Sign up for our free newsletter
They’re here. They’re queer. They’re young. Now what?
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
If there’s one thing that long acrylic fingernails are good for, it’s pulling apart school-bought cheese pizza. Rachel Anderson uses hers—which are painted seashell pink and decorated with white stars—to dismantle the two slices she has in front of her in the cafeteria of Anacostia High School, where she’s a junior.
Anderson and her friends sit at one of the cafeteria’s 1970s-style orange-and-yellow table-and-bench combos. They usually stick to the tables along one edge of the room. “Some days we play spades, and some days we just sit and, you know, conversate,” she says.
Lunch time wasn’t always this carefree. Last fall, Anderson says, she told a friend that she was a lesbian. But the girl—an “ex-friend,” as Anderson now calls her—wasn’t much for keeping secrets. She blabbed. Anderson chose lunch time to confront her. Anderson says she marched up to the girl and her group of friends and cussed them out. The crew vowed to get back at Anderson, she says, threatening to “jump” her.
For months, Anderson carried a pocket knife tucked in her bra. “I’m not going to stand there and let seven people jump me, unh-unh,” she explains.
Things have calmed a little since. Anderson stopped carrying the knife a couple of months ago. “If they were going to do something, then they would have done it by now. I don’t have time to trip on what people are going to do to me,” she says.
In fact, instead of being driven out of Anacostia, Anderson is fast becoming a part of the high school’s culture. And she’s doing it in the most traditional way: through tribe and through real estate. Just months after being threatened, Anderson’s on her way to creating something approximating a community for gay teens at Anacostia High—complete with gossip, internal intrigue, and even a table in the lunch room.
Half of the school’s 800 students swirl through the compact, basement-level room, yelling out greetings, and curses, and sometimes a mix of both. The scene is D.C.’s answer to a John Hughes movie: Scan the room and your eyes stumble across the jock table, the nerd table, the thug table. And now, in the reductivist world of high school nomenclature, the gay table—where not all the kids are gay, of course, but they’re all down with Anderson.
Anderson is not a small girl, but she doesn’t let her size stop her from wearing stylish clothing. Today, she sports a tight black skirt that has slits up the sides. At the points of each slit, she’s placed buttons from the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), a nonprofit that supports gay kids. She calls it her “gay skirt.” Her hairstyle changes frequently, and today it’s short and neatly curled. She reapplies her lipstick—first outlining her lips with a thick, dark line, then applying a layer of lip gloss—several times throughout the day.
Anderson goes by the nickname “Ray Ray,” which she has tattooed in cursive letters on her left forearm. She’s friendly and outgoing, but can get pretty surly when someone pisses her off. She does not, under any circumstances, like the word “dyke.” Instead, she prefers the term “young lesbian woman.”
Anderson takes special education classes and also participates in a job-readiness program that keeps her out of school much of the day. When she is there, she tries to maintain as normal a teenage life as possible. Some days, it’s not easy. Anderson says classmates whisper about her when she walks into the girls’ restroom. And during downtime in classes, teachers curb her chitchat, she says, because they don’t like her choice of subjects—usually the latest cute girl she’s encountered.
But Anderson has managed to gather what often counts for legitimacy and clout in high school: friends. She says that at Anacostia, the couple dozen openly gay students back up closeted kids and serve as the only real support system for students who may later come out. “What young people are doing is being themselves, and that’s the first step,” says SMYAL Executive Director Craig Bowman. “I think they’re forging a new path.”
Whatever the difficulties, Anderson says she’s happier being out. “I’d rather live my life being gay and having people talk about me everywhere I go than pretend I like men and be extremely unhappy,” she says.
From Britney Spears to Saved by the Bell’s A.C. Slater to that senior in your high school who’s always got the hot dates, there are plenty of role models to imitate if you’re a straight teenager looking to cadge an identity. But if you’re a gay teenager—especially a gay black teenager, and especially a gay black teenager from an urban setting like D.C.’s—pop culture is as bereft of young gay leaders as the Boy Scouts.
