Generation Next: Queer Utah Youth Come of Age

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On April 10 the Utah Pride Center’s annual Queer Prom drew hundreds of teens to the Salt Lake City Main Public library for a night of partying in an environment where all sexual orientations and gender identities are accepted.

Ranging in ages 14–20, the youth in attendance are coming of age in a time that many older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people could only imagine at their age. Today, ordinances in several states, cities and counties — including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County — ban employment and housing discrimination against gay and transgender people. Congress has amended the U.S.’ hate crimes law to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. The military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers is taking its last breaths, and same-sex marriage is legal in five states and the nation’s capitol.

Yet, while the political and social gains this generation enjoys are many, the experience of growing up while being out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is often still a mixture of acceptance and rejection. QSaltLake sat down with five young prom-goers, ranging in age from16–20, to find out more about this generation’s experiences, needs and ambitions. They are: Daniel Hill, 20; Tomathon Keene, 16; Chelsea Sebastian, 17; Cortney McKibben, 16; and Morgan Shattuck, 17.

In the 15 years since gay-straight alliances first appeared in schools — thanks, in part, to the imbroglio surrounding East High School’s own GSA — one might well expect teachers to be more accepting of queer students. But according to the teens, this is not always the case.

When Sebastian asked one of her teachers why humans were attracted to people of the same sex, he replied; “It’s a mental defect.”

“He was really old, but there’s no excuse for that,” she added.

“I know teachers who are homophobic and tend to lash out in passive-aggressive ways,” added Shattuck. “They’ll often ignore you or pay less attention to you. But I do have a lot of gay-supportive teachers.”

Peers can also be cruel. Before moving to Utah, Sebastian attended a high school in a small Illinois town. When one of her classmates came out she said that everybody avoided the girl and spoke badly of her.

Likewise, all five youth said they had heard anti-gay language in schools, including the use of the word gay to mean “stupid” or “bad.”

“A lot of people caught on to it,” agreed McKibben. “I began hearing it in the 6th grade.”

Sebastian said that she didn’t find the misuse of the term particularly offensive.

“It’s happy. It’s a good word,” she said. “You just kind of laugh at them because they’re not using it right.”

On the other hand, Keene said that his friends all accepted him when he came out.

“[They said,] ‘We knew you were gay, and we saw it coming,’” he recalled.

The main problem Hill struggled with, he said, was figuring out how his sexual orientation fit into his life and his aspirations for the future.

“I was 15 and everyone is trying to find out who they are then,” he said. “Coming out was difficult because it just added one more thing.”

“I think being out today is tough,” added Shattuck. “But I felt uncomfortable hiding it. Once I came out I was able to be myself. I gained a family. When I went to TINT [the Tolerant, Intelligent Network of Teens, the Utah Pride Center’s youth activities center] I had all these people who accepted me.”

All of the youth are involved with the Utah Pride Center in some capacity. Shattuck is a member of Queers in Action, the Center’s youth-focused activist group, and all of them have attended TINT — McKibben with her parents’ explicit support. Additionally, Shattuck, an East High student, is assisting Keene and Sebastian in the process of starting a GSA at Murray High, which both students attend. So far, the fledgling group has yet to find a faculty sponsor.

“It’s really rough,” said Keene.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the teens’ involvement with youth activities has carried into the political arena. Shattuck has taken lobbyist training workshops with Equality Utah, and a number of the students have attended protests on Capitol Hill (Keene was present for one on Feb. 12 where a Republican Party official notoriously remarked that the gags the protesters were wearing “must be to keep the cocks out of their mouths.”). When asked if they thought Utah would pass any statewide protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens, all were doubtful.

“I think it’s going to go federal if we want it to happen here,” said Shattuck of same-sex marriage. “And since I think it is protected by the Constitution, it should be nationwide.”

“We need to separate God from politics, because God shouldn’t control our politics,” she continued. “We have freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. Not being able to get married because of your god is like forcing your religion on me, which is against the Constitution.”

One thing the youth did not doubt, however, was that their generation was, overall, more accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people than previous generations—and that they could do something to change the political climate in which they live and in which they will soon participate as full adults.

“Just act up, speak out,” said Hill. “People can put [gay rights issues] on the table, but it’s going to sit there unless people stand up.”

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