Conrad Honicker, 16, a West High School sophomore, is homosexual. And the whole school knows it.
He dresses in tight jeans and form-fitting, jewel-toned stretchy shirts that outline his belly button underneath. He writes papers decrying "Heterosexism" for advanced English class. He speaks freely about his boyfriend of more than two years, who's home-schooled.
And he constantly reminds people—students, teachers, custodians—about his sexual orientation. "I have to keep coming out," he says. "If my friends are talking about something that's mildly offensive or if somebody says, ‘That's so gay,' then I have to say, ‘Hey, I'm over here.'"
Honicker was also the driving force behind starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (see related story) at West in fall 2006, when he was just 15, and he's an unusually vocal and persistent activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
But his being out at school is no longer that unusual at a Knox County high school, though even just a couple of years ago such openness was unheard of.
Kevin Thomas, an English teacher and faculty advisor for Central's Gay-Straight Alliance, has worked seven years at that school and seven at Karns before that, but says he first noticed overtly lesbian and bisexual girls starting just three years ago. "They would be in the hallway holding hands, or kissing when they leave each other," he says. "And only in the past year have I started seeing these things with boys—not holding hands or any PDA, but coming out to their friends and to faculty members.
"For years, I've seen kids who have to hide, who can't be who they want to be. For us to be at a place where they can come out at school is very encouraging to me."
Along with more visible individuals, the Knox County school system, with assorted parents and even some school administrators kicking and screaming all the way, has officially acknowledged entire groups of LGBT teens and their sympathizers by approving three high school Gay-Straight Alliances, including Honicker's at West and two others at Central and Fulton high schools in fall 2007. Each of these after-school clubs for LGBT and straight kids provides a safe place for dialogue and support and to empower youth activists to fight homophobia and transphobia.
Even before the clubs, the Knox County Board of Education was attempting to protect kids—and school employees—from the harassment LGBT teens commonly experience, out or not.
It reworded a harassment policy in July 2006 to include "any gesture, written on paper or electronically, verbal, physical or psychological act... motivated by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression."
All these measures put Knox County light years ahead of other school systems in East Tennessee in its approach to teens who are not heterosexual, says David Massey, one of the founders and adult coordinators of Spectrum Cafe, an outreach ministry of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church that's met since 2001 and is aimed at supporting teens who self-identify as LGBT, who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, and their straight friends and allies. "They are indicators that things are moderating in our county, but it doesn't mean that we're out of the woods."
Despite such innovations, to be LGBT in public high school still means verbal abuse and physical harassment from peers, and from faculty. Students, many of whom did not feel safe speaking for publication or were underage and prevented by their guardians, matter-of-factly report graphic sexual taunts, threats made by football players to kill a person once he steps off school property, people tearing up GSA posters in full view of their creators and leaving hate notes on a gay person's MySpace page, a teacher who told an entire club that a homosexual boy wore women's underwear...
"I know of one incident two or three years ago in which a student was beat up in the parking lot and nearly run over by another student with a car, and the student ended up giving up on getting satisfaction from the school," says Massey.
And even if the school community could create a non-discriminatory environment, LGBT students would still face a greater community where homophobia is one of the last-sanctioned forms of discrimination—and where hundreds, maybe thousands, of LGBT adults are still hiding their sexual orientation at work, at church, and in their community.
Odds are against them, but individual LGBT teens are not giving up. "I've come this far, and I'm not going back," says Colton McLain, 17, an openly homosexual male at Central High School. "I know it's going to take a while, like it did when women couldn't vote or blacks had no rights. But one day it's not going to be like this. It's going to be much better. And I'm going to be a part of that."
Leading the Charge
Except for the harassment policy, which is so little-known at the student level that, among the LGBT teens interviewed for this article, only Honicker was aware of it (West publicizes it widely), it is not the school system but a few bold individuals who are leading the charge against discrimination and harassment.
Honicker is acknowledged as the pacesetter for the whole county, and McLain, who met Honicker at the Spectrum Cafe and got the idea for his own school's GSA, is starting to earn the same reputation.
"Colton's the driving force, whether it's the GSA or coordinating big activities like the Day of Silence observation," says Thomas. "I'm just the school's resident liberal—the person they need as a formality."
But tasks like GSA formation and making posters are the structured work—sometimes frustrating, but always controlled. Tougher for the activists is just being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity in the day-to-day; that's what involves the ongoing heartache, where personal relationships take a hit, and where they fear for their personal safety.
"The most severe is that somebody tried to throw a rock at me," says Honicker. "Verbal violence—I went into high school knowing that I would get some grief that way, but I was astounded that someone would try to hurt me. I try never to be alone now when I'm at school."
