Kids in the halls: What was it like to be gay in high school?

  • LEAVE A COMMENT
Chris Kelly today. Photo: Martyn Kyle Chris Kelly today. Photo: Martyn Kyle

This week marks our first-ever pride issue—just in time for Charlottesville’s Pride Festival this weekend. Check out our other feature stories on deciding whether to marry as a gay couple, on UVA’s lack of gender-neutral housing for trans students, and on the festival itself.

Here’s an “it gets better” stat for you: According to Equality Virginia, as of 2007, there were 103 gay-straight alliance clubs at Commonwealth high schools —despite the fact that state legislators had tried to ban them three times. These days, being out and proud in high school isn’t rare. Charlottesville High School’s own LGBTQ-and-allies club, Prism, boasts 33 members on its Facebook page.

But it wasn’t always that way. As Charlottesville gets ready to celebrate its pride, we took a look back at what it was like to be gay in its only public high school before Dan Savage was a household name. This isn’t ancient history—we’re talking two decades—but the picture is very different.

We know the narratives of the former Knights below are only part of a few individuals’ stories. We want to hear yours. Tell us in the comments at c-ville.com/news—no matter where or when you went to high school.—Graelyn Brashear

Alex Davis

1999-2000

“I just took orchestra at CHS, so I went there two or three times a week, and that was it. I was homeschooling at the time, and I took a couple classes in middle school at Buford and Walker—math and science. I did have some friends at CHS, but most of my friends were in the theater community.

I wasn’t out, not at all. I remember when I was in middle school that it was really difficult. I was just sort of realizing to myself that I was gay, and there were a lot of cliques and groups developing, and people just weren’t very accepting. It was hard to endure the taunts and teasing. People could tell I was different. I remember when I was going to CHS there were a few people who were out, just a handful, and it was kind of like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ And it definitely felt like it was this thing that I didn’t really understand.

I didn’t feel comfortable coming out. ‘Gay’ was one of those things that was thrown around like an insult, which was even more of a disincentive. And not having a lot of peers who were out or open about talking about it. It definitely felt like being gay was a big deal, there was much more stigma attached to it. It really marked you as different, a different person. In high school people are trying to fit in so much, and it wasn’t an identity that was so well established as it is today. It’s funny, because I was on the alternative end of things, being homeschooled and in the theater community. But I never felt totally safe about it. I think now there are more gay-straight alliances; there’s much more awareness about it. 

I came out to my parents when I was 16, and by that point, I was sort of done with CHS. I took my GED and I was going to PVCC. I kind of just had my head to the ground, I was just doing my school work to go onto another school. I wasn’t thinking about it so much, and at PVCC, there are so many different kinds of people there already, it’s OK to feel like an outsider.”

Chris Kelly

1996-1999

“I didn’t move to Charlottesville until the fall of ’96, going into my sophomore year of high school. All I knew was that I was moving to the south, I was moving to the rural south, in the middle of nowhere. I was so in the cosmopolitan D.C. culture. I was never in the closet. I had always been out to everybody, all the time. I had a boyfriend in fourth grade. He turned out to be straight, but he was adorable.

And because of that, I was already aware of gay culture and I had already gone through Pedro Zamora dying. Even though I was 13, that had a huge impact on my life. Your teenage years are so formative anyway, and so to watch “The Real World: San Francisco” from beginning to end, and for Pedro to die in November right after it finished airing, and President Clinton to call him on his deathbed—it was so meaningful to me as a gay teenager to see that reflected on something that was meant for the masses. And I understood that, at that age. I got that this was really important. I was so excited and so grateful that I was growing up in the ’90s, because I didn’t have to go through that. I didn’t have to lose friends, I didn’t have to watch people wither and die, I didn’t have to be in the closet.

And I was stricken with worry that I was going to have to be in the closet. I knew they would find me out. I went in the first day deciding that I was going to try to blend in. I kept my hands at my sides. I avoided eye contact, I avoided talking, because I assumed they’d hear my gay accent and gay inflections and gay sibilant S’s. So I barely talked, looked down, and just tried to get through my first few days, to get the lay of the land, figure out was I going to have friends. 

I immediately reached out to black women. There’s been historically this weird almost inexplicable connection between gay white men and black women. So the first week of school, I found Shanetta, Diana, Ursula, April, and Geneva. I sat right down with them at lunch and I said, ‘Hi, I want to be your friend.’ And they said ‘Come on, sugar, no problem.’ And I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to have a problem.

That’s when I made a conscious decision that I was going to be in everybody’s face. I was going to be the gay activist that Pedro Zamora was. I was going to be the token high school student that Ricky was on “My So-Called Life.” I was going to be the Will and Grace gay best friend that people expected me to be. I decided that I knew myself well enough that I could turn up my gay qualities and still retain myself, just to be like, ‘You can’t say you don’t know any gay people any more.’

