“Often, people may find that they are ‘questioning’ for quite a while, or that none of the labels seem to apply.”
— Planned Parenthood

The letter “Q”: the 17th letter of the alphabet and arguably one of the most fascinating. “Q” can both start some interesting discussions (with a tasty question) and provide the representation of that which is uncertain, intangible, unknown, exciting and mysterious. “Q” is also the newest addition to the more commonly known LGBT, or LGBTQ, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (also sometimes used for Queer). There is also a new acronym, which covers both Q’s, LGBTQQ.

According to Dan Nelson, a Ventura High School teacher and Gay-Straight Alliance adviser, somewhere between 10 and 12 percent of the county’s high school-age population is openly gay, closeted or questioning its orientation.

1“The percent [of youth in Ventura County who are LGBTQ] I go with is 10 percent for homosexual, and of course a percent within that for questioning,” Nelson said. “Each kid has her or his own story, and background. It’s a rare parent that cheers when their child comes out to them, but many parents are more aware of the possibility, and therefore handle the situation better. Some parents are very supportive, asking for help, meeting with the school to make sure the student isn’t bullied, going to support groups, etc. Of course, a few parents are still in denial, or worse.”

Recent studies have shown that youth as young as 13 and 14 have had some experience whereby they have questioned their sexual preference, or identified themselves as gay. In a 1992 study by Dr. Gary Remafadi, M.D., M.P.H., Dr. Michael Resnick, Ph.D., Dr. Robert Blum, M.D., Ph.D. and Linda Harris, titled “Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents,” published by Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 10.7 percent of 34,706 students surveyed, from seventh through 12th grades, said that they were “unsure” of their orientation.

Slightly more than a year ago, 15-year-old Larry King was murdered in Oxnard at his junior high school, ostensibly for being gay. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that a 14-year-old may have been the killer.

From accounts, King, 15, was open about being gay, and may have been bullied at school. He was murdered at E.O. Green Junior High School last February, in what was labeled as a hate crime. Why is it important to know this?

Firstly, whenever a person so young has his life cut short by such a merciless act, feelings of outrage and confusion will be front and center. Though the exact facts of the case are unknown to the public, it doesn’t take a leap of logic to realize that, alone, other LGBTQ youth may feel frightened and even intimidated.

The statistics on LGBTQ suicide rates are equally frightening: LGBTQ youth from rejecting families were more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youths, according to a 2007 study by the Chavez Center Institute, published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (The high rates of LGBTQ youths who commit suicide are widely recognized.) The third greatest killer of youth between 15 and 24 is suicide, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Gay youths are up to three times as likely as heterosexuals to commit suicide, while lesbian-identifying women tend to be more likely to smoke, be addicted to alcohol, be overweight and suffer more stress than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is still a palpable stigmatization in many areas attached to being gay or questioning one’s orientation. Some people, young and old, simply aren’t 100 percent sure of how they feel.

“Often, it can take a while for people to put a label to their feelings, or people’s feelings may change over time. Understanding our sexuality and gender can be a lifelong process, and people shouldn’t worry about labeling themselves right away,” explains a pamphlet offered up by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, also known as PFLAG. Exact figures for LGBTQ populations are elusive, taking into account that there is some unknown percentage of every population that may identify privately as such, but not publicly, for one reason or another. Various studies show that the percentage of a population that openly identifies as gay is generally in the single digits. In a 2002 study by the Center for Disease Control, it was found that 3 percent of high school-age males had reported engaging in homosexual behavior with another youth, age 15-19.

Sometimes the stigma of being LGBTQ can translate to increased risk of alcohol and drug use, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), a government organization that studies substance abuse and provides services to those with substance addictions. One study by City University of New York and Columbia University behavioral psychologists/researchers Dr. Margaret Rosario, Dr. Joyce Hunter and Dr. Marya Gwadz (for the Journal of Adolescent Research) focused on the correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and LGBTQ sexuality, and found that more than 90 percent of gay female adolescents and just less than 90 percent of gay male adolescents said that they had used drugs or alcohol. Because LGBTQ youth are more likely to face stigmatization among their peers, they are also seen as being more likely to be involved in risky or addictive behavior.

A current trend is the number of youths who are unsure of their sexual orientation, and choose to label themselves as being in the questioning camp. “Often, people may find that they are ‘questioning’ for quite a while, or that none of the labels seem to apply,” explains the Planned Parenthood section on questioning. “This is normal, and it’s very common — especially for teenagers,” Susan Yudt assures confused teens in her Planned Parenthood piece, titled “LGBTQ 101.”

By the time they are 16 and 17, many gay youth have already recognized that they may be “different,” according to Out Proud, a gay and questioning youth organization. In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend for LGBTQ youth to self-identify at younger ages. Males and females as young as ages 9 and 10 have reported an awareness of a “difference.” And both males and females also say they had a same-sex experience by 13-15, and fully identified themselves as gay between the ages of 14 and 16, according to recent studies compiled by the CSAT, part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The Ventura County Rainbow Alliance is the county’s only full-service LGBTQ one-stop shop for support, community meetings and a specific arena for allies to also come together. Jay Smith, executive director of the Rainbow Alliance, helps to organize community youth, bringing them together in a place where they can support each other and be completely open about their experiences searching for a happy medium outside stricter gender and sexuality classifications.

sdThe Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) is one group that attracts local LGBTQ youth between the ages of 12-13 and their early 20s. (Generally, the age group is supposed to be 15-23, according to the Ventura County AIDS Partnership, an affiliate of the National AIDS Fund and the United Way.) Smith noted that the group meets 51 out of 52 weeks per year. From 7 to 9 p.m., there is an “adult-free zone” where the only adults allowed are mental health professionals. The YEP is deeply involved with advocacy work and helping to “mobilize our youth … to create gay-straight alliances,” particularly in the face of many “gay youth feel[ing] very disenfranchised.”

