By Ella Dawson
I realized I wasn’t straight when I was 17 years old and kissing a friend at a high school cast party. We were alone in a bathroom, giddy and giggling about some teenage conspiracy, when she smiled at me with such open joy that I lost my train of thought. The next day I wrote in my diary that I was bisexual, and then I recorded that week’s drama from play rehearsal. I had no identity crisis, nor was I alarmed. I was just bisexual. At 17, being bi was just another LEGO brick in the colorful, wild construction project that was me growing up. I really liked boys, and I really liked girls, and that was that.
While I wasn’t ashamed of my bisexuality, I didn’t yet want to share this part of myself with the world. In 2008, very few LGBTQ+ students at my conservative Connecticut high school were out about their sexuality, and none of them were women. The gay and bisexual boys I knew faced constant ridicule by our peers. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance and no local celebration of Pride month, and other students lobbed homophobic slurs at kids who dared take part in theater.
As a queer teenager, I instinctively knew that life would get a lot harder if I openly talked about my bisexuality. When I tested the waters and told some of my progressive friends that I might be bisexual, I received skeptical looks. (“Are you sure?” one of them asked me, before trotting out a harmful, bigoted judgment: “That’s just what sluts say for attention.”) I thought acceptance would be more common when I got to college, especially when I enrolled at one of the most liberal schools in the U.S. But I encountered harmful myths about LGBTQ+ people there too, and endured someone spreading a rumor that I just called myself bi to fit in and impress guys. I stopped talking openly about my sexuality, worn down by the jerks I encountered on campus and in high school.
More young people than ever before identify as LGBTQ+. Millennials in the U.S. are nearly twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than other adults, and a 2017 study from Ipsos Mori found that only 66 percent of British Generation Z people identify as exclusively heterosexual. Also in 2017, a study conducted by the UK-based anti-bullying nonprofit Ditch The Label of found that 57 percent of young people ages 13-26 don’t identify as “traditionally straight.” But LGBTQ+ teenagers still worry about bullying, and their fears aren’t unfounded. According to GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey, 59.5 percent of LGBTQ+ students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual identity, and 44.6 percent feel unsafe because of their gender expression. Nearly three-fourths of LGBTQ+ students report being verbally harassed, and half didn’t report being bullied because they doubted anyone would intervene. What’s more, 59.5 percent of LGBTQ+ students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and a whopping 48.7 percent experienced cyberbullying like I did.
“Research shows that LGBTQ+ young people still experience extremely high levels of stress, anxiety, and rejection,” Erica Smith, M.Ed, a sexuality educator who works with queer and transgender youth, told MTV News. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report, 95 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have trouble falling asleep at night, and 85 percent rate their average stress level as a five or higher on a scale from one to ten. Research also shows that the support and acceptance of people around them is the most important mitigating factor.”
It wasn’t until my 20s, when I moved to Brooklyn, New York, that I began to believe in my queerness again. I began writing for Femsplain, a website that featured the voices of transgender and cisgender women, as well as gender nonconforming individuals, and I met dozens of queer writers and illustrators who took me under their clever wings. The Femsplain community was both digital and in-person thanks to meet-ups in NYC, and I quickly assembled a new chosen family who understood my self-doubt and fear. Being surrounded by confident and unapologetic LGBTQ+ people with a range of different life experiences and perspectives helped me see that my sexual identity wasn’t defined by who or what I’d done, but by how I felt.
“Meeting out LGBTQ+ people who reflect the possibilities of an out life is incredibly validating,” Smith added. “You get to see real life examples of folks living their truth, which helps you see the possibilities for your own life. They can also offer you unique support that you can only get from someone with the same struggles.”
In October 2016, I mustered up the courage to declare my sexuality on social media, and used National Coming Out Day to do so. It was a relief to post about my sexual identity in public and I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I’d long used social media in my feminist activism, and it felt amazing to finally share this part of myself on Twitter too.
Then something strange happened: A bunch of my coworkers received an email from an anonymous troll with the subject line “ELLA DAWSON IS BISEXUAL.” I also received an email, in which the troll called me “pathetic,” denied my sexuality, and said they hoped I got hit by the L train.
I was humiliated and scared, and I had no idea who could have sent these emails. I had never talked about my sexual orientation with my colleagues, and had no idea how my bosses would react. Most states do not protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination in the workplace, which means it’s legal for an employer to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is hope that may change: the Equality Act passed in the House of Representatives in May, which would protect the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination in housing, employment and other settings. But the Equality Act still hasn’t been voted on by the Republican-controlled Senate, despite the urging of activists and pop stars like Taylor Swift.
