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Teenage Gay Rights Activist Michael Bisogno.

Teenage gay rights activist Michael Bisogno (bis-SOYN-yo) talks about being the victim of gay-bashing in New Jersey. Bisogno who served as co-president of his school's Gay-Straight Alliance group was brutally assaulted by 15 of his fellow high school students. Following his recovery, Bisogno later filed charges and is now an advocate fighting against hate-crimes.

19:17

Other segments from the episode on June 8, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 8, 1999: Interview with Kelli Peterson; Interview with Michael Bisogno.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060801np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Teen Homosexuality
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

High school years can be a difficult time especially if you're perceived as different. Kelli Peterson was beaten up when she was in high school by students who assumed she was a lesbian. Her high school was in Salt Lake City where many of the Mormon students considered homosexuality sinful.

Peterson eventually responded to the attack against her by starting a gay-straight alliance at her high school. As we'll hear, the efforts to outlaw the group went as high as the Utah State legislature and had surprising repercussions that are still being felt today three years after she started the group.

Peterson graduated the year she started the alliance. She's now 21. Her story is at the center of a documentary called "Out of the Past," which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

Peterson is from a Mormon family. I asked her how the church's teachings affected her view of herself when she realized she was a lesbian.

KELLI PETERSON, GAY RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Well, everything I knew about gay and lesbian people was very negative. From what I learned I thought they all had AIDS, I thought they were all child molesters and they were all going to hell. And I didn't want to be somebody like that.

And so I went about a process of trying to change myself.

GROSS: How?

PETERSON: I wouldn't allow myself to have female friends. I cut pictures of boys out of magazines and taped them all over my room. And I would write in my journal every night and talk about how much I hated myself and how I didn't want to be this way. And it ultimately led to me being very depressed and very suicidal.

GROSS: How depressed, how serious was that?

PETERSON: I was hospitalized for it at one point when I was in 11th grade at East High School. I've been on and off antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft since I was 12 years old. And I've been in therapy ever since then.

GROSS: And just curious, did -- have you been on antidepressants since coming out? Has that changed the depression at all?

PETERSON: Yeah. It has changed it somewhat. It's changed the extent of it, and coming out relieved a lot of self-hatred. But I do suffer from clinical depression, so I do take the antidepressants still, but I deal with it a lot better now.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. Now, when you came out you were the only lesbian in your high school. Why did you come out?

PETERSON: I came out because I couldn't take lying anymore. I couldn't take the double life. I hated sitting in class and listening to the girls talk about their boyfriends and how much they liked them, and just being sick to my stomach and thinking they're going to ask me, they're going to talk to me, they're going to want to know.

And not having an answer about boyfriends or anything like that or how much I liked them, I just couldn't take all the lies anymore about -- about who I was.

GROSS: How did you do it? How did you come out? I mean, you didn't stand up in front of assembly and say, "guess what? I'm a lesbian."

LAUGHTER

PETERSON: No, but I did something pretty close. I was in drama one day and these boys had decided that I was a slut because I dated like four guys at East, and so they were talking about what a slut I was and I finally just turned around and said, "I'm a lesbian!"

LAUGHTER

GROSS: "I'm not a slut! I'm a lesbian!"

LAUGHTER

PETERSON: And the whole class just went silent and you could just hear, "uh!"

LAUGHTER

And after that it was pretty big news at school.

GROSS: I would imagine.

PETERSON: There was no going back.

GROSS: What did these boys say? What was their reaction?

PETERSON: They were all just like, "oh, my God! You're gay, that's disgusting!" And they were just going on and on. And I was just like "well, it's better to be gay than to be a slut." And I don't know if they saw it that way.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now what about your friends, how did they react?

PETERSON: Well, some of them were just mortified. One of them kept saying, "oh, my God, you slept over at my house! You slept over at my house!" And I just kept saying, "I'm not attracted to you. I don't know what your problem is." And then she got more upset because I wasn't attracted to her.

Some of them were OK with it. Some of them had a lot of questions about how long I had known. If I'd chosen to be that way, and things like that. But the ones who stuck by me were my friends, and the ones who disappeared weren't, so.

GROSS: Were you harassed either before or after you came out?

PETERSON: I was harassed a great deal before I came out. When I was a freshman, like all freshman, I had to take gym. And a group of girls in my class decided that I was a lesbian because I was taller and stronger than the other girls in my class.

The first time they bashed me was in the locker room. And I had finished getting dressed and I was leaving the locker room and they pulled me to the ground and started kicking me and screaming, "queer, faggot, dyke -- stop looking at us."

