Middle school is tough for most young people, but for Elijah Hartgrove "it was the worst three years of my life," he said. He was gangly and tall, he was artistic in a town where boys were supposed to be tough, and he was gay.
"I was afraid, like, if I wore nail polish, it would be like, 'He's a faggot, let's throw rocks at him,'" said Elijah, now a senior at Henry Clay High School. He moved to Lexington from a small town in Eastern Kentucky to live with his father. "I was just tired of hiding."
The stress of being gay and a teen has been brought to light recently with a well-publicized alleged bullying incident involving a lesbian teen in McKee and the suicide this spring of a gay Lexington high school student.
Those incidents so concerned local activists that a collection of suicide prevention groups and gay and lesbian service organizations have joined to offer a free workshop Saturday to help parents, school administrators or any concerned adult learn how to spot the signs of suicidal depression, and to provide them with some tools to help.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens and young adults, said Dr. Omar Hatim, who runs an adolescent medical clinic at the University of Kentucky and a non-profit called Stop Youth Suicide.
And gay teens are 30 percent more likely to commit suicide than their peers, said Mary Crone, coordinator of Lexington's Gay Straight Alliance for Youth.
It's a complicated problem, she said. On one hand there are more openly gay figures in everything from politics to pop culture than at any time in history. Teens are coming out at younger and younger ages.
Even Eli Gross, a senior at UK and director of OUTsource, the school's resource center for gays, lesbians and transgender students, said more teens are coming out than when she was in high school a few years ago.
But what has not changed is the reluctance to talk openly about the challenges faced by teens.
"A lot of people don't know where to turn to or where to head to," Gross said.
Hatim said most teens are not mentally mature enough to handle such a complex issue as sexual awakening.
In fact, he said, most teens, whether they are gay or not, will experience some same-sex attraction. "It's basically hormones," he said. "They feel excited if they are standing skin to skin.
"You really don't form your sexual identity before age 17 or 18," he said. But experiencing those stirrings for a person of the same sex can cause some young people to panic.
Even those teens who feel sure they are attracted to the same sex often don't know how to handle those feelings or to whom to talk.
"We don't educate them. We don't tell them anything. We leave them with the Internet and their peers," he said.
He said technology and online social networking have made matters worse for this generation.
It used to be, he said, "if your classmates were cruel, they would tease you and call you names," he said. But you could go home, decompress and get away from it. Now with text messages, Facebook and other online outlets, the harassment can be continual and widespread. "Now you can be bullied by the whole school.
"It's ironic that we are supposed to be more open, we are trying to make it normal and mainstream, ... but the fact stays the fact," he said of being openly gay. "You are still a minority, and you are still different."
That is especially hard when you are a teen.
Audry Linville, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, said she knew in the sixth grade that she liked girls. She told family members, who were supportive.
But, she said, she still went through a period when she pretended to be straight just to fit in. When she finally came out, there was a lot of name calling and gossip behind her back.
The thing that bothered her most, she said, was that for some people she was "Audry the lesbian" not "Audry the person."
Crone, of the Gay Straight Alliance, said bullying and harassment are still very real problems for gay and lesbian teens, who might downplay the severity of what's going on.
"There is a tendency to put the bad stuff away: 'I don't want to talk about it or think about it,'" she said.
Elijah, the Henry Clay senior, dealt with daily harassment when he first started school in Lexington — in part, he said, because he dressed in full female hair and makeup and is 6-foot-7 in heels.
But, he said, after he complained to school officials, things got better. "I just got mad and I couldn't take it," he said.
But not everyone is willing to take those steps to stand up for themselves, he said.
He agreed that Saturday's workshop is important. "What we need is information," he said.
Hatim, the doctor, said paying attention to teens is crucial because their depression might manifest itself in ways that mask the true problem, like showing signs of a physical illness.
Gross, of UK OUTsource, said the workshop will focus on a specific method of talking with teens called "QPR," for question, persuade and refer. The goal, she said, is to let them know they are not alone and give adults the right tools to connect: "We want them to know we are here."
Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3261.