No Longer Silent
October 1995. A warm, sunny morning in Pico Rivera, California. The seventy-student senior English-Government honors class of El Rancho High School had just finished taking a test on the U.S. Supreme Court with fifteen minutes to go before lunch. Mr. Meza, always prepared for anything to occur in his classroom, had the previous day delegated to a student the task of presenting a current event topic to the class. He called Larry Arroyo to the front of the room. Larry spoke:
"When I was reading the newspaper last night, I found this article about the Supreme Court. The court is scheduled to hear a case today. Before I say what the case is about, I have to say something. This case is not about me. This article talks about what we have been learning about the U.S. Supreme Court and I just want to hear what people's opinions are."
Several of the students, including Mr. Meza, looked puzzled.
Larry continued. "In 1994, the voters of Colorado passed a law saying that gays could not be in a protected category. I wasn't sure what that meant, Mr. Meza?"
Mr. Meza explained, "A protected category is a quasi-legal term meaning that a group of people are protected from discrimination in things like jobs, housing, etc. California has laws protecting blacks and Mexican Americans from discrimination. The law in Colorado said that no one in Colorado could add gay people to these lists." Everyone seemed to understand the meaning of "protected category."
Larry continued with his presentation. "The case was appealed with the ruling in favor of the gays, and appealed again with the same ruling in favor of the gays. It is being heard in the Supreme Court today. I was just wondering what everyone thought about this."
The class was shocked. Outside of talking about HIV/AIDS in sex-ed, no one had ever brought up the subject of homosexuality in other classes. A few began to speak. Tricia Quintero raised her hand. "I don't think gays deserve to be protected. They are sick and disgusting. God even says that gays are abominations." Many students in the class shook their heads in agreement.
Someone else spoke up: "Gay people have the choice to be straight and they do not make it. Why should they have protections for making wrong choices?"
Tricia spoke up again. "There are no gay people in this school. Being gay is a choice people make later in life. It usually happens after someone is molested when they are younger and do not go to counseling to deal with the molestation. Since they have not gone to good counseling to properly heal, gays are sick."
The negative backlash against lesbian and gay people continued for several minutes. No one said anything positive. Mr. Meza could see that this topic had hit a nerve with these students.
Another hand was raised. The hand came from the shy, quiet kid sitting in the back corner of the room, the kid who had never volunteered a word in these large classes before. He was called upon by Mr. Meza.
"I cannot believe the ignorance I am hearing," he said very nervously. "I'm sitting in this senior honor's class, the class with the brightest students in this school, and everyone is speaking like we are living forty years ago. I've heard there are no gay people at this school, and that being gay is a choice made later in life after one has been molested? I can tell you that both of these ideas are not true, and the reason I know this is because I am gay."
Gasps spread out like a wave from where this student was sitting, after which a hushed silence fell across the room. This silence was interrupted by the ringing of the bell signaling both the end of class and the start of lunch. In a few moments, the class was empty and the student who had announced his sexual orientation to this class sat alone in the room.
By the end of the day, everyone at El Rancho High would know this seventeen-year-old boy was gay.
The above account is based on an October 10, 1995 journal entry. I was the shy, quiet kid sitting in the back corner of the room, never uttering a word in any class until that day in October, and it was the last three words, "I am gay," which have had the most impact on my life.
I never came out publicly, because I was frightened of what could happen. A friend of mine outside El Rancho was constantly tormented at his high school because he was effeminate. Though he was not out, he was assumed to be gay simply because he was "girlish." Unlike my friend, no one suspected I was gay. I had a cover: I swam and played water polo. This jock image fooled everyone into thinking I was straight. Deep down, I knew this image was an act I played for as long as I could, because I knew I was different from everyone else, and I knew that making the difference known to the school would ultimately mean danger for me.
I kept quiet during most of the typical high school gossip: who was interested in whom, who was dating whom, and who was sleeping with whom. When asked who I was dating, I either changed the subject or made something up. "I'm seeing this girl Roberta from Whittier High," I would tell them. In actuality I was dating a Robert from Whittier High, but I changed his gendered name to that of a girl so no one would know I was actually dating another boy. After doing so, I felt sick and ashamed of myself for hiding. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide.
Coming out publicly changed everything. I felt this power and self-confidence I had never felt before. A few days after I came out to the government class, I was rushing down the hall to get to class when I heard a group of students talking behind me: "Did you hear about the guy who admitted to being gay? He announced it to the entire class." I stopped, turned around, and introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Jesse, the guy you were talking about." The students stopped talking, mouths hitting the floor, then continued on another topic of conversation, ignoring me.
I have read that coming out of the closet is like having the world go from black-and-white to color, a description that parallels my experience. I began to see the way life molds itself to heterosexuality, and to be able to see this clearly for the first time was empowering. With this new sense of self-confidence, I began to speak up more in class. All seemed well.