McLain, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised not to be hassled as often after he transferred to Central from his rural zone school, Gibbs in far North Knoxville. He's the kind of person who almost always gets back to a sunny view of life, anyhow, quick with a quip or an off-the-cuff analysis, though he's taken hit after hit from friend and foe alike about his homosexuality.
"When I was a kid in kindergarten, I was already attracted to boys—my mom said I always was the one wanting a Barbie Happy Meal," he says with his ready laugh. "When I came out in eighth grade, some friends stayed, and some decided they didn't like that and left... They weren't true friends."
He doesn't want to sound like a whiner. "But when I first found out how people were going to react, I was like, ‘Why do I have to go through this?' I didn't understand. I couldn't change it, so I didn't know why people couldn't accept the way I was born."
At Central, McLain likes that the big mix means at least some accept him. "I've learned that it all depends on the people," he says.
"A guy threw food at me in the cafeteria this year, and another one in the group did it again the very next day," he says. "They thought it would be funny. And today, walking in the hall, this guy was like, ‘Faggot! Queer! Gay!' And I'm thinking, ‘Why do you have to go out of your way? I'm just walking the hall trying to get to my next class.'"
But he keeps it cool, relentlessly positive. "If I got really mad and just blew up, I'm getting down to their level," he says. "I as an individual have more class than that."
Faith Williams, 18 and a senior at Fulton, is another strong personality playing lieutenant in this conflict. She's outspoken and well-spoken and pretty much in charge of her own life since she turned 18, working a part-time job at the mall, cell phone planted in her ear, zipping around town with friends, always in the action.
And she lives to dance, any kind of dance, ballet, hip-hop, step. "I'm pretty much known as that girl who dances," she says.
Working to be accepted as a female bisexual is just a small part of her forceful, fanciful makeup. "I'm also a stud, which is a female who dresses like a man or boy," she says. "I'm comfortable being female, I have an all-female body and sometimes I wear a dress.
"I've been out since the seventh grade," she says. "Some of my friends weren't true friends when they found out, and that used to bother me. Now it doesn't matter. I let it be known at school, ‘This is what it is with me.'"
She has fun with her apparel—wearing a cream-and-brown pinstripe tux to escort a friend to the prom last year, for example, and planning to wear a gown this year to her own school's prom.
But she takes her position as a leader very seriously. She's open about her sexual orientation, but vehemently defends other students' rights to decide as they see fit. "My theory—my logo—is that you don't know anything about me unless I actually tell you. Nobody should make assumptions just because a person dresses a certain way or acts a certain way.... Everybody has faults, everybody sins. Unless you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes, you don't have anything to say."
And she knows one ill-advised move on her part could harm her LGBT peers. "On the step team, I socialize a lot with the freshmen who join the team, because I'm captain," she says. "I make sure they know if I'm doing something that makes them uncomfortable, I will change. I'm the kind of person who would never push my sexuality on someone. I'll change my behavior—like with this one girl, asking for a hug—but that doesn't mean I can change who I am for you."
Williams is no longer very involved in her school's GSA, but she says she knows people are more comfortable with LGBT issues just because she's on the premises. "A lot of people didn't even think of telling—some of my closest friends, they were probably actually doing things, but they didn't state it. They were scared to be open. Once I talked, some were like, ‘Hey, can I talk to you for a second? How did... ?' They're not as scared anymore."
Why, for the first time in history, are these teens coming out in a still unreceptive environment? How are they able to go about listening to friends' confessions and setting up vigils and Days of Silence (see box) when their own routine might feature a hate-filled comment from a stranger, or even a rock, between first and second period?
Honicker says its just his responsibility as someone who has the unwavering support of his parents—Community Mediation Center director and attorney Jackie Kittrell and small business and non-profit consultant Cliff Honicker—and his older brothers. "I have the privilege of being able to live out and be able to have a good home life, so I help those who don't," he says. "I could have a lot more friends and be much more popular, but I'd much rather be on the frontier of getting more people to be aware of gay people."
McLain, the second eldest of six children, says he gets family support only from his mother, and his coming out has caused a real coldness in his previously close relationship with his older sister. "But I wanted to break the barrier," he says. "I wanted being gay to be looked on as if it's no big deal."
That's not precisely what happened, he admits. "But even though I do get harassed and some days school just kind of sucks, I have a good group of friends," he says. "I like to set that example that you can be gay and have people accept you for who you are."
Williams has no family support for her journey at all, saying her parents "love her to death and I love them to death" but they make it clear that for religious reasons they don't accept her lifestyle and don't want it in their home. Her sexuality has inspired more than one heated argument.
