CINCINNATI - As a little girl, Corrie Bridgeman would effortlessly flutter and pirouette around the stage during frequent recitals. The tiny dancer would daydream of one day entertaining on bigger platforms when she grew up.
Still, she knew there was something about herself that was different from the other dancers next to her in the kick line.
“I was very girly,” she said remembering all the poofy, sequined dance dresses she wore for dance recitals from the time she could barely walk.
These days Corrie’s just a typical teen. She texts. She shops. She stands up for what she believes in. And like most teens, she’s gearing up to go back to school.
She just also happens to be gay.
As Corrie and thousands of other Tri-State teens head back to school in the coming weeks, the issue of bullying will be a top agenda item for administrators.
Ohio schools were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) secondary school students, according to findings from the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) 2011 National School Climate Survey.
In addition, many LGBT students in Ohio and Kentucky did not have access to school resources, such as having Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) or similar student clubs, and were not protected by comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment school policies. In fact, only percent of Ohio and Kentucky schools have a LGBT policy in place.
As a result, most LGBT students have been victimized at school. Many of these incidents were not reported to adult authorities:
• In Ohio, 82 percent of students were harassed and 22 percent were physically assaulted for their sexual orientation.
• In Kentucky, 87 percent of students were harassed and 27 percent were physically assaulted for their sexual orientation.
Corrie is not worried though. Unlike many of her gay peers, she’s had support from family, friends and her school. But she realizes she’s the exception.
“She was always very adamant about gay rights. She would really stand up for certain things,” said her mom, Nancy Bridgeman.
As the 15-year-old reminisced about her childhood with her mom, her caramel-complected hands, with neon green, polished nails, swiftly brush her shoulder-length, black hair away from her face.
“Looking back I knew, but it hit me then,” she said about the moment she knew she was gay.
Like any other young, giddy schoolgirl, she would doodle in her notebook, inscribing the name of her crush alongside tiny, sketched hearts—but quickly realized that her crush wasn’t the norm by society’s standards.
“At first I had the feelings, but at first it didn’t hit me… That’s a girl,” said Corrie about her first attraction to a schoolmate in the 6th grade.
She immediately confided in the one person she knew she could trust. Her mom.
“I came out as bisexual,” said Corrie, an honor student at her all-girl Catholic High School.
Nancy remembers that day two years ago like it was yesterday.
The working, single mother was in the basement, doing laundry when her 14-year-old made her way down the stairs, stood behind her and revealed to her what she thought was a joke. With her back to her, she giggled, and then turned around to see her only daughter with tears streaming down her face.
She has accepted her daughter. But still admits she thought her daughter was confused or just going through a phase.
“[She] had always liked boys before that, so it threw me.”
“It’s no big deal. I just want her to be happy,” said Nancy, who is her biggest cheerleader and activist these days.
“Coming out to anyone is difficult… an awkward conversation to have. It’s very emotional, I cry every time,” said Corrie.
She officially came out to everyone in the 8th grade after attending a GLSEN’s youth group meeting. The group, she said, helped her understand herself and others—giving her the tools to help others to understand.
It’s not always easy to be in high school, especially when you’re labeled right off the bat. But she finds that answering questions for her peers helps them and her better understand her life. That said, they aren’t always the easiest to answer, she said.
“People feel they can come up to me. People’s views aren’t going to change if you are closed-minded, so why not answer their questions?”
She recalled those some of those moments:
Q: “Are you gay?”
A: “Yea, I am!” she said in an upbeat, bubbly tone.
Q: “What are you?”
A: “I’m gay… why does that matter?” she said, about a question that she said at the end of the day, realistically, is not an appropriate question to ask her.
Q: “I thought you were gay, but you have a boyfriend… what’s up with that?”
A: “Yes I am,” she said, giving them a short answer, allowing them to figure out the rest on their own to avoid unnecessary drama.
That question arises, in part, because her Facebook relationship status reads: “In a relationship.” That’s a pretty clear message, however, her relationship itself is a bit more complicated.
She has been dating her partner, who is transgendered, for six months. When they started dating, her boyfriend appeared, for all intents and purposes, as a girl. ‘She’ is now ‘he’ and is referred to by Corrie as “trans.”
She admits that she fell in love with a person, not genitals, but said that since her boyfriend has not transitioned yet, they still have the element of being gay.
Teen Advocate For Teens
Corrie has always advocated for others, remembers her mom.
“If you want change, you can’t sit around and hope for it,” said Corrie.
“I think I’m outspoken. Someone has to stand up,” said Corrie, who remembered that while she has never been depressed about coming out to her family and friends, there have been times when she was confused.
Those same friends and family have always had her back, accepting her for who she is, and igniting her passion for change and understanding.
“[It’s about] accepting people and changing people’s mindsets,” she said.
While her mom is more than proud of the daughter she’s raised, she is also guarded.
“I’m proud of her but I also warn her to be cautious and aware that not everyone thinks the way she thinks,” said her mom.
But thanks to reliable confidants in her life like her mom, Corrie said it’s important to speak up and be proud, not only for herself, but others.
“It’s good for people to see people in the community that are gay,” said Corrie, thinking back to an afternoon walk down the street proudly holding her partner’s hand, whom she met at a GLSEN meeting.
GLSEN, a national organization, is where Corrie not only met her boyfriend, but also many friends who are going through a lot of the same things.
Groups like GLSEN make teens like Corrie feel more at ease and less like an outsider, said Josh Wagoner, co-chair of the Cincinnati chapter, which was started in 1995.
A few years back, they started a youth group for teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (gendered), pansexual, a-sexual and intersexual. On any given week, they have between 20-25 teens who attend.
It’s easier to accept people when you see them in your community, said Corrie.
She is hopeful that by having a strong voice and a proud front, it will make it easier for change to exist as well.
Hard To Be A Teen
The most recent change nationally, was the legalization of gay marriage in more states—which Wagoner said, sends a powerful message to youth.
“All the progress on marriage equality is fantastic, …we’re turning into a more inclusive culture,” he said.
But Corrie said that there is no reason for a change in laws permitting gay adults to marry, when there are still teens bullied, depressed and afraid to come out, even to their parents. And while Corrie has a support system at home and school, others aren’t so fortunate.
“In general, it’s hard to be a teenager, ” she said.
Change must start in the beginning when many gay youths are coming out, agreed Wagoner, because a secure teenager equates to a happy adult.
Corrie said change should start within schools.
“They don’t talk about [gay] because they don’t want to rock the boat,” she said. School is about learning, not opinions, she said. “It should be shaping who you are.”
“If schools change, more will change,” said Corrie.
In fact, one of the GLSEN’s most distinctive initiatives is educator training at their annual summit. This year, they had 178 throughout the Tri-State learn about “Safe Spaces” and to integrate, “Ready, Set, Respect!” in their schools.
As a result, said Wagoner, there are less students skipping school because they are uncomfortable or fear bullying because of their sexual preference.
Teachers, he said, need to put their foot down from the beginning and reiterate that they will not tolerate any type of hate in their classroom.
It’s that hate that Corrie hopes to one day nip in the bud. In the meantime she dreams of a future when, “[People] get to the point that it doesn’t matter… and don’t have to ask people what they are.”