Larry King was a part of the YEP before the early end to his young life. It was a shock and a terrible blow to the Rainbow Alliance, Smith noted. The Rainbow Alliance works every day to reach out to residents of Ventura County, including those organizations most connected with youth and local high schools and colleges. The Rainbow Coalition seeks to help youth (and others) who also may or may not be exclusively gay, but question “where they fit in.”

“One of the great things about the coming-out experience … [is that] our youth don’t feel they have to be pigeonholed,” Smith says. Those who particularly feel they need to find what fits best for them are welcome to the Coalition, to find friends, mentors, health professionals and groups to be a part of, for support. In addition to the YEP and helping to organize gay-straight groups and dialogues with local schools, the Rainbow Coalition also offers counseling and job training, and addresses bullying problems at local schools and puts on the August Pride in the Park Festival (set for Aug. 14), where local schools often set up booths and participate.

At the handful of colleges in Ventura County, there have been inroads. “We [the Rainbow Alliance] are also very connected with Cal Lutheran and California State University, Channel Islands,” Smith said, with the latter even sponsoring a Gender-Bender Ball in April at CSUCI, supported by the Spectrum, a self-described Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA). A representative of the Spectrum had written that the ball was in place to encourage more open-minded views on gender and sexual preference, while also marking the National Day of Silence, which is an all-day event in which silence is kept, symbolizing the metaphorical silencing of those of the LGBTQ community at large.

One of the most active Gay-Straight Alliances is at Ventura High School, and is in its sixth year of existence. Karen Reynosa, a chemistry teacher and adviser for the club, generally meets with between 20 and 40 members per week, with 300 students wearing pink armbands to commemorate the Day of Silence (April 17). Most of the members of the Ventura High School GSA are questioning or unsure of their orientation, but come together to promote equality.

“It’s a gay-straight alliance; you can be anything,” Reynosa pointed out.

Dan Nelson, Reynosa’s co-adviser, acknowledges how hard it can be to be questioning and in high school or middle school. “Some kids, rather than being a symbol, decide to live more quietly,” Nelson noted. Nelson estimates the LGBTQ student population of Ventura County to be 10 percent, with up to an additional 2 percent of students who are unsure. “It’s a tough time for kids …. Kids mature at such different rates that one kid may be smack in the middle or coasting out of puberty, and  has her or his orientation set, while others are in the early stages and therefore are not really thinking of partnering up yet.  Kids who are early in puberty are more likely to seem non-sexual, and especially for boys this can lead to kids wondering if they don’t like girls because they are gay, when in fact they just aren’t quite there yet,” Nelson explained.

The pressure to start dating (by middle school and high school) can lead to further questioning by one’s peers, according to Nelson. “Thanks to media and cultural images, dating can become synonymous with sexual relationships, and many kids shy away because they just aren’t ready for the pressure. So then there are these boys and girls who aren’t dating, which can lead to people ‘guessing’ why — and sometimes people guess or decide the student is gay/lesbian or questioning, when really they aren’t.”

The junior colleges of Ventura County each also has a safe area for LGBTQ youth to meet, discuss relevant issues, and meet like-minded new friends in safe zones, where LGBTQ is the overarching principle, but not the binding label.

Moorpark College has its own GSA, which in recent months has organized parties, marches, protests and other get-togethers to focus on issues important to members, including gay marriage and equality for all.

Moorpark College officially started a Gay-Straight Alliance in fall 2008. Duke Marine, vice president of the Moorpark College GSA, shared what it meant to be a part of the GSA, which actually had existed on the campus a decade earlier. Marine and Brooke Stone, the current GSA president, decided to re-start the group in the fall semester. “I remember my first day on campus. I felt like … my friends [and I] were the only gay people. I have since met a lot of gay students, but we are still sort of a quiet, invisible minority at Moorpark — except in the Performing Arts Center!” Marine joked.

Despite adversity and an early sense of isolation, Marine is pleased with the greater acceptance of LGBTQ students of all stripes. “I know many of our members are still in the closet to family, although I am impressed with the large percentage of members who are out …. Visibility was an important issue that needed to be tackled even if we didn’t manage to accomplish anything else.” Nowadays, it is common to see the Moorpark College GSA tabling at every major campus event and sending out fliers around campus. Marine is quite pleased with the new visibility of the GSA and the support it has received.

Ventura College started its own Gay-Straight Alliance this fall. In a video segment from a journalism class put together by Jasmine Beaghler, Stephanie Simonson and Lisamarie Ramirez, the president of the Ventura Community College GLBT Club, Jessica Potts-Mee, decided to make the aims of the group broader than might be expected. Potts-Mee is straight herself, as are other leaders in the club. “It’s an alliance. That’s the whole point of the thing,” she said. “It’s meant for everybody to come, and for people who care about tolerance, for people who care about gay rights.”