That’s one reason why 19-year-old Chris Williams Jr. is so important to his friends. Among the young gay set, he’s a relative old-timer. Williams first fell in love with another boy at age 13. He struggled with his feelings, afraid that his father—a man’s man kind of guy—would go ballistic. On his 16th birthday, Williams came out to his family, starting with his dad. “The truth was, after I conquered my father, there was nothing else to fear,” says Williams.
Now one of the oldest among his group of friends, Williams acts as a sort of guardian for some of the younger gay kids. He offers dating advice, suggests ways of talking with family, and shows other gay teenagers how to have a good time. “I think it’s very important that you have a sense of guidance, because it’s hard enough to be a teenager,” he says.
And a major piece of identity, if you’re guiding a subculture through the teenage demimonde, is language. Sure, Williams can hold forth on the pain of coming out to your parents, but when I appear baffled by his banter with his friends, he can also take me aside for a slang briefing. Some highlights:
* “Trade” refers to a gay guy who pretends he’s straight—maybe even dates girls—but really isn’t.
* “Cunt” can be used to describe a gay, bisexual, or transgendered guy who dresses or acts like a female. It’s usually a word of praise. It means “to be beautiful, to say you’re sexy, you’re radiant,” adds Williams.
* “Dom” refers to a lesbian who looks and acts very masculine. The term is derived from the word “dominant.”
* “Conjra” is a combination of the words “conjure” and “drama,” and refers generally to any trouble the group encounters. Example: “A lot of conjra gets started at Union.” (Note: “Union” is the shortened version of “Union Station,” where Williams and a lot of his friends spend many afternoons.)
Williams doesn’t seem old enough to be a source of guidance—and not just because vocabulary like that makes him seem like a gay version of Felicity. A tall, thin, light-skinned guy with short, curly hair, Williams seems to know almost every other gay teenager in town. He greets them with a hug and a high-pitched “Hey, girl,” no matter what the gender.
On a Thursday afternoon, I meet Williams at the one-bedroom apartment where he’s been staying with 20-year-old friend Romaine Thompson and her two sons. Williams is late—for many reasons, some of them reasonable. He had to stop at the day-care to pick up Thompson’s sons. Good enough. Then he had to meet up with friends for a quick bite at McDonald’s. Not so nice. I’ve been waiting for more than an hour by the time he breezes in. He nods and says we’re on our way to meet up with his friends at Union Station. Out we go.
“You can meet my husband,” Williams says as we walk down E Street NW to the station. He’s referring to 19-year-old Darrell Jones. They’ve been dating for two weeks. No matter. The “husband” title has little to do with duration of commitment and more to do with Williams’ and his friends’ tendency to create their own family trees. Williams says that many of the older gay guys “adopt” the younger ones who are just coming out—to offer support and to introduce them to others. This, he says, creates a sort of “mother/daughter” relationship. The rest of the family tree unfolds around it.
“This is my sister, and this is my wife, and this is my daughter,” says Jones, pointing to some of the teenagers gathered in the food court. A crooked, crescent-shaped scar connects his hairline to one of his eyebrows. Jones says he got it during a fight with a former boyfriend who had been messing around. “When I’m in a relationship, I’m very committed,” says Jones.
Jones has been in other fights, too. In May 1998, when Jones attended M.M. Washington High School, a couple of guys who had been calling Jones “sissy” and “faggot” surrounded him after school one day and promised to “whoop his faggy ass,” Jones recalls. The next day, Jones says he came to the school, located off North Capitol Street NW, ready for revenge. He beat them up one by one. He was expelled from school that same day, he says. (A school official confirmed that Jones was a student there, but says Jones left on his own.)
The crew shuffles up the escalators and out the revolving doors so a couple of them can smoke cigarettes. Next to an outdoor fruit stand, they chat and practice dance moves. The dance of choice is the vogue. They all do a lot of voguing at parties and clubs, and sometimes in contests. Jones is especially good; He moves with sharp motions, falling to the ground for a pose and jumping up again without missing a beat.
