Jonah Saribay was struggling with a secret that he kept from his parents. He is gay.

His parents are Catholics of Filipino origin. Homosexuality rarely sits well with traditional conservative families like his. When his grandfather, a devout Catholic, recently found out about Saribay’s sexuality, “he looked like he had just seen a ghost.”

During Saribay’s sophomore year at Farrington High School in 2010, he was conflicted. He had hidden his sexual orientation for years — and then, for a while, tried to convince himself and his friends that he was bisexual.

“I was so unhappy that I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live. I was gay, and I wanted to live my life as a gay man.”

Toward the end of that school year, he finally found the courage to tell his parents something that he had long known about himself. And when he did, he was in for a surprise: They were fine with the news and they said they loved him unconditionally.

The greatest challenge, he recalled, was “accepting myself. I was trying for years to get out of my own shell.”

Everything changed for the better once he came out, said Saribay, who’s now a freshman studying culinary arts at Kapiolani Community College.

Coming-outs aren’t always so easy for teenagers. Saribay points to a boyfriend he had in high school whose parents rejected him after he was “outed” to them by an aunt. The hardship that his boyfriend went through inspired Saribay to talk to his own mother and father.

“I thought, ‘How come he gets to experience all this hate, abuse, and I don’t?’” Saribay said. “‘I feel like I should share the hate with him,’ and the funny thing is — they (my parents) completely accepted it.”

Saribay, who was a prominent member of Farrington’s award-winning Gay-Straight Alliance and who still meets with the organization once each week, hopes that same-sex marriage, if legalized, would make the coming-out process less imposing for Hawaii’s young people.

And this, he says, would lead to increasing acceptance of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — or LGBT. It could also inspire Gay-Straight Alliances of students to spring up in schools around the state, while also encouraging more LGBT youth to assert their sexual orientation. The hoped-for impact is that harassment targeting LGBT youth — a problem Civil Beat covered in its series on bullying in Hawaii’s schools — would be rare.

Hawaii lawmakers are poised to vote on whether to legalize same-sex marriage at a special session at the end of October, a prospect that Saribay and other GSA advocates hope will galvanize positive energy for their cause. The Oct. 28 special session will come on the heels of the annual National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11.

Marriage equality advocates say it’s undoubtedly easier for young people to come out now than it was a decade ago, but they add that big challenges remain. Although 66 percent of “Millenials — people born in 1981 or later support same-sex marriage — compared to about 50 percent of Americans of all ages — LGBT youth still frequently encounter verbal and physical harassment, bullying and homophobia.

Legalizing same-sex marriage in Hawaii would boost efforts to make schools safe zones where LGBT teens are treated just as their straight peers are, some students believe.

This is particularly important because students sometimes feel like they can be more open about their sexuality at school than at home, according to Meredith Maeda, a former principal of Castle High School who now works as an administrator in the Hawaii Department of Education’s Windward district office.

Gay-Straight Alliances are common in many schools in parts of the country. They aim to connect LGBT students and their “straight allies” to create safe and accepting school zones, educate their peers about homophobia and other sexual orientation-related issues, and generally combat discrimination and harassment in schools.

There are 30 or so active Gay-Straight Alliances in Hawaii, the bulk of which are in public and private schools and colleges. A few alliances meet at community centers, in part because of uncooperative school administrations. Michael Paeste, GSA Hawaii coordinator, estimates that there are roughly 500 students involved in GSAs across the state. Many LGBT youth also network on social media like Facebook and Instagram.

Farrington a Leader in Equality on Campus

Farrington High has been at the forefront of the GSA movement in Hawaii. Many, if not most, of the school’s teachers have posters in their classrooms declaring that they are “safe places” for LGBT youth. School administrators have recently enacted new bathroom and locker room policies to accommodate transgender students.

Students said Farrington’s prominence in the youth LGBT movement wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of social worker Alison Colby, who has worked at the school for 25 years.

