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News: Safe in Their Sexuality

Youth summit provides a place to come out, speak out

By Elizabeth Wu · October 22nd, 2003 · News
High school students need to know it's OK to be gay, says John Kemen.
Jymi Bolden

High school students need to know it's OK to be gay, says John Kemen.

Coming of age is always challenging, but especially so for teens who are gay, lesbian, transgendered or still questioning their sexuality.

The Greater Cincinnati Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Questioning Youth Summit offers a safe space for youth to learn, network, socialize and be themselves. Sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating anti-gay bias in schools, the summit meets Saturday at Northern Kentucky University.

The first summit attracted 150 people in March 2002. A summit in November was even larger. This time organizers anticipate 275-300 people from middle school through college.

The 30 workshops at the summit include such topics as bi-sexuality, club drugs, domestic violence, creative writing, gay marriage and stress management, according to Shawn Walker, co-chair of the event.

John Kemen, 19, a freshman at the University of Cincinnati, enjoys the variety of workshops and the number of organizations that get involved but says the summit has more immediate value for many participants.

"When I came out as a freshman at Sycamore (High School), I didn't have a problem, but I know people who did," he says. "People in high school might have a hard time finding gay-friendly resources that are out there. Some people don't know there are high-school gay-straight alliances. There are so many people who don't have that cushion around them where it's 'OK to be gay.' My school was so big, when I came out, nobody noticed. In rural or suburban areas, it may be harder to come out."

Emily Joy, 21, president of the UC LGBT Alliance, can testify to that. She says she realized she was lesbian in middle school and came out during her junior year at Norwood High School.

"I did get harassed a bit," she says. "My locker was vandalized, people shouted at me in the hall, stuff got stolen off of my backpack. I was never physically harmed. I found my voice during my senior year after my stuff had been vandalized.

"I felt like I couldn't take it anymore. I was sitting in class, and these guys who had stolen this pin off my backpack started making fun of me and reading out the words on the pin. I really went off on them, ranted for about a solid five minutes. In the end I was crying and everyone was silent."

Joy recounted the experience of her girlfriend, who attended last year's summit.

"She was never able to talk and find her voice regarding the issue," Joy says. "At the end of each summit, they have a speak-out, which is an opportunity for people to just get up and talk. She still talks about how liberating it was to get up there and get everything off her chest that had been building for so long."

Lauren Herlihy, 17, is a senior at Lakota East High. She says it can be difficult for teens to even get to the summit because of parental restrictions. She wasn't permitted to attend the first summit because her parents, "though open-minded, didn't want me getting too involved with these things."

Allowed to attend the November summit, Herlihy felt a little out of place, because she and a friend were 16 and 15, whereas many participants were college students or adults.

"We were scared out of our wits," Herlihy says. "We didn't know anyone else there. We felt too young. But it turned out to be a comfortable, informative kind of thing. There were a lot of adults, and it was nice to see that kind of support. I thought it was incredible."

Herlihy, like many others, has experienced abuse at the hands of her peers. Just being involved in the issue can lead to trouble.

"I've gotten harassed for my involvement with the GSA, punched in the stomach and have gotten some threatening phone calls," she says.

Her friend transferred to another school.

"It was a little too homophobic for him to deal with," Herlihy says. "I don't really have a choice. It's unpleasant, but it could be a lot worse."

Herlihy appreciated the openness of the summit.

"If you live in Cincy, you understand how disconcerting the conservative climate is," she says. "(At the summit) we could say what we wanted without having to walk on eggshells the whole time."

The Greater Cincinnati Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Questioning Youth Summit is 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday at Northern Kentucky University. Admission is free.


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