Editor’s Note: Names used in this report have been changed at the request of those interviewed, to ensure confidentiality.
Imagine only being allowed to show half of yourself to your family or your peers. Then imagine carrying a guarded secret that may cause you to be shunned by your family and friends. Now, you’re in the state of mind of a closeted youth.
“All I ever wanted to be was happy,” said Esteban Candelario. “Now that I see who I am, it will be difficult to achieve my goal.”
Candelario, 17, who is closeted, views being gay as something he wishes he weren’t.
He remembers how, as a sophomore in high school, he was pushed into a locker during his P.E. class. When teachers and staff asked what had happened, he said it was an accident.
“I said I ran into the lockers because I was going to be late to my next class,” he said, owning up to his fib.
Candelario knew the real reason why he was pushed into the lockers but didn’t want to be seen as an outcast. He was being bullied by classmates, who labeled him as “gay,” although he has yet to come out.
“Looking back on that, I wish I would have spoken up, but I also see that was going to be the point where I came out of the closet. I definitely was not ready then and I still am not now,” said Candelario. “I have many friends who know that I am gay but I feel like that is just the tip of the iceberg. I know for a fact that others know I am gay. I can tell because they always tease and harass me.”
Numerous studies have concluded that homosexuality is not a choice, but genetic – just like having blues eyes, if your parents have them.
However, many in the community still see homosexuality as taboo.
Manuel Fonseca, a mental health therapist for Kern County Mental Health Department, said the anxiety that surrounds coming out of the closet can be compared to having an identity crisis.
Fonseca, who works closely with youth, said closeted young people often feel scared of revealing their sexual identity because of the environments they grow up in. That especially holds true in South Kern communities where many youth are raised in a Mexican culture closely tied to the Catholic Church.
These youth face inner turmoil on two fronts, said Fonseca. There is the internal conflict: The thought of being hated by everyone because “being gay is wrong.” Then there is the external conflict: The knowledge that family members may not be comfortable with whom they really are, he said.
Melissa Niño, 17, knew she was a lesbian way before she even knew what the word meant. Niño said she realized she was different when she was about seven years old. In middle school she had her first girlfriend, but kept it hidden to many.
Niño never got to come out on her own terms. Instead, she was outed after her father caught her kissing her then-girlfriend.
“My dad caught me kissing my then-girlfriend and freaked out. The typical Mexican, religious [stance],” said Niño. “He referred me as ‘not his daughter.’ We slowly started to connect again two years ago.”
Niño said she too was bullied after middle school classmates took a video of her and her girlfriend kissing. After talking to a therapist and with the love and support from her mother, Niño accepted herself and said she’s now proud of who she is.
Often this acceptance of sexuality by family doesn’t come until later in life, said Fonseca.
“There is no specific time or age. When they are ready, it will happen,” said Fonseca. “In order to find a safe haven, you have to create a circle of trust which starts with family. It may be difficult at first, but it will be worth it.”
Candelario hopes one day his true self can be known to everyone. He knows he’ll never truly be at peace until he’s freed from his unspoken truth.
“I don’t know if I will ever be truly happy, considering that I haven’t even told my parents,” said Candelario.
Niño offered some advice for those who are scared to come out or coming to terms with being gay, lesbian or bisexual.
“Go at your own pace. Don’t let anyone pressure you. Don’t let people bring you down,” she said. “You are you and no one can change you. You shouldn’t be afraid of who you are.”
Luz Peña contributed to this article. South Kern Sol is the youth-led publication of the organization, South Kern.