What It's Really Like To Be A Gay Teenager In Oklahoma

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
I don't remember much about my high school drama class. I've forgotten the lyrics and the lines and even what the musical I was in was actually about. But there's one day I remember in vivid detail. I was 16 years old and staring up at Bea* painting scenery as I held the ladder to keep her steady. She was handsome in the way that women sometimes are, with deep brown eyes and curly hair that brushed the back of her neck, and I thought, "Wow, what an incredible person."
In that moment, I knew I was gay. But it took another four years to know that I knew.
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I pushed those feelings down so deep that I didn't even recognize when I was having them. When Bea invited me to her house for lunch, I told myself I was so excited because I wanted to be her friend. And when she went on a date with my brother a few weeks later, I claimed that my raging jealousy was because I always thought I'd be the first to start dating.
It'd be easy to blame my reluctance to come out (even to myself) on a society that doesn't truly accept gay people, and that was certainly part of it. But leaving it at that ignores the laws that contribute to the shame LGBTQ+ people can feel. According to a new report from GLSEN, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ students, a big part of whether or not you rationalize away your sexuality has to do with where you went to school.
I went to two different high schools in Oklahoma — one of seven states with "no promo homo" laws that explicitly forbid teachers from talking about being gay in a positive light or, in some cases, at all. Frankly, I'm not sure how many of my teachers even knew that Oklahoma law restricts their ability to talk about LGBTQ+ people, or if they were aware, whether they knew exactly what the law dictates.
Oklahoma's "no promo homo" law actually only restricts how teachers talk about AIDS — there are different versions of these laws in each state, some of which only prohibit talking about being gay in sexual health classes and some which completely prohibit teachers from "promoting homosexual lifestyles." A law in Alabama, for example, states that teachers "must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public."
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In addition to Oklahoma and Alabama, other states that have these laws include: Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.
In Oklahoma, the law doesn't actually tell teachers that they can't talk about "homosexuality" (an outdated and offensive term, btw). Instead, it requires them to talk about it, but only if they're teaching a section on AIDS and only in a negative way. When talking about AIDS, teachers are supposed to tell students that "homosexual activity... is now known to be primarily responsible for contact with the AIDS virus." (This is misleading — there are many ways someone can contract HIV/AIDS, including unprotected sex between straight people if one of them has the virus.)
One of the problems, GLSEN claims, is that teachers and school administrators don't understand the scope of these laws. So instead of recognizing that Oklahoma's law only restricts how teachers talk about AIDS, some school employees may only know that Oklahoma has a "no promo homo" law and assume that it forbids teaching about LGBTQ+ people at all. That's why the report suggests not only fighting to repeal the laws that still exist, but also educating people in those states about what the law actually means.

With everyone around me ignoring my sexuality, is it really that strange that I ignored it, too?

Whether or not my teachers knew about the law, none of them ever acknowledged that gay people exist. It wasn't just that they didn't teach us about gay sex (they didn't teach us about sex at all, tbh), but they didn't teach us about queer people in history class or gay writers in English class. When my junior year English teacher assigned a book that had one gay character — Margret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale — parents complained that the book was too racy and it was taken off the syllabus. When my best friend, the only out gay man at our school, petitioned to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, he was shot down by the school administration before the ink even dried on the signatures he'd collected.
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The lack of supportive resources for LGBTQ+ students (like a GSA) is one of several negative impacts GLSEN's report found for students in states that have "no promo homo" laws. They're also less likely to: have teachers who are supportive of LGBTQ+ students, learn about LGBTQ+ topics on the curriculum, be protected by anti-bullying policies, have LGBTQ+ resources in the library, and have LGBTQ+ inclusive health services, according to the report.
It all adds up to an environment that pretends gay people aren't real — and with everyone around me ignoring my sexuality, is it really that strange that I ignored it, too?
Now, don't get me wrong, it's not like I didn't know that being gay was a possibility. Like I said, my best friend was the only out gay person at our school (there are now at least five more of us who've come out since graduation — including Bea). But, even though I loved my friend dearly, being gay still seemed like something only trouble-makers did. It was for people like him. People who were willing to fight with teachers and school administrators and their parents simply to exist. I wasn't one of those people.
Maybe if I'd had that GSA or had been handed the work of LGBTQ+ writers, like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, I would've been the kind of person willing to argue for my existence. Maybe I would've come out at 16 instead of 20. Maybe instead of dating my brother, Bea would've dated me.
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I can never know if any of those maybes would have been a reality, but it seems pretty obvious that forbidding teachers from talking about gay people, in any way, directly impacts how gay students see themselves.
It's been almost 10 years since I left high school, but I seriously doubt much has changed in my tiny Oklahoma town. In the years since I forced myself to ignore my feelings for Bea, there have probably been at least a handful more queer students who repressed their feelings because no one told them it was okay to express them. Imagine how many more there could be if laws like this are never repealed. Imagine how many there were before me.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
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