Office drones and tourist families stream past, not sure what to make of this throng of squealing, dancing teenagers. They gawk mostly at the boys practicing their girlish struts. Williams and his friends don’t seem to notice the stares. When Jones decides it’s time to head back in, he turns to the doors and motions the group inside with a flip of the hand. “Come on, ladies and…” He pauses, turning to look at the gang, most of them male. “Ladies,” he finishes.
You can find the SMYAL buildings with your ears: They may be the only Capitol Hill row houses that throb with loud dance music. The kids streaming in and out of the two buildings—located on 7th Street SE, right near the Eastern Market Metro—give the location away, too. You might think you’ve stumbled upon a rowdy house party in the middle of a Monday afternoon. You’d be partly right.
If people like Williams and Anderson are helping socialize their gay—and straight—friends in D.C.’s schools and food courts, SMYAL staffers like Bowman hope their “drop-in center,” a weekday and Saturday open house, can do the same thing—with adult supervision, to boot.
About 25 newcomers visit the SMYAL office every month, says Bowman. And the visitors are getting younger. In 1993, the average age of visitors was 19. Last year, it was 16, says Bowman, who adds that the league served about 1,300 young people in all.
SMYAL moved to the Capitol Hill row houses three years ago. One house holds offices for staff and volunteers; the adjoining house is dedicated to the teenagers. The upstairs bedrooms have been converted into meeting rooms. The first level, meanwhile, consists of an open living room with TV, stereo, couches, shelves stocked with books with gay and lesbian themes, and a table covered with all kinds of helpful pamphlets—like “Brothers Loving Brothers Safely” and “5 Smart Steps to Good Sex”—as well as a basket full of condoms.
The former kitchen has been converted into a sort of computer lab, ideally so that visitors can use the Internet to do homework assignments. Out back, there’s a basketball hoop and a couple of tables and chairs, which serve as the unofficial smoking lounge. The place seems a mix between a doctor’s waiting room and a Real World group house for gay teenagers.
On a Monday evening in April, the staff is in a meeting upstairs; a couple dozen kids are going crazy downstairs. Someone put in a video of a dance competition—a “ball,” as the kids call it, where people compete in voguing and drag contests. The music is already blaring out of the TV speakers, but a couple of the kids decide they want to try out their own moves. So they flip on the stereo, push back some chairs, and the whole room starts to shake.
SMYAL staff have come to expect this. Since many clients aren’t out to family and friends, or they restrain their sexuality in school and other places they fear harassment, SMYAL is one of the few places where they seem to cut loose, says Director of Development and Communications Sean Sullivan. “How they want to be in school is so repressed that when they come, they really want to kick back,” says Sullivan. “There’s a lot of energy.”
Bowman, 31, attributes the size and youth of his clientele to their increased exposure to gays and lesbians. “I think our public discourse is opening doors in many ways,” he says. “It wasn’t like that when I was younger. I used to run home every day from school if I thought Oprah would have gay people on it.” Today, SMYAL runs support group sessions for subsets of the gay teenage community, like transgendered kids and gay youth of color.
Research on gay youth is minimal. Nonetheless, some pretty frightening trends have surfaced: Gay kids are more likely to become homeless, abuse drugs, and even get pregnant, says Bowman. “A lot of pregnancies occur when gay boys try to get a girl pregnant to prove they’re not gay,” says therapist Catherine Tuerk, who runs a support group for parents of “gender-variant” children. A slightly dated 1989 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found gay kids two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than straight teenagers.
Bowman came out after college. A generation of gay students coming out earlier may be able to watch Will & Grace, but their schools often haven’t caught up with the culture, says Kevin Jennings, executive director of the nonprofit Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). A 1997 GLSEN study of 500 gay and lesbian students across the country found that 90 percent of the students reported that they frequently hear homophobic remarks in school—and one-third said those comments came from faculty or staff. Two out of five gay and lesbian students said they do not feel safe in schools, according to the study.
“Schools are totally unprepared to deal with [gay students],” says Jennings. “Gay and lesbian students are canaries in the coal mines. And schools in crisis say, ‘We’re too busy to deal with them.’”
