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Above photo of the author was taken when he was an eight-year-old third grader. Photo courtesy: Tyler Bey

Gay Means Happy?: Atlanta Teens Speak on How Being LGBT Impacts High School Life

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I’ve realized recently that my ambition is both my greatest strength and my self-destructing weakness. If I want something, no matter how farcical, I simply do whatever it takes to obtain it. This is what makes me strong. But, there comes a point where there’s something I can’t get, something that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never obtain it. I have to force myself to come to terms with my failure or realize that no matter what I do, it just won’t happen. This is my weakness, the self-destruction that comes with forcing yourself to move on, and the questions asked afterward. And then getting up again, even though you worry for your future self who’ll have to do the entire process again. Sometimes it seems easier to stay down.

With the dawn of Atlanta Pride, my social media feed has been flushed with the bright and beautiful stripes of rainbows that glow with the smiling teeth of happy gay couples. I was in third grade when people first started calling me gay. Now, they happened to be correct, but this wasn’t a celebration, they meant it as a weapon. I was bullied all throughout third grade, and that was the first time that I had experienced isolation and alienation. The word “gay” felt cold like you’ve been sitting in a bath for too long and now the water’s turned uncomfortable. The word used to haunt and follow me, like Jason from “Friday the 13th.” And that same machete would slice me slowly and deeply as I cried myself to sleep, afraid of the next day. It was only third grade, most people didn’t fully know what that word meant. There was always one girl who said “gay means happy” as if reiterating the words from a mom or dad. She said it like those words were a matching set like you couldn’t have one without the other. Little did she know for years I’d try to fit those two pieces together, and try to figure out how I could have both at the same time. I kept trying to force together my gayness and my happiness, with the hope that my future self would eventually figure it out. Third grade Tyler probably never imagined that after eight years, I’m still trying to fit the pieces together.

Fast forward to high school. Social media and movies told me exactly how high school was supposed to be. They illustrated a high school experience that I was excited for and expecting. One that included crazy house parties, bullies, the popular kids, and most importantly, boyfriends and girlfriends. Well, we don’t really have bullying, parties, or popular kids at my school and I’ve been single forever. So TV shows must not have been talking about my school. I’m in 11th grade and sometimes I still feel myself waiting for my high school experience to start.

I’ve come to terms with being gay. My mom knows and all of my friends know, so that’s good. I have a lot more friends and I am so happy and grateful with who’s in my life. I’m making good grades, involved in extracurriculars, accomplishing most of my goals by going through all the steps to accomplish them and I feel… well, I’m not sure. Despite these things, despite most of the elements that make up “happiness,” I don’t feel it yet. Sometimes being gay feels like it inhibits my happiness, sometimes being gay feels like it’s obstructing my high school experience. I had a lot of questions for myself, but I never find the answers as you may have noticed by now. So I asked some of my gay friends. I wanted to know what they thought about being gay and how it affects them in high school.

Kendal Strout (left) and boyfriend Mack Christopher

Kendal Strout recently graduated from Grady High School and now goes to New York University. He’s one of the most confident LGBT men I’ve ever met and isn’t afraid to show the world his beauty and I’m very proud to see him follow his dreams in New York City. When I asked to interview him, I was surprised at his willingness to answer my questions.

“What is your sexual orientation?” I asked him. He answered saying that he was in a gay relationship currently, but he was open and didn’t care. He said that he was out of the closet and was lucky because he was “an exception.”

Grady High School is in Midtown, a very accepting part of Atlanta. It’s in an area full of white gay people, and right across the street from Piedmont Park where the Atlanta Pride parade runs through.

“[When I came out] I didn’t get any negative backlash,” he said. He told me that boys at his school would often jokingly compete for him. Being gay is cool now, and so by them fighting over him, they were fighting to be the “coolest.” “It’s a combination of being accepted but only in a weird way… I was put on a pedestal because I’m a light skin gay man… but I wasn’t hating it.”

