I grew up in Cincinnati, OH, which combines Ohio’s love of xenophobia, racism and rivers catching on fire with the vernacular and dental work of Indiana and Kentucky. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got mad love for my hometown and get a little misty-eyed when anyone mentions Skyline or 98 Degrees, but it was also a crappy place to grow up sometimes, especially for a awkward-looking queer kid who was really into Agatha Christie and Drew Barrymore. I didn’t really have the luxury of hiding my sexuality, because my giant lisp kind of spread the word for me, and I learned a lot from being the only “Super Out” person around. Thus, if you plan on packing your Britney or Tegan and Sara CDs with you to school, this is how to deal.
Immerse Yourself in Your Interests and Study Your Tail Off
When I was 12, I couldn’t really talk to other people at school without it ending in being mocked or having my backpack thrown in the garbage. I had one real friend, who did the morning announcements, and beanie babies to stand in for the rest of a friend group. Sometimes, I found fleeting friendships with people, and I made up for a lack of community by finding that in books and movies, learning to inhabit other worlds where I could experience what love was like. And when I got to high school, I read almost every book our teacher recommended; I was that kid who asked for more homework.
I also enrolled in almost every school organization I could, which meant that I didn’t have to have that many friends and could cherish the few real friends I did have. Who even had the time to be popular?
Work on Your Coping Mechanisms
Queer kid, ice cream and reruns of Gilmore Girls are about to become your best friend for six years. When life, school and everything gets you down, you need to find those special places you can go to, those things that always make you feel good no matter what. Although other people can be great and helpful, learn to rely on yourself for your own happiness.
Find Supportive Friend Groups
If you live in a Gay Narnia — like that boarding school in Glee — where everyone loves you, awesome! Be thankful for how lucky you are, because Middle-School-me would totally hate your guts.
For everyone else, don’t make the mistake I did: Don’t try too hard to be liked by everyone. If you are queer or read as queer, not everyone in your school is going to be cool with it, and even if you don’t like that, respect their space. It’s actually good life training, because out in the real world, not everyone is going to be totally cool with your identity. (Hi, Dad!) You’ll want to learn how to start handling that now.
Everyone in existence might not accept you, but you can always fit right in with the Band Kids, the Drama Kids, the Art Nerds, AP English Geeks, the Academic Team or, if you’re me, the Intellectual Metal Heads. Not only are the latter surprisingly supportive but also they usually have the best parties and, because of that, are surprisingly well connected at school. All these groups of people end up becoming the cool kids when you get out of high school anyway, and so it’s best to get in with them now.
Develop Online Networks
Because I came of queer in the early aughts, we had this thing called AOL and M4M chat rooms that were helpful for me in coming to terms with myself. I was able to talk to a lot of older guys who weren’t looking for sex but looking for what I craved: connection. The internet isn’t just about porn anymore, and talking to people you only know online is a really low-stakes way to open up about what you are going through. I came out to my first person on the Internet, had my first sexual experience on the Internet (which kind of counts) and made some of my best friends through Xanga. In fact, some of the people I met on the internet meant more to me than the people I knew in real life. (I still talk to a few of them today.)
Talk to a Therapist or Counselor
Even if your family is supportive about what you are going through, you can’t talk to them about everything, especially if those things are sex things. If they aren’t supportive, it’s important to talk to someone whose job it is to be supportive and help you through this time. Having someone to talk to is so important, and a therapist or counselor can help you not only open up about what your dealing with but also equip you with some of the language to verbalize it.
Learn How to Protect Yourself
For some, taking community classes in tae kwon do or karate could be a useful way to vent your anger and frustrations and a means to even channel it into something healthy. The goal of these traditions to learn how to protect yourself without harming another person, which will be helpful for you. Learn how to stand up to bullies, but don’t become one yourself.
Otherwise, try to have friends that have your back, especially if those friends are on the football team. In my case, I was friends with our school’s gossip queen, who had dirt on everyone, even some of the teachers. I couldn’t fight to save my life, but I could absolutely destroy you by letting everyone in school know about your burgeoning coke habit. Fear is a very powerful weapon.
Stay True to Yourself
This doesn’t mean you have to be out, because that’s not an option for everyone. However, don’t be like the token gay character in Easy A and go down the beard route, which is just painful for everyone. If you are gay, don’t make up a Canadian girlfriend, because that’s been done. If you are a lesbian, don’t go steady with any of the drama guys, even if they are good kissers. Even if it’s convenient now, you end up hating yourself later for putting up with the ruse.
Figure out how to express yourself in ways socially acceptable at your school. Channel your queerness into punk music and pink hair dye. Join a band and drum your rage away. Start your own zine or art project. Embrace your future power queer and run for student body president. High school may be all about blending in, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide.
Make an Impact
If being out and proud is an option at your school, don’t fall for the rhetoric of “It Gets Better One Day When I Move to a Big City and Get Out of Here.” See what you can do to make your town a better environment for other LGBT people, especially the ones who don’t have the option to leave. If you can start a GSA without getting beat up for it, do so. While you’re at it, be a mentor to other kids you know who aren’t out or come from bad family environments. Try to make your culture more accepting and safer than the one you inherited. Because it’s not just important that you survive, it’s important to help others to survive, too.