In October 2010, I heard about a movement called Back to Your School. It’s a spinoff of two other important initiatives: the Trevor Project and It Gets Better. Growing up gay in rural Upstate New York was definitely a challenge. After reading about Back to Your School, I immediately realized the importance of the movement—I wish I had know just one out LGBT person in the 13 years I spent in the Mount Markham Central School District (West Winfield, NY).
Last fall I sent the following email to the principals of the high school, middle school and elementary school at Mt. Markham. I’m posting it here, because I think it should be made public, along with the fact that I never heard from any of them. I also want parents, teachers, students, school board members and the administrators to know that I do not believe that there is adequate suicide prevention outreach for LGBT students. I believe that all students are important, but LGBT kids need special attention because they are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
Ms. Yerkie and Messrs. Kissinger and LaFountain:
I write today after reading about a new initiative called “Back to Your School.” I’ve been very involved in the LGBT community in Boston, but I’d also like to come back home and help reach out to the community that I grew up in. Unfortunately, there is still a very high suicide rate amongst LGBT youth, as we’ve seen in recent weeks across the country. I know that I would have appreciated hearing from LGBT alumni when I was attending Mount Markham. I honestly think it would be helpful for LGBT students and also for students who are not LGBT (it might help reduce bullying etc.).
I’m not sure if you’ve done anything like this before, but I would like to volunteer to come back to MMCSD to talk to the current students. I’d like to let them know that I’m a gay alum, that I’m happy and that life does get better. I’d also like to share with them some of the cool things that I’ve done after graduating from MM, which include: working at Harvard Law, MIT, traveling to China, playing college soccer, and starting rock bands…
I thought they would be receptive to my offer, but I quickly realized the challenge of reaching out to LGBT students prior to them reaching college. Dan Savage, the founder of It Gets Better, talks about the challenge of reaching this vulnerable population in his latest article. He said, “Gay kids trapped in middle and high schools would benefit from hearing from LGBT adults—lives could be saved—but very few middle or high schools would ever invite gay adults to address their student bodies.” Not only do I have the experience of being a trapped gay student, I now know what it feels like to be ignored as an adult. The cool thing about being an adult though is that your voice is stronger. Savage has inspired me to take my message to the Internet. I may never get to tell my story to the students at Mt. Markham, so I’m going to tell it here. I hope you guys can find it.
Life Gets Better
Please believe me when I tell you that I never thought I’d be able to say these words when I was in high school: I’m gay. I was bullied in elementary school by a group of high schoolers that rode the bus with me, and the self hatred continued from there. By the time I got to high school, I thought I was going to live my entire life in the closet. I honestly felt that there was no way for me to ever be myself, and I gave up hope. Thankfully, I had a great family, amazing friends and some wonderful teachers—I made it out of West Winfield, NY alive in 1997.
In the last fourteen years I’ve experienced some of the best moments of my life. I lived abroad in London and came out there. I got to teach high school photography for a year—very cool. My twin sister Melissa had twin girls a few years ago and also had a son. Her kids are the loves of my life, and I can’t imagine never knowing them, or being there for them. I’ve been with my partner now for two and a half years and it’s my dream, since it was legalized in 2004, to get married someday. Gay marriage wasn’t legal when I was in high school; I literally didn’t know how to dream about it. Now I’m a big dreamer. I kinda think anything is possible, like graduating from Harvard, because I’ve seen society change so much in just my lifetime. I hope that all students at Mt. Markham will be as fortunate as I am. And I hope that you all will go back to your schools someday to share your stories and help inspire those behind you to love more and to be better people.
Best of luck to you all,
-Jen Grygiel ‘97
Please share this link so that it’s easier for students at Mt. Markham to find it. Thank you.