“I am often picked on because of who I am,” 12-year-old Marcel Neergaard writes in a new op-ed published on The Huffington Post. “Sometimes being openly gay is like having a sign above my head that flashes ‘Different’ in neon colours.” The article paints a heart-breaking portrait of what life is like for too many gay youths in America.
Neergaard made headlines last summer when he helped squash Tennessee’s homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But now, nearly a year later, he claims the law is still being used to trample his free speech and to create a negative learning environment at school.
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill was authored by Tennessee Representative John Ragan. Had it passed, it would have forbidden teachers from talking about being gay in classrooms, and required principals and guidance counsellors to call parents if a student mentioned anything about being gay to them. Last summer, Neergaard wrote a petition against the bill that received over 50,000 signatures.
At the time, Neergaard was being home-schooled. Excessive bullying had forced him out of public school. Last fall, he returned to public school for seventh grade. But the bullying persists.
“In chorus we are going on a field trip to King’s Island, which they do every year with seventh and eighth graders,” Neergaard writes. “The other boys in chorus refuse to sleep in the same room as me for fear of being ‘turned gay.’” He continues: “The teacher pulled me aside and explained how the boys didn’t want to be in the same room with me because I’m gay … Then she told me the principal had called my parents to talk about this. It was upsetting. I was mad because if the same thing had happened to a student who was not ‘out’ at home, the principal would have outed them to their parents. That’s just not safe.”
“When it came time to sign up for rooms, all the boys except me were together,” he writes. “The principal pulled me aside to explain that I would have my own room on the trip. He didn’t say why, but I knew… they don’t like me.”
Neergaard also writes about the things other students say to him on a daily basis, including: “Who did you turn gay for?” “When did you turn gay?” “How do you know that you’re gay if you haven’t been on a gay date?” “Do you want to be a girl?” and “You’re gay because you act gay.”
“The protection of the classroom doesn’t seem to extend to me,” he confesses. “One day I was talking with my friends about Zachary Quinto being gay. An otherwise supportive teacher stopped me and told me ‘talking about being gay in the classroom is illegal in Tennessee.’”
The teacher, of course, was wrong. She was referring to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the very bill Neergaard had worked tirelessly the summer before to kill. “I have found teachers are quite confused because of Ragan’s bill (the Don’t Say Gay Bill),” Neergaard writes. “They’re too busy teaching to know if it passed, so they just try to be safe. Meanwhile, I am not allowed to talk about myself with my friends.” Yet despite his daily woes, Neergaard remains determined to create a more hopeful future for others. “I know I am not alone in my struggles,” he writes. “I also know that it’s not okay to be called out for being different.”
“I’m not the only gay youth in Tennessee,” he continues. ”I’m not the only gay kid in Oak Ridge. I’m not even the only gay student in my school, I’m just someone who is standing up. I know I have written about bullying many times, but this is still happening to kids like me everywhere and I refuse to let it continue.” He concludes the op-ed with a challenge to the rest of us:
“We also need people to encourage our representatives, who are supposed to represent us, to pass bills like the Dignity for All Students Act and federal legislation such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act. I want to make sure other kids do not have to go through what I have.” “This week I will be in Nashville for Advancing Equality on the Hill Day talking to my senator and (hopefully) representative about making schools safer for kids like me,” he writes. “What will you do?”