Navigating gay relationships in high school


Natalie Sweet and Henry Owens

“There is definitely a different lens in which people view LGBTQ+ relationships in comparison to straight ones,” Aurora Grutman ‘18 said. “And fundamentally there is no difference between the interpersonal nature of [gay and straight] relationships, but there is a large difference in the way it’s perceived.”
Dating for teenagers is already challenging, but members of the LGBTQ+ community often have to deal with an added layer of complexities. LGBTQ+ teens face certain obstacles that heterosexual couples don’t experience.
Because LGBTQ+ teens are a minority group, it can be difficult for them to find other people in the community who they can date. A 2015 Gallup study estimated that only 4% of New Yorkers identify as LGBTQ+. This number can feel even smaller at younger ages when many people aren’t out yet.
Cole Land ‘17 came out to his close friends during his junior year of high school, and at that time he knew very few other people who were queer, he said. This made it hard to date people at the school, where there isn’t a strong or large out queer community and when people are still figuring out their identities. On the other hand, straight people have the privilege of being able to assume that everyone of the opposite gender is also straight, while queer people don’t have the privilege of being able to assume anything about someone else’s sexuality because making those assumptions can have negative repercussions, he said. “You can’t pursue anything until you are absolutely sure that they’re queer because if you assume they are and they’re not, then they can become really uncomfortable.”
Starting a relationship is especially difficult when you are in the closet, said Emilia* (12), who wished to remain anonymous because she is not out to her parents, who she called “homophobic.” When it comes to finding people, you just need to be really lucky, she said.
Hookup culture at parties is also very different for queer teens, said Jayla Thomas (12), who identifies as pansexual. Straight friends have sometimes tried to set up Thomas with other gay people for the sole reason of both of them being gay. “You don’t like every single straight person just because you’re straight; the same thing [goes] for people in the LGBT community,” Thomas said. Making the first move is also challenging for gay people because it can be embarrassing to ask out someone just to find out they’re straight, she said.
For many queer teens, there is also a significant chance of being judged for being intimate with a member of the same sex publicly. “When you hookup with a girl [as a girl] at a party, you have to sort of hide because then there’s potential for people to judge you for being gay,” said Kayleigh (9)*, who wishes to remain anonymous because she is not out to most of her friends. “I’ve definitely been judged for this [before] while people don’t even give straight couples a second glance.”
Aside from the challenges of finding people as an LGBTQ+ person, being aware of outside factors while in a relationship can be tough for many LGBTQ+ teens. Dating is especially difficult when one or both of the people in a relationship are in the closet.
For Olivia Kester ‘19, dating people in the closet meant being incredibly careful and having to worry about details as tiny as saying “hi” to her girlfriend in the hallway, she said. However, Kester did not care that much about needing to hide relationships at school, and this didn’t upset her. “I never felt the need to be very public. All that matters to me is being comfy in private.”
For Emilia, the necessity to hide her relationships at school is frustrating, she said. She often found it challenging to know what she was allowed to say to her friends, or if she could ever tell her friends that she was even in a relationship at all.
Aside from discussing relationships with friends, public displays of affection (PDA) can be stressful for queer couples, since almost all couples in high school are straight, so LGBTQ+ couples can be seen as abnormal. “Personally, I felt really self-conscious during anything related to PDA – from hugging to holding hands and kissing,” Noah Shapiro ‘17 said. “I was also hyper-aware that there would be people judging me for being ‘not normal.’”
While Gabby Fischberg’s (11) friends are “chill” with her girlfriend, knowing that there is potential for negative backlash from others makes a queer relationship hard to navigate, she said. “I’m proud of my partner, but I don’t want to tell everyone because not everyone is okay with that, and I don’t want to have unnecessary conflict.”
Gertrude* (10), who prefers to remain anonymous because of potential judgement from her peers, is often stressed out by what other people think of her relationship, she said. “I would have been way less insecure if I were dating a guy just because that’s the norm,” she said. “When I was in a relationship with a girl, I was very scared of people finding out for that reason.”
Although homophobia is less common at a private school in New York City, same-sex couples still sometimes worry about incidents of homophobia. Land found this to be a more prevalent issue during middle school at Horace Mann, where students would be quick to label things as “gay,” but he observed little to no outright homophobia in high school, he said. “That being said, casual homophobia is still coded into a lot of everyday conversations and humor; [so while] I knew that people would be accepting, when I was coming out [I] still felt apprehensive about it.”
Emilia also said that she believes homophobia is rare at the school, and the majority of people here are very accepting of gay couples. However, even if there are one or two homophobic people, it turns the school into an environment where gay people feel the need to be careful, she said.