On October 8, the Supreme Court heard three cases that may resolve whether or not current laws against sex discrimination also protect LGBTQ+ people, including the case of Aimee Stephens. After six years as a funeral director at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Stephens was fired in 2012 when she told her boss that she was transgender. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Stephens’s case will likely be announced in late spring, leaving the LGBTQ+ community waiting on pins and needles to see if discrimination will be enshrined in legal precedent.
Being outed at work made me feel violated and exposed. My colleagues rallied around me and helped me file a police report, but I worried that everyone saw me differently now. Would this undermine the respect I’d been fighting for as a youngster at the company? I was shaken by the awareness that things could have been much worse if I worked somewhere less progressive. Outing someone is an act of violence, whether it’s at school, at work or even to their friends and family.
No one deserves to be bullied or harassed for their sexual identity — and yet the bullying of LGBTQ+ youth is still all too common. Our community may have reached unprecedented levels of visibility, but that doesn’t mean that schools are safe places for the next generation of queer kids to be themselves and explore their first relationships. Only last month, 16-year-old Channing Smith died by suicide after he was outed as bisexual by two of his classmates, who posted text messages he had exchanged with another boy. In April, 15-year-old Nigel Shelby also died by suicide after he was bullied at his high school in Alabama for being gay.
According to Heather Corinna, an educator and founder of Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World, it’s crucial that young LGBTQ+ people “get support and report. In other words, gather friends and family to help support you and then all report what is happening,” whether that’s at school, work, or anywhere else in your life. It can be scary to report bullying at school or in the workplace, but it feels less vulnerable to do so when you know that your support system has your back. Reporting as a group can also make sure your school takes the incident seriously.
If you can’t count on the support of your parents or peers, there may be an LGBTQ+ center nearby that offers resources and understanding. “Young people who have access to a community space for LGBTQ+ youth, such as the Hetrick-Martin Institute in NYC or Kaleidoscope Youth Center in Central Ohio, can benefit from meeting other young people they can relate to and feel safe with,” Miriam Mogilevsky, LISW of Central Ohio, tells MTV News. “They can also gain a lot from forming trusting relationships with the adults who work or volunteer in these spaces and become mentors to the young people who come through these spaces.” While these LGBTQ+ organizations may not be available everywhere in the U.S., Mogilevsky points out that they’re on the rise; you can find one in your area using CenterLink’s LGBT Community Center Membership Directory. And no matter where you live, the Trevor Project also provides texting and online chat services on their website or at 1-866-488-7386 to young LGBTQ+ people who may be struggling.
It’s also important to take care of yourself and seek help. “If a counselor is available, having someone who is there for you to talk to and always in your corner—and not as a favor—can help a lot,” Corinna says. They also recommend making sure that counselor is LGBTQ+ friendly too. College students who experience bullying or discrimination on campus can turn to Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create safe and inclusive college campuses for the LGBTQ+ community.
Most importantly, you need to do whatever is right for you. “There’s no right way” to deal with homophobic or transphobic bullying, Corinna says. “If you can loudly stand up for yourself, great. But if you can’t, or your gut says that will make things worse or just isn’t what you can handle, trust yourself. Don’t figure you aren’t brave if you have to deal more quietly.”
Other people have found other ways to show solidarity and resilience, sometimes without requiring that anyone say a word. In 2010, high school student Brittany McMillan founded Spirit Day in order to take a stand against bullying that targeted LGBTQ+ people for their sexual or gender identity. She asked people to wear something purple, the color that symbolizes spirit on Gilbert Baker’s rainbow pride flag, on October 17. While wearing a color may seem like a small gesture, people who participate in their schools and workplaces send a powerful message: that homophobia and transphobia are not acceptable, and that bullying is not welcome in our community.
“Now more than ever, it is so important that we stick by our promises to end bullying and support our friends and family in the LGBTQ+ community, in all communities,” McMillan told GLAAD in 2017. “We must ensure that our children don’t get lost in the tragedies occurring in the world today. They must be reminded daily that there are people who care to make kindness a priority.”
I spent a lot of time doubting myself and my sexuality because I felt unsafe exploring who I was. It has taken me a long time to be proud of who I am as a bisexual woman, and I still have moments of insecurity and fear. When I feel myself wavering in my pride, I remember how confident and clear I was about my identity 10 years ago as I wrote about that cast party — and that kiss — in my diary. For the life of me, I can’t remember who kissed whom. We were laughing together, and then we were kissing, and there was nothing strange about it at all.