[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]From Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, OhioFusion.com will be posting stories featured in it’s upcoming winter 2011 issue.[/box]
What comes to mind when thinking about small towns? The answer is usually rural areas, small high schools, dusty dirt roads and conservative values. Growing up in a small town can possibly be a difficult experience for any young adult. However, the adjustment for LGBT students is much greater. The change from small town life to college with a huge population could be shocking. However, for three students, the change was a positive step.
For Brandon Richards, the change from high school to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh to Kent State has been a whirlwind adventure.
Brandon, 22, is originally from Austintown Township. The town he lives in is so small that his high school was made up of students from several neighboring towns. Brandon described it as the type of area that if a mother saw two guys holding hands, she would cover her child’s eyes. Being out was not okay, and residents mostly rejected those who were.
High school at Austintown Fitch was a crazy atmosphere for Brandon. There were cliques, bullying and the same kids getting picked on continuously. Coming out in 10th grade was a crucial but difficult thing for Brandon to do.
“When people started to find out, it was hell every day of the week,” Brandon says. “People made fun of me a lot. You would get random people yelling the word ‘faggot’ down the hall or knocking books out of your hand and trying to spread rumors. It was a very hard thing to overcome.”
The constant bullying and being overlooked by others was a tough thing to deal with. The tormenting and ridicule affected his schoolwork negatively in a large way.
“If people knew you were gay, they were awkward around you and made fun of you in public a lot,” Brandon says. “In the locker room, they would assume I was looking at them. I would try to avoid it and ask teachers to write me notes to get out of gym class. I ended up getting a C- in gym. I tried to skip it so much because there was so much bullying.”
The students in his school would also play cruel jokes on his car whenever it was parked in the student parking lot. Brandon says they poured Vaseline all over the windshield, left hateful notes and even plunged a key against its siding.
The Art Institute of Pittsburgh was the first college he attended after graduating high school. Coming from the small area of Austintown to a huge city like Pittsburgh was an enormous change.
“Going to the Art Institute — it was a reality check. It was a big city; I had no idea what was going to happen to me,” Brandon says. “But it was a whole new experience. Things didn’t have to be a secret anymore. I would start pushing little things I could do to see people’s reactions. I would make comments on how cute a guy was or go up and approach someone, which I would never do before. Going out to gay clubs, you learn about the gay community, and you learn that you’re not just stuck all by yourself. I found support groups and a lot of people who were just like me. I didn’t realize it was possible. It felt like someone took weights off my shoulders.”
Brandon ended up transferring to Kent State for personal and career reasons. He switched his major from fashion to advertising, and decided to move closer to home. He describes Kent as being very, very different than the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Surprisingly, he says Kent is more diverse and accepting. He has had almost zero problems with people’s reactions to his sexuality.
“I thought I was going to have to deal with the bullying from high school every day of my life. I thought it would never end. But Kent is so accepting of all people. To me, Kent is a little bubble like the peace capital of the world. College is way better (than high school). My life is amazing now.”
Katie Summers, 18, is a first semester freshman at Kent State and a broadcast journalism major. She attended Green High School in Green, Ohio with a graduating class of around 200 students.
“In my school, everyone knew everything about everyone else, and it was not a very tolerant school,” says Katie. “People would say it was a tolerant school, and it tried to pretend that it was, but it wasn’t.”
Katie was out in her high school as bisexual, but she also considers herself genderqueer. She wore guys’ sweatshirts and shoes in high school and kept her hair very short.
Her classmates were not very tolerant of how she expressed herself physically. People in her high school would call her a freak amongst other derogatory terms. A student even came up to her one time during her freshman year, blatantly called her a lesbian and said other hurtful things. Her mother got involved and talked to the principal about Katie’s harassment. Some students were asked not to get near Katie or talk to her at all anymore.
“A few people think I claimed to be bisexual because I wanted the attention,” Katie says. “They always thought that because I never showed interest in women around the school, but that’s because there wasn’t any women there I was interested in. People assume just because we’re LGBT that we’re interested in every person of the same sex, and that’s not how it is at all.”
Katie participated in other activities in high school like the school band. The band room was her sanctuary.
Katie came to Kent because of the successful stories she heard about Kent State’s communications program. Although she lives pretty close, it’s still far enough to start fresh, and her favorite part is how accepting the campus is.
“I would have to say the most surprising thing coming from high school to college is the number of people and (how) few of them actually care about how you look and how you act. Nobody really cares what you do around here, and I like that. It is overwhelming to be at a big college sometimes. Some of my classes have more students in them than the amount of students I graduated with. But it’s nice to blend in sometimes, though. When you’re blending in, you don’t have people noticing you and picking you out of a crowd. “
The diversity of the campus, and the support she receives from PRIDE! Kent, a student LGBT organization on campus, has helped her transition from high school life to college.
“Life is much more enjoyable here than it is at high school. I am so happy I came here. I love Kent.”
Tim Lewis, 20, is in his second year at Kent State’s nursing program. He is originally from Grand Island, N.Y. It isn’t small, Tim says, but it feels like it is because 70 percent of the population is 65 years old or older. The town is filled with nursing homes. Also, because the island is so large, its population is spread out and makes it feel more rural than it actually is. He says its residents are very, very conservative.
Tim says his high school was filled with drama and cliques. It was important to be a popular kid in his school. The area he comes from is ritzy, and if you didn’t have name brand clothes or a cool car, then you were not cool.
“I had very few close friends,” Tim says. “I was ignored and pushed aside because of my sexuality. There were other people who were pushed to the side as well. I ended up becoming best friends with this girl who was Indian. We ended up being pushed towards each other because no one would talk to us because I was gay and she was Indian. We were both minorities, so no one wanted to associate themselves with us.”
Tim came out in his sophomore year of high school, a “very awkward” experience. The bullying didn’t get any worse, but more students ignored him.
“I have a really big personality, and they would just walk away from me and acted like I didn’t exist. It was like, ‘He’s gay and we’re not allowed to talk to him because this is how we were raised, so let’s not talk to him,’”
Tim first attended the University at Buffalo following high school. Life was very different in Buffalo, and he was shocked at the changes. Grand Island to Buffalo was like moving halfway across the world with a completely different culture than what he was used to.
“The biggest adjustment from high school to the University [at] Buffalo was being introduced to the gay community,” Tim says. “Going to the University [at] Buffalo, I got introduced to a lot of new things. I went from a very sheltered environment to a very open and very loud environment. It was a change.”
The biggest surprise, however, was the similarities between his high school and the University at Buffalo. He found himself in the middle of cliques and drama all over again and didn’t understand how that negativity seemed to follow him.
“If you were one of the popular gays who were really skinny and wearing name brands, or if you were a drag queen, you’d be popular at [UB],” says Tim. “Or if you had major attitude problems, you were cool. If you had ever been labeled as ‘bitch’ to your face — that was a good thing. “
He found himself in a deep depression because the culture and atmosphere of the university was not what he expected it was going to be like. He thought all the bullying and drama would have been left in the dust when leaving high school and entering college. He was severely wrong.
“It was so catty and dramatic; it was impossible to deal with. Because of that, the whole culture of the school, the size and problems at home, it put me to the point of suicide. One night I was on top of one of their buildings just waiting for the impulse to jump off.”
That is why Tim came to Kent State. He turned his life around, helped himself out of the depression and started a new life here in Ohio.
“I had a really bad first year, so everything is different here, and it’s fantastic. I can finally open up and talk about my problems,” says Tim. “It just makes me so happy that I got out of that place and now I’m in a really good environment.”