That means places like SMYAL have to specialize in crisis management. Aside from serving as a social network for youth, SMYAL staff also distribute information and train adults who work with kids. “I think more and more gay young people are living their lives in open ways. That can be scary for adults, because they’re not used to it,” says Bowman. “Unfortunately, that’s why SMYAL has had to play an important role in helping teachers and counselors catch up to where young people are….Young people have to be able to expect that if they’re being harassed or intimidated, then adults will step in and intervene.”
Group discussions at a place like SMYAL are one thing, but for most teenagers, a sense of identity is created over things like school lunches. Back in the lunchroom at Anacostia High School, Anderson and her friends banter with as much exaggeration and wisecracking and lying and posturing as any other teenagers, gay or straight.
A couple of students rotate in and out of the open seats at Anderson’s table. Eighteen-year-old Charles, who is also gay, is one of the few constants. Some of the 50 minutes’ worth of lunch time conversation unfolds like this:
Anderson: “There’s a lot of cute dom girls.”
Charles: “My mother looks dom.”
Anderson: “I wish my mom looked dom.”
Charles: “My mom fights like she’s dom.”
The discussion is interrupted when Charles spots a friend and squeals as she approaches. “This is my baby,” Charles says, hugging the petite girl in a blue top. “She’s the smartest girl in the school.”
When she leaves, Anderson whispers, “Is she straight?”
Charles nods yes. “I wouldn’t mess with her,” he says. “She’s an A student.”
As further proof of her intelligence, Charles says: “She’s smart. She’s a virgin.”
“I wish I were a virgin,” Anderson says with
“I am,” says Charles.
Anderson quickly refutes it: “No, you’re not,” she teases, adding a dubious allegation: “Your butt is wider than a train tunnel.” The table shakes with laughter.
About 10 blocks from the SMYAL row houses sits a somewhat larger building that’s lately been the focus of a lot more attention from gay advocates: the U.S. Supreme Court. The court hasn’t been a great help on things like anti-sodomy statutes and gay marriage, but last May it handed down a ruling that could profoundly affect the young clients who come to SMYAL.
The facts of the case had nothing to do with gay kids. Starting in 1992, a mother in Forsyth, Ga., complained to school officials that her fifth-grade daughter was being sexually taunted by a boy in her class. The daughter alleged that the boy grabbed her breasts, rubbed against her, and whispered that he wanted to “get in bed” with her. The mother, Aurelia Davis, claimed the school did nothing to stop the harassment. In 1994, she filed a lawsuit against the Monroe County Board of Education. The board won in lower courts, but similar student-on-student harassment cases produced conflicting rulings. So the Supreme Court took the Davis case to settle the score. In a divisive ruling in May 1999, five out of the nine justices agreed that school administrators could be held liable for ignoring student-on-student sexual harassment.
That fifth-grade groper, it turned out, opened a door for gay students across the country. Meanwhile, another young man had already started walking towards it. In 1995, Jamie Nabozny sued his Ashland, Wis., school system for failing to prevent years-long abuse from peers. In a suit filed in federal court, Nabozny charged that school administrators failed to interfere when students taunted him, pretended to rape him in a classroom, and kicked him unconscious in a school hallway. A jury sided with Nabozny. The school district settled for $900,000.
Nabozny’s case was settled before any legal ruling. But the Supreme Court decision picked up where his case dropped off. Those two cases have set a legal precedent that makes it a lot easier for any student—gay or straight—to hold school systems accountable for overlooking significant harassment. Since then, gay students have flocked to the courts.
“I gave up keeping track of the lawsuits against public schools for failure to stop anti-gay violence,” says David Buckel, staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in New York. The courtroom traffic has forced school administrators all over the country to reconsider the way they treat gay students—including those in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). In March, after months of urging from local gay activists, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman issued a directive that clarified the rules of student discipline, found in the D.C. Municipal Regulations, to prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation.
“It’s always a concern when you see a trend developing in the law that can put the District at risk,” says DCPS General Counsel Veleter Mazyck, who helped draft the new directive. “At first, we really believed that the rules of student discipline covered just about everything that could happen….It was not clear to everyone that there are all kinds of sexual harassment. It doesn’t have to be opposite genders.”