While most people are accepting of same-sex relationships after having a chance to get adjusted to being around them, Thomas has had to deal with some occurrences of homophobia, she said. “A lot of the times it was [people thinking] it’s more in a joking manner, but it’s not a joke to me.” Thomas said she’s been subject to “over-sexualization” by boys in her grade who have made innuendos such as “it would be so hot if you girls made out in front of us” and in a more extreme case, she was called a lesbian slur.
While Shapiro’s parents reacted pretty well to his relationship, he found that for other students, dealing with parents while in a relationship could be nerve-wracking, since introducing your partner can seem much more significant to your parents than simply coming out. “When you actually introduce someone that you’re seeing who’s of the same sex to your parents, it’s kind of putting actions to words,” he said. “Like when you come out to them, that’s one thing, and it might not mean much at the time, but once they see it happening they might have a different reaction.”
Portrayals of LGBTQ+ relationships in the media, or lack thereof, have had a large impact on real-life relationships and how they’re perceived. Same-sex relationships being shown on TV and in movies helps normalize them, Emilia said.
“If it’s being normalized on television, and other people in the school who are not even part of the LGBTQ community are talking about LGBTQ couples, it makes it easier for me to be okay with who I am,” she said.
A lot of kids are looking for media representation like them, and it’s a little disheartening when there aren’t many options, Shapiro said.
For Land, the show “Glee,” which came out when he was in sixth grade, was extremely formative for his identity. Seeing Kurt and Blaine, an openly gay couple on the series, was the first time that Land could recall thinking that he could be in a relationship with someone of the same sex too someday, he said. “I didn’t really realize how important it was for me at the time, but now that I’ve grown up and rewatched the show, I can see that it affected the way I could picture myself as a gay man in the future.”
“A big part of growing up queer is not knowing what the future holds, especially when you’re in the closet, so having anything in the media that shows you how to picture yourself in however many years is incredibly encouraging.” Land said.
At the same time, “Glee” was the only source of gay representation in the media that existed for Land when he was younger, and this problem of lack of representation came with a lack of diversity in the few LGBTQ+ media sources that exist. Recently, Land watched the film “Call Me By Your Name,” and while it was amazing to have a huge studio movie about gay men, the people it depicted were rich white people, which is very common in media, he said. “There are so many different types of queer stories, and often, only cis[gender], white relationships are shown.”
While the portrayal of LGBTQ+ life isn’t perfect in the media, Evann Penn Brown (11) said that TV has gotten much better at queer representation in the past few years. Children’s shows featuring openly gay characters, such as Disney’s “Andi Mack”, expose kids to the world in a real and healthy way, she said. “If I had seen that growing up, I would have been a lot more confident in my identity and just happier not starting with the assumption that I only like guys,” she said.
Brown also said that while queer couples may be underrepresented, her same-sex relationships have been able to exist free from some of the negative heterosexual stereotypes, such as the bossy girlfriend or the guy who always complains about his girlfriend.
In school, the lack of visible LGBTQ+ couples creates an environment for queer students that can often feel isolating. “Honestly, there isn’t too much positive representation of queer life,” Grutman said. “It can feel very lonely and you can feel like the token queer couple.” While Grutman did feel this isolation as the only out queer couple at the school at the time, this didn’t really affect her dating life because she was happy with her partner, which was all that mattered to her, she said.
Shapiro remembers there being no good representation of gay people in certain classes at Horace Mann. “We watched this one really bad health video about a meth-addicted gay man who had AIDS,” he said. “I thought, ‘why are they showing me this?’ It would’ve been a lot nicer to see a healthy gay relationship instead.”
While LGBTQ+ students face challenges ranging from representation to being outed, overall, many students believe that the school provides a safe and supportive environment for queer couples. “Everyone has a reason for not coming out, and they’re all valid,” Kester said. “But HM will be a safe space for you if you allow it to be.” For Kester, this means reaching out to the community, from asking your advisor to talk or stopping by a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) meeting during I period.
“[The school] is a very supportive place if you know where to find support,” Land said, who mentioned that teachers and faculty are valuable resources to talk things through with, in addition to the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE). But to Land, the best way queer people can support themselves is to “trust your own instincts when it comes to who you feel safe talking to,” he said. “I would say that I was privileged enough – male, white, wealthy – to feel like the school could have my back,” he said. “I know some of my peers [who are] people of color did not feel this way and felt that they could not use any of the school’s resources and that the school [did not] cater to their needs – which is [a] completely valid [feeling].”
To members of the LGBTQ+ community worrying about judgement that could come from about openly talking about your partner, don’t worry about expressing feelings of happiness that come with being in a relationship, Kester said. “Be that annoying person that talks about your significant other all the time – because that’s what we have to hear from straight people 24/7.”