You Need Help: On That Younger Possibly-Queer Human Who Might Need You

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Q:

Hello. I’m a student at an all girls secondary school in England – I graduate next year and thus am one of the oldest in the school. A couple of years below me is a student greatly suspected by everyone to be gay and/or trans – they are one of the few who don’t wear a skirt with the school’s uniform, they have short hair, and I’ve heard the rumours being said about them, and almost none of them are kind. I suspect this possibly queer human to be thirteen, maybe fourteen? I’m seventeen and I’ve already gone through my queer angst – and it kills me to see this kid alone almost all the time, they always look miserable and it reminds me of me a couple of years ago. My question is, how do I approach talking to them? I’m completely out, but I doubt they know of my existence, as the two final years of secondary school are greatly separated from the lower ones. I only know of them because of the rumours, and because I’ve seen them in the hallways. I’d love to help them, I just don’t know how. My school isn’t exactly known for being open minded either, despite it being in London and the (older, at least) students being great.

A:

First of all, friend, I want you to know that you’re a really good person and you should be aware of this. Not everyone wants to reach outside of their comfort zone and help a person who looks like they need a shoulder hug or two, even within the queer community, where we’re supposed to be super-accepting and loving and daisy-chain-wearing 100% of the time. Sometimes it’s a shitty preteen popularity contest in here, too, but it’s always really lovely to know that there are folks like you who recognize someone in need and want to help out. Please keep being this brand of compassionate and caring, because the world, especially the queer portion of the world, needs folks like you.

So, this is what you know about this person: They might be queer* because of rumors that are told about them, and because of the way they dress. They are alone most of the time, and look as if they are not happy. They remind you of yourself in your own young period of “queer angst” — which is a thing, totally, yes — and you believe that were you to reach out to them, it could help.

This is hard. Helping people should be easy, but it’s not. It’s not easy for one million reasons, and some of those reasons involve the subject of the helping itself. See, we don’t know where this person is coming from. We don’t know what’s going on in their home, and we don’t know if their personal life is complicated for reasons outside of their supposed gender identity or sexuality. We don’t know how they relate to people, if social encounters are triggering and upsetting, or if they’re even looking for a friend at all. Maybe friends have been a bad thing for them, and they’re determined to go it alone. Maybe they’ve got awful social anxiety, and the prospect of even talking to a person is terrifying.

Here’s what I think: Yes, there are a lot of maybes, but you should still reach out, regardless of the reason this person needs your help.

Because maybe they’re not actually queer*, but they are being bullied and the rumors are isolating them. That means they need a friend regardless of whether or not they need a queer mentor, and you reaching out counts for something. Sometimes just smiling and saying hello is enough for that person to realize that you’re on their side, and sometimes you need to start a conversation. Maybe it seems weird to walk up to someone and say hello, and maybe it is, but it’s the best thing I can think of. I remember being an unpopular preteen weirdo with lots of queer feelings, and if an older out queer person had reached out to me back in the day, I probably would have reacted awkwardly because awkward was the only way I knew how to exist, but on the inside I’d be FREAKING THE FUCK OUT. I’d be ecstatic that someone wanted to give me a hand, or say hello to me, or make me feel like I wasn’t a total doofus for having these feelings. Sometimes we just want to know that we have the option of a friend, even if the actual friendship part is anxiety-creating or scary or near impossible to our anxious little brains.

You have to acknowledge the possibility that it won’t go as you’d like. Maybe this person won’t react well. Maybe they’ll be aggressive and dismissive, and you’ve got to accept that this is a thing they have the right to do, and it could be coming from any variety of experiences and situations that we have to respect. If they don’t react well to your introduction, give them space. Respect whatever boundaries they’re putting up. It’s okay if they don’t want a friend, or if they don’t actually need help. They have the right to feel that way, and it doesn’t make you any less of a good person. You tried, and that’s great! At least give them the chance to accept your help, because they might need it, even if you’re scared of being pushed away. Take a deep breath and smile at them. Say hello. Find something you might both relate to – do they have a teacher you used to have? Are they taking a class you used to take? Are they in similar clubs or organizations? Or maybe they wear a lot of purple and hey, you like purple. Tell them they look nice in those socks. Ask them how they like Mrs. Winters as a teacher. If you’re cheesy and bad at people like I am, you can “accidentally” bump into them and try to start a conversation that way, so it’s less of a cold open. You can do it! You’re awesome and this person is probably really great. They need your awesome and you need to have a chat with their great. I believe in you, friend.

