Young and gay in Kitsap - Despite increasing awareness, gay teens report bullying is common

Hannah Hibbs, 16, of Silverdale (center left), talks to friends at the Q Center in Silverdale. Pictured from left to right are Brianna Knipper, 14, of Bremerton, Jeremy Lockhart, 18, of Port Orchard, Logan Billick, 17, of Bremerton and Marcus Fultz, 17, of Bremerton.   - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Hannah Hibbs, 16, of Silverdale (center left), talks to friends at the Q Center in Silverdale. Pictured from left to right are Brianna Knipper, 14, of Bremerton, Jeremy Lockhart, 18, of Port Orchard, Logan Billick, 17, of Bremerton and Marcus Fultz, 17, of Bremerton.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

When he was in seventh grade, Marcus Fultz was bullied so frequently he pretended to be sick so he would not have to go to school.

“It got to the point where I felt like I didn’t have any friends,” said Fultz of his seventh-grade self. “I wanted to drop out of middle school because I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Life is different now for Fultz, 17, a gay teenager from Bremerton. He is comfortable with himself and perhaps most importantly, knows where to turn to for support.

The hardships endured by gay youth, those who have an understanding of their sexual identity and those unsure, have become front page news recently. At the end of September, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey committed suicide after his roommate webcast an encounter with another male. A 13-year-old in Central California hanged himself after being taunted for being gay last month. In response, Seattle newspaper columnist Dan Savage started a YouTube channel called “It Gets Better Project” reaching out to those youth who feel they have no where else to turn. The online video channel provides videos of gay adults describing their own bullied and difficult school days, but how the situation improves with time.

But gay and lesbian teens in Central Kitsap and Bremerton say despite more resources, and increased awareness, bullying persists.

“To be honest, it’s getting so overwhelming,” said Brianna Knipper, 14, of Bremerton. “It bothers me that people, even after discussing it with adults, are still being bullied.”

About 85 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported being verbally harassed at school, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey. This is equivalent to nearly nine out of 10 students. More than 40 percent reported being shoved or pushed, with nearly 19 percent reporting being physically assaulted, which includes being punched, kicked or injured with a weapon.

“Every person deserves to feel safe with their orientation, their bodies, their sexuality,” said Linsey Mayhew, director of youth programs at the Q Center in Silverdale. “A lot of time youth come here because they’re not getting that.”

Both Knipper and Fultz, and other gay, bisexual or transgender youth, gathered at the Q Center in Silverdale the evening of Oct. 1. The center provides gay teens with a support network of peers, giving them a place to meet others who share their experience of being young and gay in Kitsap.

The Kitsap County HIV AIDS Foundation opened the center in 2007 and last June it established a board of teens who wrote the mission statement for the program.

“This way they represent the needs of the youth in the county,” Mayhew said.

The group meets Friday evenings and includes games, movies or educational workshops. A recent workshop was on HIV prevention and included free HIV testing through the Kitsap Çounty Health District. The group has also had open mic nights where they share artwork and play instruments.

The experiences the youth described, where they were made to feel different or vulnerable, didn’t always come from fellow students.

Jacque Halborson, 18, of Bremerton said two years ago a school administrator upbraided her for hugging her girlfriend in the hall. She was called down to the office and told she was conducting “inappropriate behavior.” The administrator said if he saw it again he would file a report.

“We didn’t change anything,” Halborson said. “We were just not as open in front of him.” She never has had problems with any other students or teachers, she added.

Just like Fultz, Leia Pallin, 17, recalled being harassed when she was in middle school.

“If students ever noticed me with a girlfriend in the hall, I wouldn’t hear about it right then, but I’d hear whispers,” said Pallin of Seabeck. “I come to the Q Center to get away from all that stuff at school. We’re a family here.”

Despite the support they feel from each other and most teachers, who have been quick to correct students who use the word “gay” as a pejorative, some aren’t confident life for gay kids will ever be as easy as it is for straight kids.

“I don’t know what can be done,” said Fultz. “I don’t know if it’ll ever change. People are so closed minded.”

Middle school can be a difficult time for students in general because it is a time of radical, physical and emotional change, said Dr. Michael Corpolongo, a clinical psychologist at Kitsap Family Services in Bremerton. Bullying occurs often during middle school as a result of forming social identities, he said.

“Some feel the need to be aggressive and rough as their identity to be males or adults, and take advantage of others,” Corpolongo said. “Some of this gets grown out when they reach the high school level because they become more secure within themselves.”

Fultz was bullied relentlessly in seventh grade but his situation improved. He felt better talking about his problems with his mother and school counselor and although it did not make the teasing stop, he “stuck it out” and now does not let bullying in school fly - for anyone. When he sees a student getting teased for any reason, he goes up to the bully and confronts the person. After telling the bully the consequences of teasing, he checks in with the person who was bullied, acting somewhat as a mediator for the two parties.

“I didn’t care what people said and I stuck it out,” Fultz said. “Luckily I am the person I am today. And I know how to help other people.”

For gay youth to protect themselves, and each other, Pallin said teens have to have the courage to make themselves heard.

“I think more LGBT youth should step up even if they’re hurting or having a hard time,” Pallin said. “If more of us are heard, it wouldn’t be as hard as it is.”

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