By Elizabeth Del Cid, North Hollywood High School
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Elizabeth never thought about gay people much.

My friends and I were driving down Doheny Drive one day, when we saw two guys kissing on the sidewalk. Some of my friends rolled their eyes. One guy winced. "What is the world coming to?" he asked. Our peaceful car ride changed into conversations about what’s morally right and wrong, what God intended and what’s a conscious choice. Everyone had something to say about it, but me. I didn’t say anything.

Growing up in a place like West Hollywood, I never took notice of the predominantly gay community who lives there, too. Even though they were physically right in front of my face. Guys are with guys, and women are with women. They stroll around hand in hand, kissing and happy. I saw them, but pretended like I didn’t, because they weren’t part of my world. We didn’t talk about it at home or in school. So they remained invisible to me.

I didn’t think much about it. Not for 17 years. Not until recently, when I learned about Models of Pride, an empowering, all-day conference where gay, lesbian and transgender teens meet and get support from successful adult role models, who are all gay. My curiosity piqued.

Illustration by Berley Kerr, 17, Cathedral HS and Rachel Carino, 19, Sweet Briar College

I wanted to go to the conference, even though I’m not gay and neither are any of my friends. But these days I’ve found myself wondering about that other world, the gay one. "Just who are these people?" I asked myself. "And why are they gay?"

I wondered what my friends would think of me for going to the conference. They might think I’m weird or worse—that I’m gay.

"There was nothing odd about wanting to go," I reassured myself, hoping that was true.

The conference was at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. We all met inside a big auditorium to kick off the event. Rainbow banners hung over archways. People handed out T-shirts and rainbow colored necklaces. It was cool.

Gay teens were everywhere

Once I got inside, I nearly did an about-face. I was surrounded by a few hundred gay teens. It was too much at once for me. Girls my age gazed deeply into their girlfriends’ eyes and twiddled their hair. "Yuck," I thought. Where was I, outer space? I did not want that type of person to flirt with me. I wanted to scream, "I’m a reporter, not one of you!"

Kissy-faced boys rubbed one another’s thighs. Some sucked face. "Whoa," I thought, "This is too much for me to handle." I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Everything there was so unfamiliar. I wondered about my contribution to this conference, if I had one at all.

Before I could think any more about it, the conference divided up into a series of one and one-half hour workshops. Everyone could attend three different workshops throughout the day. Each workshop had a theme, such as "telling on a suicidal friend," "finding a gay-friendly campus," "growing up gay in a Catholic family" and even "drag as an art form." You name the topic, and it was there. There were so many interesting topics that I had a difficult time selecting just three.

Soon enough, I nestled into the first classroom where a panel of teens talked about feeling alone after losing friends for being gay. One guy grew up in a small Oregon town thinking he was the only gay person in the world. One girl told us how school kids threw stones at her when she came out. They all told their stories. Some landed on their feet better than others did. Some were thrown out of their homes, because their parents thought they were perverts. Some dulled their feelings with drugs.

"Doesn’t anybody care?" I wondered. "These are real people with real feelings."

That’s when it hit me. I wasn’t looking at them as individuals before the conference. In fact, I wasn’t looking at much before this. I characterized people as either gay or straight, like separating whom I could or could not grow close to. I pretended these people weren’t even there, when they definitely were. They were all around me. Listening to these people talk about the isolation from losing friends for being gay made me disappointed … in myself.

It wasn’t until one guy at the conference said something that struck a nerve with me. He talked in a workshop about how some cultures cloak themselves in shame about homosexuality, so much that people are riddled with guilt about their sexual identity and stuff themselves in the closet for protection. It sounded an awful lot like one of my friends, whom I silently suspect is gay.

I remembered my gay friend

Just listening to these stories made me realize something—I do have a gay friend! I’m just about 100 percent convinced that he is gay, which is something I never admitted before. I’ve just never wanted to bring it up with him. We’ve been friends for years, and I love him so. I mean, I’m fine not knowing either way.

But one day he came over so we could study together for a test. My dad came home later on and was introduced. Instantly, my dad did not like him. He glared at my friend and then looked sideways at me in bewilderment. I ignored my dad and went back to studying.

After my friend left, my dad came right out and asked, "Is he gay?" I told him that I didn’t know. After all, I did not want to lose my dad’s approval and have him think differently of me for having a gay friend.

I thought more about my friend during the workshop. People talked about their personal struggles for living untrue lives. They felt pressured to be straight, but pretending to do that was just a façade. That sounds like my friend. His Eastern European family would never approve of him. Unfortunately, his dad is dead. His mom and sister would disown him if he ever said he was gay. I wonder if he’ll ever come out. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll be here for him when he’s ready.

The last workshop I attended revolved around students’ rights and the First Amendment. A counselor from my school was in the classroom and recognized me right away. Immediately, he assumed I was gay and said, "There’s a gay-straight alliance on campus. Why don’t you come? It’s safe and you’ll feel comfortable."

The teacher thought I was gay

No way! He thought I was gay! I didn’t swing that way! Those thoughts screamed inside my head. But on the outside, I just smiled and thanked him for the information.

As lawyers sparked debates in the classroom, I thought about what the counselor said. Then I realized something. "So what. Who cares if he thinks I’m gay?" I told myself. "What difference does that make? There’s nothing wrong with being gay."

After the conference ended, I was brimming with excitement. I thought about how great it would be to share my experience with everyone, when it hit me—my ultra-conservative parents were waiting to drive me home. They would be less than enthusiastic about this. I dreaded the impending talk.

It’s not that my parents are prejudiced, but they are immigrants who grew up with different values. My mom was raised in a tiny religious town in Mexico. There’s no way she’d be supportive. Accepting the gay community is too far from her realm of thinking. I predicted the conversation between the three of us in the car and could just hear her saying, "Let them live their life, but I don’t want any part of it."

She didn’t.

Instead, she said, "Being gay is not a decision people make. It’s a born quality. People should let them be happy and get on with their own lives." Whoa! This was my mom, Mrs. Tradition-and-Pure who married my dad, Mr. Moral-and-Correct. She was telling me that being gay is okay. Startling!
Then there was my dad. During our ride, he suggested going to a gay pride conference with me! Maybe my parents were more accepting of gay people than I imagined.

When I got home, I rushed to my computer and e-mailed all my friends about the conference. I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. There was so much to say about the people at the conference and their impressive stories, their hardships and triumphs.

My friends replied with mixed messages. Some thought it was cool and applauded my gung-ho spirit. They were surprised that I would be such a strong supporter of gay rights, since I’m a proud Republican. Perhaps I was not such a hardcore Republican as I thought. Maybe I was changing, too.

Some of my friends were less than enthusiastic about the gay support. They replied, "Huh? Are you okay? Are you trying to tell me something? Call me when you come to your senses."

Their replies bothered me. I was the weird one now. Maybe some of my friends wouldn’t be accepting of me now.

Back at school, I inquired about our gay-straight alliance group. It was hard to find out anything about it, because it’s not official yet.

I decided to give the club a try. Funny, if it weren’t for the conference I’d still be skeptical of supporting gays. Nothing was scary about the club. In fact, it was fun. We brainstormed ideas to promote gay rights with pamphlets, a Web site and banners. We worked together as a team.

I was the only straight ally there, and it didn’t matter at all to my gay peers. They did not know why I was there and didn’t bother to ask me. Just like I didn’t bother to ask why they were gay, because it does not matter.