Marina, 21, Atlanta, GA

Sometimes people have assumed I’m straight because of my appearance. I date both guys and girls, and I’ve worried that people would just think that I was straight. I’m not so concerned about it now, but it’s something that I thought about when I was newly out and not really sure how I fit in. I felt like I had to prove my queerness. I’m more comfortable with it now and sort of do whatever feels right.

I identify as queer. Depending on who I’m talking to I’ll identify as bisexual, but I think the word bisexual, to me, sort of means two genders, which isn’t necessarily how I see things. I understand two genders exist in society, but they aren’t inherent or necessary. I go by female pronouns. More or less, I identify as female. That’s how I was raised to identify and how people view me. I’m a linguistics major, so I’ve thought a lot about these terms.

Being queer affects many aspects of my life beyond just sexual orientation. I work at the Center for LGBT Life, and the queer community here is very supportive. Other queer students on campus ended up being a ready-made social circle for me. Through the Office of LGBT Life, I’ve met so many people I’ve really connected with. Almost all of my close friends are queer. Emory is my first experience with any queer community. I didn’t really have that in high school.

I was only out to my very, very close friends in high school. It wasn’t something I talked about. To make my life easier, it was something I kept to myself. I knew that when I went outside of Inverness, Florida, that would change.

I had my first kiss with a girl when I was 13. She was a close friend of mine and we had a sort-of relationship, and she’d also be dating guys publicly. I was like, “I’m not cool with being your secret girlfriend.” As far as I know she doesn’t identify in any way as queer now. She has a kid and lives in our hometown. A lot of people from my high school have kids. There was a group of kids in honors classes and they’re in college, mostly at University of Florida, but I’m one of the few who went out of state.

Neither of my parents went to a four-year college, and my sisters and I all did. My parents both worked a lot when we were growing up to support us. I can’t remember them saying “You have to go to college or do well in school.” but it was always assumed that you will go to college and you will do well in school.

My dad is Mexican and my mom is white and from the South, but I’m not really emotionally wedded to one thing or another and never really fit into either category. Before I came to college I didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary for it, but I’m used to not necessarily fitting into a box. From a young age I’ve always been aware of race and ethnicity and how these things played into my life.

I told my mom I was queer a year and a half ago, but I never came around, I guess, to telling other members of my family. I decided several months ago to operate like I had already told my sister. We both use Twitter a lot, and I’d tweet that I was going to Atlanta Pride and I’d link to various queer events I was going to, so I assumed she knew. But I just officially came out to my sister yesterday. On Twitter.

My sister told my mom, “Marina’s never actually come out to me. I know, or I think I know.” But it seemed to my mom like she wanted me to tell her. So last night I sent her a Twitter direct message being like, “Hey, Mom said you wanted me to tell you this but you probably already know, so yeah…” She wrote, “Haha. Thanks, I guess.”

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken at Emory University, Atlanta, GA, 2010
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Noah, 19, Macon, GA

Before I left for college, my parents told me not to tell anyone at school I was gay. But I was so excited about being in a gay-friendly place, the first thing I did when I got to campus was find out who was in charge of Common Ground, Mercer’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Now I’m the president.

I made the decision to get involved with a lot of different things at school. I’m the photo editor of the school paper. I’m in Amnesty International. I’m on the table tennis team. I also do my own photography, and I’m having my first gallery exhibit this winter. Plus I’m trying to keep my grades up while having a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, Kayden, in Atlanta, which takes the commitment of a full-time job. I have to force myself to sleep.

Mercer is a small Baptist school in the South, so it’s not going to be a liberal school. But it has a history of gay activism on campus that I didn’t tell my parents about when I was applying. My parents know I’m president of Common Ground, but I don’t think they realize what a big part of my life it is. I didn’t know any gay people before I came out, so I figure it’s my job and responsibility to make sure it’s easier for other people.

I was 16 when I came out. I told my friend, and he thought I should tell my parents because he was worried about my soul. They weren’t thrilled. I had to go to several Christian therapists. Not ex-gay therapy, but ones that try to work out what’s best for you.

A month later I actually got kicked out of my school. I told only two people at the school I was gay, so I know exactly who told the administration. It was a private school, and they had a secret meeting. It was about a week before my senior year was about to start. I had enough credits, so I just graduated early. It was rough. I didn’t feel like God loved me or my parents loved me. All those things happened at once, and it was intense.

December of that year I tried to commit suicide. I tried to swallow a bunch of pills. A friend called when I was doing it, and she talked me out of it. Then I decided not to feel so sorry for myself.

Looking back, I think it was a half-hearted attempt. But back then I thought I was so serious. I really did believe it was the only option. I really did.

Afterwards, I sent my parents a garbled letter in emotional language. I don’t think they know the extent of how serious it was. I think they thought I was being a hormonal teenager, which I sort of was.

