Out in the country: Rural gays feel less isolated today, but stigma remains
June 18, 2008 8:00 AM
Patrick Cameron, also a Washington County native, came out to his parents when he was 16. Part of their reaction was the instinct to protect him from peers and others who wouldn't understand.
As a young man, Washington County native Patrick Arena was taunted because of his sexual orientation.
By L.A. Johnson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
People labeled Patrick Arena "a fairy" early on.
As the only boy in tap classes at the Vella School of Dance in Washington, Pa., in the 1960s, he was taunted and whispered about.
"Truth was, I knew I was gay, but I certainly wouldn't admit it," says Mr. Arena, 57, of Washington. "There was nobody to discuss it with and I was afraid to discuss it anyway. I certainly couldn't talk about it with my parents or guidance counselor."
Growing up gay in Washington County in the 1960s was painful. Decades later, the climate for 22-year-old Patrick Cameron and other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is better in the county, as it is in much of rural America.
But as GLBT communities in Pittsburgh and other cities nationwide host pride festivals and pride weeks throughout the summer, advocates say there's still room for improvement in rural areas, where gay populations remain small. Washington County, for example, has only about 250 same-sex couples, says demographer Gary J. Gates, co-author of "The Gay and Lesbian Atlas." Overall, about 20 percent of same-sex couples in Pennsylvania live in rural areas, said Dr. Gates, a Johnstown native and senior research fellow at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
When Mr. Arena was in high school, he pretended he was straight, always pursuing "unattainable" girls, like the head cheerleader or head majorette. During a Christmas concert in the 10th or 11th grade, a teacher who always had encouraged his singing and choreography, shocked him.
"I guess I was standing [in a way] he thought was effeminate in the middle of the chorus, in the front row," Mr. Arena says. "In the middle of the concert, he came up and pushed me and kicked my knee so I would straighten my leg out and told me to stop standing like a 'faggot.' "
After the concert, the teacher asked, "Are you a faggot? If you are, I don't want you in any more of my concerts."
Mr. Arena was speechless and devastated.
"I still discuss this in therapy to this day," says Mr. Arena, now a private voice coach and jazz singer who has performed at some Pittsburgh Pride events this week, at Pittsburgh's Hard Rock Cafe and the Backstage Bar at Theater Square. "I felt like I couldn't trust anybody."
Because he was a dancer, his Washington High School classmates nicknamed him the Sugar Plum Fairy. At his high school graduation in 1969, the student council president announced him as Patrick "Sugar Plum Fairy" Arena.
"Of course, everybody laughed," he said. "That was really humiliating, but I had to walk on stage, smiling and waving."
He attended Duquesne University for about two years, but left the school and headed to New York City in 1972 to study jazz. He worked and lived on Christopher Street, the epicenter of the gay rights movement and ground zero for New York's AIDS crisis, in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I was right there when people started getting sick and losing weight and they didn't know what it was," he said. "I lost over 200 people that I knew, friends and acquaintances."
He returned to Washington in 1999 to care for his ailing father, who passed away about two years ago. Today, he's a member of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in Washington County and participates in programs in Washington sponsored by Persad Center Inc., a Pittsburgh-based counseling center dedicated to serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
"I thought that things would have changed somewhat in those 25-plus years," he says of his hometown. "I found that there's a lot of homophobia here and it hadn't changed as much as I'd hoped it had."
Persad operates Community SafeZone programs to promote acceptance of the GLBT community in underserved, outlying and rural areas, such as Washington County. The programs gather community members to discuss "what it means to be safe at home, at work, at school, with one's doctor and in one's faith," said Betty J. Hill, Persad Center's executive director.
Last week, a group of more than 30 adults -- some gay, some straight, some out, but some not -- gathered for a Community SafeZone potluck dinner/brainstorming session at First Presbyterian Church in Washington to discuss how to improve the safety and well-being of GLBT youngsters in public schools.
