The elephant in the closet

Support for LGBT high school students is minimal, a Leland & Gray senior writes

JAMAICA — You are having a conversation with a friend, and there is this obvious thing you both are aware of, yet, for whatever reason, refuse to acknowledge.

Maybe it's that you cheated on a test, or it could be something more serious - that someone close to you died, or that you like your friend but he or she doesn't feel the same way.

The awkwardness and discomfort gnaws at your self-esteem. The elephant in the room grows so huge and conspicuous that at last it is impossible to ignore, or else it might crush you.

Imagine that elephant is your existence. A piece of your own identity is this thing no one dares speak of. It's taboo to even utter the word describing this thing in any seriousness; you can hardly say it yourself.

You are that big, bumbling elephant trapped in a tiny closet with the whole world, and it's cramped in there. The world knows you exist somewhere but can't quite pinpoint where.

The worst part is that your invisibility is, in a sense, synthetic. It is perpetuated by the actions of those around you.

Gordon Landenberger, who graduated from my high school in 2007, did not have a definitive moment in which he realized that he is gay; it was more of a gradual understanding.

The real difficulty came once he could match how he was feeling with a word or a label.

“It became a matter of verifying it, figuring out what to do about it. And unfortunately, as a gay person you are automatically put into a position of having to do something,” Landenberger said.

He explained that when people are born heterosexual - “straight” - they don't have to make any sort of declaration of their sexuality; it's simply assumed.

Meanwhile, anyone who does not identify as heterosexual is somewhat forced into, as Landenberger said, “the embarrassing position of having to publicly share our sexual preferences.”

* * *

The “coming out” process is almost unheard of in the student body of Leland & Gray. Landenberger was no exception to the silent majority; what kept him from coming out was our school's size.

“At such a small school there's no anonymity, and there's very little privacy,” said Landenberger “I think in that environment the embarrassment of coming out would have been magnified.”

Although he suggested that the majority of students at Leland & Gray might be accepting of homosexuality in theory, “[it's] another thing to be able to see two men or two women holding hands or kissing without thinking differently of them.”

The use of the word “gay” as a derogatory slur, even in conversation, only contributes to the silencing of LGBTQ students.

Landenberger remembered hearing the word “gay,” among others, being “tossed around in conversation, which is almost worse. It must have had a cumulative effect on me. When you're trying to come to terms with your own sexuality, it's hard to constantly hear words like 'gay' or 'homo' casually used as general pejoratives.”

If that weren't enough to bury a teenager deep within the proverbial closet, there was also the “casual speculation.”

When his peers made comments like, “I think he's gay, but doesn't know it yet,” Landenberger became upset, even if they were talking about someone else.

“There was nothing I was more aware of in high school!” he said. “It wasn't a question of 'knowing it' or 'not knowing it.' It was much more complicated.”

* * *

Although Johnny Pozzi had somewhat of a different experience from Landenberger, there were many parallels.

Pozzi, who graduated in 2010, only officially came out as gay to a few of his close friends while he was at Leland & Gray. Unlike Landenberger, Pozzi did have a distinct moment at which the fog cleared: he and his brother were watching an adult film when it occurred to Pozzi that what he was focusing on and what his brother was focusing on were two entirely different things.

After that, the difference between him and his peers could not be denied. However, it wasn't until college that he finally told his family.

“I told my sister, who then told my mom, and then I told my mom not to tell anyone, who then told the entire family,” Pozzi said.

Fortunately, it all went over well. Pozzi's family was “very liberal-minded, and they're hippies, so they accepted it really well.”

Unfortunately, the Leland & Gray community was a more intimidating confidant. Pozzi never came out on a large scale in high school, sharing the information with only a small handful of people.

Since he graduated only two years ago, it was easy for him to remember why he kept quiet.

“I played a lot of soccer, so I was on sports teams with kids who I knew wouldn't be okay with it,” he said.

And although he never experienced any direct harassment, like Landenberger, Pozzi frequently felt the sting of derogatory slurs used in casual conversation.

“Kids would call each other 'faggots,' and there are a lot of close-minded people who use those terms ... especially when I was on the soccer team, a lot of kids would say things like that as a put-down,” he said.

From those students' perspective, it might be easy to argue that the words should not have been offensive to Pozzi because they weren't necessarily talking to him, but such logic has obvious flaws.

Most students do not understand what it is like to be gay and be forced to stand by while their peers call someone else “gay” as an insult, as if their natural sexuality is somehow wrong or disgusting.

“I just had to bite my tongue and not say anything,” said Pozzi. “I mean, I guess I didn't have to, which is the sad part. I could've said [something].”

His silence is common - why take a chance of being “accused” of homosexuality, and risk being “outed” as a consequence?

* * *

When he did finally come out, Pozzi's biggest concern was telling his guy friends.

“They were like my brothers, and I didn't want them to think anything other than that, like I didn't want them to think, 'Oh, did he have a crush on me?'” he said.

In high school, one of our concerns - possibly one of our biggest - is what others think of us. Everyone feels a certain level of self-consciousness. One of the most degrading feelings high-school students can have is the notion that they are gross, weird, creepy, or disgusting.

It's not uncommon for LGBT students to feel this way, with the overwhelmingly popular idea within high schools that they are, in fact, creepy or weird for no reason other than their sexual orientation.

Pozzi, who grew up in an accepting family - hardly the case for all households in Windham County - suggested that education in the history of LGBT issues might help remedy the narrow-mindedness in high schools in general and at Leland & Gray in particular.

“It makes sense, for the kids that are going around saying 'faggot.' I mean that's horrible, but it's something that they learn from their parents, probably ... not necessarily the name calling, but the close-minded view on homosexuality.” Pozzi feels that it's important for an objective, unbiased perspective to be taught in schools, and it would also benefit students who might be questioning their sexuality.

“These kids don't learn anything about homosexuality other than what they're learning about it from the biased perspectives of their parents and the media,” he said.

Already, young adulthood is somewhat of a lonely time. You might feel like no one “gets” you, then add on to that the reality that few, if any, around you can truly understand what you're going through.

Pozzi admitted to having felt isolated from the moment he realized he was gay up until the day he finally came out to someone.

“I always wanted to tell someone,” he said. “I knew I could talk to an adult, but would they really know? They could sympathize with me and be accepting of who I am, but they wouldn't really understand what I was going through.”

Pozzi felt that living in a small community like Windham was particularly difficult because he felt even more isolated.

“I don't know of any openly gay adults, and I know a couple of openly gay students now, but for a while the only information that I was receiving about other people like me was from the media, and that's skewed as --,” he said.

* * *

When Pozzi and Landenberger attended school here, there was no easily accessible support from within the Leland & Gray school community.

Even now, support for LGBT students is minimal, which perhaps reflects the relative obscurity they are living in.

Then, that invisibility lends itself to the idea that it's somehow okay to say words like “faggot,” “dyke,” or “homo” as an insult because there is no one around to be offended.

Pozzi and Landerberger maintain that this is not true. LGBT students are your friends and neighbors, your brothers and sisters.

They're here and they're queer, so get used to it.

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