And I got up and just bolted from the room, and I stopped dressing for gym after that. The second time they bashed me I was playing field hockey and one of them had her hockey stick in her hands and just clubbed me to the side of the forehead with it. I fell to the ground and the rest of them circled me and started beating me with their hockey sticks, screaming the same epithets.

GROSS: Were you seriously injured?

PETERSON: I had a broken tooth. A lot of bruising, nothing too serious.

GROSS: Did the school try to do anything about it?

PETERSON: No, my gym teacher said if you're going to behave that way you deserve it.

GROSS: Behave what way?

PETERSON: I don't know. I tried to tell her about it, and when I told her what they were screaming she stopped me and said that.

GROSS: Now what went through your mind when you were being beaten because the students assumed that you were lesbian, and this is before you came out, right? So they didn't know that and you were probably officially denying it.

But inside you knew you were a lesbian, you also knew that wasn't a good reason to beat you. But still, did you think to yourself like, well, how do they know?

PETERSON: Yeah, I was absolutely mortified. I mean, I was trying so hard to hide it. I just thought that it was just visible, like written on my skin. And I was so terrified of what everybody thought and knew about me at that point that I had two more suicide attempts that year.

I just -- I had no idea how to handle all of this. I didn't know any gay or lesbian people. I mean, this was before the time of Ellen and Candace Gingrich and everything else. And so there were no figures that I could look to, to think, oh, well, there are gay lesbian people out there.

I didn't know anybody. I didn't know anything about gay or lesbian people at that point.

GROSS: What year are we talking about? What year were you in high school?

PETERSON: This was when I entered high school in 1991.

GROSS: After you came out you founded a school group called the Gay-Straight Alliance. What did you want this organization to do?

PETERSON: It was something that I'd always wanted when I was young and coming out. I wanted other people. And so I thought, if I could save just one freshman from all the hell that I went through for my four years of high school then everything that I went through would have been worth it.

And so I decided to form a club for gay and lesbian students, bisexual, trans-gendered and heterosexual students who supported us. And for any other student who had questions, who had friends, who just wanted to come and see what this was all about.

And I wanted it to provide education, to provide support, to provide an outlet, to provide peer counseling. Anything that I could have needed then I wanted it to have.

GROSS: So when you decided to start this gay-straight alliance at your school what permission did you need from either teachers or the principal to go ahead with it?

PETERSON: Basically, we needed a teacher to monitor the group meetings. To make sure we weren't breaking furniture or wreaking havoc. We needed permission from the board of control, which is a student -- which is basically student government. And then we needed the principal's approval.

When we submitted our draft of what we wanted to do for the club to the principal he bypassed the board of control because he figured they would probably not understand issues as complex as human sexuality. And we had already found a teacher sponsor, so he granted us temporary club status until he could get an official ruling as to the legality of our club.

GROSS: And then what happened?

PETERSON: Well, he asked the attorney general, and he asked her to make an official statement as to the legality of the group that would coincide with winter break. That way none of the students would be at East High School and we wouldn't risk being harassed.

And she made it that weekend. And she announced that our group was legal under the Equal Access Act. And from there everything, that I'm sure everybody heard on the news, began.

GROSS: Which included the Utah State legislature passing a law banning...

PETERSON: ... yeah.

GROSS: Go ahead.

PETERSON: How it began was that the Utah State legislature held an illegal secret meeting. They literally kicked us in with their feet around a copy of "Heather Has Two Mommies," and viewed a video called "Gay Rights, Special Rights." And decided they weren't going to let the Sodomites overtake Utah the way they did San Francisco.

And so then the school board began holding meetings about us. And by March what had happened was the Salt Lake City School Board had banned all extracurricular clubs to get rid of us. And the Utah legislature had passed a bill stating that no club in a public Utah school could include a club that promoted or practiced illegal behavior, bigotry or discussed human sexuality.

Because sodomy is illegal by Utah law, they had us on two counts.

GROSS: And explain again what the board of education regulation was.

PETERSON: Basically, any club that was to exist in Utah high schools had to be directly tied to a class in the high school, such as the chess club was eliminated because there's no class on how to play chess. But the science club could stick around because there's biology, there's physics, there's geology -- any other class like that.

Well, in Utah we don't learn anything about being gay or being lesbian or that much about human sexuality. So our club had absolutely nothing to be tied to. So it was considered an extracurricular club.

GROSS: What are some of the other clubs that got thrown out so that your club could be eliminated?

PETERSON: The Bible club, the chess club...

GROSS: ... the Bible club?

