Kearian Giertz is the gay 17-year-old from Fullerton, Calif. who made national news headlines last week following his disqualification from a school contest for his statement supporting marriage equality.
During an annual rite of passage at his high school, known as the Mr. Fullerton Contest, Kearian was asked, in front of an audience, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” and expressed his desire to find his life mate and be legally wed, only to find himself disqualified by a school administrator, who had his microphone cut off.
Upon hearing his story, several elements stood out to me as intriguing. First, compared with my own angst-ridden life in high school almost 25 years ago, it was refreshing that this young man felt comfortable enough to proclaim his desire to wed another man. Second, I was impressed by how quickly the high school responded to his disqualification, firmly supporting Kearian’s right to free speech and calling the administrator’s actions inappropriate. Lastly, I was struck by how, upon being disqualified, instead of reacting with the expected anger and hostility, the teen and his friends chose a more peaceful option, turning this disqualification into a teachable moment.
Having recently written my own letter to my high school bully, I was curious as to how today’s youth were coping with harassment on campus, as well as in their daily lives, and sat down with Kearian, fellow out teen Blake Danford, and heterosexual, LGBT-supportive Katy Hall, all friends since seventh grade and now Fullerton Union High School seniors, to discuss what it is like to be out and gay in school, and the event that propelled them into the headlines.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: First, let’s start with you, Blake. When did you first realize you were gay?
Blake Danford: I first realized I wasn’t really attracted to girls around fourth grade but came out as gay in eighth grade to a girl in my English class, who was a lesbian. Eventually, I told a few others, about five people total, but it wasn’t until my freshman year I began telling even more people.
Edwards-Stout: At what point did you tell your family?
Danford: I came out to my mom in my sophomore year.
Edwards-Stout: And she’s been supportive?
Danford: Definitely. I think it was actually harder for me, as I was expecting her not to be. It was almost like, “Wait, are you really OK with this?” Her support almost seemed fake to me. My parents divorced when I was 3, so I’m still not completely out to my dad’s side of the family, as we don’t see them. Anything out of the norm is not OK with them. I’ve had them tell me, directly, that if I ever “became” gay, they’d kill me on the spot. And I assumed that was how everyone would be, so my mom’s support really threw me. But I’m really glad her support was genuine.
Edwards-Stout: Kearian, what about you? Did you always know you were gay?
Kearian Giertz: No, mine and Blake’s situations are very different. When I was younger, I dated a girl for a year and a half, who is now a close friend. I always knew that being gay was an option, at some point in the future, but being straight was the norm, and that was all that was around me. It wasn’t until freshman year, I thought I was bi and went through that whole phase. In my sophomore year, I realized I was gay.
Edwards-Stout: It’s interesting to me that, while you realized you were gay your sophomore year, you felt comfortable enough to come out onstage less than two years later.
Giertz: It’s something the whole school already knew. I have a lot of attention on me, as the only guy on the dance team, and everyone sees us perform at games and assemblies and either knows or assumes that I’m gay. Saying it onstage wasn’t that big a deal, and I knew everyone in the audience would be OK with it. When I said I wanted to get married [to a guy], everyone was cheering.
Edwards-Stout: Katy, Blake came out around the time you first met, and Kearian later. What was it like for you, discovering they were gay?
Katy Hall: Actually, with Blake, it was kind of funny. He came up to me one day and said, “I have something to tell you.” I said, “What? That you’re gay?” And he got all embarrassed and was like, “Uh, no!” and ran off. Then he came back later, and we talked about it. With Kearian, while he had a girlfriend, when he came out, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.
Edwards-Stout: How many kids go to your high school?
Giertz: About 2,000.
Edwards-Stout: Do you have any sense of how many of them possibly identify as LGBT?
Hall: The GSA (gay-straight alliance) has about 15 members.
Danford: But not all of those are LGBT. Outside of the GSA, there are other kids.
Giertz: A lot of out lesbians.
Edwards-Stout: When I was in high school, we didn’t have a GSA, but I’ve heard others talk about how awkward it has been to even enter a room where a meeting is being held. Have you felt any hesitation about attending?
Danford: I was terrified to go my first time. I knew the meetings were happening, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I felt comfortable going, and I hated it.
Danford: I wanted it to be a place where we’d talk about issues like equality, or how we felt about things. But at the time the GSA was very cliquey and just social. Now, I’m the vice-president of the group, and we’re more focused on trying to make life better, whether we’re trying to raise awareness of issues, such as what it means to be transgender, or doing awareness events on campus.
Giertz: Blake was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of support on the part of the administration to really tackle issues around equality and awareness. I have gone to GSA, but more to support Blake.
Edwards-Stout: How about you, Katy? Have you attended any of the gay-straight alliance meetings?
Hall: I’ve gone to a few of them. The problem is that GSA meetings happen the same day as Christian Club meetings, so it is hard to go to both.
Edwards-Stout: Do you get any grief from people, having gay friends?
Hall: I get a little, sometimes, but I support my friends and think they should have the same rights as everyone else. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.
Edwards-Stout: One of the things this situation at your school has highlighted, here in the hands of an administrator, is bullying. What has been your experience around bullying? Have you been subjected to it? Have you seen others being bullied?
Danford: It’s pretty prevalent on campus, whether the administration acknowledges it or not. I’ve seen a lot in my four years at this school, whether it is name calling, or in messages on Facebook from people I don’t even know. Over Thanksgiving break last year, I got messages from a kid saying that when I returned from break, he was going to kill me.
Edwards-Stout: When things like that have happened, what have you done? Have you told anyone?
