If the Defense of Marriage Amendment passes next May, it's today's high school students who might eventually undo the damage and repeal it.
InsideOut, a youth-led group, provides leadership opportunities and a safe space for LGBT, questioning and straight teens. Although InsideOut is not affiliated with any school, it works with QSAs (Queer/ Straight Alliances, also known as Gay/ Straight Alliances) at local high schools on educational, political and social activities.
Nolwenn Renault, a senior, is on the InsideOut board and belongs to the QSA at Chapel Hill High School. "Youth don't have to stand by and watch protests," Renault said. "There's a stigma that youth don't have a working mind. People are underestimating what we can do."
Activities such as the Day of Silence, in which LGBT students and their straight allies show solidarity, raise awareness of gay/ lesbian issues at school.
"I'm lucky to be in such an accepting community. Drive 40 minutes and it's not like this at all," Renault said. "People are struggling to be out. Even here it's not perfect."
In the past three years, several gay teens in the U.S. have committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying. Subsequently, Renault said, "teachers talked about what to say and not to say. I haven't heard 'that's so gay' in the hallways as much. But there is still somewhat of a struggle to come out."
Renault, who is from France, came out at 15. "My mom already knew. Half my library was queer literature," she said.
Renault counsels other teens who are considering coming out. "I tell them 'When you are ready it's the right time. You shouldn't force it. The world is a much happier place when you do.'"
Emi Mizobuchi, who is straight, helps lead the QSA at East Chapel Hill High School and is an InsideOut board member. She and her QSA participate in Ally Week and the Day of Silence and help raise awareness that slurs such as "that's so gay" are unacceptable.
Mizobuchi, a junior who models, sings, dances and plays the viola, has known gays and lesbians since she was a child. She has always been taught to be not just tolerant, but, more important, accepting.
"If kids are taught that gay people are bad then they're going to keep thinking that as adults," she said.
InsideOut's political activism has included lobbying day at the Legislature; the group also participates in the annual Pride Parade in Durham. It also has recently rallied support for a Tennessee teen who had tried to petition for a QSA at school. In response, several students circulated a counter-petition, and school officials then prohibited both petitions.
Since then, InsideOut has posted on its Facebook page school officials' phone numbers so the group's members can lodge complaints; 600 people have joined a support group for the teen.
InsideOut also welcomes transgender individuals, many of whom have long felt marginalized, even within the gay and lesbian community. That history makes it even more significant that Vince Curtis, who served on the InsideOut board in 2007, is transgender. Now 21 and a student at Wake Tech, he still advises transgender youth and their parents on the medical and social issues they face. Recently, Curtis said he talked with a teen who wants to start transitioning and change his name. The teen wanted to know whether to stay in the same school with a different name. "In high school, getting picked on is rough. It's better to have a fresh start at a new school," said Curtis, who came out as trans when he was 16. He has since undergone surgeries as part of his transition. "If you go to the same school with a different name it will raise suspicions," he said.
Last year while Renault was backpacking in Europe, she reflected on the significance of living openly as a lesbian. "I was thinking it would be easier to be straight," she said. "Once you come out, people don't think they have anything in common with you. That's part of the barrier. I tell people who are coming out, 'It's not the last step; it's the stairs.'"
InsideOut will host a pre-Pride Parade event Saturday, Sept. 24, at 10 a.m. at Mad Hatter's, Main and Broad streets in Durham.
Learn more about InsideOut at the group's website, www.insideout180.org, and on its Facebook page.