We Are the Youth is a photographic journalism project chronicling the individual stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the United States. Through photographic portraits and "as told to" interviews in the participants' own voices, We Are the Youth captures the incredible diversity and uniqueness among the LGBT youth population. We Are the Youth addresses the lack of visibility of LGBT young people by providing a space to share stories in an honest and respectful way. Below is the story of Ella.
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By Ella, as told to Diana Scholl
I'm the youngest of six kids, and all my other siblings graduated from school in Colfax, but it was not the academic atmosphere I wanted to be in. In seventh grade we had kids looking up porn and just goofing around while the teachers did nothing. So my mother allowed me to go to a private school, Pella Christian. My first impression was that it was absolutely wonderful, because kids were held accountable for their actions, and I thought it was a really good learning environment.
Unfortunately, due to the religious aspects, it was extremely hateful. I was raised Catholic, and the school was Protestant Reform, and I faced a lot of heat for that alone. They said I was polytheistic or my beliefs were weird. There were also instances where we had sermons that were extremely anti-gay. I remember sinking down in my chair and being so ashamed, because that was when I was starting to come to accept myself as a lesbian.
I was out to my mom and online, but not to anyone in person per se, and that was really difficult, because I felt extremely alone. During chapel my freshman year, all my friends would be singing these hymns of joy, and I would just be weeping. I played it off like I was so emotionally moved by God's words, but really I was devastated because of them.
My guidance counselor began to notice certain moments where I became emotional, or how I would purposefully leave some questions blank on my Bible exams. He scheduled a lot of appointments with me, and I would just say, "Well, you know, my nieces are black, and my brother married a black woman. I don't like the racism that goes on here," or, "I'm Catholic. I don't like how everyone puts my faith down."
I was throwing out other things but not addressing the LGBT discrimination directly. He sat me down one day and was like, "Are you gay?" And I just started crying, and he told me about these two boys that had been forced to leave school because they became open about their sexuality. I didn't want that to happen to me.
The guidance counselor went to the school board, and they voted on if I could stay in the school. I don't know what happened, but he just handed me a piece of paper that said the school had a zero-tolerance policy on homosexuality. If you come out, you can tell the school district how you're going to remain celibate, and how you're going to denounce the homosexual lifestyle and all of that. At this point I hadn't even held hands with a girl. I was much too shy. So being expected to reject this part of me and not stand up for myself was extremely painful.
This all happened in March. If I had come out of the closet before school ended, they were going to strip me of taking my final exams, and then I would lose all credits for my second semester. I kept my mouth shut and waited for the school year to end before I was able to finally be myself.
It was really hard to admit that I was kicked out of school, especially for something so trivial. I was a straight-A student; I played varsity on soccer and bowling. There were rumors about me drinking, doing drugs and being pregnant, which I thought was hilarious.
It wasn't until I came to Newton that I started my coming-out process. There were these people who had been out for two years and talking about going to Pride and their boyfriends and girlfriends, and I was entirely new to the community, so I felt kind of out of place, but at the same time I felt safe to begin finding myself.
I became president of the school's gay-straight alliance my junior year, and it was one of the best times of my life. Just seeing the entire flip-flop of the group to get more involved and becoming so passionate about things was amazing. When we won the award for best high school GSA in Iowa from the Iowa Pride Network, I was extremely proud.
I represented Iowa in a national gathering of GSAs. It was kind of the natural gas in me that lit the fire to start doing this kind of work. I've just been hungry for more ever since.
I am on the varsity bowling team here at Newton, too, and am the school newspaper's managing editor, but the GSA is still a really big part of my life here. It helped me meet so many people and really discover who I am and who I want to be. My parents actually tease by saying, "Why don't you have friends outside of GSA?" And I'm like, "I start to, and then they join GSA!"
I had my first serious relationship at Newton, as well. Things ended horribly with her, though, as she was not too happy with the fact that I wanted to wait for sex, and so she ended up cheating on me with my best friend. My girlfriend now, Samantha, is very supportive and never pressures me into anything. She's an incredible woman, and I hope she stays in my life for as long as possible.
For me, sex is a very spiritual thing, so being willing to share your body with someone is really serious but also very beautiful. I want to make sure it's with someone who truly respects me and loves me, and vice versa. I'm not sure if I can say I would wait for marriage. In Iowa we have same-sex marriage, but there are a lot of places that don't recognize it, so it's kind of hard for me to say I'd wait for marriage when I don't even have the right to get married everywhere in my home country. So I guess I'd have to say I'm waiting for the person I want to spend the rest of my life with and who will share their love with me and let me share mine with theirs just as long.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Newton, Iowa, 2012.