PETERSON: The Bible club.

LAUGHTER

Kind of shot themselves in the foot there. The socialist club, the human rights club, the Latino student alliance, the Asian student alliance, the black student pride group. MESA (ph), which was an organization that promoted mathematics and science amongst minority students; future homemakers of America; future leaders of America. The young Republicans. The young Democrats. And you name it, we had it.

GROSS: Well, were there a lot of chess players, Latinos and young Republicans who were pretty angry?

PETERSON: Yeah. And the school board made it look like it was the gay- straight alliance's fault.

GROSS: Did people hold you directly responsible?

PETERSON: Yeah, it was all my fault apparently. I had nothing to do with the vote or anything else like the meetings or the ban, but apparently it was all my fault because how dare I ask for my rights.

So I was walking around school after all of this had happened, and I would have students coming up to me saying, "you know, I really liked going to my club but I guess that's all over with now because of these queers needing your group."

At first I had no answer to that because I didn't -- I had no idea how to respond to a question, or a statement like that. About a week later when anybody would say that to me I'd say, "you know, I had nothing to do with that vote. Absolutely nothing. And I would like to have every group that I was involved in back, including the gay-straight alliance. But there's nothing I can do about it. And there's nothing that you can do about it. It was all the adults in this situation that took it away from you not me."

GROSS: So how was the gay-straight alliance and all the other clubs saved?

PETERSON: Well, it's kind of a common misconception that they were saved. There are, as it stands now, no extracurricular clubs in any Salt Lake City school district school.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.

PETERSON: None. Yeah, there are none. But there is a loophole. The same year that the legislature banned all of our clubs they also passed a law stating that any group could rent space from a public building. And since East High School is a public building the gay-straight alliance rents their room. They pay insurance, and they have their meetings still.

GROSS: So the gay-straight alliance exists but the Bible club doesn't anymore?

PETERSON: Yeah, they took all that measure to wipe out the gay-straight alliance, and in doing so wiped out I believe it was over a hundred other school clubs between all the Salt Lake City high schools. And the only one that still exists is the East High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

GROSS: Is there any pressure being exerted on the state legislature to change that? Or the board of education, I'm not sure which group is more responsible for it.

PETERSON: Yeah, it's come up several times that the Salt Lake City School Board could vote to repeal the ban, but so far they haven't responded to any pressure to do so.

GROSS: My guest is Kelli Peterson. Three years ago, when she was a senior at her Salt Lake City high school she founded a gay-straight alliance. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Kelli Peterson. In 1996 she founded the gay-straight alliance at her high school in Salt Lake City.

What was your club like once it got off the ground? I mean, when you came out right before you started the club you were the only out lesbian in the high school. So, it would be -- unless a lot of people came out right afterwards the club wouldn't have been very large.

LAUGHTER

PETERSON: In the beginning there were three of us.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

PETERSON: It was me, my girlfriend Erin and our friend Johnny. And then one by one other people heard about us or they knew us or somehow they found us, and by the time we submitted our draft proposal there were 15 of us.

Now there are currently 50 students in the East High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

GROSS: As a result of starting this club you became a public figure. You know, the club and everything surrounding it was in the news. And you were basically forced to be a spokesperson. So you went from, you know, hiding in the shadows about a lot of things to being very much in the spotlight.

What was that process like for you from going to, you know, from the closet to the spotlight?

PETERSON: Well, it happened almost overnight. Let me tell you a story about how I came out to Utah.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

PETERSON: The Utah legislature had just held the illegal secret meeting and a lot of prominent liberal figures were holding a protest up at the capitol, and they asked me to speak. And at that point I had never spoken. I had been very much the quiet leader of the gay-straight alliance.

And I stepped up on the capitol steps and I took a hold of the microphone and I said, "my name is Kelli Peterson and I am the founder of the gay-straight alliance at East High School. And just this "shhh" gasp went through the audience. It was like, "there she is."

And after that everybody in the state of Utah knew. I mean, there's no going back after a statement like that. And so I went from being this closeted little kid to this national spokesperson.

GROSS: I'm wondering what happened with your parents. I assume they're Mormons, how did they deal with not only your coming out, but all of the attention that you were getting? Did they go against their religion or fight you?

PETERSON: I think they were torn between what their parents were going to think about them and me, and what they felt about me. Because they grew up Mormon, but both my parents came from very non-traditional Mormon households.

My father's parents are both -- they're both raised Mormon, but my grandmother smokes and drinks and does everything that's against Mormon doctrine. And she's kind of wild, so my father had a very liberal Mormon upbringing.

