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Image credit: Ted Ravago

How Spirit Day helped me survive as a closeted gay high schooler

October 17, 2019

Trigger warning: depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts

When I was in first grade, my classmate called me gay and I cried. I didn’t know what the word ‘gay’ meant, but I did know that I had only ever heard it said as a bad thing, maybe even the worst thing someone could be. 

I lived in a pretty tightly sealed conservative cultural bubble. I attended a Protestant Elementary and Middle School and then a Catholic High School. I didn’t really know anyone outside of these environments, and my understanding of the world around me was shaped by my academic and familial communities. It’s a real fun experience (note the sarcasm) when you end up being a member of a community that generally isn’t accepted in the conservative bubble. 

I consider myself lucky to a certain degree. I was never directly harassed, bullied or beaten up - but my school was still a blatantly hostile environment. I knew what people said about me. I knew the rumors. Mandatory religion and morality classes, which discussed Catholic history and traditional Catholic moral codes, taught that all queer identities were morally wrong. I was taught that I wouldn’t find love, that my feelings about my sexuality weren’t true, and that I was choosing to be attracted to men. Throughout my years of attendance, it became clear to me that my school did not care for or support its queer students, even though my friends and I made them aware of the negative impacts of LGBTQ+ bullying and hostility. My school’s motto was “Be who you are, and be that well,” a quote from St. Francis DeSales. From my experience however, the school only wanted students to ‘be who they were’ if they were cisgender and heterosexual. 

Ted in high school, 2018.

I was actively trying to emulate my straight peers, but people I didn’t know kept coming up to me; they would ask me about my sexual orientation or tell me that I was gay as if I was the punchline to some dumb joke. One lunch period my freshman year, someone even told me that they wished it was legal to kill gay people. I couldn’t see myself being out and safe, so I kept trying to play the part of the straight-laced Catholic schoolboy. 

Over the course of middle and high school, I came out to several people who were close to me -  but many of these experiences didn’t go well. The first person that I came out to ignored me for months. Another blackmailed me and threatened to ‘out’ me if I didn’t do things for him. When I had a falling out with an old friend, I was on the floor of my room, crying and hyperventilating because I was so scared he was going to out me to the whole school. I was then outed to a bunch of people in my friend group when they found my Tumblr and saw posts of me talking about my sexuality. I was constantly scared I was going to be kicked out of my house if word of my sexual orientation got to my parents. 

The bubble that I grew up in was suffocating me. I felt like I didn’t belong, I felt unnatural and as though I shouldn’t exist. I was depressed, developed anxiety issues, and had thoughts about taking my own life. I even hurt myself because it felt like I deserved some level of retribution for simply existing. I couldn’t envision a future in which I existed and was happy. 

When you trap someone inside a bubble, that bubble can only last so long before bursting. In 2014, I discovered GLAAD’s Spirit Day campaign against bullying. I felt like I was the only one who was grappling with being queer in a hostile environment, but Spirit Day was one of the first glimpses of hope: Someone somewhere cared about me, that someone out there didn’t think I was a mistake. 

That same year, I found Thomas Sanders on YouTube. Seeing a gay man be out and happy and living life gave me more hope. I also started listening to Dodie Clark, another YouTuber and music artist, who taught me that it was okay to express my mental health issues, and that being a queer human didn’t mean that I had to constantly be upbeat and happy. I later discovered that I wasn’t the only one grappling with not being a cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) person. People around me at school came out to me, some expressing similar experiences of loneliness and rejection by our shared environments. I didn’t feel alone anymore. 

Knowing that there were people who were struggling in similar ways to me, I wanted to make sure that no other queer students at my high school felt alone. However, it wasn’t always easy. During my senior year, I wanted to start a LGBTQ+ club at my school. My queer friends and I pushed to get our club approved, but the principal shut us down. After doing so, she claimed that she wasn’t homophobic because someone in her family identified as LGBTQ+. Even then, I knew first hand that associating with LGBTQ+ people or having LGBTQ+ family members does not necessarily mean that you are incapable of homophobic or queerphobic acts. 

These experiences gave me the drive to get out of my middle and high school environments. My escape was finding an institution that would actually support me and all of my identities. That’s how I found myself applying to, and eventually attending, New York University. 

My quality of life is a lot better now. I believe that the biggest change is that I am no longer confined to an unaccepting environment. I came out to my family, I’m out on my social media and queerness is basically a norm in my current surroundings.

I’m still passionate about making sure that queer and trans youth know that they’re not alone. I try my best to give back to the opportunities that have given so much to me. That’s how I found myself being active in the NYU LGBTQ+ Student Center, and why I find myself now interning at GLAAD. 

For those of you who are in a dark place right now, you are not alone. I know that the future can seem bleak, maybe even hopeless, I’ve been there. If I told my 2014 self what I was doing now -  even if I told my 2017 self - I would have never believed it. It’s impossible to tell what the world will have in store for you, so don’t give up hope. Let this Spirit Day remind you that there is a whole community across the country, outside of your own little bubble, that is ready to support you just the way you are.

Ted Ravago is a GLAAD Youth Engagement Intern and a sophomore at New York University studying Journalism and Sociology. They are involved in the LGBTQ+ Center at NYU and with the NYU Cohort Program. 

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