That was two years ago. Everything is so much better now. At college, no one cares that I’m gay. My brothers and sisters don’t care, and my father’s trying to be accepting. This summer, my mother said she’d rather I be a drug dealer than be gay, because there’s rehab for being a drug dealer. But just recently she told my dad, “I’m not going to be one of those Christian people who hates gays.” She’s making an effort, and in turn I’m trying to be as sensitive as I can be to her needs.

Like, I try not talking about gay stuff around her, and when I’m with Kayden I try not to be handsy. It may not be the best situation, but it’s improved dramatically.

Kayden’s coming over Christmas Eve. He’s never been here on a holiday with my extended family. I anticipate that no one will say anything. It usually bothers me when people don’t talk about stuff, but in this particular case I’m kind of cool with it. I used to think that when people didn’t say anything, they were thinking all sorts of bad things. But now I realize it’s that they’re making a conscious effort to be more accepting.

Kayden and I have been together two years. We met when we both lived in Alpharetta, Georgia. Now he lives in Atlanta and I live in Macon, but we try to see each other every weekend. It’s actually good on a small campus like Mercer, where everyone’s in everyone’s business, to date someone from outside the bubble.

But we don’t have that connection you have in a relationship where you see each other all the time. But we work at it. Skype helps. I feel very lucky to be with him. He balances out of all the things I can’t take care of on my own.

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken at Mercer University, Macon, GA, 2010
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Dohyun, 19, Atlanta, GA

When we moved to America, I tried to become more American. I was born in Korea and we moved to Marietta when I was 10. I have tried to get more into my Korean heritage recently. I’m trying to learn the history and where my family comes from and that sort of thing. I don’t speak Korean very well. I speak barely enough to get through to my parents.

I come from a very, very traditionalist, conservative Korean family. Growing up, I never knew what gay was. The concept was entirely foreign to me. I actually haven’t come out to most of my family. I’m pretty sure if my dad found out, he’d kick me out. My siblings know, I think, but we never talk about it.

I accidentally told my mom during my junior year of high school. I was thinking about it for a while. Then my mom and I were sitting in a room and she’s like, “Do you have something to tell me?” She said it was a phase and it would pass. We’ve never talked about it since. And a lot of tears were shed — by me. I don’t think she cried.

Being at college, away from my parents, is a lot more liberating. It gets a lot more difficult as I get more active in the community.

Ever since I’ve come out, I’ve been very proud of who I am. My first kiss with a guy was the summer after I came out, the summer between sophomore and junior year. A guy who’s now a really good friend of mine. We went out for a week. He didn’t think gay rights were really a thing. I helped him come out of the closet and become more active.

I want to do things for the community. I founded the Gay-Straight Alliance in my high school. There were a few other gay kids. Our GSA was more straight allies than queers, which was interesting.

It’s different here. I got to Emory and realized there’s so much I can do for the community. I really wanted to get my voice out there. There are more gays than I’ve ever met here. It’s refreshing. I never knew there were so many out and proud, active kids around. But still you don’t really see a gay couple holding hands.

I don’t particularly hang out with Korean kids at Emory. They keep to themselves and speak Korean. Also, Asian culture is very homophobic. I don’t know many gay Asians. There’s one person who comes to the Queer Students of Color group on campus, but that’s it.

I definitely want to come out to my parents, but I want to wait until I get a better foothold and can support myself. I’ve mentally dealt with it and made peace with how it is with my parents. But sometimes it’s hard. My home life feels like it’s a lie.

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Atlanta, GA, 2010
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Derrick, 18, Statesboro, GA

I told the principal in January that I wanted to take my boyfriend, Richard, to prom. Two weeks later my mom said, “This Constance girl’s all over the news. Don’t start this drama in Cochran.”

I was knocking on my principal’s door every single day to get an answer as to whether I could bring Richard to prom. Finally the school’s lawyer said there was no school policy against it, but urged me not to. But I told them I was going to do it, and then I told everyone. In the beginning it was a matter of civil rights. Once February hit and Constance’s story hit the news, it really hit home for me that I needed to have a positive experience and share a positive experience. It didn’t turn out exactly like that.

A local TV station contacted me soon after. I did the interview in the morning, and the principal called me into her office in the afternoon. She said, “I asked you not to do the story, but now you’ve just painted a bull’s-eye on your back. We’ll do our best to protect you, but you should know you just blew this story up.”

I got home that night and the lights were off. My mother told me to pack my stuff. I put everything I could into trash bags, got in the car and sped away. It was as dramatic as it sounds.

I drove to my friend’s house. I’d actually lived with her before. When my parents found out I was dating Richard, they threatened to move me to relatives in South Carolina. I knew my parents wouldn’t hit me but I was scared they’d take away everything, so I moved in with my friend. Then my parents said I could try again, so I moved back with them for my senior year. When the press hit over the prom thing, I moved back in with my friend.

During this period, one guy pulled up in his truck and said, “Next time I have a gun, I will shoot you.” I would take a different route every day when I was going home. They stationed a police officer outside the tutoring center where I worked.

