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By Sara Hahn, 17, Mayfield Senior School
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Illustration by Diana Vi, 15, Lakewood HS

Many gay students endure hell. That’s what I found out at a recent conference for gays, where teens started talking about the things they had been through at school. I listened, stunned and shocked, as they described being beaten up, mocked and threatened at school dances. They’d had rumors spread about them, bad language directed at them, mean comments made towards them.

As one of the group leaders said, "Society always needs someone to hate." At the leader’s suggestion, each student said in a word how these situations made them feel: "Violated." "Speechless" "Sad." "Sorrowful." "Alone." "Strong."

And one student wrote on the blackboard some words of strength:

"Be strong and hold on,

Be yourself and never blue,

To your own self be true."

We were brought together by Make It Real, a conference at Cal State L.A. to raise awareness of a new law that gives gay students more protection from harassment at school. With an audience of about 50 people, I had the opportunity to meet gay youth from the Los Angeles area, and to hear some very cool speakers. The conference opened with Virginia Uribe, who founded the first Project 10 at Fairfax High School in 1984. Project 10, which brings together teens to talk about their sexual orientation, now exists throughout Los Angeles. Then we heard from Anthony Colin, 15, who was denied the right to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at his Orange County school (click here to read that story). We also heard from openly gay actor Wilson Cruz and openly lesbian legislator Sheila Kuehl, among others. Spending a day at the Make It Real conference, a collaboration between the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Bienestar, Friends of Project 10 and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, was a reality shock, but it was also an inspiration.

Actor Wilson Cruz gave hope

One of the highlights of the day was meeting Wilson Cruz, who played Ricky on My So-Called Life and Angel in "Rent," and is currently on Party of Five. "Eight years ago, the thought of having a GSA [in high school] was unthinkable," said Wilson, who attended Eisenhower High School in Rialto. High school was difficult for him, even in a large, multiracial school (about 3,000 students): "It was hard to be gay at an athletic school—they were really into the football, basketball teams. Here I am, playing the flute and clarinet and singing in the choir. I wasn’t the most popular kid in the school, but I was the most talented!"

However, Wilson did have a group of friends, who supported each other. "They saved my life in many ways. One day, I was going to take my life. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t worthy of being alive." His friend listened and helped him through that tough time, and a few months later, Wilson did the same for him. "I don’t remember anything else from high school. I don’t remember algebra, I don’t remember calculus, but I remember my friend Brian said, ‘I understand’ when I talked to him about it."

Wilson experienced prejudice at a wrenching level when his father threw him out of his home when he found out that Wilson was gay. "I had to start from the bottom and educate him. It’s been a long, six-year process." Now, Wilson’s father has learned that "it is OK for him to love me. He’s gone from not wanting to know his son, to loving his son. It’s amazing."

Wilson, who’s 26, married another man on July 4, 1999, and at Christmas he took his partner home to introduce him to his father. (While gay couples cannot legally marry, many take vows to each other anyway.)

"The most important thing to remember is that you cannot give anybody the room to disrespect you. Have a sense of pride and self-esteem, and with that you can do anything," Wilson said.

Sheila Kuehl urged action

I had never heard of Sheila Kuehl before the conference, but after hearing her speak I had a new respect for people who have been able to endure incredible hardships. Sheila Kuehl attended Dorsey High School, where she was in the closet. She was a child actress, playing Zelda Gilroy on The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis in the 50s.

However, when CBS found out that Sheila was a lesbian, she was fired from the TV show, ending her plans for a show biz career. "I decided I didn’t care what people thought," she said.

She went to UCLA, became an attorney, then a state legislator, and has become an amazingly strong and supportive voice for the gay community. She described how she tried three times before she was able to get passed the new law that gives youth more protection from harassment for their sexual orientation.

Looking at all the youth in the audience, she told us that we should run for office. When everybody laughed, she said that she had laughed too—and now she’s a politician.

"Everything is arrayed against you. People aren’t going to be with us—but they aren’t necessarily evil. There are no real heroes and no real demons," the assemblywoman told us. I think she was saying that just as it is unfair to discriminate, it is important that those who experience discrimination still remain tolerant. "I’ll tell you—you’ll be punished for doing the right thing. You should be proud of it."

"Schools are like prisons. I don’t have to tell you that. Kids go in one side and come out the other looking the same. You’re a major threat to that—and to society." Sheila encouraged everyone to take action, which is an important point: no changes will come about, no hurt or discrimination will be prevented, if people don’t stand up for their rights. "The truth is on our side. Justice is on our side. I think you can do it."

Openly gay actor Wilson Cruz of Party of Five and My So-Called Life  said he came close to suicide when he was in high school, but a close friend helped him get through his depression.

He encouraged youth to help each other cope with anti-gay harassment. "The most important thing to remember is that you cannot give anybody the room to disrespect you. Have a sense of pride and self-esteem, and with that you can do anything," he said.