Violet GreshamBenjamin Krain for Al Jazeera America
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."