"I had problems at first," says Dahlia P. "People would yell `dyke' down the hallway. Someone slipped a card in my locker that said `KKK' on it, and on the back it said, `You dyke bitch, die dyke bitch.' I wouldn't go to school for the whole week, I was so scared. That happened in my tenth grade year, when I was sixteen, the `97-'98 school year.
"Another time I was walking home from school one day, and this guy pulled up. He flipped me off and said, `Die, you lesbian.' I cried the whole day. That was the last week of my tenth grade year.
"Another time that same year, I lost my backpack during lunch. Somebody stole it. I found it in my algebra teacher's class. All my stuff was gone through. My notebook was ripped up. There was liquid paper on my backpack, in big letters that said `DYKE.' It was really shocking."
Asked whether she'd experienced any other incidents of harassment because of her sexual orientation, Dahlia hesitated before replying, "I've had other things happen to me, but I don't know for sure if they were because I'm gay. Like in the lunchroom, I've had people squash ketchup all over me."
She described getting into fights frequently during the year. "One girl, she was egging me on, saying, `If you're such a big bad dyke, why don't you kick my ass?,'" she said of one incident.
Because of these repeated incidents of harassment, she told us that during her tenth grade year, "I really didn't talk to anyone."
When she heard antigay comments at school, "I tried to deny that I was the lesbian. I tried to deny that they were talking to me." she said. "For a long time I wanted to be straight to make everybody happy. I had a boyfriend. Inside I was hurting. I was afraid of being left out, but it just wasn't working. I was in denial totally."
In addition to abuse from her peers, one of her teachers also harassed her verbally, calling her a lesbian and linking her sexual orientation to her performance in class. "He'd say, `Well, if youweren't a lesbian you might pass this class,' or `If you'd get your head
out from between those girls' thighs, maybe you'd pass.' The message was I would be so much better off if I weren't gay."
Another of her teachers never addressed her by name, although Dahlia was reluctant to assume that the teacher's behavior was motivated by her sexual orientation. "She would point at me and say `hey, you,' said Dahlia. "If she wanted me to stop doing something, she would tell my friend to tell me to please be quiet. She would just say `hey' to me."
She was most affected by the verbal harassment she received from the first teacher. "It really discouraged me from going to algebra class," she said. "I didn't go, and I started failing. I really started slipping.
"I started hanging out with friends who were doing drugs, doing all the things you weren't supposed to do," she recounted.
"I skipped school pretty much half the year, during the last half of that year," she told us. "The teacher was always on my case, so I'd skip algebra because of that. . . .
"Mostly it was the fact that I was scared. It wasn't even the verbal abuse. It was the fact that at any time people could walk up to me and knock the crap out of me because I'm gay. I always had to watch my back," said Dahlia, telling us that she quit school halfway through her junior year.
"I stole a truck and went to a different state. I tried to live as somebody who's straight. It wasn't really me. I got tired of pretending, so I moved to Austin[, Texas,] and found my niche."
Dahlia noted wryly that she fit the profile of youth who turn to drugs in an effort to escape their circumstances. "Yeah, that's me," she said. She described her mother as having "problems with drugs," telling us that she used to get angry about her mother's drug use. "Then, my last year in school, I don't know what happened to me. I went into my mom's room, and I rolled up a joint and started smoking weed. Then I started drinking beer most of the week.
"I felt like every time I took a hit off that pipe, another weightlifted off my shoulders," she recalled. "I didn't want to be in the real world because it hurt so much.
"That lasted until Thanksgiving '99. I'd been out for a couple of months-I left school in February '99, during my junior year."
Describing her typical day during this period, she told us, "Basically I'd wake up, smoke some weed, watch TV. I didn't have a job, so I had all the time in the world."
"I started taking pain pills"-her doctor had prescribed them for an injury-"and I kind of got hooked on the pain pills. Eventually I was using harder drugs. Cocaine, crack. I was a habitual drinker. It depended on who was around, who had what. I really messed up my life.
"I could easily have graduated, gotten my degree, gone to college, and I had to settle for a GED-because of my sexuality?," she asked incredulously. "But I had to quit. I would have regretted staying." She left school when she was seventeen.
"I took the easy way out. I could have gone to court, taken my family through it, all my friends, everybody, but I took the easy way out."
Now nineteen, she has begun to turn her life around. She lives with her girlfriend and their daughter.
"I would hate to have her go through that or to treat somebody that way," she reflected.