This month, says Mazyck, a DCPS task force made up of students, teachers, administrators, and activists will start discussing ways to enforce the policy and to educate students and staff about gay and lesbian issues. “We’re trying to make sure we have staff trained to handle students who think they are in some sort of crisis,” says Ackerman. “We take [students] where they are and we support them.”
So far, Bowman and other activists applaud the efforts. But folks who’ve watched DCPS know that the road to hell is littered with task-force reports. And DCPS has a long way to go in providing comfortable settings for gay and straight students alike. “If you just tell teachers that harassment based on sexual orientation is not allowed, a lot of teachers don’t know what that means,” says Lukas Malek, vice-president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, who lobbied for the new policy. “I’m not 100 percent sure the school system can properly enforce the policy. They have a history of not living up to their own rules and regulations.”
History would have been a helluva lot different if J.J. “Dy-no-mite” Evans had been gay. Or if Sanford’s son had been bisexual. Or if Theo had come to realize he was a man trapped in a woman’s body and started borrowing clothes from Mrs. Huxtable’s closet. You didn’t see those characters on black-centered TV programs in the 1970s and 1980s—or even the 1990s. You still don’t.
Neither do Williams, Anderson, and their friends, most of whom are black, like the majority of D.C. youth. While activists excitedly talk about the cultural mainstreaming of gay men and lesbians, they usually point to singers such as k.d. lang—not exactly a black youth icon.
“I think in the black community there is a feeling that this is a white problem. Those are all the images we see. It’s Ellen [DeGeneres] and George Michael, and it’s not any black folks,” says 19-year-old Jaison Gardner, a SMYAL regular and friend of Williams. Gardner also works as an HIV/STD program associate for a nonprofit called Advocates for Youth. “When I started coming to terms, for so long [I thought], ‘OK, I’m the only black kid who’s gay.’”
With an already limited pool of research on gay youth, studies that focus specifically on youth of color are even more scarce, says A. Charlene Leach, deputy director of programs for the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC), a national network of groups that support gay kids. Leach says staffers have found that black and Latino families are often less accepting of a teenager’s homosexuality than white families. Gay youth of color also face dual hostility from the outside community—for being gay and for being a minority.
“What is typically viewed as being in the closet for [white gay kids] doesn’t have the same connotation for gay youth of color,” says Leach. “A lot of times they won’t come out because of safety and survival….The impact is definitely greater for youth of color.”
“It’s an extra layer of oppression,” adds Philip Pannell, an openly gay political activist who lives not far from Anderson’s high school. “It really hurts that among your own people, you are considered something that is fundamentally wrong. It’s another battle to wage.”
And that battle is one that black kids feel they’re fighting on their own. One of the paradoxes of the mainstreaming of the gay movement is that young people and minorities often feel excluded from its middle-aged, middle-class public image. “A lot of people feel alienated, like here we go again,” Gardner adds. “We have a bunch of rich white guys telling us what to do, and we’re just tagging along.”
About 70 percent of the kids who come to SMYAL are youth of color, most of them black, says Bowman. But SMYAL staffers have had a hard time reaching gay adults of color to volunteer at the center and serve as mentors for the kids. “It may take a little bit longer to build trust,” says Bowman. “[Black and Latino kids] have always been a really strong part of our population. We’ve had a hard time communicating that.”
In the vacuum of black gay youth culture, people like Williams and Gardner have had to invent their own—complete with dance moves and lingo. “There’s a whole separate gay culture for black kids,” says Gardner. “If you were to take kids from SMYAL and put them together with a group of white kids from Maryland or Virginia, they would still have trouble interacting.”
It’s funny how, when you’re a teenager, doing nothing is actually doing something. Take hanging out, for example. The activity involves little more than standing or sitting around with your friends, shooting the shit, maybe getting a snack, you know, just hanging out. Nothing, really. But in teenagers’ minds, it makes up, say, 95 percent of your social activity.
