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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Violet Gresham hesitates before answering the question. The question.
In an after-school meeting at Central High School, Violet, a 17-year-old junior, knows those assembled in this history classroom are likely to take what comes next in stride. This is a group, after all, that meets to collect oral histories of Arkansans who have suffered from discrimination.
Today, Violet is wearing dark eye shadow, small hoop earrings and a see-through button-down blouse adorned with skulls, the slightest stubble visible on the chin. Violet has been asked to attend the meeting by the instructor in order to lend a voice from the LGBTQ community to the endeavor.
But how does Violet identify, exactly?
“I don’t see myself as male or female,” Violet explains to the collection of desks arranged in a semicircle.
There's a polite quiet in the classroom, and then come the questions.
These high schoolers have heard of gay, straight and even transgender, but most are unfamiliar with all the other kinds of identities that fall under the umbrella of LGBTQ. Violet is technically transgender, but more specifically labels as agender — somewhere outside the confines of strictly male or female.
Violet, along with several other gender-queer individuals in this story — for those whom neither male or female quite fits — asked to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns now commonly used by the community: they, them and their.
Gender identity is a hard concept for many adults to grasp — never mind juniors and seniors in high school — but this group reacts with relative poise. One student asks Violet if it’s hard being LGBTQ at Central High School, renowned for its place in the civil rights movement as an iconic site for desegregation in the 1950s.
“Well, I haven’t got beat up yet, so I guess that’s good,” Violet says cheerfully, by way of assessment.
After the meeting adjourns, a well-meaning, curious classmate pulls Violet — also known as Jacob — aside to probe deeper. Inevitably come the predictable queries about private parts and reassignment surgery (for the record, not for Violet), the ones that can wear on a person when they come up over and over again and from near strangers.
“You never know how someone is going to react,” Violet tells Al Jazeera later. “Groups like that are really cool, or they say they are really open, and they are. But sometimes they might not really understand and they might not really get it, so it’s a little uncomfortable for me.”
Coming out and of age as an LGBTQ teenager is, of course, rarely easy, and Violet Gresham is doing it in Arkansas, in a region of the country that has a reputation for having hardened mores governing gender and sexuality.
In 2010, the state made national headlines when a school official went on an anti-gay screed on his Facebook account. Gay-straight alliances in schools have slowly cropped up over the last decade but have encountered rigid resistance from certain quarters, according to advocates. And although a 2012 law passed by the Arkansas Legislature makes it illegal for anyone to be harassed on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, there have still been reported incidents of mistreatment perpetrated by educators themselves.
Violet's situation is made all the more difficult in that it defies easy categorization. Even as attitudes around the country, and even in Little Rock, loosen around the idea of individuals who are attracted to those of the same sex, Violet is forging a different path entirely, outside the gender norms that even the mainstream LGBT movement has embraced.
At a time when four of 10 LGBTQ youth nationwide say the communities they live in are not accepting of them, Arkansas can seem like particularly hostile territory for this daring undertaking.
So does the perception match up to reality? Ask Violet and peers, and the answer turns out to be a resounding "kind of."
Their own queer nirvana
The next Friday, Violet and about 20 other teenagers filter into the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.
With exposed pipes hanging out of the ceiling and no heat, the space is humble, but with plenty of pizzazz: Donated, beat-up couches and chairs line the wall, a massive purple bean bag affectionately called “The Womb” is dragged into the center of the room, and hand-painted signs proclaiming “Stop Transphobia!” and “Demand Equality” hang on the walls.
This is the opaquely named Center for Artistic Revolution, or CAR, one of the few LGBTQ centers in the state and a kind of oasis for these teens if they happen to live within driving distance.
Here, Violet has a lot less to explain about the facts of their being. The “they”s, “them”s and “their”s roll easily off everyone’s tongue, and there is no shortage of colorfully dyed hair, skinny jeans and creative piercings. Violet borrows maroon lipstick from Channlore B., another gender-queer teenager, and applies it carefully in the mirror before settling down for the evening’s youth group session.
Kat Crisp, the sunny 30-year-old program coordinator, otherwise known as the “Mama Cat,” leads the discussion, but first, all the members of the group introduce themselves and share their highest and lowest moments of the week. Stating your preferred gender pronoun is not optional, in deference to those for whom it matters deeply.
On the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Crisp does a brief homage to Bayard Rustin, the openly gay organizer of the March on Washington. “We heart him mucho, and we hope that he is resting in the awesomest queer nirvana ever,” she says.
What follows over the next two hours is a free-flowing discussion about civil rights in Arkansas that reveals much about the experience of LGBTQ youth in the state — part venting session, part conversation fit for a graduate-level course on social movements and sexuality.
The marriage equality debate might dominate the national conversation about gay rights, but for those gathered here — the youngest 13 and the oldest 22 — that’s a smaller concern than how to make peace with their parents and other family members, how to avoid run-ins with their teachers and peers and how they navigate their lives safely in a deeply conservative state.
