I got kicked out of high school for being queer. True story!
Content warning for institutionalized homophobia. I landed on my feet and turned out okay, but nothing about this story is pleasant or uplifting.
Because I am a smart and special snowflake, I got accepted as a scholarship student to an elite private high school, Woodward Academy. Woodward Academy is located just south of Atlanta, and it’s one of the three big private schools in the area. Unlike the other two, Woodward Academy has historically accepted students who aren’t white, so it’s relatively diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and national origin. In other areas, however, Woodward Academy was extremely conservative, and it had a “zero tolerance” policy for just about everything you can imagine. People got kicked out all the time for what basically amounted to doing normal stupid things that normal stupid kids tend to do.
It should be said, however, that officials could be bribed to look the other way by means of “donations” to the school. To give an example, there was a kid in high school whom everyone referred to as “[Name Redacted] the Date Rapist” because, well, he had a habit of inviting girls on dates after school, trapping them in his car, and raping them. His family was very wealthy, so it was the girls who came forward who were punished, not him. It’s not as if it were just him doing this, either; the environment at Woodward Academy at the time was very Brett Kavanaugh.
Anyway, I got kicked out of Woodward Academy during my junior year, a few months after I turned sixteen.
What happened is that a friend of mine had a stressful home life and smoked pot to help deal with her depression and anxiety. She was also in all Honors and AP classes, so she had to deal with that pressure as well. If you happen to be under the false impression that marijuana turns kids into academic burnouts, I want to assure you that this girl was doing very well academically. My friend was also openly bisexual and something of a leader and mentor in the fledgling LGBTQ+ community at Woodward. Under the pretense of cracking down on illegal drug use, the administration decided to force her to leave school. Again, she was doing very well academically, and it’s telling that it was her who got kicked out and not any of the kids who openly sold prescription stimulants and painkillers in the student center, openly advertised their raves, or openly did cocaine in one of the third-floor bathrooms, which we called “the cocaine bathroom” because it had a weird raised shelf above the sinks that honestly felt like it was installed for no other purpose than to make it easy to do lines of coke.
Because I was friends with this girl – and yes, because I once bought pot from her – I also got kicked out after being randomly summoned to the Dean’s Office in the middle of class in order to be subjected to a weird kangaroo court intended to induce panic and thereby pressure me into outing other students. There were a number of students in my grade whom everyone knew sold drugs; and, even though I never interacted with any of them, they were so notorious that I can still remember their full names. All of these kids came from money, and some of them are doing very well for themselves these days. It’s almost as if it’s not drug use that’s the problem, but the stigmatization of certain types of people associated with drugs in the popular imagination, right? Anyway, the dean only asked me about students who were, to put it in the language of 2019, queer or questioning. I didn’t handle this interview as well as I could have; but, to give myself credit, I quickly figured out what was happening and refused to say anything.
You may be thinking that I probably had other problems, because it’s not feasible that someone would be kicked out of school just for being suspected of being gay. It’s true that I had a difficult first year of high school, which was directly related to my own stressful home life, but I got my act together and, like my friend, was in all Honors and AP classes during my junior year. Despite enduring a ridiculously long commute, working several part-time jobs, and also managing a dysfunctional household more or less single-handedly, I got good grades and even managed to participate in a few extracurriculars and do volunteer work. Also, after my one teenage experiment with marijuana, I was obnoxiously straightedge until college. I had a wide circle of friends and was generally liked, but I didn’t hang out after school or go to parties. Instead, I would sit in the gorgeous school library and study foreign languages. In fact, it’s because I was doing so well academically that I was able to enter a top-ten school as a freshman during what should have been my senior year of high school.
In other words, I’m not the sort of person who would have been kicked out of an elite prep school for not getting good grades. What I was, however, was friendly with a lot of gay kids. We had actually started to come out and identify ourselves as LGBTQ+, which several of my friends’ parents later told me was a major topic of discussion in PTA meetings at the time. Apparently this was a problem.
I didn’t understand that I had “a gay identity” in high school, but I always knew that I was romantically attracted to people of all genders and that my sense of myself didn’t align with “male” or “female.” Romantic attraction and gender presentation wasn’t the entirety of my identity, however, and I wasn’t particularly interested in either of those issues at the time. I loved science and reading and visual art, and I really just wanted to study and do well in my classes. If you can think of a stereotype of the sort of high school student who becomes college professor, I would have been exactly what you’re envisioning. Still, even if I wasn’t aware of it, there was something about me that was “queer,” and it was apparently visible enough to become a problem for school administrators who didn’t want even one person like that in the student body.
So that’s how I got kicked out of high school for being queer.
After that, I was ostracized by my family, who refused to support me emotionally or financially. It was tough, and I had to make some awful decisions that I’m not proud of.
I want to say “it got better,” but it didn’t, not really. In order to survive, I had to pass as cisgender and straight, and I still don’t make a point of disclosing my gender and sexuality if it’s not necessary, especially within a professional context. What this has led to, unfortunately, is LGBTQ+ gatekeeping and the assumption that I’m unqualified to talk about queer identity. I’m still in a weird liminal space between presenting as straight and being openly gay, and feeling unwelcome has become my default. Having a disability doesn’t help, of course.
There’s no moral to this story, but I still think it’s important to share. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that progress is gradual, as is healing and acceptance. I may not be in a place where I can be comfortable with myself yet, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never get there.
I still love books, and now I’m a tenure-track professor in the modern languages department at a large international research university. My friend also turned out okay, and she’s now living with her wife in a beautiful part of the world and operating a legal marijuana dispensary. We’re mutuals on Instagram, and she is living her best life, which is lovely and super wholesome and filled with outdoors adventures.
In any case, I’d like to add that the issues raised in this personal anecdote have implications beyond my own life. Kids shouldn’t be kicked out of school just for being queer, and it’s important to say that the same goes for straight kids, as a lot of straight kids also have to leave high school because of their harmless sexual activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’m such a strong supporter of collaboration between intersectional feminists and LGBTQ+ activism. No one should be denied the right to an education for expressing their gender or a healthy teenage sexuality!