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I Grew Up Bisexual in Small Town America and Years Later, Nothing’s Changed logo 6/3/2019 Anonymous
a man with dark hair and a sunset in the background: Twenty20 © Provided by RockYou Media(; Twenty20

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It’s Monday morning in second period study hall. The cafeteria tables are peppered here and there with 7th and 8th graders, some working on homework, others bent over their phones furiously playing Fortnite. I have my own group of kiddos at a table and we’re going over their daily math assignment. As I’m explaining how percentages work, a group of cocky 8th grade boys stride in. I pay no attention — if you’ve ever taught middle school, you know how to block things out — but my attention perks up when they start making fun of each other.

“Shut up, dude, that’s so gay!” one of them shouts.

“Yeah, well, you’re short and gay,” his friend retorts.

And just like that, I flash back as if I’m in middle school myself, listening as the other students used “gay” as an insult and had to shout “no homo” before they ever touched each other — even for a high-five. Oh sure, kids will be kids. But having these comments around you all the time when you’re young and vulnerable, knowing you have a secret — that you’re attracted to people of the same gender — is heartbreaking.

I grew up in a small town in Iowa we’ll call Pinmount. For a young LGBTQ person, it was definitely not the worst town to call home. Pinmount has a small college and the staff and students make up a good portion of the population. These are people with typically liberal values that are more accepting of gay folks. However, many people I went to school with were from conservative rural families with evangelical values. From what I remember, a lot of anti-gay language and behavior went unchecked in our school and community. Pinmount was not a safe place to be LGBTQ, that was for sure. 

When I was in high school, I realized that part of the reason my best friend was my best friend was because I was in love with her romantically. But it wasn’t until I left home to attend college that I could be myself. I moved to a big, liberal college town, and I live there to this day. Though I had relationships with women over the years, I settled down with a man and had a child, so unless someone knows me well, they don’t know that I’m bisexual.

Over time, attitudes in general about LGBTQ people have changed. The Pew Research Center reports that same-sex marriage in America has an all-time high approval rating of 62 percent. When I accepted a job at a school in the same community where I’d grown up, I figured the population of Pinmount had changed with the times. Sure, there would be a few people here and there that might be discriminatory or hateful towards LGBTQ people, but overall, I would not feel like I was in an uncomfortable or threatening environment.

Turns out, I was wrong.

The first couple of years at this school, everything seemed fine. Sure, there were some cringeworthy moments where students said things that they didn’t understand were offensive. All they needed was a little correction and they checked their language and behavior. I was excited when some students got together and started a diversity club called Joining Our Youth, or JOY. They put posters up around the school with our mascot — a lion — with a rainbow mane.

Then, the drama began.

A 7th grader, the school board president’s son, went on a little spree where he tore down all of the JOY posters or defaced them with slurs. His friends filmed it. Luckily, one of them felt so guilty about what happened that he came forward.

In a small school in a small town, word spread quickly and the school seemed to divide into two factions within moments: those who supported the LGBTQ students and community members, and those who didn’t want their kids exposed to some kind of “gay agenda” at school.

Facebook blew up with impassioned posts from parents on both sides — if you think that there are “sides” in an issue of a group of peoples’ very existence. Administration, fearful of “another scandal” did discipline the students, but there was no strong statement issued to students or staff regarding discrimination and how it will not be tolerated.

Many kids and adults in the school began wearing rainbow pins in a show of silent solidarity. I didn’t wear one. I suppose I was worried about drawing attention to myself in a situation where vitriol and hatred was bubbling under the surface the whole time in a place I once felt safe.

The only thing I have the courage for, I’ve found, is speaking up in those little moments. When those boys made their views known (more likely, repeating the views of their parents) I went over there and yelled at them. Not my finest moment as a teacher, but I made it clear to them that we don’t talk like that in our school. I’m just hoping that the kids around me, some of whom might be gay, heard me stick up for them and myself. And I hope, someday, that I can be an open and out LGBTQ role model for them.


*A stock image was used to represent the author.

Related video: LGBT life in small towns highlighted in 'State of Pride' (provided by MSNBC)



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