Danford: I’ve told administrators every single time, but the only time they acted was when I got those messages on Facebook. It’s kind of hard to ignore that when I can show them the notes on my phone. But when it is verbal, they never step in. They always say, “We weren’t there. We didn’t see it happen.”
Edwards-Stout: It is your word against theirs.
Danford: Exactly. Getting the administration to acknowledge it has been a problem.
Edwards-Stout: How about you, Kearian? Have you had issues around being bullied?
Giertz: I dealt with bullying at home. I now live with my grandmother, but I had issues with my mom around my sexuality, and an abusive uncle, so school became my safe place, my escape. So at school, if someone used derogatory language around me, I would speak up for myself, which led others to take a different view of me, and they usually wouldn’t do it again.
Edwards-Stout: Given the tumultuous last few days, following your statement at the contest and the subsequent media attention, are you finding support around you?
Giertz: My gram is totally supportive, very PFLAG-supportive and passionate.
Edwards-Stout: Katy, I’m very curious about your situation. Obviously, you’re supportive of your friends, but with your participation in the Christian Club and this recent burst of notoriety, what kind of reaction are you getting from people?
Hall: I’m active in theater, so most of my friends there have been very supportive. I haven’t really talked to my church friends about it. My family has been very supportive, staying informed about what is going on.
Danford: After the incident, when we started getting media attention, the president of the Christian Club walked up and said, “Hey, I know that there is an unspoken tension between our clubs, but I want you to know that we have nothing against you. If you want to do a joint club awareness day, we could do that.” Just having that support meant a lot.
Edwards-Stout: Kearian, during your contest, following your statement on marriage equality, the administrator came onstage and gestured for the sound technicians to turn off your microphone.
Giertz: The audience saw him do it. I wasn’t even fully aware of what was happening until I walked offstage. The administrator told me I was disqualified as, to him, I’d gone “off-script.” I had the choice, when he said that, as to whether or not this seemed like something to fight or not. Ultimately, I felt like I’d taken enough bullying at home that I shouldn’t have to take that from an administrator.
Edwards-Stout: School was your safe place.
Giertz: Exactly. While I was being called out for going “off-script,” everyone else in the competition did, as well. I mean, how can you script a Q & A? Other people were going off-script, acting like they were drinking alcohol, but they weren’t cut off.
Edwards-Stout: Following the incident, how did you decide what your next steps would be?
Giertz: I was pretty much over it, but Blake and Katy knew we needed to make more of this incident, turn it into more of a statement.
Edwards-Stout: What was interesting to me was that, instead of the usual picket signs, you chose to do a peaceful protest instead.
Danford: We looked at what had worked in the past, and what hadn’t. It was important to me that we do something impactful, meaningful.
Hall: And so we came up with the idea of having people write letters to the administrator, going off the contest question, asking, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” We created forms for people to fill out, which would be turned into the administrator, to illustrate the impact that his actions had.
Edwards-Stout: Following the event, have any of the teachers or staff reached out to you?
Hall: A lot of teachers have said, “I can’t speak out, because of my job, but you guys rock.”
Danford: They get what we’re trying to do.
Edwards-Stout: Have you heard about the It Gets Better campaign, with all of the videos? Does the idea that things, at some point, will get better feel valid to you? Does it resonate?
Danford: It does. I really respected that campaign at its height. I spent hours looking at all of the different videos telling their stories. I’ve been lucky, knowing people who are older who’ve shown me this themselves. But for those kids who don’t have such role models, knowing that it will, in time, get better probably means a lot.
Giertz: I actually started making a video, after my abusive uncle called me a faggot, leaving me with a black eye. I wanted to make a difference and show people you can overcome just about anything.
Edwards-Stout: And yet, right now, you all are making a difference, just by speaking out. Katy, what impact do you hope this entire incident has?
Hall: While, at first, we wanted this to have a positive influence on our school, as it keeps expanding, we hope that other schools in California adopt zero-tolerance bullying policies for all students, whether LGBT or not. No one should have to go through those experiences.
Danford: Our school does have such a policy, but nothing in it specifies anti-LGBT bullying.
Hall: We want systemic change, so that kids feel safe.
Giertz: Even though kids may continue to say “gay” when they mean “stupid,” I want there to be in place something where an administrator says, “That is not appropriate,” just like using the “n-word.”
Hall: We all have a voice, and others will listen, if only we speak out when necessary.
Giertz: I didn’t set out to make a political statement. I was just talking about how I hope my life goes.
Edwards-Stout: It would be no different than if a straight guy had said, “I hope to see myself with a wife and kids.”
Giertz: Which some people did say, and weren’t disqualified. To me, the bigger point is, I didn’t set out to change the world. People don’t have to think of themselves as big or heroic. You just have to use your voice, whoever you are, and you can make a difference.
Edwards-Stout: OK, Katy, going off the contest question, where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?
Hall: Oh, my gosh! I mean, hopefully on Broadway! Happy and successful. [Laughs.] But continuing to make a difference in the fight for equality.
Edwards-Stout: Blake, how about you?
Danford: I see myself, hopefully, happy and free from this inequality and the anger people focus on these topics.
Edwards-Stout: Kearian, you’ve had four days to rethink your answer, from what you said onstage. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Giertz: My answer hasn’t changed, so I’m just going to quote myself. “Hopefully, in 10 years, I’ll be an EGOT, which is an Emmy winner, Grammy winner, Oscar winner, and Tony winner. I really hope that I can sit happily on a couch, with the man I love, and be able to proclaim that I’m married.” Hopefully, in 10 years, gay marriage will be legal, and I’ll be able to say just that.