Same goes for Williams and his friends. They spend much of their free time, well, doing nothing in particular. It’s just that the range of places to do nothing is a lot smaller when most of your crew aren’t out to family and still worry about being exposed. There’s SMYAL, where the drop-in center closes at 8 o’clock on weekdays. And Union, which stays open a little later. When they can get in, many of them go to clubs like the Velvet Nation and the Edge and Wet, which a couple of the guys excitedly tell me has black male strippers for its Tuesday evening show. The event is called “Hot Chocolate.”
On a Thursday, one of the first warm nights of the year, the group meets along P Street NW, right off Dupont Circle. That strip of street hosts a couple of regular hangouts—like Soho Tea & Coffee, which also draws a lot of gay kids from the suburbs, and a bar called the Fireplace.
Tonight, we start at Burger King for a quick bite. Williams and Jones are joined by a couple of others, including a petite guy named Travin and a much bigger guy with a Don King-style hairdo who goes by the name “Mocha.”
It’s a family dinner of sorts, as is usually the case with this group. Tonight, Williams is under the watch of his “mother,” Willie, who “adopted” the 19-year-old a few years back. Willie, who says he’ll confess to being no older than 21, also goes by “Talulha,” the name he uses during his drag performances. (He will perform at Mr. P’s, across from Burger King, later that night.)
Actually, Willie explains to me, his full stage name is “Talulha Widebody Cunt Eartha Quick Foxx.” Most of them are nicknames he’s gotten over the years, and the Foxx comes from his own “mother,” who is also a drag queen.
While we wait in line for our food, Talulha and Williams give a little advice to Travin, who has recently broken up with his boyfriend of one day because the guy was a cheater. “What do I say about cheating?” Talulha prompts.
Williams deadpans, and then, almost automatically: “Be the one he’s cheating with, not the one he’s cheating on.”
After dinner, we sit and talk long enough to let the grease settle a bit. Then Talulha’s off to get dressed for his show. The rest of us head to the Fireplace for “a little cocktail,” as Williams puts it. Williams, Jones, and I head upstairs, where we meet a couple of their friends, including Anderson, who are gathered in one corner.
Teenagers have sneaked into bars and clubs since back when Rock Hudson was entering sham marriages. Most do it to seem older; some do it as a dare. But Williams and his friends are also there because, while there are plenty of places—especially in Dupont Circle—that cater to gay men and women, there are few places in the city for gay teenagers.
Around us, the speakers belt out Madonna and Toni Braxton. Later in the evening, the TVs on the walls display a music-accompanied video of two men having sex. It ain’t the movies at the multiplex. Then again, the movies at the multiplex aren’t about gay kids. Williams and his friends, though, seem hardly interested in the porn overhead. Most of them dance and laugh in the corner we’ve now overwhelmed.
Even at the Fireplace, the kids are out of place. At one point in the night, a bar employee comes over to their corner to ask them to quit dancing. Their movement has caused the room to shake a bit and has, apparently, disturbed the other customers, most of whom stand sipping mixed drinks and calmly scoping the others.
A 30-something customer doesn’t appreciate the kids’ style of dancing. Watching Jones, he leans over to me and says, shaking his head, “Some of these guys are really good-looking, and then they do this Naomi Campbell-on-the-catwalk-arm-flailing shit. It’s a disappointment.”
Williams and his friends piece together their world from several others. They spend much of their time in places that are meant for people—gay people—older than them. But there are also reminders that they are typical teenagers, beholden to parents’ rules and the silliness of youth. A couple of the kids have to skip Talulha’s show so they can make it home by their curfews. Anderson, for one, has to be in by 11 p.m. And as we walk the half-block up the street to Mr. P’s, just in time to catch the show, Williams and Jones get into a little lovers’ spat. (Jones has been a little too affectionate with some of the guys walking past.) Within minutes, they make up and are making out on the sidewalk.
At the same time, the rest of the group has noticed a guy on a balcony across the street who is surveying the scene with a pair of binoculars. They start playing it up for him—making faces, showing body parts, and yelling out greetings. A few minutes later, we’re in Mr. P’s cheering for Talulha, who’s dressed in brassy blond wig and a short black dress and performing his rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” by Jennifer Holliday.
