By Nikila Sri-Kumar
The beginnings of high school relationships are awkward enough. Days of are-they-or-aren’t-they glances and sly or intrusive questions often overwhelm new couples enough without their having to wonder if their relationship is simply one of convenience. In ninth grade Elizabeth Beier â07 had just this question in her mind when she entered into her first relationship.
It was with a girl. And that girl, then an eighth grader, was the only other openly lesbian student on the middle school campus.
“It was an odd relationship because we were both aware that we were the two ‘out’ girls at the school, and there weren’t a lot of options,” Beier said. “So there was that awkward overtone. There was this sense of ‘it’s this or nothing else.’ “
Though both Beier and school psychologist Luba Bek agree that the school is an exceptionally liberal and accepting environment, there is a consensus among gay students that dating is very difficult, if not impossible, at their age and at Harvard-Westlake. When faculty adviser Bek brings dating up in meetings of Project 10, a confidential group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students at the school, “the usual response is ‘What dating?’ “ she said.
Seth* ’08, who came out to his parents in 10th grade, says he would feel comfortable dating someone at school if he had a chance.
“In Project 10 we meet, and we hang out, but there isn’t really any opportunity.”
In the past the group has arranged socials with Project 10s from other schools, but Bek said it got too complicated and confidentiality could not be guaranteed.
“We talk about how we can reach out, how we can meet people, and usually we just suggest students reach out on their own to other schools.”
Seth’s mother, however, insists that he only date within Harvard-Westlake.
“She said to me, ’You don’t think half the boys up there know they’re gay? You don’t think [name removed] knows he’s gay?’ It was the funniest moment of my life.â”
Some gay students have dated within the community and had very messy break-ups in the past, Bek said, which discourages others from starting a public relationship. The combination of fragile teenage egos and a smaller dating pool often leaves only the bravest diving in.
“For someone who is gay to ask someone out in the community is very risky,” Bek said. “There is the usual fear of rejection, and then the additional fear that you assume a person is gay and he or she is not.”
“A lot of them are not out to their parents, not out to their friends and go on dating the opposite gender, grinding their teeth or hoping that something will change. For some of them it’s a nice ‘experience;’ there is just no attraction.”
Confidence and comfort is of utmost importance, both Bek and Beier said, when it comes to going public with a relationship.
“If people are happy in a relationship and don’t take crap from anybody, then the community will be mostly okay,” Bek said. “Or, let’s say, more okay than they were 10 years ago.”
During the course of Beier’s relationship she said she ran into little prejudice. In fact, other students, even those she didnât know, seemed to go out of their way to prove that they were not homophobic. There were only a few people who spoke out against them.
“Some girls approached my girlfriend saying ‘Take what you do out of school’ and giving us dirty looks, but we reported them to the deans, and they took care of it.”
“There were odd questions like, ‘Are you in love with her? Or, what are you doing with her?’ I’m sure people ask their friends those kinds of questions no matter what, but it was weird that people I didn’t even know were asking me.”
Bek believes it would be much harder for two males to have a romantic relationship at school, that the community is usually more accepting of lesbian couples.
“Guys are threatened by gay relationships,” she said. “Guys seem to think lesbians are hot, so they don’t seem to have much of a problem with that. Even though Harvard-Westlake is a supportive environment compared to most schools, I have heard of incidents of anti-gay sentiment toward guys the way I haven’t heard it toward girls.”
Beier said that she would be comfortable taking a female date to a school dance, but that she would be much more worried if she were one half of a same-sex male couple. Seth, hesitating, said he might be comfortable with taking someone to a dance.
“The only reason why not is because Iâm not out to my sister,” he said.
Sometimes it’s not fear that holds gay students back, Bek said. Another problem is simply finding a date.
“They talk about how they are willing,” she said. “It’s that they don’t have an actual date to take.
It’s not terribly easy to find a relationship at this school because even though I know there are other lesbians, it’s hard to know who they are if they don’t come to Project 10,” Beier said.
She also isn’t entirely set in her sexuality and doesn’t want to earn a confining label.
“Even though I’ve come out to almost everyone I know like, ‘I’m a lesbian. I’m a lesbian. I’m a lesbian.’ What happens if I have a crush on a guy? Would I have to tell everyone again?”
In recent years the school community has become more accepting due in part to a move among girls toward more open bisexuality and what Bek called “trendy bisexuality.”
“Some girls take a big leap of faith and ask a girl who they don’t know is gay out, and some guys do that or think of doing that. It’s a very brave act.”
However, many members of Project 10 don’t come out until college, especially male athletes, who Bek believes encounter an extraordinary amount of prejudice. Dating is easiest in college, she said.
“They come back with all sorts of stories.”
Josh* ‘08, who is only out to his mother and a few close friends, has no plans to date until he is out of high school.
“I want to do it when the social pressures are off. It would be pointless now. If you’re going to do it, you might as well enjoy it.”
Though his mother is comfortable with his sexuality, her traditional upbringing — she herself didn’t date until well after college — prevents her from being comfortable with his acting on it.
“She gets really weird about it. It’s not worth it if I’m going to hide it.”
As she planned to switch campuses and her girlfriend planned to switch schools, Beier said the awkwardness did end up fading toward the end of her relationship.
“We realized that we liked each other, that there was some attraction, but that we did get together because we were the only lesbians at the school.”
As for the future?
“For now, Iâm going to wait.”
* Names withheld at students’ requests