BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - By the time Dalton Meek turned ten years old, he knew he was gay. Meek, now 26, remembers that time as the beginning of an existential crisis that lasted through his adolescence.
He grew up poor and already felt marginalized. When he began exploring his sexual identity, his sense of isolation and anxiety grew.
“I was told I would go to hell, or that I was a sinner,” Meek said. “That became the main talking point in school.”
Meek moved to a small town in Alabama when he was in 7th grade and says he had a horrible time in middle and high school, attending a public school system in the WBRC viewing area.
“Rumors started pretty quickly just because I wasn’t like the other guys,” he said. “They’d ask about fishing and hunting and I just don’t do those, and with little interest in sports, they drew their own conclusions.”
Meek eventually confided in someone he thought he could trust, but the so-called friend outed him.
Kids starting yelling homophobic slurs at him in the halls. Boys would make sexually crude comments about him. One classmate wrote the word “faggot” on the back of Meek’s shirt.
Meek went to the principal, who told him he should have kept his mouth shut about his sexual orientation. He should have stayed in the closet.
“The classmates picking on me, yeah, that sucked, but when I realized that my principal didn’t have my back, that just shattered me,” Meek said. “I felt like I had zero support from people in authority.”
Meek’s experience is not unusual for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ), according to Amanda Keller, Director of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a safe space for LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 in Birmingham.
“You don’t have to understand something, or even be comfortable with something, to still have love and respect for someone,” Keller said.
Every young person who comes to the Magic City Acceptance Center has met with either Keller, or Lauren Jacobs, the center’s youth programs coordinator. The two women, who both identify as queer, not only help LGBTQ youth and their families at the center and through support, they now provide training for law enforcement, courts, corporations, nonprofits and schools.
They recently went to Shelby County High School, where they’re hoping to help facilitate the school’s first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
Both women agreed that they’re hearing more stories about LGBTQ youth either being targeted by adult bullies, or ignored by adults when they need them to step in and help.
“We hear about kids making derogatory comments to LGBTQ youth, like ‘that’s so gay,’ and adults are not intervening,” Jacobs said. “That’s what is most surprising, it flips the narrative on the idea of bullying. Ten years ago it was very much peer-to-peer. Now the conversation is about what adults are doing or not doing to support students.”
Keller and Jacobs realized the landscape was changing the first time they visited a GSA in a local public school. The number one concern students shared with them was teachers who were treating them terribly, mostly by openly ignoring taunts by other students.
“We’re at the point now where people understand what it means to speak up, but people do not have an understanding of the damage they’re causing when they’re not speaking up,” Keller said. “The silence is worse in a lot of cases.”
Jacobs said more Alabama schools are providing a safe space for LGBTQ students through GSAs, but some students still encounter resistance when they first try to organize. Under the Federal Equal Access Act, students at public schools have a right to form a GSA and be treated like any other student club at the school, according to the website for Lambda Legal.
Dalton Meek tried to start a GSA at his Alabama high school, along with another student who identified as a lesbian and several straight allies, mostly girls. Meek said he had some interest from an art teacher in sponsoring the group, but the efforts were blocked by his principal, who told Meeks the group wouldn’t get support and if anything, would provoke hate. That principal went on to become superintendent of the school system.
Meek found little support at home, including a stepfather who verbally abused him.
He dropped out of school in 2010, a year before he was scheduled to graduate. Meek soon became suicidal and was admitted to a behavioral health facility, where he said he was sexually assaulted.
Almost a decade later, Meek still struggles.
“I suffer from PTSD,” he said. “I’m just kind of here.”
He lives in Pensacola and helps his mother take care of his ailing grandmother, and is hoping to soon connect with more LGBTQ people in Florida.
Nationwide, LGTBQ students are more likely to be bullied at school (33 percent) or cyberbullied (27 percent) than youth who identify as straight (17 percent & 13 percent). They also experience a much higher prevalence of feeling sad or hopeless than straight students, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The numbers are much higher in Alabama. A 2013 study by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that LGBTQ youth in Alabama suffer from bullying, harassment, drug use and suicides at a much higher rate than the straight population. 9 out of ten students surveyed experienced verbal harassment at school, 4 out of ten had been physically harassed.
Studies show LGBTQ adults who are out experience positive social adjustment, but coming out can be difficult for adolescents. The Magic City Acceptance Center opened in 2014, an extension of Birmingham AIDS outreach. In five years, they have served over 800 youth with more than 20 different programs. 24 young people came to the first prom they hosted. Last year, they had 148 attendees.
Attitudes about LGBTQ people are changing, albeit more slowly in the deep south. Keller and Jacobs are excited about the center’s growth, and hopeful they will continue to reach more people.
Their message for adults is to act if a child is being targeted. If they hear a homophobic comment or see a child being bullied, do not expect the child to vocalize for themselves.
“If they’ve already experienced trauma, it’s not on them to relive that by standing up to the person abusing or hurting them. It’s on teachers, administrators, parents, community members,” said Keller. “It does not cause harm, it costs zero dollars to stand up for someone,” she added. “I think we need to start doing that more often, rather than staying silent while we watch someone get hurt.”