At Friends, there seems to be a certain academic and social silence surrounding sensitive topics. One such topic is sexual orientation. I have spoken to only a select group of Friends students who were open about identifying as non-heterosexual. Yet it is hard for me to believe that there are not more students on our campus unsure of their sexuality, which suggests to me that there may be a perceived risk among students about the consequences of voicing their orientation. Interestingly, the Friends community has a relatively progressive student body and faculty, especially when it comes to social issues. The Gay Straight Alliance was even resurrected this year by Sachi Dulai and Julia Vascatto. Still, as far as the student body knows, the faculty members, who serve as role models for the students, are all heterosexual. There remains a lack of discussion on the topic of sexual orientation in the classroom. Way too often I hear jokes or offensive comments made by my peers at the expense of the LGBTQ community. I wondered what it must feel like to sit in a classroom, unsure of your own sexual orientation, and hear these comments. The more I thought about this topic, the more I wondered what it is really like to come out at Friends Academy, a community where conversation about sexual orientation rarely occurs. So I asked my good friend Ryan Dobrin, Friends Academy Alumnus (Class of 2014), to sit down with me to talk about his experience coming out during his junior year of high school.
Olivia: When did you realize your sexual orientation?
Ryan: I have to admit, I was a little late in realizing I was gay. It took me until around ninth grade to realize I liked guys, and for the entirety of my freshman year, I thought I was bisexual. I even came out to a few of my friends. It wasn’t until tenth grade that, through talking with my friends and coming to terms with who my crushes were and how I felt about them, that I realized the feelings I had for girls were very different from the ones I had for guys.
Olivia: Did you feel that you could come out to the FA community, why or why not?
Ryan: I’m very fortunate to have been a gay teenager at Friends. I did feel that I could come out, mostly because I knew queer students in the grades above me, and, as far as I could tell, they had no trouble being open about themselves. I reached a point my junior year where I wanted to be open, but I truly hated one-on-one “I need to talk to you about something” conversations, and I wanted to have everyone know and to have it be public knowledge without me worrying about who I’ve told or who I still needed to tell. However, despite the apparent positivity of the Friends community, there still were risks to coming out. You never know how a friend might react. I was especially worried about my more religious friends and my friends who were more conservative, for their potential reactions. Ultimately, they were nothing but positive and supportive. I was also very worried about my male friends. For whatever reason, I was worried that my relationship with them would be weird, or they would just be creeped out. Again, my coming out did nothing but strengthen my relationships with my male friends. However, I did hear gay jokes at least once a week, and many students in high school (male and female) make fun of or joke about gay relationships. They were certainly not doing it out of a place of malice, but it definitely did not feel good, as a closeted teenager, to hear those things and not being able to say anything. One of the worst moments happened my freshman year and probably pushed my coming out back a year. It was the Day of Silence, and the GSA had rainbow pins to wear if you were supporting the day. Although I participated my following three years of high school, I was not silent my freshman year, but still wore the pin in support of those who were. In the commons, a male classmate who I was mildly friendly with stopped me and thanked me for help I gave on the homework. He was about to hug me, and stopped, stating he didn’t want to imply anything because I had the “gay pin” on.
Olivia: What was the response like when you came out to the community? Did this surprise you? Why or why not?
Ryan: On October 11, 2012 (National Coming Out Day), I posted a coming out status on Facebook on a whim. The response was overwhelmingly positive. It ultimately got 167 likes, and over 30 supportive comments from friends. My next day in school was filled with many hugs and a surprising number of “hello’s” in the hallway, and my life reverted back to normal in the next couple of days. I wasn’t expecting negative results, especially because I’ve seen other gay students navigate life at Friends with ease, but again, you can never be sure. Coming out gave me a lot of confidence I didn’t have before. I spoke up more in class, I made many more friends, and I found myself voicing my opinion more. It especially gave me confidence in doing what I love, performing. I made many more friends in the Theater Department, which made rehearsals and working on side projects that much more fun and rewarding. Those relationships are the ones that keep me coming back to Friends to see the shows. Coming out also gave me the power to say something whenever someone said something ignorant about LGBTQ people or issues. For instance, a few months after coming out, I was asked to prom by one of my very close male friends. Later that same month, someone in one of my classes was talking to his friend before the lesson began about whether the school would allow a same-sex couple at prom. I don’t believe he was expecting me to respond and say that there would, in fact, be a same-sex couple at prom that year, and I would be one of them. Additionally, I found myself standing up against offensive comments. People don’t think about the damage these statements could cause. A not incredibly offensive comment pushed me back into the closet for another year. I can’t even imagine the irreparable damage one must feel hearing their friend say something negative or offensive about LGBTQ people, and being in the closet themselves. I found the statement “that is offensive, and you shouldn’t say it anymore” worked best, and as soon as the person realized that I am gay, they suddenly are sorry. I must pose the question – if you’re sorry once you realized you said it in front of a gay person, shouldn’t you not say it at all?
Olivia: What could the Friends community do better to be more welcoming to those who identify as LGBTQ?
Ryan: Education is key. I simply think there isn’t enough conversation about sexual minorities. The GSA was struggling throughout my time in high school, and didn’t even exist my senior year. I applaud the efforts of Julia and Sachi for starting the club again this year, but they cannot be the only ones talking about this. Sex Ed needs to discuss non-heterosexual relationships. There needs to talk about what is offensive and what is not. There needs to be talk about how to be supportive and what to do if one is questioning their own sexuality or gender. And while the main two of LGBTQ (gay and lesbian) are the most common, there needs to be discussion on people who are transgender, gender fluid, bisexual, pansexual, and the countless other sexual minorities that exist but aren’t viewed as valid or legitimate by many people. Conversation needs to exist to educate, and from that education, people will be more comfortable to come out in this environment.
I had an incredible time being openly gay at Friends. I made many more friends and was able to truly embrace the things I loved, simply because I wasn’t hiding a major part of who I am. Friends is truly a wonderful place to be open about your sexuality. There just needs some work in order to get everybody on the same page.
A big thank you to Ryan Dobrin for being so open with me. I hope this encourages other people, students and faculty alike, to share their stories and start discussing this issue. It is only fair that every student should feel safe and comfortable being who they are in the community they rely on for guidance and support during the formative time of adolescence.