And my mother came from a divorced background, which was nearly unheard of when she was growing up. She also came from a mixed racial background, which was very uncommon in Utah.

And so both my parents had a little more liberal stance on it, but they did, however, have their parent's views about gays and lesbians behind them. And my mother came to a realization that I had been horribly depressed for most of my adolescence, but it had eased up a great once I'd come out.

And she began to blame herself for why I couldn't come out through all those years, and why I had gone through treatment and antidepressants and therapy for five years when all it would have taken was for her to understand what was going on. And I think that helped her to understand why I needed this group.

So my parents supported me, but they didn't want me to be quite so public. They were afraid of losing their jobs. They were afraid of having crosses burned on their front lawn. But in the end, they realized that I needed this group as much then as I had my freshman year. And they stood behind me 100 percent.

GROSS: Did anything happen to them as a result of your coming out? Were they punished in anyway, losing their jobs, cross burnings?

PETERSON: Not really. Some of their friends don't talk to them anymore, and most of my father's extended family doesn't accept me. But, you know, they pretty much have the same opinion of it that I do that, you know, if they were their friends and they still stuck around then they're still friends and the people who just disappeared, they weren't real friends.

GROSS: Kelli Peterson founded a gay-straight alliance at her Salt Lake City high school three years ago when she was a senior. She's featured in the documentary, "Out of the Past" which is on home video. She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Kelli Peterson. Three years ago, when she was a senior in high school in Salt Lake City, she founded a gay-straight alliance. The group was in part her response to being bashed by students.

In an attempt to stop her group, he Utah State legislature banned all school clubs. That ban is still in effect, although as a result of a loophole in the law the gay-straight alliance still meets at the high school.

Peterson lives in Salt Lake City and was brought up in the Mormon faith.

Your sister is gay too. Is she younger than you?

PETERSON: Yeah, she's two years younger than me.

GROSS: And how long after you did she come out?

PETERSON: About a year after I started the gay-straight alliance Holly came out officially. But during the entire year everybody kept asking her questions and she kept denying it saying that she was heterosexual. And I don't think I added -- well, I think I was more hurtful to her during that year than anything. I wasn't helpful.

Because I was afraid of what people would think of me if my own sister was lesbian, because so many people were talking about recruitment and everything else. And I couldn't -- being such a public figure, I couldn't appeared to have converted my own sister.

And so I told her never to tell anybody. But Holly has never listened to me about anything so about a year later she came out and she is now a gay activist as well.

GROSS: Were you surprised that your sister was gay? Did you think that statistically this seemed very improbable?

PETERSON: Yeah. We were in San Francisco vacationing with our parents, and Holly and I were sharing a room in the hotel room. And Holly said, "I have something to tell you, Kelli." And I said, "what?" And I'm thinking she's pregnant, she's -- I couldn't think of what it would be. And she said, "I'm gay too."

And I said, "you can't be gay, I'm gay!"

LAUGHTER

GROSS: "That's my job in the family."

LAUGHTER

PETERSON: Yeah, and then she was like, "no, I really am." And I'm like, "are you sure?" I just kept asking her all the questions that people asked me, and I couldn't believe they were actually coming out of my mouth.

GROSS: That's funny.

PETERSON: And I was like, "well, just don't tell mom because mom's going to blame me, I know it." And finally Holly did come out, and my parents -- it was funny, because my parents had accepted me. They'd accepted that I had a girlfriend -- everything about me.

And then when Holly came out it was like we had to start the whole process all over again. Because my mom was asking questions like did I do something wrong? Did your dad do something wrong? Why are both of you gay? And then eventually she got over it and we were all OK again. But it was funny how all that worked.

GROSS: Right. Kelli, I'm wondering what you're reaction was when you first heard about the shootings at Columbine High.

PETERSON: I thought if somebody had only, you know, provided a safe environment to support diversity, to support all the misfits in that school maybe it wouldn't have happened. Because I remember what it was like to be picked on like that by everybody at school.

And I'm just glad that I wasn't a rageful or vengeful person. And I just -- I wonder how many more high schools it's going to take before we realize that this idea of a normal person is just a ridiculous concept. I mean, so what if those kids wore all black and, you know, didn't fit in with everybody else.

Who's to say they were less valuable as people?

GROSS: When you heard about this were you identifying more with the killers or with the kids who were killed?

PETERSON: Probably with the killers.

GROSS: Because you saw yourself getting angry enough to have done something like that?

PETERSON: No, I never would have done something like that. But I remember what it was like to be that hurt by other people.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard about the murder of Matthew Shepherd?