And her Christian-based beliefs leave her conflicted about what she also views as choices. "I could have made the decision not to date at all, or to just like males. But this is just what I needed to do. I can't really say that it's wrong or that it isn't... but it's not the way of God."
But Williams has to do what she has to do. "Around the time I came out, people had their own assumptions about me anyway," she says. "All my life, I was always hearing, ‘You shouldn't care what people think,' and ‘Be yourself.'
"One day, I decided it was time to go ahead and take my own advice."
Which Came First, Homophobia or the Bible?
Whether Knox County high schools can transition from some of their schoolmates accepting courageous students like McLain or Williams as individuals to full tolerance system-wide is a controversial question.
Even the most persistent, positive LGBT role models and sympathetic adults may not be able overcome homophobia endorsed by local churches. They're also working against resistance to tattling in the teen community and the high-charged emotions that often attend the mention of anyone who is not strictly heterosexual.
"It's a particularly polarizing social issue," says Adrienne Dessel, a researcher from the University of Tennessee department of social work, who recently convened dialogues between Knox County school teachers and members of the gay and lesbian community to talk about issues of sexual orientation in the public schools, with Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Donna Wright providing Knox County school system approval for access to the school staff for the study.
"In Jerusalem in 2006, Muslim and Jewish leaders came together to object to the Gay Pride March. Two of the most hostile groups in this world united just to protest gay and lesbian people's existence," says Dessel.
In this area, fundamentalist Christians are the ones most likely to be lambasting homosexuality.
TVUUC's Massey says it's "extremely unfortunate" that several passages in the Bible are used to condemn homosexuality and make it OK to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. "They're used to justify homophobia that is deep-seated and centuries old, no question," he says. "We also have teachers and students and parents in the school system whose religion and interpretation of the Bible in their view prevents them from teaching tolerance because they think that means teaching acceptance and that would mean more teens will become gay. Not true, but that's the myth."
Even when a church doesn't condone harassment of anyone, teens might interpret teachings as a license to be down on their schoolmates, says Pastor Tim Tatum of the evangelical Thorn Grove Baptist Church in Strawberry Plains. "Scripture teaches us that people were not born that way, it was just a choice they made," he says. "But I also believe the Bible taught that we are to love one another as human beings. Just because someone acts a certain way doesn't give me a right to terrorize them or hurt them.
"I'm afraid teens hear from the pulpit at evangelical churches that it's wrong, but they don't know how to handle it from a relationship setting, they don't understand that they don't have to agree with what people do, but they do have to love them as human beings."
It's too much power for teens, says McLain. "They just want to throw religion in your face. I've actually had a ‘friend' quote Bible verses at me. That was hard, to have someone tell you you're going to hell. I don't see how everyday people can be the ones to tell you your destination after death."
The concern shouldn't be whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a sin, says Thomas. "I don't care what students think about that. I just want them to respect LBGT students as people."
Unacceptable but Unenforceable
Another impediment to full acceptance of LGBT teens is a culturally reinforced reluctance to turn in their perpetrators. "I think the reason is they think the harassment will only get worse and the school's response will not be decisive enough to stop it," Massey says. "There's also the stigma of being called a tattle-tale or appearing to be weak."
Assistant Superintendent Wright says she would also welcome a phone call or e-mail from any student who doesn't feel his or her case has been addressed, but she hasn't had many recent cases involving gender identity or sexual orientation brought to her attention. "And I would be the one in the central office who would get the call," she says.
While it's a sure thing that there are incidents going unreported at high schools or to Wright, there are also high school administrations who take reports seriously and handle them promptly. Just not many.
"A student who jumped out and yelled at a gay friend and I three days in a row in the hall actually wrote me an apology, saying nobody deserves to fear walking through the hallways, but he still disagrees with homosexuality." says Honicker. "I was like, ‘Why are you even writing this?' The wrestling coach had required him to, or he would have been kicked off the wrestling team. But at least he knows he can't mess with LGBT students and get away with it."
At West, that's true. "I've told a couple of students, ‘I was going to throw you out of school, because I don't want to tolerate your behavior,' but Conrad asked me not to. He doesn't want you suspended, he just wants you to understand," says assistant principal Donna Fielden. "Their eyes get wide and they're shocked. At this school, if you don't like someone because they're a jerk, that's fine. As long as it's not premised on stereotypes—color, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, any of those."
But Fielden is working at a much more professional level than most. Based on conversations he's had with LGBT youth in Knoxville at Spectrum Cafe on visits home, Kip Williams, who kept his homosexuality a secret at Karns in the late '90s and has since moved to San Francisco, notes that "adults in charge often treat harassed LGBT youth as though they ‘bring it on themselves.' These adults think they're trying to help, but they really still believe that straight, gender-conforming people are better than the rest of us."
