By Rosie Leonard
Special to The Communitarian
At age 13, Brianna Boccuti was admitted to Rockford Mental Hospital for attempted suicide linked to early-onset depression. During her stay, Boccuti had a revelation regarding her sexual identity: she liked girls.
“I remember sitting in group therapy with about 30 people,” Boccuti, age 20, said. “Someone had asked, ‘Who in here is straight?’ and me and two others raised our hands, and I thought to myself, huh, that’s interesting.”
Boccuti resided in Rockford for a few weeks until she was no longer a threat to herself. During her stay, she battled with new and confusing feelings she suddenly had for another girl.
After leaving Rockford, Boccuti came out as bisexual to her friends but was quick to assure them she would not look at them sexually or glimpse at them in the locker room, for she feared being seen as perverted.
A year later, Boccuti realized she was a lesbian, but hesitated coming out because, at the time, only two people at her school were “out.” And those people, as defined by social groups, were “weird” and “different,” according to Boccuti.
“Part of the reason I did not want to come out was because many [people] associate gay with perversion,” Boccuti explained. “I was okay with being gay, but I did not want to be called things I wasn’t.”
Boccuti said she recalled many instances in which she would be walking down the school hallways and hear kids making fun of friends, calling each other “gay” to sound funny or cool. She even referenced times in which her family would say, “That’s so gay,” or use the term negatively or in jest.
According to Boccuti, it was difficult to say the words “I am gay” because it is often misused. “It felt like an insult to myself,” she said.
Boccuti is part of the one-third of LGBTQ individuals who suppressed their true identity for fear of societal denouncement, according to Dr. Evan Goldstein, founder and CEO of Bespoke Surgical, a private institution dedicated to the health and well-being of the gay community.
According to Goldstein, hearing slurs, harsh words, or offensive phrases directly or indirectly can damage one’s mental and physical state and lead to low self-esteem, depression, drug usage, or suicide.
A 2012 study released in The Journal of American College Health examined the impact microaggressions, such as “That’s so gay” have on gay, lesbian, and bisexuals (GLB) in the school environment. Experts reported that GLB students who are exposed to harsh words often experience hostility from peers and, in turn, are more inclined to hide their sexual identity from friends and family for fear of rejection.
Evidently, the negative and carefree usage of these phrases “dismiss and problematize being gay for others,” according to the study.
In addition, The Human Rights Campaign surveyed 10,000 LGBTQ individuals in 2018 and reported that 42% of individuals live in a community that is not accepting of LGBTQ people, making it difficult for one to come to terms with his or her sexuality publicly.
Experts say it is even more difficult to avoid harassment because social media and the internet exist. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a teacher founded organization dedicated to promoting LGBTQ inclusion in school environments, 42% of LGBTQ youth have experienced cyberbullying from text messages or online/social media platforms.
Although the internet can be a safe space for many LGBTQ individuals to communicate freely with others within the community, their presence online makes them more susceptible to cyberbullying from heterosexuals or predators.
According to researchers, bullying and remarks stem from people of all ages. Out of 767 students surveyed in a 2019 LGBT Youth Study, 67% reported that family members, specifically parents, often make comments, remarks, or jokes about the LGBTQ community.
Among the same 767 students, around 15% believe that referring to someone as “gay,” fag,” or “queer,” “is no big deal,” researchers say. Heterosexuals are seemingly unaware of the effect microaggressions have on others and do not view them as acts of discrimination, according to the Youth Study.
As a result, many individuals have struggled with deciding how and when to come out and deemed it a difficult process to endure. Statistically, 56%, more than half of LGBTQ individuals, come out to only one parent, their mother, according to a Pew Research Survey on LGBT Americans.
Those who came out to their mother claimed that it strengthened their relationship, whereas the 39% who came out to their father claimed it did not damage their relationship, according to the survey.
Children are less likely to come out to their fathers because of their stereotypical views of gender expectations and same-sex attractions, experts explained in the article “Coming Out to Dad: Young Gay and Bisexual Men’s Experiences Disclosing Same-Sex Attraction to Their Fathers” published in The American Journal of Men’s Health in 2019.
For these reasons, Boccuti said she struggled to tell her mother she was gay at age 14. “Most people do not know what it is like to come out to your family, how emotionally frustrating it is, how anxious you get,” Boccuti said, which is why she came out to her mother via email.
“I just need you to understand some things… Gay is so commonly used as an insult nowadays,” Boccuti wrote her mother. “I walk through the hallway and hear some kid make fun of his friend, teasing him and calling him gay. Gay is substituted quite often with stupid or something similar. Even you sometimes say, ‘Oh, that’s too gay.’ People say, ‘If someone calls you gay or any other name, then it is bullying, but if someone called me gay, it would just be the truth. By now, I’ve kind of gotten used to it. I don’t get offended by these things anymore (except dad enrages me sometimes), but I really needed to write you this email.
So, in words, I am gay. I like girls the way I am ‘supposed’ to like boys. Sometimes it feels like I need to apologize for being me. No one really understands me on this….But none of those people really matter, as long as you support me.”
Boccuti’s mother emailed back, saying that she will always love her unconditionally and apologized for the few instances when she misused the term. “Don’t ever, ever feel like you have to apologize for being yourself,” Boccuti’s mom wrote. “I love you with all my heart… You are a beautiful person and should hold your head high.”
Boccuti said she and her mother have a strong bond and are very close to this day, but she never came out to her father because he has expressed his homophobic views over the years, and she does not need his approval.
Boccuti eventually gained support from friends and family and became head of the Gay-Straight-Alliance Club at her high school. “Because I embraced my gayness, people would seek advice and come out to me before coming out to their friends and family,” Boccuti said. “I was confident, and they trusted me.”
According to Boccuti, having a GSA club in her school helped many teenagers with the coming out process because they were not alone. She said the club helped to educate and bring awareness to the LGBTQ community.
After attending Tyler School of Art and Architecture until spring 2019, Boccuti began working as a full-time barista at Starbucks. She said she enjoys living in Philadelphia, which has helped her become more comfortable with being herself because almost everyone looks and dresses just like her.
Yet, even though Boccuti has embraced her new self, she said that because she is a masculine-presenting woman, she often gets mis-gendered.
“People just assume that since I look masculine, I identify as a guy,” Boccuti added. “I learned to embrace it all, though. One time a kid shouted ‘Lesbian!’ in the hallway, and I just turned around and said, ‘What?’”
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