On a rainy Saturday in Dupont Circle, hundreds of teenagers have turned out for the fourth annual Youth Pride Day. Organized by several local and suburban gay youth groups, the event features a list of speakers, many of them teenagers, as well as music and poetry. The grand finale is a musical drag show.
While the gay rights movement started years ago, GLSEN’s Jennings says that youth involvement is the real sign of a revolution. “There has never been a major civil rights movement…that didn’t have students at the forefront,” says Jennings. “The news is there’s a generation of gay and straight students saying this kind of bigotry we will tolerate no more.”
The wave of activism hasn’t exactly swept up D.C. students. According to SMYAL, only five D.C. schools have functioning gay/straight alliances; four of them are private schools. Michael Pace, SMYAL youth leadership associate, says it’s been difficult to jump-start gay/straight groups in D.C. public schools. Most of the efforts have lacked faculty or community support and—especially—student initiative, says Pace.
The lone public school gay/straight alliance is at Woodrow Wilson, the high school in the wealthiest part of town. In March, a group of Wilson graduates and faculty members started “Showtime.” It’s really a very casual group, says co-founder Gabriel Wartofsky. Students meet weekly to watch movies with gay themes and, if they care to, talk about issues of sexual orientation. So far, they’ve only met a couple of times and have drawn a handful of students. “It’s still in the works,” says Wartofsky.
At the rally, Williams—who says he thought about starting one at his old high school—doesn’t quite seem like the dedicated organizer who could follow Wartofsky’s lead. At Youth Pride Day, he and Jones and a couple of others circulate through the crowd and only occasionally listen to the speakers. During one particularly dry speech, Williams becomes impatient. “Where’s the after-party?” he asks, to no one in particular.
Not that Wartofsky would blame him for his fleeting interest in activism. “[When I was in high school], I was just coming out, so it was really a vulnerable point even without setting yourself up to be a spokesperson so people could ask you questions,” recalls Wartofsky, now a student at Georgetown University, who came out during his senior year at Wilson. “I was still dealing with stereotypes. I just thought a [gay/straight alliance] would be a place where people would whine and complain, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
This is not your traditional church-sponsored dance. It seems so at first—one of those alcohol-free, chaperoned, usually square events for young people. The basement of the National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle is decked out in streamers and purple and silver balloons. In the back, pizza slices and chicken wings disappear as soon as they’re placed on the table, next to the soda and plastic cups. A DJ gyrates on stage, pumping out music from a couple of big-ass speakers.
But you know something’s different when you catch a glimpse of one of the chaperones—a big, tall guy dressed in drag, wearing a blond wig and long black frock. The crowd of kids has just come from Youth Pride Day for “Infatuation,” a dance sponsored by the Youth Pride Alliance—a coalition of local groups that support gay kids and put on the yearly event. Most of the time, the kids can use the help. Right now, though, the facilitators, discussion leaders, and chaperones seem the last thing on the kids’ minds.
A chunky white girl in the back of the room finds the nerve to ask a hot black girl to dance. A 15-year-old transgendered guy has to remove his fake breasts—condoms filled with water, which he stuffed into a bra—because they won’t hold up on the dance floor. A few couples dance. Two guys gently caress each other at the edge of a circle of dancers. A pair of girls grind on one of the plastic chairs nearby.
And then there’s Williams, catwalking his way through a pathway the other students have created. Jones and a couple of the others start to get goofy and grab any object they can find—chairs, stools, plates—to balance on their heads as they vogue. Once Jones starts to push another kid around in a plastic trash barrel on wheels, the chaperone intervenes. They continue dancing, not missing a beat.
Bowman says that’s the way most kids would have it. When it comes to gory statistics about troubled gay youth, most of them don’t want to be “pathologized,” he says. “The youth don’t want to hear that. They want to be reminded they’re survivors.”
Or, better yet, partiers.
The action starts to drop off about 8:30 p.m. or so. Williams and friends considered driving to a club in Baltimore, but they had to nix the trip because Jones couldn’t convince his mom to let him borrow the car. So they decide to hike it across town to another dance. Grabbing jackets and any clothes they had shed while dancing, they pile out the door and start off down the soggy street. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.