PETERSON: I wasn't surprised. I knew that something like that was inevitable. And that meant Matthew Shepherd's killing was just one of a number of gay and lesbian murders that gets attention. His just got a lot more attention probably because of the brutality.

But when I grew up in Utah and I understood how much people hated gay and lesbian people it didn't surprise me at all. I was...

GROSS: ... go ahead.

PETERSON: I was always under the assumption that I was going to be killed for speaking out as much as I did.

GROSS: You thought you were going to be killed?

PETERSON: Yeah. I had several death threats when I was in high school during the whole issue of the gay-straight alliance.

GROSS: How serious were the death threats? Were they -- did they come from people who identified themselves, were they anonymous?

PETERSON: They were usually anonymous. One of them was called into East High School. The other one was called into a news station here when I was doing an interview. And I assumed that that person wanted me dead bad enough to do it.

It just -- it didn't surprise me when Matthew was murdered because there was never a doubt in my mind that I would probably be murdered too. And I don't think that people in other areas of the country understand the level of the hatred, the intolerance, the homophobia, the bigotry that happens in these rural towns where religions are allowed to run rampant.

And the reaction of most of the people around Utah was sadness but mostly not shock. It's something that we've come to expect.

GROSS: Do you feel that because the Mormon religion is so opposed to homosexuality that people would have felt justified in hurting you?

PETERSON: I think so. A lot of people were actually calling me the anti-Christ. And so if they had killed me they would have been performing an act of God. So for them it's not a moral issue, it's an issue of their entire religious belief.

GROSS: What keeps you in Utah? Did you ever think of going to an area in which there's a larger gay community?

PETERSON: What keeps me in Utah? What keeps me in Utah is I know I have a purpose here. If I went to San Francisco or New York City or any other city like that, I'd just be another queer, big deal. But when I live in Utah I can make a big difference just by being who I am.

And it would also be an act of extreme cowardice to run away. When I was 17 I could stand and face all those people who told me I was the anti-Christ and I was going to hell. Why should I run away now?

GROSS: Well, Kelli Peterson, I really want to thank you very much for talking with us.

PETERSON: Thank you.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Kelli Peterson
High: Gay rights activist Kelli Peterson talks about her controversial efforts to start a gay and lesbian support group in her high school. She is the subject of the recent film "Out of the Past," which received the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award for "Best Documentary." Peterson's effort was suppressed by the school board and the Utah legislature, which passed a law banning all extracurricular clubs in schools.
Spec: Homosexuality; Civil Rights; Violence; Lifestyle; Culture; Kelli Peterson

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Teen Homosexuality

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060802NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Teenage Gay Rights Activist
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Two years ago when Michael Bisogno was 14, he was beaten up by gang of high school students who were shouting, "kill the faggot." His response was similar to that of Kelli Peterson who we just heard from. Bisogno founded a support group for gay, lesbian and bisexual teens.

Although he's still in high school, he'll be a senior next year, he has already participated in a White House conference on school safety; met with Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss federal hate crimes legislation; and spoken at the Capitol's national vigil for Matthew Shepherd, the college student who was killed by gay bashers.

In the spring, Bisogno received the Equality Award from the gay rights group, The Human Rights Campaign. I asked him to describe what happened when he was beaten up by a group of teenagers from his New Jersey high school.

MICHAEL BISOGNO, GAY RIGHTS ACTIVIST: It was the first week in high school, and I was walking, it was during lunchtime. And I heard voices behind me saying, "there goes the faggot. That's the faggot." The kids -- one of them came up behind me, knocked by book bad off my back, and the other one kept pushing me up until I was pinned up against the fence.

There were about 15 guys, and they kicked and they punched, they poked and prodded yelling, "kill the faggot. That's the faggot." They emptied a garbage can eventually and they lifted me up. They took my legs and took my arms, lifted me up into the air yelling at chanting, "kill the faggot, through him down the stadium stairs." As if it were like a children's song.

And eventually they let me go. It wasn't the physical -- it wasn't physical like problems that I had. Like I wasn't like that badly beaten. It was the emotional side of it. I went into the hospital afterwards, but it wasn't for physical hurt it was emotional because I went into a depression and what not.

GROSS: Now were you out to yourself when they beat you up?

BISOGNO: Yeah, I was out to myself. I was out to my close friends too, but I don't think I was comfortable with myself yet. Obviously, I really wasn't. It wasn't until much later that I began to become comfortable with myself.

GROSS: Now did the guys who beat you know that you were gay or were they just guessing?