Teachers have little motive to change such an attitude when the school community is so repressive that teachers themselves aren't able to be openly LGBT, says Thomas. "As far as I know, there's only one woman who's openly homosexual in the entire school system. The others are worried they would be unable to transfer schools, or that they'd get a little black check-mark on their HR folder."
And even teachers who feel like they're working hard to respond might just be naïve, says Dessel. "In a national study, students reported that teachers or staff intervened rarely or never almost half of the time when hearing homophobic remarks," she says. "In another, while almost three-fourths of teachers reported that they frequently intervened when they heard sexist, racist or homophobic remarks, only four in 10 students confirmed their experience."
That kind of stat just means more teacher training is imperative, says Massey. "Knox County has done a great job writing and implementing a progressive bullying and harassment policy, but we would encourage them to also put faculty and principals through training to be able to deal with these situations in a professional manner regardless of their personal feelings or religious convictions."
Everyone's At Risk
When you're a teen, everything seems like a big deal—who made cheerleader, how many people flunked the chemistry test, is that girl wearing the same shirt as me? But unlike most dramas that are "so high school," the question of whether people can adjust to accepting LGBT teens instead of harassing them has far-reaching effects—and an impact that more than justifies pouring resources into stemming the harassment.
One of the top issues is safety, and parents and other adults might be surprised to learn that it's not just the LGBT teens who are at risk, says Dessel.
She notes that LGBT students nationally have a higher incidence of suicide and there's no reason to think that would be any different here in East Tennessee, citing 2002 and 1998 studies that say lesbian, gay and bisexual youth may be two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.
"But research also says the effects of gay-based harassment also cause anxiety, depression and withdrawal in heterosexual students, too—the perpetrators and also the bystanders," says Dessel.
If neither of those statistics elicits compassion from teachers or parents of assumed heterosexual children, Dessel offers a bigger motivator: avoiding school shootings.
"A couple of studies looked at an analysis of 10 school shootings, and in each case there was a pattern of gay bullying and gender-related harassment towards the shooters, who were all boys," she says. "At that, these boys were never confirmed as being gay, but teased for being gay, or not being masculine enough."
The risk to the LGBT teens and their potential violence victims could be alleviated simply. "Studies show that when you take away the harassment, there is no higher suicide rate—the suicides are directly attributable to the harassment, not to the sexual orientation," says Dessel. "Students aren't at risk from being openly homosexual but from society thinking heterosexuality is the norm from which people should not deviate."
Dessel has high hopes for our ability to stop tormenting this vulnerable portion of the teen population. "Consider that it was illegal just a few decades ago for blacks and whites to marry or co-habitate, or attend the same schools, and it was unthought of," she says. "And now we're at that same place, but to a different degree, because one's sexual orientation is not observable like one's skin color."
Things Can Only Get Better?
The optimism is intoxicating. Sources from support group leaders to researchers to LGBT teens themselves all seem to feel complete acceptance of LGBT community members is possible—eventually.
"Society has had this freak-out multiple times," says Fulton's Brinks. "The civil rights movement was one and the women's movement was one, and this is another societal upheaval and people are going to get it eventually. And I hope it will be within our lifetimes."
Faith Williams sees the possibilities, too, particularly in a world where some states already allow gay marriage. "The only place I don't think we'll ever be accepted is at church. Holding hands with your other mate as you walk down to a pew? I doubt it."
Even partial acceptance is not coming quickly enough for some LGBT teen leaders. McLain, for example, would like to see the GSA able to man a booth at Homecoming like other student groups at Central, or to be able to put a gay male up as a Homecoming Queen candidate—or let a female escort a female winner.
"He gets frustrated, and I have to caution him to choose his battles," says mom Robin. "I tell him, ‘You can't eat an elephant all in one bite.'"
A group of adults is closely following the action, too. It includes faithful members of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and the Metropolitan Community Church, which serves the local LGBT community, and many LGBT people who felt compelled to move from this area at the earliest opportunity.
They are mournful that society never caught up in time to allow them—or their children—to be open while they were teens.
And they are unabashedly joyous that this generation might be the one that can live out loud.
"I remember my days at Karns, where I graduated in 2000, and I got asked over and over if I was gay, and I always denied it," says Kip Williams. "I was scared to say anything. I thought they might hurt me. Now when I visit from California and hang out at the Spectrum Cafe, I'm so shocked and pleased to meet kids in high school who are out of the closet, some of them at my same school. My heart breaks for them, because I know that they still don't get the support that they need and deserve. But I don't think that schools will become safe until we take the risk of coming out in all aspects of our lives, and show straight people that we really are everywhere—and we're not going away."