Something important about Kendal is that he’s stunningly beautiful. “I’m praised for literally just breathing,” he said toward the middle of the interview. He spat those words out with such fire, I could feel some of this displeasure he had with being treated like a “celebrity” in high school. “You don’t even know who they are except for their name or what they’re even famous for.”

And with him being in a relationship, the feeling of being popular but not being known, only got stronger for Kendal. “Me and my boyfriend were popular on different sides on the spectrum and we combined it… we became a power couple with even more friends after that.”

But Kendal’s life wasn’t always like it was in high school, and it had everything to do with location. “I was an exception, I happened to come into myself in a place where it was completely safe,” he said.

Before high school, Kendal bounced around from place to place, and his personality adapted to each new environment. “I lived in Clayton, North Carolina for a second which was literally a town of 800 people, [there were] only straight white men and then, there was me.” He moved from North Carolina to Florida and acted just like them, all the while concealing his true self. Then he moved to Atlanta and finally had the breathing room to be himself.

“And what about New York, do you act like them,” I asked. “No,” he said.  

“Everyone here’s really nice I have no reason to…I have no problems here at all I’ve been the same person since I’ve arrived and never had a reason to change.”

At the end of the interview, I thanked him and hung up the phone to reflect. I go to Maynard Jackson High School which is literally about a 10-minute drive from Grady. It’s in Atlanta too. You can still see the skyline and it’s an Atlanta Public School, just like Grady. But Kendal would not be praised at my school. And I don’t believe he would’ve had a boyfriend.

I decided to interview someone from my own school to see what they had to say. Jennifer Reid is a senior at Maynard, and we’ve been friends since my freshman year. She has such a great spirit and energy and loves to show affection to other people. I did an interview with her over social media.

“What’s your sexual orientation,” I asked her. She replied, “I consider myself to be a bisexual female.”

I didn’t know Jennifer was bisexual until this year.

Looking back, she had talked about finding girls attractive. But all girls do, that doesn’t make them bisexual or gay though. The short interview I had with her made me think about the differences between a gay boy and a gay girl in high school. Girls in general, I feel, have a lot more social freedom when it comes to expressing how they feel, while men do not. I find it interesting how a girl can say another girl is pretty, cute, fine, sexy, and so on, and still be considered perfectly straight. But a guy could do the same thing and be seen as gay.

“I like both boys and girls, however, I am very open to others, Jennifer said. “I think that as long as there is love between two beings, it doesn’t matter what they are labeled.”

This lack of a label came up in both interviews. It shows the beauty in both to be able to see the world like that. Jennifer Reid is a beautiful girl inside and out and I love her dearly. But I wondered if Maynard was taking a similar toll on her, as it was on me.

“Do you ever feel lonely because of your sexual orientation?” I asked.

“In being bisexual, I don’t necessarily feel lonely, but it is hard to find other girls at my school who feel the same, she said. “Especially my age. While yes, there are girls who identify as being gay, bisexual, etc. I feel like there is a great deal of suppression because they don’t feel like they can just openly express their sexuality to everyone around them.”

And there it is. While both Jennifer and Kendall are both beautiful people, inside, out and around, someone like Kendal can survive and thrive at his high school. But someone like Jennifer, and I, would find it much harder, even though we’re only a few miles away from one another. Even though there are only a few people around who are accepting and willing to be in a gay relationship at Maynard, neither I, nor Jennifer, are the type to give up so easily.

“How do you get over straight crushes?” I asked her.

“Generally, there’s another girl who ends up being with my crush, or another person my crush ends up interested in, she said. “Usually, when enough time passes, I get over them because I realize I don’t have a chance with them. However, for me, I don’t think I fully get over my crushes. I just suppress my feelings for them so I don’t feel rejection.”