BISOGNO: No, they were guess -- that's the thing, they were just assuming. You know, in high school you have the rumors, and since my close friends knew and I suppose, you know, people suspect or whatever.

GROSS: Now you couldn't very well have defended yourself against 15 guys, but did it make you feel even worse that you weren't able to defend yourself?

BISOGNO: No, you know, even if it was one guy one on one -- I mean, I put my arms up to protect myself. I wouldn't -- I definitely wouldn't fight back. You know, it's just -- I'm just like that. It doesn't bother me. I have no anger towards these men -- these guys. They could probably still be in school with me, in fact, because only two of them were caught. I have no anger towards them at all.

GROSS: Why not?

BISOGNO: You know, I don't regret anything. I don't regret what happened to me. I don't regret what happened two years ago or the life that I've had because, I mean, I wouldn't be who I was today if I didn't go through what I went through. And, you know, I'm sure they learned a lot, or I hope they did.

And, you know, I've done a lot to help people I think. And I hope I've done a lot to help people. So I just hope -- I hope they found their way, because I know I found mine.

GROSS: So after you were beaten you ended up in a mental hospital for a while in a bad depression. Did the beating force you to come out to other people because you had to explain that they were calling you a faggot?

BISOGNO: Yeah, my parents...

GROSS: ... oh.

BISOGNO: It was my mother's birthday. Actually, it was my mom's birthday and I had to tell her that I was beaten up because I was gay. So she knew I was already beaten up, but she thought it was for a different reason -- because I was a freshman. But I had to come home and actually tell her that I was gay.

And we sat down on the couch and I told her. And I told my dad, and I was like, listen, I wasn't beaten up because I was a freshman, I was beaten up because I was gay.

GROSS: Why did you tell them that?

BISOGNO: Why?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. I mean, why not let them believe that you were beaten up because you were a freshman?

BISOGNO: Well, two reasons. First, I had to. It was -- the police were going to press charges against these guys and they were going to have to know because the police were going to have to be involved. So I had to tell them myself. They even said either I tell them tonight or they'd have to call them themselves. So I had to tell them.

And because it's like a weight on your back. It's more than a weight, it's the world on your back. It everything -- everything that weighs you down. That you just want to say, look, this is it. This is what I've been hiding. This is everything that I've been so frustrated about and so angry...

GROSS: ... what was their reaction?

BISOGNO: And just let it go. They said they loved me. And that I was their son no matter what. And they knew that. It didn't mean that they understood what was going on and it didn't mean that they understood homosexuality or what I was going through.

But they knew that they loved me and they knew that I was their son. Which is something that, I mean, I'm so thankful for because I hear stories and I know people that got it so much worse -- so much worse from their parents. And I needed support, and that's what I got from them.

GROSS: So what was the reaction in your high school when people found out you were beaten up, and that, you know, that it was a gay bashing? Because you were only out to a few people, so this must have spread the word around the high school.

What reaction did you get from people? How were you treated differently than you were before?

BISOGNO: Some people gave me the reaction of, "come on. Finally, you have finally told me." And I was like, "you knew?" And they were like "yeah, we knew." And I was like, "well, why didn't you tell me? I'm the one who's been struggling with it for years."

Some people were angry -- angry that I didn't tell them beforehand, you know, they took it personally.

GROSS: Like you didn't trust them enough to say anything.

BISOGNO: Yeah. Yeah. And they didn't understand. And some people just looked at me, you know, when you walk into a room -- when I walk into a room I get the feeling sometimes that, you know, I'm not Michael their friend who happens to be gay, but gay Mike. Which is, you know, I mean, there are so many different forms of that when you're 16 years old, you know, when you have that like self-conscious thing.

But, you know, everybody knows, which is a good thing and it's a bad thing. Because people treat you like a gay person instead of a person who happens to be gay.

GROSS: Were there other openly gay students in your high school that you knew of?

BISOGNO: A couple. I knew -- you knew but you didn't know. And it was like one of those, you know, like you could guess and they wouldn't say they were but they wouldn't say they were. I had a couple of older role models -- adult role models -- but not really young ones who were really comfortable with themselves.

That's why I think it's so important for young people like Kelli and Holly Peterson or, you know, myself -- I'm 16 years old -- to be out and be, you know, to spread the word to show like youth that you can be young and gay and that's OK. Like when I was 14 I thought that you couldn't be gay until you were 30 or 40 years old because that's the only gay people I saw.

LAUGHTER

Like I thought, like, you go to college for being gay maybe. I don't know.

