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EARLY EXIT

The kid wouldn't be beaten, he'd just be taunted, shunned and made to feel like garbage.

At my high school, gay kids were never bullied. That's because, in 1985, none of the kids who might have been gay would have admitted it in a million years.

Back then we still believed people chose to be gay, the way someone might choose to be an accountant or choose to dye their hair. The general thinking was that these people could just as easily choose to be straight and stop making heteros so uncomfortable.

Although most of the kids were white, at my school kids didn't use racial slurs because it was understood THAT would be wrong. Not only would you get some big time detention, you'd look like a complete asshole. We'd studied the civil rights movement and knew how ugly discrimination was. Thank God times had changed.

The same kids who would have never uttered a racial slur felt comfortable tossing around words like 'faggot' and 'dyke'. If something was stupid, we'd say it was 'totally gay'. If a student there had ever admitted to being gay, it wouldn't have been quite as bad as it might have been at some other schools; we were civilized suburban kids. We drove daddies cars and accessorized our outfits. The kid wouldn't be beaten, he'd just be taunted, shunned, and made to feel like garbage.

So there we were, a high school of 1,500, with no kids admitting to being gay and kids being careful to not even appear gay. Or tolerant of gays. Or friends with anyone who might be gay.

I'll always remember one girl. I'll call her Jenna. She left school fairly quickly. I looked through my old yearbooks but was unable to find her anywhere; she dropped out even before pictures were taken.

Jenna was in my drama class. I'm not sure why but drama seems to be a safe place for anyone who is unique, and she was. We weren't close friends, just close enough for light conversation. She had a red pixie haircut and was friendly and smart and funny. Every day everyone in that class seemed to like her, until the bell rang.

Once class was over, none of the kids who had just been liking her so much would dare to walk down the hall with her or stand around talking to her. They'd avoid her like the plague because it was rumored she was gay. She never seemed surprised at this behavior. She seemed to accept that this was the way things were.

In drama class, she'd frequently laugh and smile, but anywhere else--in the hallways or the cafeteria or in her other classes--she just looked anxious and a little afraid.

One day I was in the library when Jenna came over and sat down at the table with me, the way you might do if you thought someone was your friend. Because I was aware of the social climate, I picked up my books and moved to a different table, without a word of explanation. Even as I was doing it, I hated the weak part of me that made me do it. She said nothing. She didn't act surprised and didn't act like she held it against me.

About ten feet away from where she sat there was a table full of jocks, the popular guys, the cutest guys, all of whom had proven themselves star-worthy on the basketball court or football field. These guys, who were all pretty nice the rest of the time, began to bully her. They yelled things like "Hey Butch!" and "What the hell's wrong with you?" One of them shouted, "What are you, some kind of dyke?"

Keep in mind, this was in a school library where yelling wasn't allowed and would normally be stopped. I remember looking over at the librarian, the only adult in the room, and noticing she was seeing and hearing everything and doing absolutely nothing. I felt a little sick. In my mind, I knew what the safe answer to the jock's question was: she should deny it. It was the only answer a kid could give, even if she didn't stand a chance of being believed.

Instead, this girl did something amazing. She said "I don't know." She said it calmly, her voice full of plain honesty. I couldn't believe that she would be either so brave or so dumb that she would just say it right out like that.

It was the wrong answer. The jocks went nuts, all of them heckling her at once, all of them telling her different versions of Get Out Of Here. She looked stricken. She grabbed her things and hurried out of there.

A few days later, Jenna shaved off half her hair--the left side, I think. And then a few days after that, she shaved off most of the right side, turning it into a mohawk. The next week she was gone. She just stopped coming to school and never came back again.

Sometimes I wish I could see Jenna again. I'm not so sure she'd want to see me. If I saw her, I'm afraid I'd end up doing what so many people do: tell her 'things were just different then'. And it would sound like a weak excuse. And then I'd do what everyone who says that usually does: I'd feel uneasy. I'd struggle to find some way to say something clearer, something better, and no words would seem to be enough.

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