So I wore outlandish clothes. I walked with more swing in my hips. I decided the best thing I could do for gay visibility was to be on the morning announcements. They were on TV in every classroom. So my senior year I was in every classroom almost every morning, being loud and fabulous and in their face. Even if they didn’t know me, even if I’d never met them, even if they were a freshman and I never laid eyes on them and never had a class with me, they still saw me, and I was explicitly gay. I was not in the closet. I was not apologizing.

I feel like my plan worked. I graduated in ’99 and in fall of ’99, there was a gay and lesbian student group established at CHS. I couldn’t help but take personal pride. The only regret that I ever have had about that whole situation was that I may have driven people further into the closet by scaring them—when I come out, people are going to think I’m like him. I don’t know if that happened.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stop, because then I went to UVA. And I was like, ‘I have to start this shit all over again. What the hell!’ So I literally started from scratch.”

Zora Tucker

1993-1997

“I started to realize I was queer in ninth grade, which was exciting and also scary and isolating. I was ‘out’ in a limited sense for three of the four years I was at CHS. It was never an issue for me at home. My mom was a drama professor at UVA, so I actually had been around many gay people always without even knowing it. I think most people at school who knew me knew I was queer, in that I didn’t hide it. I think I even had like a pink triangle on my backpack for a minute? And rainbow stuff. And I was always pretty into being a vocal feminist, while always being someone with a lot of male friends. But I didn’t make a public service announcement over the intercom about being queer. I identified as bisexual and was really interested in girls and boys and gender. I wasn’t sure what was up, in that I definitely still had crushes on my male friends and wanted their attention. It wasn’t like a clear cut thing, entirely, and actually rarely is for any adolescent, I think. It wasn’t a thing I tried to hide.

The first person I ever came out to in or out of school was a friend of mine who was a senior when I was a sophomore. I thought she would hate me, but she just smiled and asked me about the girl I had hooked up with. I really looked up to her and adored her, and so if it was OK with her, I figured I was cool. 

None of my close friends were queer until my senior year, when I dated a girl in the springtime and became friends with one of her other friends who was also gay, and got picked on for his visible queerness and queer mannerisms. I remember that my senior year, that spring, Ellen Degeneres came out. It felt like a big deal. It felt like queerness was somehow more real.

I also remember this really vivid experience—my first one—of real queer community, when we were invited to a barbecue in the county in the spring of 1997 somewhere by a bunch of older queers, gay men and women, and how sweet they were with us, how tender and glad they were to have us around and to just take us in.

I never was given any shit for being gay. However, I have heard from my younger sister who started CHS the fall after I left that my class was in some ways exceptional—we all got along and were very kind to each other—according to teachers who talked about us. We had a very well-liked class member die, which may have made us all more sensitive and appreciative our senior year. I had known many of my peers since I was 7, when I moved to Charlottesville, and the rest of them since I was 11. So there was this real sense of, ‘We’ve grown up together, and we love each other, or at least we have each others’ backs’—at least, that’s how it felt to me. I was not shy around school, I played varsity soccer for four years, and was super opinionated about things, and I had a lot of friends in a lot of different social groups in high school. I didn’t have much social insecurity, which may have played into it. I know that, weirdly enough, my little sister was picked on a little by kids at CHS for having a gay sister, which really made me sad, and also expanded my understanding of homophobia and who it impacts.

There were definitely a handful of students that I had my suspicions about, but I wasn’t about to tell people they were gay or make them feel like I was outing them, so I didn’t really discuss it with the other kids who later came out as gay. Homosexuality was kind of just not really discussed as a part of identity that mattered. I would not be surprised if I have blocked out homophobic things teachers or kids said or did. I think it was very normal for people to be like, ‘That’s gay,’ or use the word ‘homo,’ and I remember calling people I had grown up with out on saying that.

I think it was easy for me to be queer at CHS due in large part to a lot of the privilege I had there as a student. While some of my comfort had to do with my personality, it was not an accident that I felt comfortable and like I had a right to be myself. I was white, upper class, and my parents were professors at UVA. I had a lot of social power for these reasons. I know this afforded me a degree of protection that a lot of other queer kids didn’t and still don’t have.

One of the biggest problems I have with narratives like ‘it gets better’ is that it doesn’t always get better.  Getting ‘away’ from where you are from is not a viable or desirable option for everyone, and it doesn’t get better if you are—for example—a transwoman of color navigating a landscape in which you can’t find employment, don’t have access to affordable or any healthcare, and are more likely to be victimized by legal or extra-legal violence.”