LAUGHTER

And if you find out what school that is please tell me, because I'm looking for colleges.

GROSS: You know, in high school people are first getting a sense of themselves sexually, and so much of high school talk focuses around dating and who you've got a crush on and that kind of thing. Did you try to fake being heterosexual just to kind of fit into the conversation?

BISOGNO: Oh, yeah. Back in middle school I went out with a lot of girls -- a lot of girls; 13, 14 years old. I was going out with a lot of girls. I remember -- actually, my first kiss was in kindergarten and it took place in a closet.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Perfect metaphor.

BISOGNO: No lie. It was really just like the metaphor of my life here. I'm still friends with the girl actually. But, no, yeah, I did try to fake being heterosexual. A lot of people do, and that's what's so sad. That's where a lot of the depression comes from, a lot of anger. Imagine, you know, going to school everyday and portraying somebody else for your friends.

You know, I got this feeling that like, you know, my friends aren't friends with me they're friends with somebody who I'm trying to be. You know, somebody else. And that's -- it's the saddest thing.

And I think that the school and our parents and our communities can take a much bigger role in the kid's lives to make sure that doesn't happen. You know, to include gay and lesbian stuff in the education.

GROSS: Now how did you decide to form a gay club or a gay group -- I'm not sure -- what was the title of the group?

BISOGNO: It's called GALY -- it's called Gay and Lesbian Youth -- GALY of Bergen (ph) County. It's a Bergen County chapter. I founded the chapter. There's two chapters in New Jersey. It's a gay and lesbian youth group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens.

It's a social support group. I founded the group because I would have needed something like that two years ago when I was, you know, depressed and going through this anger stage. I needed support. I wanted to know people who were my age who are going through the same thing.

So I went, you know, two years later -- now I'm a little bit stronger, I think. And I wanted to do this for myself and for everybody else out there, and I didn't know if there were five teens going to be there or 20, and now we get 30 teens a week -- 30 teens a week in the suburbs out in New Jersey.

Which -- and kids come in there every week, 16, 17. And they're just amazed that there are so many other teens out there who feel the same way that they do.

GROSS: Now was this group established through your high school or was it independent of the school?

BISOGNO: That was independent of the school. It's - gay-straight alliances are really ideal for schools, but this group was primarily for gay and lesbian youths, so we did it separate from the school.

The problem with like a GALY in the high school would be that, you know, all the students know where the kids are going. You know, they announce the room in the morning and, you know, kids would know, you know, who's going to the GALY or who's going to the gay-straight alliance.

So we had to do it separate from the school to kind of secure that...

GROSS: ... privacy?

BISOGNO: Yeah, your privacy.

GROSS: Anonymity. Uh-huh. My guest is Michael Bisogno. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is Michael Bisogno, a high school student in New Jersey who founded a gay and lesbian youth group.

Did it change your school life much when you came out? Did you find, for instance, that teachers who knew reacted any differently to you?

BISOGNO: At first, I mean, they knew I was going through a tough time. So they'd lend their ear and they tried to help me as much as they could.

GROSS: So that was a good thing.

BISOGNO: Yeah, that's a great thing. And they learned from it and I learned from it. I was scared and I didn't want to talk, and they wanted to talk but they didn't know what to say. It was one of those things that -- I mean, teachers don't really have the training.

I mean, we don't provide them with the training, the sensitivity training or any training that involves gay and lesbian issues, which is very sad. You know, so I was kind of -- I was training them and they were training me, you know, giving me the support. And I was giving them something, you know, that they knew that they were going to have to face in their career once, you know.

GROSS: After you were out were you ever beaten up again?

BISOGNO: No, thankfully not. No. Thank God. I've gotten, you know, snickers and stuff like that. But I think about it and after what I've been through, if you're not going to kill me you don't -- it's not going to affect me.

GROSS: Did you have any male friends who were kind of uncomfortable around you after you came out, because they may be misinterpreted your friendship or were afraid you would misinterpret their friendship?

BISOGNO: Yeah, I always -- I've gotten the, "well, you know, it's OK that you're gay as long you don't try anything against me, you know. I don't mind." And, you know, I just come back with, "please, you're really not my type."

LAUGHTER

You know, it's hard for them -- it's as hard for them to understand and deal with as it was for me. I didn't understand it either when I realized, you know, how I was feeling. And, you know, they didn't understand either. But, you know, they took the steps to understand and that's what counts.

But, yeah, to answer your question, yes I definitely did have some guy friends who were confused or didn't understand. But they took the steps to do -- to understand it. I never really lost a friend yet.