She summed up most of my experience at my high school in those four sentences. And the last word, “rejection,” it feels bitter in my mouth, it rings in my ears and follows me. No matter how hard I try, the high school experience I want isn’t something I can just go out and get. The experiences I want to have, the ones I feel like I deserve to have, they feel out of reach. Jennifer and I suppress our feelings so that they don’t eat us alive. But something tells me doing so only makes the open wounds worse.

For my last interview, I talked to my friend Janine, a high school senior at Campbell High School. Campbell is outside of the perimeter, you’d think the farther you move away from the gay hearth of Atlanta, the less happy the gay people would be because of their lack of gay experiences. However,  Janine is not lacking in that department. Every time I see Janine, she always has a new story to tell me about one of her many different gay experiences in her high school life.

“When did you come out?” I asked.

“ I came out in stages,” she said.

First, it was her close friends, then her family. She’s very selective with the new people that know because she can use the boys in her life, who only want to have sex with her, to her advantage. At her school, some boys know she’s gay and some boys do not.

Janine described herself as “looking straight.” She went on by saying that it’s because of this “girls can’t tell you’re flirting.” She says she confuses people because she looks and acts straight on the surface and the guys treat and look at her like: “You’re not one of those, still down to f**k?” She feels like the straight guys at her school don’t see her as competition, nor unattainable. But at the end of the day, she’s still the most experienced gay person I know by far. She frequently recollects stories that seem so unfathomable to me. I’ve always envied her for that. She has so much to talk about, so much to remember, and tell, and keep. I have nothing. Why? Is it because she’s a girl? If I was a gay girl, would I have a better experience than what I have now? Is it because she goes to a different school? If I went to Campbell, would I have a better experience than now? Or is it because of me? If I was different, if I was more beautiful, if I didn’t feel a need to have a boyfriend, or to always be satisfied and to always ambitiously want more, would I be happier? Maybe everything I thought I knew about how these things work has been flawed this entire time. Am I still ashamed to be gay just like my little third-grade self was eight years ago? Am I holding my own self back from the high school experience that I want? I don’t know.

“Shoot your shot.”

The phrase meaning: try to get the person you want. You just have to keep trying and eventually, you’ll make one in, right? I hate the way that phrase makes going after someone seem so tactile. It makes people seem like either a “yes” or a “no.” Either a success or a failure, a shot made or a shot missed. Deep down, I know circumstances are more complicated than that, and I know there are more reasons for why someone doesn’t want to be with you. But at night, tossing and turning trying to fall asleep sometimes all I can feel is the slice and laceration of failure. Another shot missed. Rejection. But I get up and try again because that’s the type of person I am. If I want something, I’ll go get it. And in this self-destructing process, the image of a bow and arrow comes to mind.

“Shoot your shot,” I think as I draw my bow back again. Maybe this time, maybe this time I’ll have a boyfriend, and be closer to the happiness I want.

And again, I miss.

It’s in these moments that I think, if I was straight it wouldn’t be this way. If I was straight I’d have more arrows, more people to go after, more tactics to get what I desperately want. If I was straight, things would be easier. But there’s no way to know. And Atlanta Pride only makes it worse. The bright colors of the rainbow flag decorating my social media, the colors deepening my envy with their brightness, blinding me like the sun. I should give up. I should pretend to be straight. I should stop trying so hard. 

It’s not gonna happen! Give up! You’ve missed! It’s over! 

I draw my bow back again. My muscles rip and tear, the cuts and wounds reopen as I force my arms to pull back again. The intense blazing sun in my eyes burns my eyes blind. I can no longer see my target. I can no longer see how many arrows I have. This could be my last shot. And what am I going to do if I miss again? I pull back as hard as I can, and it feels agonizing. This is the person that I am. I’m ambitious. I’ll never stop trying. Maybe I can change myself, maybe I can’t. But this is who I am. It’s what makes me weak. And it’s what makes me strong. I pull back, and release…

Tyler, 16, attends Maynard Jackson High and is a lover of theater.

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  1. Ms. Martin

    I am so very proud of you Tyler!