I am a psychiatrist now but had another life teaching English in public high school for 17 years. My teaching life, in which I was an openly gay teacher, spanned 2001-2018 and was divided between two urban California schools – in Berkeley and San Leandro. I came out by responding honestly to student questions about whether I had a girlfriend, and what I did over the weekend. At Berkeley High my openness wasn’t an issue at all. The school had a vibrant Gay Straight Alliance/GSA for years, there were many openly gay staff and many openly gay students. No students felt the need to come out to me in search of a gay mentor.
Two years later, I began teaching in San Leandro, 20 miles away, and it was a lesson in how even the San Francisco Bay Area, an LGBTQ+ bastion, could harbor homophobia. When I was hired in 2003, San Leandro High had one openly gay teacher, Q. I quickly realized how much braver his coming out was compared with mine in Berkeley.
In San Leandro, gay slurs were heard nonstop in the hallways, no students were out, and by the end of my first year Q had quit, confiding in me that he couldn’t handle the homophobic harassment from students anymore. There was no GSA. A few years ago, two lesbians had held hands during lunch and inspired the wrath of a group of parents who advocated for their expulsion. In response, a teacher tried to introduce gay sensitivity training into his class and the same group of parents tried to get him fired. He was reprimanded by the principal, he countersued in a case that went all the way to the California Supreme Court, and won. Comparing these two local high schools reinforced to me how visibility really matters in creating a childhood experience that is nurturing versus traumatizing.
Two Chinese girls in love
N and T were two Chinese girls who grew up in San Leandro. They went to the same elementary school and had crushes on each other since then. In their junior year, they joined our first student GSA, becoming president and vice-president. They were out. And, of course, they must’ve known that their families, who would not have been supportive, would become aware. I remember sitting at an outdoor concert when I got a text from N warning me her father had found out and blamed me for having corrupted her. He planned on coming to school to demand I be fired. And such was the unrelenting pressure that N and T faced every time they went home from school and sat at their dinner tables. Eventually, they broke up. They didn’t do so tearfully, but more wearily.
This story illustrates how difficult it is for love between two LGBTQ+ teens to be nurtured. Love in youth can already be volatile because of the lack of emotional regulation and experience. The questioning of identity and the threat of family disintegration at a time when these teens do not have the economic means to protect themselves makes love dangerous. It is no wonder that gay teens are at increased risk for homelessness.
The family incident that led to the girls’ breakup reveals how culture affects homophobic pressure. N resisted her parents’ disapproval for months, but she capitulated when her father had a heart attack and blamed it on her. “And it’s true,” N confided. “After my parents found out, they were continually stressed. I could see it affect their health. And it breaks my heart to see my dad in the hospital.”
For N, she had not capitulated from fear, but perhaps because of filial piety, or one’s obligation to protect one’s parent. It was a choice between two heartbreaks. Double minorities, like N and T, face a double threat and often can find no safe place. One of my patients who is gay and Black put it best: “It’s like being beaten up at school only to come home to another beating.” This double threat is evidenced by the higher suicide risk of ethnicities who are LGBTQ+ relative to their white counterparts.
The confusion of a gay athlete
R was a star point guard, a senior who had secured an athletic scholarship, and was recognized as the best athlete in our county. A popular boy, he flaunted his physique and flirted with all the girls. And then when he was enrolled in my class, he began flirting with all the boys, too. There was gossip that R was bisexual. Then one day, not unexpectedly, he came out to me as gay. He admitted he only flirted with girls for his reputation.
By this time many students had come out to me but he flirted with me with his revelation. I corrected him and warned him unequivocally that it was inappropriate but I was worried because I knew he had placed his trust in me. I also knew he came from a homophobic family that was violent – his father had attacked him physically at a school game and our coaches had to pull him off.
Instinctively, I felt I had to have a witness so I confided in another teacher and documented the situation meticulously. Then, one day, just as I feared, he went too far. He stayed after class and said he wanted to show me something on his phone. And that something turned out to be a picture of himself naked. I immediately confiscated the phone and reported it to the administration. This was not how I wanted him to come out: His family notified by the police that he had sexually harassed his teacher, expulsion pending, and scholarship inevitably revoked. Fortunately, we did find a resolution that restored R’s future.
Let’s examine the circumstances that could’ve informed his transgressive behavior. If we consider sexual harassment a form of bullying, R’s history of having a father who publicly bullied him – and may have bullied others in front of him – is a known risk factor. It is also common knowledge that organized team sports were and still are a bastion of homophobia and that gay athletes had to accept a culture of explicit homophobia.
So, it is not hard to understand the constant public pressures that R faced in addition to those from his family. Let’s also consider that appropriate sexual behaviors are not something we are born with, but something that is learned. Of course, inappropriate sexual behavior also happens in the heterosexual world. But heterosexual sexual behavior often has more accepted paths of trial and error. Children experiment with these behaviors and are corrected by adults and older peers as they mature.
However, for homosexual behaviors, there is not usually the fine-tuning about what is appropriate.
An educational environment where LGBTQ+ persons are highly visible and accepted is a more nurturing environment for LGBTQ teens than one that is not. Specific subcultures within the LGBTQ population involving race, culture, gender, and athletics modulate the experience of coming out and the nature of homophobic oppression.
Dr. Nguyen is a first-year psychiatry resident at the University of San Francisco School of Medicine at Fresno.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Image 1: Dr Du Nguyen
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Cite this: LGBTQ+ Teens in Homophobic High Schools - Medscape - Mar 22, 2023.