A couple weeks later, my high school life changed. Because of a multitude of gang/drug problems, lockers were taken out the year before I got to El Rancho. We did have lockers in the gym, and it was in these lockers where I stored most of my books during the day. As a member of the varsity swim team, I had year-long access to the larger lockers reserved for varsity players. Being varsity also allowed me to be seen by more students, since I had to go through the main locker room to get to the varsity locker room.
Between classes one day, I went to the varsity locker room to drop off old books and retrieve new ones. Opening my locker, I found a piece of paper. Curious for what it was, I opened it. Scrawled on the paper in black-marker was "FAGGOTS DO NOT BELONG AT E.R." I picked up my backpack, slammed the locker door, and ran out of the locker room. I did not stop until I got to my next class.
This was not the only incident. I was sitting near a group of students reading a book during lunch the next day. Out of nowhere, a plastic bottle of water hit me, soaking the left side of my shirt and drenching my book. I jumped up and looked around, but no one seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary. A couple of people from the group I was sitting near came over to where I was now standing and asked if I was okay. "I'm wet, but I'm okay," I told them.
The next week I went back to my locker and found another note, "WATCH YOUR BACK FAGGOT." I knew I had to do something. I made an appointment to see the principal about what was happening to me. During the meeting, I explained to him the water bottle incident and I showed him the two notes. Mr. Verdugo seemed to listen very attentively to what I was saying. His response: "Well, Jesse you did choose to come out of the closet. Did you expect things were going to be easy?" He then went on to talk about how if I had stayed in the closet, I would not have had any notes left in my locker. It was at this point I realized the limits of the people in power to protect me as a student. If I had come to the principal complaining of racism based on my Latino heritage, immediate action would have been taken to stop what was happening to me. Since I was complaining about acts of violence against me because I was a fag, I deserved what I was getting because I chose to come out.
The weekend after I met with Mr. Verdugo, I went to a youth group meeting at the Orange County Gay and Lesbian Community Center. At the time I went (and probably to this day), the Center was extremely under-funded. Still, I was able to speak to a youth counselor who proved to be no help. The youth counselor told me that since I had spoken with the principal, there was nothing more I could do. There was no law protecting queer students in schools from discrimination. Five years later the state legislature woke up and passed a law protecting LGBTQ students.
Anger, frustration, and rage are only a few words that come to mind when describing what I was feeling at that moment. Even though the world went from black-and-white to color the moment I came out, people around me were living in very black-and-white terms. In the face of everything, I chose to do nothing. I knew if I could survive for the remainder of the year, high school would be over, and if my parents could afford it, I would be going to college soon. Thoughts about taking the G.E.D. and leaving El Rancho early did cross my mind. Instead I took the road through high school and faced whatever came my way. During the next few weeks, other notes would appear in my locker. By March, the notes stopped appearing.
At this point, I feel I should discuss my parents' reaction to all this. Simply put, they had no idea what was going on. They had known I was gay for some time. When I was fifteen, my mom asked me if I was gay. When I told her I was gay, she gave me a hug. Fortunately for me, I was one of the lucky queer teenagers whose parents accept their child's sexual orientation from the moment they first learn about it. I did not realize how lucky I was, until my friend came out to his parents a year later, and they kicked him out of the house. For a couple of days, he stayed at my house, before his parents let him back into their house. Unfortunately, his relationship with his parents would never be the same since his parents could not fully accept him as being gay.
I could have told my parents what was going on. Part of me wishes I actually had told them. My mom and my stepfather could have been there for more support than they normally were. I did not tell my parents, because I did not want them to worry any more than they had already worried. My mom and stepfather worried about too many issues as it was. They knew I was gay, and they knew I was out at El Rancho. Telling them about these notes placed in my locker, or the reaction I was getting from the administration, would have only made them worry more. This was not something I wanted to put them through. I felt it was my issue and that I had to deal with it.
During this time I also started doing more research on the colleges to which I had applied. However, this time I had a specific focus: what is the school's attitude toward gay and lesbian students? I went to the public library and spoke with a reference librarian. She was very helpful and pulled up many articles about different colleges; one of the more frequent hits involved UC Santa Cruz. One newspaper article said that UC Santa Cruz offered gay and lesbian themed housing. Another article talked about the battle for tenure a faculty member was having in the early-1980s. Another article, written by Nancy Stoller, discussed how UCSC took steps to become more open to LGBT students. I requested more information from UCSC, and received a publication discussing how Merrill and Oakes Colleges had GLB-themed housing. I knew at that moment that if the school had GLB housing, and had taken steps to become more open to GLBTQ students, it was the school I wanted to attend. With the current experience of my senior year of high school, I wanted to learn in a place where I would be comfortable being gay. Three months later I got my acceptance letter and sent my "Statement of Intent" back the next day. In June 1996, I graduated from El Rancho High School, rainbow flag in hand. In September 1996, I moved into the Bayit Wiesel Dorm at Oakes College, UCSC.