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A School Where I Can Be Myself
Wilber Valenzuela
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"F-got, queer, pato..."

It was my sophomore year at Christopher Columbus HS in the Bronx. I had just finished up my last mid-term exam and was heading for the bus when I heard people yelling. I turned around and saw a crowd of people running after me.

"Marica, homo..."

I started running, but it wasn't long before they got me. They tried to hit me but a lady driving by in a car started yelling, "The cops, the cops." They disappeared.

That wasn't the first time I was harassed because of my sexuality. My fellow students hurled insults at me all the time. One day I walked into class and saw "Hello f-got" written on the board. I was so embarrassed that day. I was too ashamed to tell anyone about what had happened. I had no friends at that school, no one to turn to.

It got to the point where I felt it was wrong to be a homosexual. I used to hide my feelings and keep quiet. I was afraid that some phrase or action would give the others more "proof" that I was gay. School had turned into hell.

Too Scared to go Back

Other students had hurt me emotionally many times and I could deal with that. But once I realized that they might hurt me physically, that's when I drew the line. After that crowd of people chased me and I just barely escaped getting beaten up, I was too scared to go back to school.

I told a friend about the incident and he said I should transfer to another school. But I figured that no matter where I went, some people would still be homophobic and prejudiced. I didn't know what to do.

Later that week I found out about a support group for gay teenagers, Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York (GLYNY). I went to one of their meetings and told them about what had happened to me.

They gave me information on the Harvey Milk School, an alternative high school for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. I had never heard of it before. I felt relieved to hear that such a school existed. I felt they could help me since I had a lot of questions about myself.

'You are not Alone'

I called the school and they gave me an appointment for an interview. Part of me was frightened about meeting new people, making new friends, and how my mother would react to my decision to go to an all gay school. But I knew I couldn't go back to Columbus and I didn't have any time to lose since I wanted to start the next semester at a new school.

When I arrived for my interview I saw a poster with a picture of a group of teenagers and the words, "You are not alone." I had been feeling down and seeing that poster made me feel better.

image by Jon Kearney

During the interview I had to talk about my reasons for wanting to go to the school and give a brief biography of myself. The next step was a 10-day probation period, during which the staff finds out what your academic needs are and how interested you are in learning.

Harvey Milk was small, with only a few dozen students. Everyone was very friendly and made me feel as if they were my second family. We talked to the teachers on a first name basis which made us feel closer to them. I liked that I never had to say, "Good morning, Mr. Ashkinazy," but simply, "Hi, Steve."

Are All These People Gay?

Everything about the school was different than what I was used to. Since everyone was at a different level, we did a lot of our work independently. My teacher would give me an assignment sheet and a book. After each assignment, I would go to him and he would teach me anything I didn't understand. After three periods of individual classes, we had two periods of group classes. These were different every day and covered topics like health, law, dance, and theater.

Going to the school was like therapy for me. I learned more than just math and history, I also learned about survival.

Suddenly my ideas about gays changed. It wasn't like my father had told me. Not all gay men wore leather and tight jeans; that was only the stereotype. I was able to see that at Harvey Milk, where all the students were different. There was the businessman type, the punk, the banjee boy, the "movie star." There were some drag queens, but they didn't wear heavy makeup like I thought they would. The lesbians were pretty and not butch.

When I first got to the school, I couldn't believe it. I kept asking, "Are they all really gay?" They were.

I also learned about sexuality, AIDS, and safe sex, topics that my other school didn't dare talk about. My teacher and two of my other friends were infected with the HIV virus and they taught me from their experiences. I learned about testing, counseling, and living with AIDS. Safe sex kits were always available.

No More Hiding

Going to the Harvey Milk School helped me understand myself and made me more confident about my identity. For the first time I felt like part of a community. I felt able to talk to anyone there about my feelings without having to hide things or lie.

I also became more aware of what was going on around me and the issues that affect me as a young gay man, like gay-bashing and the fact that gays were not allowed to serve in the military. Now I'm more concerned about these problems and pay more attention to the news and current events.

I also became more outspoken and proud. Back at Columbus HS, I felt like I couldn't be myself. I remember one day I wore a Madonna T-shirt to school and someone said, "Only f-gots like Madonna."

I put that T-shirt in the back of my closet and never wore it to school again. Now I feel comfortable wearing T-shirts that let people know who I am, including one that says, "I'm not gay, but my boyfriend is."

I graduated from the Harvey Milk School last June. Going there changed my life and my memories of that experience will live forever.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to HeretoListen.org, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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(NYC-1997-04-11b)



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