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derek henkle

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By the age of five, Derek Henkle knew he was different from other boys growing up in Reno, Nevada. By the time he got to high school, Derek was openly gay and paid the price for it. In this interview he talks about the daily harrassment he confronted. He eventually dropped out of school and left Reno and is now a fulltime activist, helping other gay teens cope with the kind of harassment he experienced.

· Henkle v. Gregory: Lambda Legal Defense files suit against Reno school district

When did you realize that you were gay?

I think I always knew. . . I noticed that I was different. And I was really young, like 5 or 6. I had a crush on my swimming instructor. I think that was my earliest sort of realizing--you're supposed to be attracted to women, that sort of thing. . .

What happens the next time it strikes you that you might be different?

I went into an experimentation stage. I realized I was liking male genitalia better than female genitalia, and that's what I was experimenting with. I was 12, and I went, "Oh, so does this mean that we're gay?" And he went, "I don't know about you, but I'm certainly not." I realized that that was, in fact, how I was feeling. . . . I wasn't the traditional male. I wasn't doing the sort of sixth-grade male stuff that heterosexual males do. I think I knew that I was different. Everyone else realized that I was different, and that they didn't fit in with me.

Were you called names at school?

Honestly, I don't remember. I remember being called a "sissy" a lot. But I don't think that people realized that I was gay, or really knew what being gay was. I didn't know, either. . . . But it was definitely real clear, in my behavioral patterns, that I was much different, effeminate. . . .

Tell us about middle school.

Middle school was horrible. The kids got so much meaner. . . . I was being bused with much older kids. The bus ride was about 45 minutes. . . . The bus driver never was very attentive to the kids. I would be constantly harassed. People would threaten to beat me up. Once, in middle school, three or four kids were waiting for me to beat me up when I got off the bus at my stop. I had to run away from them to escape them.

Why were they going to beat you up?

Because I was different. I think it's because I was different.

What did they say to you on the bus?

They would call me a fag--that was the big one. They would call me queer, and they would call me gay. "You're so gay," that sort of thing. . . . I would sit at the front of the bus, hoping that the bus driver would intervene. . . . And he would say that someday they'd be jealous of me, that I'd be a football star and get all the girls--trying to heterosexualize me. [laughs] . . . I was just this kid trying to get an education and live my life. . . . And I had this tremendous vulgar abuse from the first moment that I stepped out my doorstep until I got home and locked the door behind me.

I was in the middle of the school parking lot  and they surrounded me and said, Let's string up the fag and tie him to the back of our truck and drag him down the highway. Were you scared to death?

I was terrified every moment that I had to be out of my house, every moment that I had to be around people that were my own age. You never knew what was going to happen. You never knew if someone was going to hit you, or punch you, or call you a fag. It got to be so common, hearing these things every day. It was just beat into my head over and over and over again. I started feeling really, really bad about myself, and started, over the next four years, some really self-destructive behavior--not taking care of myself, doing things that weren't great, and hanging out with people who weren't great. . . .

You're painting a picture of just constant living on the edge and constant fear.

That's really what it was like. To be a gay kid, there was this internal process that you're going through. Everything that you see around you is not like you. Your parents aren't like you. The commercials that you see on TV aren't like you. Your friends aren't like you. Nothing is like you. So you're going through this big internal process of, "Wow, I'm just so different from everything in my environment." And then on top of that, if you're being harassed in school . . . I never knew what was going to happen to me on any day in school. . . .

What is the worst thing that happened to you in middle school?

There were kids all around me in the school hallway. This kid came up to me and just started hitting me in the face. I was so shocked. I had not experienced anyone doing this to me, and I didn't engage in fights. . . . So, this kid came up and just kept punching me and punching me. A teacher actually had to pull him off of me in a hallway, because he wouldn't stop punching me. . . .

What are you thinking when this kid is beating you up in the face, when he's hitting you? What are you feeling?

For both physical attacks, all I could think was, "Why is this person doing this to me? I have not done anything to them." They're just senselessly attacking me. . It's such a hard thing to mentally process--that someone would actually have such a hate for you that they would actually come up to you and physically show that through violence. . . . And then you're humiliated. Here you are, beaten up in front of a hallway full of your peers, a lot of which are cheering them on and condoning this action. You just feel so small. . . .

You were attacked twice in middle school?

I was attacked twice physically throughout my school career. . . I had come out on a public access show, talking about how unsafe the schools in my area are. Someone at my school saw that show. They confronted me the next day and said, "Hey, I saw you on TV with a bunch of fags. Are you a fag?" And I said, "Well, yeah, I am." It spread like rapid-fire through my high school. By the end of the day, every kid that attended that high school knew that I was gay. So I was out of the closet, and everyone knew it. Verbal stuff started on a daily basis. It was even more intense, now that they knew that I actually was gay. I had actually said it, and they didn't like that. . . .

What happened after that?