Teens grappling with their sexuality are at a higher risk for suicide than other teens and can be subject to bullying and harassment. Earlier this year, for example, a California teenager was charged with first-degree murder for fatally shooting a gay classmate in school.
In Washington County, youngsters trying to deal with their orientation can turn to the Gay-Straight Alliance, a confidential support and discussion group for gay and straight teens that meets weekly.
Two heterosexual girls who believed people should be educated about how to be more compassionate toward GLBT students and students perceived to be gay helped form the group. "These kids are just great kids and it's hard enough to be in high school and then to be different in a way that's not acceptable to so many adults," said Kathy Cameron, one of the adult advisers to the Washington County GSA who knew of the need for such a group because of her own son's experience.
Patrick Cameron knew he was more attracted to boys than girls in his early teens, but didn't apply the term "gay" to himself until he was 16, when he told his mom.
"I couldn't even say the words," he said.
One summer day in his bedroom, after a soccer match, he simply wrote the words "I'm gay" on a piece of sheet music and handed it to his mother.
She told him she still loved him.
"Then, there was lots of silence," he said.
His parents, like many, didn't quickly and easily accept his sexuality. His mother sought counsel from clergy. His father thought he was just going through a phase and sent him to a child psychologist, hoping therapy might change him.
"It's like finding out your child has something that's going to make their life harder, whatever that may be," Mrs. Cameron said.
Initially, she and her husband's basic parental instincts kicked in and all they wanted to do was protect him. They didn't want him to tell other people. They were worried about how society would treat him and they didn't want anyone to hurt him.
"It's a worry I wasn't prepared for and it took time to process it," she says. "I didn't say all the right things at first. I didn't know what those right things were except, 'We love you, whatever you feel you are.' "
It just took some time.
"There was an initial year-and-a-half to two-year period where things were difficult," Mr. Cameron said. "But since I've come out, my parents have been really great about things."
'A lot of rejections'
Some of the youngsters his mother encounters in the GSA don't receive that kind of parental support.
"There's a lot of rejections and some parents say some really not nice things for a long time before they come to terms with it, but they do," she says.
Mr. Cameron entered his junior year confident and comfortable with the fact he was gay. He was, however, still reluctant to tell friends and classmates.
"I never really saw myself as different," says Mr. Cameron, who was a popular student, scholar and athlete in high school. "I just had this secret."
Even before he came out to his parents, he'd found some support via the Internet. He started reading an online gay and lesbian teen forum.
"There's a huge, substantial gay culture on the Internet and that's the real outlet for people living in rural America," Mr. Cameron said.
He visited the site daily to see what issues gay teens were discussing and read the forums for months before ever posting a comment himself. Eventually, he started making friends his age online and coming into Pittsburgh to socialize.
"Growing up [gay] in a small town when you don't know or see other gay people, it was really huge knowing that you're not the only one," he said.
And like other teens, he started dating a bit, too.
"Not, really a relationship," he says. "We'd just hang out. I'd go see his soccer game."
At school, friends started to tease him about being gay. He came out to one friend and she told everyone else. However, by senior year, all his friends knew, and he was even talking about it in classes. He went to a homecoming dance in another school district with one young man he dated.
Today, he's a couple months from finishing his undergraduate degree in history and he lives in Shadyside. However, he's happy to see Washington is a bit more tolerant than it was when he was younger and he's extremely proud of his mother and the work she does with the GSA.
"What I'd really like to see is the high school being supportive," he says.
He notes that his mother is a board member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in Pittsburgh, and he would like to see a GLSEN chapter in Washington schools some day.
For now, he accepts the gains that have been made. Years ago, GLBT people in Washington County had to move to New York, San Francisco or some other larger city to find gay community, but that's no longer the case.
"You can live in Washington, Pa., have a huge community of friends on the Internet and not be isolated and get the support that you need," Mr. Cameron said. "It's just really a phenomenal thing."