'Smear the Queer': Gay Students Tell Their Stories

Adults' actions during grade school can sway the fate of gay teens, experts say.

ByABC News
April 16, 2009, 10:47 AM

April 17, 2009— -- From the time Preston Whitt, now 18, entered kindergarten, he knew he was different. He also quickly learned that the teachers didn't know what to do about it.

"In my elementary school during PE, there was a favorite dodge ball game of all the students called 'smear the queer,'" said Whitt, of Decatur, Ala. "I still, at that time, did not realize, Oh 'I'm gay,' but the whole premise of the game bothered me. I remember saying to the coach, 'Can we play a different game -- I don't like that game."

Instead of changing the game, Whitt said the teacher decided he should be "the queer" for the day. "The whole premise of the game is that all the students run around and throw balls at the student designated as the queer … very similar to the old idea of stoning," joked Whitt.

The tone-deaf mentality of his teachers didn't stop there. Whitt can remember asking a teacher to stop kids making fun of the way he talked, but she just said he needed to talk differently. In late elementary school, he used to fear going to the bathroom because a bully might be in there.

Finally, Whitt stopped asking for help. But he said he will join in the annual National Day of Silence to draw attention to anti-gay bullying.

Clearly, children's words -- and the inaction of adults -- can hurt. Just last week an 11-year-old boy in Springfield, Mass., committed suicide, reportedly because he was distressed that his classmates repeatedly called him "gay."

But school psychologists are increasingly interested in what teachers and parents say -- especially since they are often the first to notice developing tensions over a child's gender and sexual identity.

Lisa Rivero of Brevard County, Fla., spotted problems with her child by the third grade.

"He had always been bullied. Even from elementary school the kids have been calling him 'faggot' and 'gay' because he didn't fit the gender norm of what a normal boy should be doing," Rivero said of her now 17-year-old son, Josh.

Although no one ever asked her outright, Rivero said she got hints that teachers and school administrators were questioning her son's sexual orientation.

"I had one teacher tell me during a parent teacher conference, 'Well, I have some concerns about him that during recess he prefers to be with the girls and not with the boys,'" said Rivero. "I said, was he struggling academically because of it? If no, well then that's his decision."

Some families are completely shocked when their children come out the closet. But Rivero said she was among many other parents who guessed their child's sexual orientation long before the child even knew what it meant.

"It didn't come to as a surprise to us. ... We were just waiting for him to come to the realization," Rivero said. Rivero said Josh came out the summer before starting high school.

"I've talked to so many other parents who say the same thing, especially moms," Rivero said. "There are so many moms, we can't describe it. We just know."

But what many parents don't know is what to do to help their children cope with emotional distress.