in your school is going to be cool with it, and even if you don't like that, respect their space. It's actually good life training, because out in the real world, not everyone is going to be totally cool with your identity. (Hi, Dad!) You'll want to learn how to start handling that now.
Everyone in existence might not accept you, but you can always fit right in with the Band Kids, the Drama Kids, the Art Nerds, AP English Geeks, the Academic Team or, if you're me, the Intellectual Metal Heads. (Not only are the latter supportive but also they usually have the best parties and -- because of that -- are surprisingly well-connected at school.) All of these groups of people end up becoming the cool kids when you get out of high school anyway, and so it's best to get in with them now.
On that note, if there's no one accepting at school, find the closest hippie-friendly coffeehouse and hang out there as much as possible. You'll meet cool people older than yourself, and if you live close to a university, you'll get the hook-up on college parties. This is the best thing that will ever happen to you.
4. Develop Online Networks
Because I came of queer in the early aughts, we had this thing called AOL, and their M4M chat rooms were helpful for me in coming to terms with myself. I was able to talk to a lot of older guys who weren't looking for sex but looking for what I craved: connection. The Internet isn't just about porn anymore, and talking to people you only know online is a really low-stakes way to open up about what you are going through, as long as you are careful. Don't be me and try to move to the middle of Texas just because a cute guy says "hey, a/s/l?" and you are 14 and have never gotten attention before. Do not respond "13/m/your future."
I came out to my first person on the internet, had my first sexual experience on the Internet (which kind of counts) and made some of my best friends through Xanga. In fact, some of the people I met on the Internet meant more to me than the people I knew in real life. (I still talk to a few of them today.)
5. Talk to a Therapist or Counselor
Even if your family is supportive about what you are going through, you can't talk to them about everything, especially if those things are sex things. If they aren't supportive, it's important to talk to someone whose job it is to be supportive and help you through this time. Having someone to confide in is so important, and a therapist, counselor, mentor or other sage individual can help you not only open up about what your dealing with but also equip you with some of the language to verbalize it.
6. Learn How to Protect Yourself
For some, taking community classes in taekwondo or karate could be a useful way to vent your anger and frustrations and a means to even channel it into something healthy. The goal of these traditions to learn how to protect yourself without harming another person, which will be helpful for you. Learn how to stand up to bullies, but don't become one yourself.
However, for the pacifists in the audience, you can also defend yourself by just trying to avoid bad situations. Stay out of danger as best as possible -- because, for some, it's the difference between life and death. Don't antagonize people who look like they watch a lot of Wrestlemania, and it's just best not to antagonize people ever. Getting picked on sucks sometimes and retaliating might feel nice in the short run, but nothing sucks worse than not taking the high road and getting jumped in the parking lot.
Also, it's good to have friends who have your back, especially if those friends are on the football team. In my case, I was friends with our school's gossip queen -- who had dirt on everyone, even some of the teachers. (My nickname in high school was, I'm not kidding, Gretchen Weiners.) I couldn't throw a punch to save my life, but I could absolutely destroy you by letting everyone in school know about that time you masturbated during Biology class. Fear is a very powerful weapon.
7. Stay True to Yourself
This doesn't mean you have to be out, because that's not an option for everyone. However, don't be like the token gay character in Easy A and go down the beard route, which is just painful for everyone. If you are gay, don't make up a Canadian girlfriend, because that's been done. If you are a lesbian, don't go steady with any of the drama guys, even if they are good kissers.
For those who do go down the beard route, pick someone you really like. I once had a beard in Middle School whose only interest was the music of Da Brat and making fun of my "fancy" hobbies. Try to pick a best friend or someone who gets you, someone you can sit at home with on a Friday night and watch Mean Girls.
Also, while you are secretly making out with girls under the bleachers, figure out how to express yourself in ways socially acceptable at your school. Channel your queerness into punk music and pink hair dye. Join a band and drum your rage away. Become a gaymer. Start your own zine or art project. Embrace your future power queer and run for student body president. High school may be all about blending in, but that doesn't mean you have to hide what makes you special.
8. Make an Impact
If being out and proud is an option at your school, don't wait for it to get better later, when you move to a big city and get out of dodge. See what you can do to make your town a better environment for other LGBT and marginalized people, especially the ones who don't have the option to leave. If you can start a GSA without getting beat up for it, do so. While you're at it, be a mentor to other kids you know who aren't out or come from bad family environments. Try to make your culture more accepting and safer than the one you inherited. Because it's not just important that you survive, it's important to help others to survive, too.
Follow Nico Lang on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Nico_Lang