Coming Out in Matthews

...we have a unique experience, and that’s not something to be overlooked or made unimportant.
— Alex Brookins
Photo courtesy Alex Brookins

Photo courtesy Alex Brookins

When Alexander Brookins openly began his transition four years ago, both his Providence High School administrators and his family and their friends did not know how to cope.

His parents anguished over how they might best respond to his needs.

His teachers did not know what pronoun to use with him or what bathroom to offer him. They also did not have a vehicle for his subsequent request to change his name legally.

Alex was adjusting to his new public gender identity while many of his friends were also coming into their own undefined identities and sexualities; a few were just “coming out.”

Everyone needed support; most especially the kids.

Also at Providence in 2015 were senior Derby Belser and her then-girlfriend, Kelly Berenfeld, a sophomore. While they didn’t walk down the hallways holding hands or show “PDA” (public displays of affection), they did tell their friends and family and posted their relationship status on social media. One of the very few gay couples to openly come out in high school in Matthews, they now both consider themselves unexpected role models.

According to several educators, these young adults have changed the landscape of how these issues are addressed in school. Kids, now young adults, who, in openly exploring their sexuality and questioning concepts of gender, started a broader public discussion.

Society is progressing. Matthews is, as well, especially being so close to Charlotte... I’m glad that we were able to pioneer in our high school and set the example.
— Kelly Berenfeld

“In high school, they are trying to figure out who they are and how they identify,” said Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Advisor Sharon Walker, who came onboard in 2006. “The population you would see in August would be different than May,” she explained. “The stigma about talking about these issues 20 years ago doesn’t exist today. And, when you take away that stigma, it takes away the ‘charge.’ ”

“It’s important for adults who work with students to just be aware of new studies and new information coming out about these students,” she said. “There are so many different ways that students identify [themselves]. The fluidity of that is different than [a generation ago],” she said.

To stay abreast of trends and an increasing amount of information, Sharon regularly attends conferences and diversity workshops and takes the GSA group each year to the Carolina Conference for Queer Youth/Queer Conference at UNCC.

Derby Belser and Kelly Berenfeld.  Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Derby Belser and Kelly Berenfeld. Photo by Cyma Shapiro

While adults in the oldest generations might be struggling for ways to cope with these changing mores, those in the youngest generations and the adults working with them have increasingly developed a vernacular and support systems designed to provide comfort and guidance.

“I believe, in the last five years, [all of this has] become a much more relevant conversation,” said PHS’s guidance counselor, Lindsay Walker. “Our Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) has become a very supportive group on campus. Students have become much more aware of the LBGT community – it’s a more comfortable conversation. The students are more supportive of all [of the] students.”

I think that Matthews is being forced in a new direction. When Christians support the community, a whole lot changes. If there’s a change, I think the whole society will change.
— Derby Belser

Initially, the Providence High School club was called the “Ally Club” (as in, a person who supports someone else). About one year later, the group became the GSA. The original handful of kids were “quiet, timid, sullen,” said Sharon. “I was very concerned about these youth,” she said, adding that many of the original participating students were faced with bullying of all kinds.

Noting that this population is at a higher risk for suicide (the rate is 4x higher for the LGBTQ+ population in general, and 40% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide), and because, as a counselor, she is ethically obligated to advocate for any students who are in need of services or at-risk, she became even more passionate about her work and helping keep the kids safe. “My passion comes from a point of being an advocate,” said Sharon. “I can’t educate my students if they aren’t alive.”

In the spring of 2016, following a ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., CMS adopted regulations designed to allow students to use locker rooms and restrooms that fit their identity. Those regulations also permit students to use their preferred name and pronouns in yearbooks and during graduation ceremonies. That same year, gender identity was added to CMS’s bullying policy.

My passion comes from a point of being an advocate. I can’t educate my students if they aren’t alive.
— Sharon Walker

When CMS passed its new anti-bullying policy, it became necessary for teachers to address the issue and receive staff training. Although many (especially older) staff members were initially resistant to this change in societal mores – referencing faith and other personal beliefs – the PHS administration was very supportive of the students and the GSA group.

Now, Sharon’s GSA group numbers 30 to 40 students who officially join each year, with 20 to 30 students who attend weekly meetings. Student officers present a variety of topics ranging from historical perspectives to how to be with relatives during the holidays. Occasionally, speakers from Charlotte’s Time Out Youth (the area’s largest LGBTQ+ nonprofit resource center) will also provide workshops. Students also participate in Day of Silence, a campaign to raise awareness about the shame and silencing issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community.

Across town, Butler High School’s GSA was started about ten years ago with a handful of students requesting the opportunity to just meet and talk. Now, there are 30 to 50 kids in attendance, according to GSA Adviser Marcia Smith. The group meets twice a month – once for educational purposes and the other as a social gathering.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” said PHS’s Sharon Walker. “We’re here as a resource and support – part education, part advocacy, and support.“

As a junior at Providence High School, Alex became the first publicly transgender student at PHS. He was also the first Matthews student to achieve the opportunity to change his name on the school roster without a corresponding name on his birth certificate. (He later became Vice President and Co-President of the GSA group at school.)

Today, Alex understands the importance of shared experiences but does not necessarily navigate toward trans-individuals and groups. “The experience we share is grief and upset, and that’s not a really good way to build relationships,” he said, continuing: “I don’t want to be that negative…we didn’t know how to support each other. We didn’t know how to handle our own feelings, let alone help [one another].”

“I’m grateful to have this experience of being trans and having a different perspective of the world than a lot of people have,” he said. “I spent a lot of my life feeling like I’m not one thing or another – [that] we are not ‘normal,’ ” said Alex.

“But, we have a unique experience, and that’s not something to be overlooked or made unimportant.”

In the past few years, Kelly has provided guidance and support to friends and acquaintances discovering their sexuality (many of whom acknowledge that they could not share this fact with their parents).

Derby has become the chair of her college sorority’s diversity and inclusivity arm. She also recently posted a coming-out Youtube (and Facebook) video titled, “Just a Southern Gay Sorority Christian Coming Out,” which now has more than 2,000 views.

“It is important to stay actively gay and open in the community – not to show that this is a passing phase,” said Derby. “I think that Matthews is being forced in a new direction,” she added, indicating that when she lived in town, she felt judgment from her church. “When Christians support the community, a whole lot changes. If there’s a change, I think the whole society will change.”

Kelly echoes Derby’s sentiments: “Society is progressing,” she said. “Matthews is, as well, especially being so close to Charlotte... I’m glad that we were able to pioneer in our high school and set the example. I know there are a lot of people who are more comfortable being out because of us. I appreciate that we could have done that for people.”

In the end, it is Sharon Walker’s perspective that best captures the current status of this movement and group: “A lot of the students in public schools are pioneers in what this is going to look like,” said Sharon. Whether it’s HB2 (bathroom policy) or something else, she said, “this has become a much bigger conversation, and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

According to 2015 CDC data regarding LGBTQ+ students:

  • 10% were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property;

  • 34% were bullied on school property;

  • 28% were bullied online;

  • 23% of LGB students who dated during the 12 months before the survey had experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year;

  • 18% of LGB students had experienced physical dating violence;

  • 18% of LGB students had been forced to have sexual intercourse at some point in their lives.