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Hard-lovin' butch made of tears, sweat, and spit, in that order. Professional lonesome polecat. Kate is living proof that you can take the hillperson out of the mountains, but she's still probably going to run back to the mountains anyway. Kate prefers the trashy to the classy, and the tender to everything else. Full-time writer, part-time lover. Heart got so big and soggy that she had to cut off all her sleeves.

Kate has written 122 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

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    Any advice on what to do when that younger maybe-queer person is your little sister and you’re away for college and not openly out to her but come on you had a rainbow flag in your room for a few years of high school so she’ll put things together on her own time???

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      My elder sister, who’s straight, left home for college overseas when I was really young and was physically away during many traumatic years of school. I was somewhat upset that she was gone, but even with the distance she was still a great ally. She did her best to support me.

      Just be support for your sister, no matter what they feel about their gender or sexuality. Show her that you are there for her however you can be, whatever their issues are. I don’t think you necessarily have to say “btw I know you are likely queer” – hell it took me a LONG time to get past my denial. And she may be dealing with something else that isn’t so obvious.

      Communicate with her, and be open to communication from her. Have a relationship with her (I don’t know how you two are with each other right now). Stress that she is your sister no matter what.

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      This was me and my brother a few years ago actually! I made an effort to go home more often and to spend time with him once I realized that he might be gay (too); he’s 5 years younger than I am so I really did get to know him as a person in a way I didn’t at all before. Becoming friends and finding/taking advantage of shared interests made it fairly easy to convey that he would find acceptance and support from me which he now says is something he appreciated more than anything else. A few years on and we’re both completely out and happy and get along really well. So I’d recommend just making an effort to get to know her/become friends in addition to being related. The rest should follow

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        This was kind of my and my brother last year. Everyone kind of assumed he was gay (for many very stereotypical reasons), but he had vehemently denied it for so long that I had basically dismissed any possibility of it being true. And then when he finally came out to me last Christmas, he was really worried I wouldn’t be accepting, and I was trying to figure out how to tell him that I’m totally queer, and then it ended up being this really great moment where we essentially came out to each other simultaneously.

        And I really did think that that whole experience would really bring us together and help us be great allies for each other. And it did for a little while. But when I came out to our parents a few months later, he got really pissed at me (he thought I hadn’t thought enough about how they would react and me coming out prompted him to come out, which he wasn’t entirely planning on doing yet). In theory we patched things up since then, but at the same time, we haven’t really talked a ton since then either.

        I’m wondering if you all have any advice on how best to reconnect with him while still respecting his right to still feel a little resentful of how my coming out process greatly affected him, and not (in his view) in the best way. He lives in Seattle and I live in Chicago, so it’s easy to blame our lack of communication on space, busyness, and time differences, but I know that it’s just an excuse. And I want so badly for us to be a great support system for each other (especially because the rest of our family is still very anti-gay and will likely never come around). I don’t want to be overly push, but I also don’t want to keep up this silence.

        Any recommendations on how to reach out without being pushy or in any way disrespectful of where he’s coming from?

  2. Thumb up 4

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    It may be worth seeing if you could do something more public and general to your school – such as making a speech at the school assembly and inviting people to come to your personally for support, and even seeing if you can enlist other people to be allies and support. This one kid may be the obvious case, but there’s probably also other people being the target of bullying, or those that are not obviously “queer” but are grappling with their own sense of sexuality and gender.

    Some years ago I went back to my secondary school to talk about life after school – a topic never covered in my school, because the expectation was that you get Straight As and Go To Medical School and Be A Doctor. If you failed, that’s it, your life is over. My headmistress was pretty open and allowed me to speak to a hall full of people from Forms 4 to possibly Form 6, maybe even more. (I was expecting just a class or two, but this was like a few hundred people.) I basically told them they can relax, that their grades need not determine their life, that they can do anything besides go to medical school if that’s what they’d rather be doing, that they can take a gap year (like I did) and they’ll be OK.

    The teachers at the back of the room glared at me; I was undermining them. The students CHEERED. I’ve never seen anyone in my entire 11 years of school cheer at a guest speaker. I had SO MANY students come up to me (many of whom remembered me from when I was a student) to thank me for my support. I was the first hopeful voice they’d heard in a while.

  3. Thumb up 9

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    Being young queer/gay/trans and isolated (or not any of those and isolated) is one of the worst feelings in the world and being a friend/mentor to them is a great act of empathy and humanity.