But even with everything I had to deal with, prom was everything I could hope for with the person I wanted to be with. My dad is a teacher at the school and was working prom. He watched us all night long and made sure we were safe. He didn’t like that I was gay, but he’s never stopped loving me. He just didn’t support the lifestyle.

My parents and I are now getting to the point where we are having a relationship again. From my mindset, it will be hard for me to forgive them. From their mindset, it will be hard for them to forgive me: for being gay, for causing this ruckus, for blasting them like I did. My parents would say, “You’re moving in a year. We’re going to be stuck in this community.”

Even after everything, I feel like the situation was a win-win. When the story hit the news people started sending me donations. It showed the strong support of the gay community. After prom we sent out an autographed picture of us from prom night to people who donated as a symbol of our appreciation.

When I flew out to California this summer to go to GLAAD’s media event, one of our donors said Richard and I could stay at his place in San Francisco with him and his husband. I marched in San Francisco Pride and had VIP seating for LA Pride. It sounded odd at first for someone to be willing to offer their home to us, but it ended up a great experience. They are like my family now, and I can never thank them enough for their guidance and support. It came at a time when I really needed it.

Richard stayed with us for the first two months, but then he and I started to disagree. We both went our separate ways, and he flew home a month before I did. It was sad saying goodbye to someone I loved. But it was a chance for me to reevaluate my life, and to make sure I was staying true to myself and my goals for both my push toward equality and my small-town, innocent-boy background.

I went back to Cochran a month ago. Going from California to Statesboro was just going across the country. Going from Statesboro to Cochran was like going back 100 years. I’m not saying they haven’t made strides forward, but it just feels like a giant step back for me.

When I was in California, I founded Project LifeVest to help young LGBT kids in crisis. I saw this as an opportunity to help people in Georgia, but now we’re getting calls from people throughout the world. I’ve helped people in Peru and California. Young people have contacted me who are considering suicide and dealing with abuse and bullying.

I’ve told all my professors about Project LifeVest, so if I get a call it doesn’t matter what’s going on; I’m allowed to leave class. After the large increase in known teen suicides, I really don’t fool around when it comes to my job. I love what I do, and I’m grateful to be able to save lives.

Just yesterday I got a call while I was sitting in calculus class. A boy at a local school was being bullied. I left class and ran over there, but by the time I got there the situation had escalated and he landed in the hospital. I spoke to the school and all the individuals involved. Now we’re working to get a better bullying policy in place. The worst punishment the kid who beat him up could get under the current policy is a one-day suspension.

I only sleep four or five hours a night, and I lose sleep over Project LifeVest. I only have four or five hours of sleep a night. But being in college, you have to have time to enjoy yourself.

Georgia Southern is really accepting. They just had a gay prom. I didn’t go. It sounded fun, but prom just wasn’t something I wanted to do again this year.

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Statesboro, GA, 2010
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CJ, 19, Macon, GA

I told my grandmother I was gay last year and she made her religious convictions about it apparent, but she said it wouldn’t change the fact that she’d still love me. My grandmother’s always been one of the role models of my life, but I didn’t want her to change her morals just because I was gay. If she did that, then she could change them for any reason. But I understand her reasons, and I’m thankful she’s still supportive and still loving. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

I go to a Baptist church and to the Reformed University Fellowship on campus. I identify as Christian. I view the Bible as encouraging love and compassion for all. Those morals are the same. That’s more important to me than one or two Bible verses that condemn same-sex relationships.

I don’t hang out with that many gay people. I hang out with people who are gay-friendly. Since there was no controversy when I came out freshman year, I’ve stayed with those friends. I’ve been one time to the gay club in Macon. It’s not exactly my cup of tea.

I do like to hang out with friends and party that way, and I’m very involved on campus. You have professors and get to know everyone on campus. It’s a very active and loving campus.

If I was giving advice to other gays, I’d say it’s important to be self-confident. But I would also say not to advertise it. You don’t have to act straight, but when you meet someone don’t say, “Hi, I’m gay.” When I was meeting gay freshmen last year. I always thought it was weird if that was one of the things they said when they introduced themselves.

Mercer’s small, so everybody knows everybody. It’s a good thing sometimes, but when it comes to dating it’s not a good thing because you’ve known everyone so long. I dated someone freshman year and he moved to Florida, and after that I haven’t found anyone I’m interested in.

My first kiss was weird. Not because it was a guy; it was just weird because I had never kissed anyone before. In high school I was still straight. Well, I wasn’t straight, but I wasn’t out. I had girlfriends in early high school. I was still kind of young.

I went to a really small Georgia high school. The graduating class was 38. High school’s never good for anyone unless you’re a football player or cheerleader, and life’s pretty much over for them after high school. I was asked a million times if I was gay, and I had a cracking voice, so I got picked on for that.

I think people thought I was gay partly because of the voice. Because my high school was so small, you were categorized. I wasn’t the only person thought to be gay. The other people who were thought to be gay weren’t gay. They were just different.

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken at Macon University, Macon, GA, 2010
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