Gay Straight Alliance student members paint banners

Alia Wong/Civil Beat

Having witnessed the LGBT groups at Farrington evolve over time, Colby says the GSA is, at its core, a community service organization. She doesn’t want it to be controversial, and she doesn’t want it to have rules.

“I don’t ever pressure kids to come out,” said Colby, who helped Farrington’s GSA win the national Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s Gay-Straight Alliance of the Year award earlier this year. “If you want to, you can. If not, that’s okay, too.”

Still, as much as she champions marriage equality, Colby worries about what might happen during the upcoming special session. She recalls working at Farrington High in 1993, the last time Hawaii was on the brink of legalizing gay marriage.

There was a lot of “pushback,” she said — from the community, from the churches, from students who didn’t support same-sex marriage. While Colby says LGBT acceptance has increased noticeably in subsequent years, the opposition, especially in light of the upcoming bill, is as vocal as ever.

“I don’t want them (the kids) to be blindsided,” she said. “It’s just that I always worry — I don’t want them to be caught in the middle, hearing all of this (opposition).”

Opponents Say Gay Marriage Promotes Unhealthy School Climate

That opposition is alive and well.

Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva recently sent out a letter to Catholics explaining why discrimination is justified when it comes to marriage. One of his arguments was that children who have gay parents are more likely to commit suicide — a statement that Civil Beat later fact-checked and found to be false.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Hawaii Christian Coalition and Hawaii Family Forum are urging Christians and others to tell their state representatives to vote no on gay marriage in the special session.

Garret Hashimoto, state chairman for the Hawaii Christian Coalition, fears a transformation in Hawaii’s public schools and in the state’s youth if the upcoming bill passes. He sees same-sex marriage as part of a political agenda in which activists in the LGBT community — which, he asserts, makes up less than 3 percent of the population — are striving to indoctrinate the state’s children. (A recent Gallup study found that about 5 percent of Hawaii’s population identifies as LGBT, ranking it second in the country after Washington, D.C.)

If same-sex marriage is legalized, Hashimoto said, gay values would become more overtly incorporated into schools, putting more youth at risk of experimenting with their sexual identity.

“I don’t want them (those who identify as LGBT) flaunting their lifestyle,” said Hashimoto, who was brought up Buddhist before he became a born-again Christian. “That’s not wanting equality — that’s wanting supremacy.”

Hashimoto insists that reports of bullying that targets LGBT youth are inflated and overshadow other types of harassment that he thinks are more prevalent on campus. Days devoted to encouraging youth to come out of the closet and conquer bullying give LGBT students special treatment, he argues.

For proponents of marriage equality, the legalization of same-sex marriage would encourage more youth to come out earlier in life — a critical step, they say, in fighting shame and social stigmas among young homosexuals. This, they hope, would lead such people to gain confidence in themselves and, in some cases, overcome the depression sometimes associated with living a closeted life.

Hashimoto, on the other hand, thinks legalization of marriage for people of the same sex could make many homosexual teenagers and young adults who don’t want to come out feel obligated to publicize their sexual orientation.

“A lot of gay people do not want to come out — not because they’re afraid, but because they’re not activists,” he said, adding that he would still oppose same-sex marriage even if his son were gay.

Students Hope Bill Affirms Change

But for the most part, LGBT advocates say perspectives like Hashimoto’s demonstrate why passing same-sex marriage is so critical to their efforts to make every school a safe place where students have the resources and support necessary to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Paeste, the GSA Hawaii coordinator, thinks the legalization of same-sex marriage would help to achieve his goal of setting up a Gay-Straight Alliance in every high school.

“It would allow us to put our foot in the door,” said Paeste, a 23-year-old graduate student who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Hawaii Pacific University.

He also hopes it would encourage more young people to come out of the closet and seek counseling and other services offered by GSAs and school administrations.

Meanwhile, Saribay says marriage equality could mean that Farrington’s experience as a model of LGBT equality becomes the rule rather than the exception.

“People will just have to accept it as the norm,” Saribay said. “It’ll be a breakthrough for Hawaii.”

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