Young Teens Openly Express Sexuality; LGBT Pre-Teens Proud, Not Safe

Sean has felt since the age of 2 or 3 that he was a boy in a girl's body. Telling his parents at age 11 was difficult but coming out as transgender among his seventh-grade classmates was like walking into a lion's den.

When Sean first shared his sexuality with his mother, "She didn't take it well," he said. "She cried for about a week, but then went on the Internet and understood it better."

About a month before Sarah's "transition" to Sean, his mother informed school officials, but no one told teachers or students.

"One day I was Sarah with female pronouns and Monday I was Sean with male pronouns, without any explanation," said Sean, a pseudonym for the central New Jersey teen who wants a fresh start in high school this fall.

"I was bullied every day, shoved into lockers, beaten up and made fun of," said the 14-year-old. "The teachers were standing right there, saying nothing or just not aware of it."

Things got so bad for Sean that he dropped out of middle school, and his mother home-schooled him for the remainder of the year.

Like Sean, an increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender -- LGBT -- children are "coming out" earlier than high school because of greater cultural acceptance.

But in the immature and sometimes predatory world of middle school, Sean's experience is not uncommon, according to advocacy groups.

Taunting and bullying often goes unnoticed by teachers, and administrators have few policies in place to handle it. Only 11 states have enacted laws to protect schoolchildren from being bullied specifically because of sexual orientation. At Sean's school there wasn't even a sex education program, according to his mother.

More Teasing in Middle School

In a 2005 study conducted by Harris Polling, "From Teasing to Torment," teachers reported that middle school students were 30 percent more likely to be teased about their sexual orientation than high school students.

"There seems to be something about the onset of puberty that makes those years different," said Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "Moving from small to larger schools, cliques and social pecking order are a bigger deal."

Most children are aware of their sexuality between the ages of 8 and 11, according to Jennings, but are told they are "too young" to know their orientation.

"That makes it even harder for them," he said. "People don't believe them."

In the last year, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network has seen a "huge surge of interest" in addressing anti-LGBT bullying in middle schools. Much of it has been a reaction to the February killing of openly gay student Lawrence King. The 15-year-old was shot twice in the head by a classmate in California.

In 2007, students from 520 middle schools participated in a Day of Silence to raise awareness about sexual orientation. After King's 2008 murder, 1,046 middle schools participated in a vigil.

Today, the network sponsors about 110 gay-straight alliances -- or GSA clubs to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students -- nationwide. But that number, compared with 3,000 such clubs at the high school level, may still not be enough.

Josh Rivero enrolled in a virtual high school after he was repeatedly threatened at his Brevard County, Fla., middle school after trying to start a GSA club.

"The conversation [about his sexuality] started in eighth grade, but since elementary school he'd been called a fag," said his mother, Lisa Rivero.

Cyber-Bullies Threaten

By middle school, Josh's grades began to drop and his stress level soared. One classmate bullied Josh in cyberspace, sending homophobic messages and calling him names on the school's MySpace page.

"The school did nothing," said Lisa Rivero, who sought help and later began a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, where she now serves as president.

The threats soon became physical and Josh's mother, at the suggestion of the school's principal, reluctantly filed a temporary restraining order against her son's tormentor.

"He had a right to go to school and get an education without being bullied," she said. "We had no issues with him being gay. What we had the most difficulty with was accepting our fear that we knew our son would be a target."

Rivero said students need support, but teachers also need training. "It starts with teachers in the classroom," she said. "A lot of them stepped up and intervened, but there were other teachers who looked up at him and said, 'What do you want me to do?'"

The Riveros lobbied unsuccessfully for a Florida law to outlaw sexual orientation bullying. As his mother sought support, so did Josh, now 16 and in high school, forming a GSA at his school.

Students 'Take Control'

Josh "took control" of the situation, his mom says.

Indeed, it is the students themselves who are emboldened to make their schools more comfortable for all those with differences.

Leah Matz of St. Peter, Minn., first came out as a lesbian at the age of 12 in the seventh grade where she says gay issues were talked about in "hushed tones." The taunts began after she pioneered the first GSA.

"The harassment started right away," said Leah, now 15. "They were hollering derogatory terms, then it escalated to physical harassment. I was tripped, pushed and spit on by both boys and girls."

The GSA grew in numbers, but so did the taunts. Her breaking point came when she found the words "Dykes Suck" painted on her locker.

Club members organized a rally against bullying and homophobia, selling T-shirts that read "Stop hate, just love." Leah called the press and got television and newspaper coverage of the event.

Not all reaction was positive: Leah was criticized in a letter to the editor in the local newspaper for "recruiting" students into the "gay lifestyle."

But she says this is a school safety issue, and most of the members of her GSA are not gay, but "straight allies." "Students feel more comfortable now in schools because of GSA," said Matz. "Because of our efforts we are stronger people and face our adversaries."

Leah's mother, Kathy Chalhoub, had no problem with her daughter's sexuality. "I feel really fortunate to have a child who felt free to come to me," she said. "My fear was for her."

"There's always a blessing in every curse and what Leah has gone through has had such good come from it."

But experts say many middle school administrators have no policies in place when it comes to sexual orientation bullying.

"I never dealt with this as a middle school principal in the 1990s," said John Norig, director of program development for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which is beginning to address the issue. But even progressive schools with strong anti-gay harassment policies said coming out is particularly hard in middle school.

"I still don't believe it's safe for 11- to 14-year olds to come out without support," Alison Boggs, principal at Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colo., told She has seen one or two students a year come out.

"About 98 percent of the kids are questioning at this age," she said. "Many are not coming out right away and some are not gay."

But for those few who feel strong enough to come out, the school sends them to a counselor so they feel "supported and accepted" at the school.

Doing 'Whatever ItTakes

The Boulder school starts each year explaining to students that all categories of harassment are forbidden. When incidents occur, they are dealt with swiftly and individually.

"We do whatever it takes," said Boggs. "We can't let it go and assume we did it in class and everyone heard it."

"Like other forms of sexual harassment, once they are educated, kids do pretty well and will stop if we make it clear," said Boggs.

"In this age group, they are still forming their identity, and they may be sure, but not all that sure," she said. "But they are feeling safer to express themselves."

Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which promotes the health and well-being of LGBTs agrees, but said, "There's so much more work to be done to create a safe environment for these kids."

Even in families with parental acceptance, there is a great need for support and education and information for other family members, neighbors and the community, said parents and advocates. And now, many children who have been raised in same-sex families are entering elementary and middle school.

"When Bobby shows up with two mommies, sexual orientation presents itself at earlier and earlier ages," said Huckaby. "The work to develop curricula has to be done earlier.

It's a reality that gay people exist and it's easier and easier for kids to develop a language around the fact that they are different."