GROSS: What was your reaction after the murders at the high school in Littleton?

BISOGNO: You know, it all ties in for me. I don't think, you know, I mean, you can say he's a gay activist it has nothing to do, but it does. I've been asked about this and I think, God, how many kids have to die? How many more kids have to die until we start paying attention?

I would say I can't believe it, but the sad part is I can believe what happened in Littleton. I can believe what happened in Colorado. And I can believe what happened in Wyoming to Matthew Shepherd, like, I can believe it. And, I mean, now I just look at the news and everybody's blaming everybody else. And I don't think it's about the right now.

GROSS: What do you think it's about?

BISOGNO: It's about the kids. It always was about the kids, and it always will be about the kids because the kids are the future. You know, it's about them and what they're going through right now. I mean, it's horrible to turn on the news to say, you know, let's blame it on the other students or let's blame it on their parents or let's blame it on this one or that one.

I mean, what I went through two years ago I didn't blame anybody. I'm not angry at anybody. Well, I took the anger and I turned it into something positive, you know. And I think if more of us could do that, just take that anger and to turn it into something that could really help everybody instead of just spreading this negativity I think it would do a lot more good.

GROSS: What year are you in now, you're a junior?

BISOGNO: I'm a junior.

GROSS: I know an issue for some gay people in high school is will they go to the prom or not. Whereas some people couldn't care less about going to the prom one way or another.

BISOGNO: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So is the prom going to be an issue for you, do you think?

BISOGNO: The prom is not going to be an issue. I went to my freshman year to the prom with a girl, and I went sophomore year with a girl. They were both friends. And this is my junior year, and a friend of mine who's a senior asked me to go with him. And I'll be going to the prom with a guy this year.

It's going to be the first gay couple to go to the prom at my high school.

GROSS: That should be interesting.

BISOGNO: Yeah. Yeah. It's not -- we didn't really do it at all for because "oh, we're the first." But he just -- he came out this year, and he's such a wonderful guy. He came out this year and he came out to me, and, you know, I brought him to the gay youth group and we'd been friends for a while this whole year. And he asked me to go with him, and I was kind of shocked. But definitely I said yes. I think it's going to be great.

GROSS: Oh.

BISOGNO: So we'll have fun.

GROSS: Yeah, have fun.

BISOGNO: We'll have fun.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

BISOGNO: Yeah, thanks. I think I'm going to wear a white dress, I'm not sure.

LAUGHTER

Just kidding. I think we're going to actually -- we're probably going to do matching tuxes.

GROSS: You went from being in the closet to being someone who has given speeches and won awards and really being quite visible. And that's a really far distance to travel in two years when you're still in high school.

How much do you want to make being gay the focus of your public identity or of your life or of your future work?

BISOGNO: Being gay I don't think would be the focus of me or my future work. I think kids, youth, are the focus of my future work. I, you know, I know a lot about homophobia and I know a lot about violence. And, you know, I can lend my word because its happened to me, but what I really talk about is safety for youth, for all youth.

And that, you know, this effects everybody. Hatred, primarily, is the root of it all. You know, I just want to help people. You know, I wouldn't want to help a gay person before a straight person or a straight person before a gay person because I don't see that. I see a person.

GROSS: So have you thought specifically about the kind of work you'll want to do?

BISOGNO: I've thought about politics. I've thought about political science -- taking political science major. Or taking a psychology major, and, you know, becoming a social worker or a psychologist for teens. Or, you know, work in politics and help a community on a whole.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BISOGNO: There's a lot of different ways. There's a lot of different ways I can go. I haven't really -- I don't know yet. And that's OK, because, you know, I'll just take my time. Day by day I'd like to take it -- day by day.

GROSS: Well, Michael Bisogno, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BISOGNO: Thank you.

GROSS: And have fun at the prom.

BISOGNO: Thanks, I will.

GROSS: Michael Bisogno is the founder of GAYLY -- Gay and Lesbian Youth. He goes to the prom tomorrow night. Sunday he'll speak at the Capitol Pride Festival, which is now underway in Washington D.C.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Michael Bisogno
High: Teenage gay rights activist Michael Bisogno talks about being the victim of gay-bashing in New Jersey. Bisogno, who served as co-president of his school's gay-straight alliance group, was brutally assaulted by 15 of his fellow high school students. Following his recovery, Bisogno later filed charges and is now an advocate fighting against hate-crimes.
Spec: Homosexuality; Violence; Civil Rights; Lifestyle; Culture; Youth; Michael Bisogno

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Teenage Gay Rights Activist
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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