    But… I just do want to mention one possible snag. Before doing so you need to evaluate your own level of safety and support within the community you both find yourselves. There are some environments where such mentoring would only be viewed in a positive and caring light. There are other environments where you, as a gay or trans person in their later teens or 20s approaching a much younger person could be viewed as a predator. It’s crappy and unfair but it’s true. Some of the youth who feel the most isolated also live in families or communities where any kind of ‘queer mentorship’ could be viewed with an instantly suspicious (and sexualized) eye. So yes, be that friend, understanding ear or even shoulder to cry on, but make certain you first take a good look around you to understand the circumstances this young person is in and how your potential connection to them might be interpreted.

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    Thank you for writing this. I have been faced with this situation many times myself, hearing rumor about younger students at my high school and old Baptist school. My fear was always that I would be too presumptuous and the younger student in question would react badly to me approaching them, but I know I would have GREATLY APPRECIATED having an older queer person reach out to me during my sentence of teen angst and isolation.

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    Interesting question.

    I think what we should do in this situation ist being kind to the person, be the one who does talk to them. But also I feel like adressing the topic of gender and sexuality isn’t good. Especially at that age it might be too early for the kid to want to talk about it. It might be scary for them to even think about it. I feel like this needs time, time you need with yourself to figure things out.
    But I think we could make sure these kids know we are LGBT.

    What bothers me a little about this post is the assumption. Yes, this kid might be gay / queer / trans, whatever. So might the girl on the cheerleading team. I feel like using the pronoun “they” in referring to her is already assuming she is trans or genderqueer. We don’t know she identifies as this. Of course if she said that it’s a totally different story.

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    Best piece of advice: “they need a friend regardless of whether or not they need a queer mentor, and you reaching out counts for something”
    On a related note, I had two strange encounters with younger perhaps queer ladies while traveling this summer. Basically said unknown younger perhaps queer teen stares at me for prolonged periods of time when I am doing something pretty unremarkable. The most extreme time I was sitting with my sister at an outdoor cafe when a girl about 14 years old with her parents is standing on the sidewalk outside the cafe STARING at me with such expectation. (Lets be clear. I don’t think this was someone checking me out – more like “hey that person might be like me”. Many of us can probably remember the first person we had that experience with ). Seriously this was about 15 minutes of open staring, not looking away when stare was met.
    Do we need to come up with a secret gesture of acknowledgement, should I have given her a decoder ring, patted her on the back and welcomed her? Other issue being I am more than twice her age and don’t want to be perceived as a pedophile! My presentation these days is MOC and many would accurately assume my lesbian orientation. Anyone else have this happen?

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    Well, it’s good to know we have some decent human beings out there. Sometimes a hello or a genuine smile is all someone needs to know there’s someone out there who has had similar experiences or feelings. While I’d agree that it’s awkward to just walk up to someone and go HELLO even in today’s world, the reaction you could elicit might not be bad anyway. Besides, if they do react badly, what’s the worst that can happen? Do or do not there is no try Yoda said.

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    Has anyone here experienced a friendship/mentoring relationship in middle or high school by an out older queer person?

    I’ve made queer friends at college and many of them have stories of connecting with out teachers or people in their communities. I never really had this experience (no out teachers to my knowledge, the GSA and members didn’t really do outreach things) and was wondering how common one experience is over the other.

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      I suppose it depends where in the world you are and when you went to school. 90s/2000s Malaysia? No freakin’ way. It would have been HANDY but just the notion of having a sexual identity was alien to me.

      I’m not sure it’s necessarily easier in Malaysia to find queer support in school, but my school juniors tell me that current students at our school are much more comfortable and open about being out, which is a huge shift.

  9. Thumb up 3

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    Oh and also – if you build a relationship with this person even on more general terms, you may find that they show their trust to you later on.

    In Form 4 (Grade 10-ish) I became great friends with a lot of the incoming Form 1 batch at my school, mostly because I was a rare senior that treated them with respect rather than picking on them. One such junior really looked up to me. Around this time I was contemplating my own sexuality (and really was in huge denial) and I remember she got a little freaked out about that, but we didn’t really do much discussion about this – as it is, we’re in Malaysia, where your only priority is study, never mind the sinfulness of sex and homosexuality.