Greer Williams, a 21-year-old gender-queer student at the University of Central Arkansas, laments discovering — at a workshop on running for office as a woman, no less — that those who don’t fit the mold of a conventionally attractive, straight, white woman will continue to have an impossibly steep climb making it to the corridors of power.
“I’m very intentionally unconventionally attractive, albeit very attractive,” says Williams to laughter, blue bangs hanging over the side of their face. “And I am not straight and I am not cis … and I genuinely don’t believe I will see someone who looks like me be in predominant D.C. public office in my lifetime.”
Rain Calabotta, 20, talks about how the overriding focus on the marriage equality fight leaves a lot to be desired in securing housing, public accommodation and employment rights for LGBT people, especially in a place like Arkansas, where prejudices can seem hard-wired. Calabotta feels the lack of those protections every day.
“I could federally get married right now, but I could also get kicked out of my apartment by my landlord for being queer,” Calabotta says. “Someone can beat me down and call me gay slurs while doing it, and not get convicted of a hate crime. It needs to be a thing. It’s terrifying and it’s real.”
The conversation turns painfully personal at other junctures. Raven Cole, 18, talks about how frustrating it is that their mother still has trouble grasping their gender identity and sexual orientation, four years after they came out.
“She’ll say, ‘I’m trying,’” Cole says. “And sometimes I want to say to her, ‘Can you not try just a bit harder?’”
Cole tells Al Jazeera later, “My mother’s family doesn’t like me very much.”
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the evening is when Williams recounts a heated argument with their father, trying to explain why it would be offensive that he thinks all transgender people should reveal their “real sex” in the interest of honesty.
“It burned me every time I had to say ‘they,’ trans people, ‘they,’” Williams says, choking back tears. “I sat there and burned, and it was awful.”
Crisp gently asks what Wiliams needs. “A tissue,” Greer sniffles. “Because I got some sweet eye makeup on.”
Learning not to be weak
Perhaps it’s not the most cheerful way to spend a Friday night, but it’s the kind of catharsis the teenagers say they desperately need.
Channlore, 16, says they have been called every slur imaginable at school — both those alluding to race and sexual orientation. At home, their parents have not come to grips with Channlore's gender identity.
“This is a relief,” they say. “Every day you’re silenced, and here you can lay down your burdens.”
Ten years ago, Randi Romo, a self-described Chicano lesbian and the director of CAR, moved to Arkansas and saw a desperate need for such a shelter for LGBT youth. She started the center, but wanted to infuse the organization’s mission with more than just a focus on LGBT-specific issues.
“You can’t be over here, completely hyperfocused on LGBTQ, and not be aware of how racism, sexism and classism impact the world and how they intersect,” Romo said. “A lot of kids come in here because they’re struggling with their parents — ‘Daddy hates me because I’m gay’ sort of thing. And we’re exposing them to this analysis of intersectionality where they are in the stratosphere of privilege and access.”
Perhaps most important to the teenagers, it’s the only place in the state where a gay or transgender teen can show up for help, support or guidance. Like many of those in the room, Violet discovered CAR while browsing for help online and started attending Friday-night youth sessions there more than two years ago.
Many of the kids at CAR seem well adjusted, but that doesn’t mean there’s not inner turmoil or barriers ahead to their leading healthy, happy lives in the state, particularly outside urban, progressive Little Rock.
Crisp moved to Arkansas seven years ago from Los Angeles and immediately noticed the difference in attitudes. As program coordinator, she drives around the state to do sensitivity trainings — a sort of LGBTQ 101 — with educators and encounters unreceptive viewpoints on a regular basis. At one, she was told it was inappropriate for her to mention that she herself was gay.
“My question to my colleagues and these women is, if this is what you’re giving me, what are you doing to your students?” she says. “There’s going to be covert homophobia, covert racism, covert sexism happening in every aspect of every day of every life in this state. It’s so conditioned in people, so ingrained.”
Yet Crisp and Romo mark progress by the number of teenagers they can help thrive. CAR has seen about 300 kids in the last 10 years, operating on a relatively meager $120,000-a-year budget.
Violet is a testament to one kind of happy outcome. After coming to the realization that they might be gay, Violet, raised by Catholic parents, went through the same bouts of depression, seclusion and alienation that often accompany such a revelation. For years, they buried it, wanting to be like their peers. It took Violet several years to find the words to fit the way they felt, thanks in part to the center.
“As I’ve gotten more comfortable with who I am here, the less crap I’ve been getting and the more I get confidence, the less people can try and knock me down,” Violet told their classmates at Central. “When people see a weak target, they go for it, and I learned not to be weak.”
CORRECTION; An earlier version of this article misstated the number of LGBTQ Centers in Arkansas. The Center for Artistic Revolution is not the only one in the state. The story has been updated.
Violet Gresham at a parade honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Benjamin Krain for Al Jazeera America