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Anna G. Larson, Published September 01 2012

InDepth: Bullying of LGBT youth can make it harder for them to come out

MOORHEAD – Almost eight years ago, a classmate told Geneva Nemzek he’d “beat the homo out” of her.

“He picked up on the fact that I was gay before I did,” said Geneva, who was a student at Moorhead Junior High School. “That made it harder for me to come to terms with my sexuality.”

Geneva, a junior at Concordia College in Moorhead, was bullied primarily by a male classmate in elementary school and middle school. He, and sometimes others, bullied Geneva for having short hair, liking “Star Wars” and being gay, although she hadn’t come out yet.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) youth and those perceived as LGBT are at an increased risk of being bullied, according to StopBullying.gov.

“If you walk into a middle school, almost everyone looks the same, and it’s not because everyone wants to look the same. It’s just how you survive middle school,” she said. “Being gay is different, and I think sometimes different scares people.”

Anything that sets a person apart from the norm, such as sexual orientation, can and usually is used as a target for being bullied, said John Altendorf of Altendorf Counseling in Fargo.

Geneva struggled to come to terms with her sexuality while she was being bullied. In both seventh and eighth grade, she considered coming out, but after seeing the attention given to classmates who came out, she decided she wasn’t ready.

“I didn’t want to draw attention to myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to make it easier for bullies.”

Most often, if someone is open about their sexuality, they have a strong sense of self and are ready to take on being a target for bullies and stereotypes, Altendorf said.

“The potential of being bullied, teased or ridiculed certainly plays a part in how or when someone comes out,” he said.

Fear of drawing attention to herself also halted Geneva from reporting the bullying.

“In middle school, the only thing worse than being loser is being a loser who tattle tales,” she said.

The stigma of being inferior or less of a person can inhibit people from telling anyone about their situation, Altendorf said.

“People being bullied struggle with a positive self-image already and don’t want anything to make it worse,” he said.

When the bullying amplified in Geneva’s seventh-grade year, she began inflicting self-harm to numb her emotional pain. She would cut herself, never too deep though, she said.

“That’s when I started to acknowledge that I didn’t like the bullying,” she said. “It’s a dark part of my past.”

Researchers found that children bullied during their early years are up to three times more likely to self-harm than their classmates, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2012.

People who self-harm often say it’s easier for them to deal with the physical feelings than the emotional ones, Altendorf said.

“The physical feelings of hurt and pain go away in a short time,” he said. “The emotional feelings associated with being bullied can stay with a person for a long time.”

Geneva said she stopped self-harming by her junior year of high school, but the knee-jerk reaction to cut still happens when she’s emotionally overwhelmed.

“I don’t do it now because I know it’s not healthy, but I’d much rather someone break my arm than break up with me,” she said.

By high school, the bullying subsided. Geneva became involved in Moorhead’s theater program, where she finally felt like she fit in.

“Theater was helpful because it attracted the eccentric kids – the nice people who were weird like me,” she said.

Geneva came out last year and said it was a relief to finally be open with her sexuality.

“I didn’t feel like I had to hide anymore, which was awesome,” she said. “It’s so much less stressful just being honest and truthful about who I am.”

Geneva is active in the community promoting anti-bullying efforts for both straight and LGBT students.

She talks at Safe Space Initiative workshops on Concordia’s campus, where staff and faculty can learn about LGBT issues and how to help students. She also participated in the college’s “It gets better” video.

“Every time I talk about bullying, it ties into my coming out because bullying impacted it,” Geneva said. “But I was able to come back from it, and today I’m even considered cool for liking ‘Star Wars.’ ”