I was writing and keeping a big log of daily harassment reports. Every day, I was going into the principal's office and writing down what happened--this person spit food on me, this person pushed a lunch cart into my side, this person pushed me into a locker, these people drew pictures of stick figures bending over and engaging in anal sex with each other. At least once a day, I was in the principal's office, writing a harassment report. And they did nothing about any of them. It gave the students permission to openly harass me, knowing that there wasn't going to be consequences for it. And each time, it got worse and worse and more intense.

I was in the middle of the parking lot of my school, and a group of cowboys surrounded me. They said, "Let's string up the fag and tie him to the back of our truck and drag him down the highway." They took a lasso out and started throwing it around my neck. They got it around my neck three times, and I was able to get it off. All I can remember is being surrounded by these people, and how I was scared to death for my life. I did not know what was going to happen, and all I could do was just keep walking. And they were calling me a fag and throwing a rope around my neck, and genuinely wanted to hurt and kill me. I didn't know how to deal with that. I just finally was able to break free from them, and got into the school. There was a substitute teacher for my class, and I told her to lock the door, because I was afraid that they were going to come in, and harm . . . even in front of a teacher. . . . I actually made her like lock the door. I called the administration from the in-house phones. It took them an hour and 45 minutes to get back to me. By then, I was so hysterical. They came into the room, and I said, "They tried to throw a neck around my rope." I just didn't know what to do. I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. I felt that people were trying to kill me, and I didn't know how to deal with that. The administration decided to deal with it in the morning, because it was too close to the end of the school day, and sent me home on the same bus as these kids.

Did they know you were there on the bus with them?

I would assume so. The bus rides were really, really bad, with so many people blatantly calling me a fag. At high school it was beyond names and slurs. People would say, "I saw something where someone shoved a hose up their butt, and now they can't retain their bowels." And some guy in a class told me, "I read this medical study that says that, by having anal sex, you can't control your bowels and you have to wear diapers. Has this happened to you yet?" The level of stuff that I had to deal with beyond the slurs and attacks was just as uncontrollable. . . . I would always sit as close to the bus driver as I could. . . . I stayed on the bus for all the stops, and then the bus driver would drive me to my house, and made sure that I got into my house okay. And I went to school the next day.

You told your parents?

No, I didn't. The school also didn't tell my parents. The school just tried to ignore it and hoped that it would go away. . .

This wasn't the last of these types of incidents. Didn't you transfer to another school and run into some of the same problems?

Yes. It was a real rough school. The school police officer told me that they would just cite someone for assault, which is the same as getting a parking ticket, because there was too much paperwork involved in taking him down to jail and arresting him. It was very clear that they were not willing to do anything; that even the law enforcement officials at that school were not willing to arrest someone who had just attacked me. . . . They did as little as possible. I later dealt with the D.A. and had those charges upgraded to a hate crime. The person who attacked me was the first person that I've ever heard of that has been convicted of a hate crime and never been arrested. Never been in handcuffs, never been in jail. . . .

Then what happened?

I got a very clear message that I wasn't safe . . . and that I probably wasn't going to be safe at any of the traditional schools. I realized that no one was going to step in and protect me. So I said, "I want to go back to the non-traditional school. At least I know that I'm not going to be beaten up every day. At least I know that people aren't going to spit on me. At least I know that."

You basically end up dropping out of school.

I wanted to go back to the non-traditional school, and the principal would not take me back. . . . They finally talked him into doing it. So I went and withdrew from my current school. As soon as I withdrew, he paged my mom and said, "We're not accepting Derek." At the age of 16, they put me in the adult education program, where I would not be able to meet the regulations and requirements of getting a high school diploma. At the age of 16, I was tracked to get a GED, and that was all it was going to be for my education with Washoe County School District. That was it. That was my life, and I was just going to have to accept that, and that was the best that they could do for me. . . .

That must have been a pretty lonely feeling, like you're out there on your own.

I felt like I didn't belong anywhere. . . Just me by myself, having to fight a very, very hard battle of just trying to be safe, just trying to go to school and just trying to be out there in the world--have an education, be loving, and just be who I am.

But, through all of this, you have a very clear sense of who you are. Have you always had that?

I think it took a lot of development. . . . In every aspect--society, the school, my parents--they wanted to change who I was. There wasn't a whole lot of support in being Derek and having a real experience of growing up and being the type of person that I am. . . .The school really tried to program into me that it was bad to tell people that I was gay, that that wasn't okay for people to know--that it was something private and didn't need to be shared at school. . .

Now you see yourself as an activist, pushing for equal rights. Do you think you're prepared to face all of the obstacles that are out there?

I've been preparing for it my whole life. I got an immense education in ignorance through my high schools. That definitely prepared me for a long, hard struggle in life. It's great today, because I can be safe in my household. I can be safe in life. I can be safe in my job even, because I work for a company that is very accepting. I do a lot of non-profit work, which allows me to be very free and very liberated to go out there and do that. Not everybody has that benefit.

I personally am ready to go out there and change minds and change attitudes. I'm ready, if it takes something really big to get people's attention to really understand that we are just normal people. . . . We're not this odd subset of society that doesn't exist within their realm. I'm ready to go out there full force and say, "Come on. Let's all jump on the bus together, and let's ride to a place that's a much happier place than this."

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