    Fast forward 12 years later, to a few months ago. I wrote on my Facebook wall about how my mum suddenly gained all this acceptance and compassion for LGBTQ people and how that really surprised me. The aforementioned junior messaged me to congratulate me – and also to come out to me as being in her first ever same-sex relationship. She and her girlfriend have been together around a year, and while she’s still not sure what to label herself it seems that she’s happy where she is.

    I don’t know that I would have pinged her as queer when I was at school – but back then I couldn’t even ping MYSELF properly. Which is why I advocate for offering support and mentorship on a more general level. Yes, talk about your queer identity and offer it up as an avenue for support and empathy. But also recognise that we are more than just our gender identity or sexual orientation, that a lot of things impact each other, and if you build trust in at least one area you’re more likely to build trust in all others.

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    I’m presuming you’re in your second year of 6th form and attending a state school and if so there is some support for young people that you might be able to access (on behalf of the student). Every school in the UK should have an EWO (Education Welfare Officer) who you could contact and have an informal chat with about the young person, chances are the student is already on their radar. EWO’s job roles can vary from school to school, for instance in some schools the emphasis is placed on attendance, whereas in other schools it’s mentoring and welfare. Either way, they would be a good first point of contact. Externally there are voluntary (and not government funded- makes a huge difference) charities that are there to help with any issues whatsoever related to education. I’m not sure what these are in England as I work in Wales but I can easily find some if anyone needs me too. You could also speak with the students HOY (head of year), the head teacher isn’t likely to be in a position to work with individuals but HOY’s are and should be doing this.
    I would be wary of getting too involved yourself, not because you aren’t capable or that it wouldn’t make a difference but in reality you won’t be there for very much linger. If you are 2nd yr 6th form then you will be on study leave from March/ April and the months leading up to that will be pretty intense with course work deadlines. This student has at least another two, if not four years left of school and will probably need support for the duration.
    Saying all that, I agree with Kate that sometimes a friendly smile/ a friendly gesture can make such a huge difference…. so go forth and SMILE!

  11. Thumb up 4

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    There was a girl in the year above me who did something like this for me when I was a quiet, awkward, mostly friendless high schooler. To be honest, I was so incredibly uncomfortable with anything that might have to do with sex or even emotional relationships with other humans that trying to figure out my queer identity wasn’t really even on the radar until I was in college. She was the only out lesbian in my school and the fact that she took the time just to talk to me, ask to be my partner in school group activities, sit by me at lunch when she saw me sitting alone made a huge difference in my life. Looking back, I’m guessing she spotted me for the angst ridden queerlet that I was. I appreciate that she flat out told me she was a lesbian so that I could feel safe talking to her, but she never pushed me to be out given I didn’t even know what to be out about yet.

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    Hello! Question asker here. First of all, thank you so much, Kate, for taking the time to answer this! And to all the lovely humans who left comments. I’ll clarify a few things – I’m in Year 12, not 13, thus, I’ll be in school the whole year, we don’t get study leave. That being said, I’m trying to get into medicine and thus these two years are really important/stressful.

    My school is an academy and we don’t have an EWO, or a counsellor, or anything of that sort. We’ve asked for one, but apparently they “don’t have the money for it.” I was thinking of asking to do an assembly on LGBT issues, but I’m not sure if I’ll be allowed to – if I am, I definitely will. I have the backing of most I the sixth form, and it helps that the important people in my school like me because I’m aiming for a very ~important career that will look good on them. If I’m not allowed to do this assembly – would it be weird to write this kid a note with my details and a message saying something along the lines of “if you want/need a friend, I’m here”? Well, anything I do to strike up conversation will be weird, really.

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      Hey Melissa!
      I’m really surprised you don’t have an EWO! That is unbelievable!! But then I presume the academy is private so less likely to experience the barriers to learnign that yp’s in state schools experience. BLAH!! If you want you can pm me your school details and I can look into it (I work in education and justice so it would only be a few phone calls for me).
      Year 12 is hard too, lovely, so mind you don’t take on too much! If you do want help with an assembly then let me know, I could help prep and deliver it if you wanted.

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      I think an assembly is a great idea. I know when I was at school there was just no visibility of queer girls and that would have really helped. I think it was particularly difficult because being a girls’ school we were kind of bombarded with the ‘lesbian schoolgirls’ stereotypes from the outside so people were a bit defensive. I think it would have really helped to know that people did think and talk about this stuff and I might not be the only one.

      As a previous commenter said, even if this kid isn’t queer there may be less visible kids who are. An assembly could help reach them too.

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