My name is Jonah Saribay. I’m 19 and I live in Honolulu, Hawaii. This is my story.
In the tropical paradise that is Hawaii, where tourists ride their surfboards on the beaches of Waikiki and sip Mai Tais under the coconut trees at resorts, it seems as though the most luxurious place in the Southern Pacific ocean would have no trace of hate, worries, or bigotry against anyone, but it does. My story is very similar to many in the LGBT community – about how we cope with societal pressures of traditional moral beliefs and modern racism.
Something about me did not feel the same when I compared myself to other boys. I never displayed the same mannerisms, or enjoyed the jokes and aggressive play of my male counterparts. Even so young, and so naïve, I concluded that there might be something different about me. In the years that followed I denied the claims others made about me and my sexual orientation. Every time I denied it my peers grew more and more suspicious. I felt scared and alone. I kept thinking to myself “no one will understand me, so just keep it under wraps until you feel more confident and safe.”
For the first 11 years of my life I felt certain about my preference towards female companions. I was so sure I was attracted to girls — emotionally. But physically I do not recall ever feeling sexually attracted to them. Such was the case for my first love, April-Joy. I felt so attracted to her beautiful features, her smile, her eyes, and the best thing was that she knew how to talk to me – that was the best part. Having someone who understood me and could call themselves my “friend” was genuine to me. This was the point in time where I questioned whether I was bisexual, because I had sexual feelings for boys but romantic feelings for girls. It was very confusing and complicated trying to figure all this out on my own. I feel the pain of those who have had to learn on their own like me. It is both a never ending journey and a battle of self-conflict to unlock your true self. It was bad enough that I had to fight myself to figure out my identity; it was worse taking on other people who supported the side that fights you.
I do recall having these feelings towards my male peers, but disregarded them because they were unnatural – not just to me but to everyone I knew as well. No one ever spoke of these same-sex attractions in grade to middle school. If you did you were a “faggot”. Of course the male population in my community, consisting largely of a dominant/masculine type, would teach these beliefs to their children, not realizing their ignorance towards “new” types of sexual orientations in people. I was afraid, afraid to share my own feelings with my peers and risk having them judge me.
My insecurity level was high at the time, and having no support system within my family or friends did not help at all. For years I struggled to find my place to “belong” without having to admit my real identity. And during those years I was the most unhappy I have ever been in my life; it was one of the worst and best decisions I ever made. So I denied my true self until 2011.
During my sophomore year at Farrington High School, everything changed. I met a guy who helped me along my journey of self-acceptance, Kyle. After we had spent a short amount of time together he encouraged me to stop denying who I was, because he knew through his own experience what life is like for a closeted gay youth. It was unbelievable hearing this from someone younger than me. Sure, I may have roamed this world longer but his experiences surpassed mine, making him the veteran in this case. It was almost like falling for my first crush all over again – he was easy to talk to, he found me attractive, and he wanted me to feel comfortable with him, and I did.
I found myself falling for him as my first gay crush. We were intimate, but he did not feel the same way about a future together. It is very common in the LGBT community for non-monogamous relations to happen amongst singles, and since this was my first first-hand experience with this fact, it was a little hard for me to understand, so I took it to the heart when he did not feel the same towards me. I held a year-long grudge against Kyle. Today we are good friends, but back then I felt so much hate and disgust for him that I almost never wanted to see him again.
But regardless of the events that took place, he was right, I am gay and I was living a lie my entire life. I was unhappy living in the closet and it was time for me to be true to myself and accept the fact I am gay. During my “coming out days” I was so lucky to discover the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) that was re-established by the Teen Center (a counselor’s aid office of social work) at my school in collaboration with the University of Hawaii’s Lambda law school students.
At the time co-advisors Adam Ryan Chang of the Lambda Law School and Counselors Alison Colby and Gwen Murikami of the Teen Center were the backbones of the Farrington GSA. They dedicated their time to promoting a safe space for students like me. Adam or Alison would usually be the ones to conjure up lessons for our meetings every Friday after school. They educated us about iconic events, activists, and history that the LGBT movement had an impact on that lead us to our standings in today’s society.
The love and support I received from the many passionate students and staff gave me the strength to come out to not only my closest friends but the entire school. In one particular lesson, we learned about our proud alumnus Janet Mock, who Alison and Gwen knew personally years before when she attended Farrington. I was so moved by her progress as a transgender female, and as a Farrington High School Governor it made her story even better. She went from overcoming the bullying of her old school, to finding the love of her peers in another. She went on to becoming a successful writer, editor, and now author of her own novel, and the fact that she came from similar roots as my own, gave me all the inspiration I needed to prosper. Janet was my new hero, and every time I hit a wall I always reminded myself, “If Janet could do it, so can I.”
That summer I came out to my divorced parents with the help of my oldest sister Brittany, and thankfully they welcomed the news of my sexual orientation with open arms. If not for Brittany being my biggest supporter, I would never have come out to my family.
I remember it as if it were yesterday – my father staring into the space of the TV as my step mom asked me how I came to this conclusion. My mother (being the drama queen that she is) cried for me, because she felt she should have been there when I felt so alone and afraid all the time I was in the closet, but I assured her that it was okay, the worst of it was over and I was happy now. I am so blessed to be born into a family that believes in loving your child for who he/she is no matter what, because many families do not, and I thank the Lord all the time for bringing me into this world to loving people like them.
Over the next two years I had no idea what my work with GSA would entail. All I knew was that I was taking part in the work of the GSA in order to promote a better future for equality amongst the student body of Farrington High school, and if possible, the community of Kalihi.
The Farrington GSA has demonstrated its commitment to the fight for equality through participation in events such as the annual Honolulu pride parade and a national awareness competition called “Out in the Silence: Going Loud” (an awareness event based on the documentary “Out in the Silence” by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson). GSA groups across the United States take part in the competition to promote the documentary in support of LGBT in their respective communities. In addition, the Farrington GSA produced a public service announcement for the Farrington Film Festival and created “safe-space” posters for teachers to hang in their classrooms for LGBT students.
Taking part in these events for equality over the past 3 years with the GSA made me feel confident and proud of my LGBT culture. Getting to touch base with people in the gay community and with friends and family who love me for who I am helped me reach the milestone of accepting and loving myself for who I really am, instead of living in the shadows. I am proud to say I am gay.
In the summer of 2013 we were contacted by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), the national organization, and were thrilled to learn we were declared the winner of Respect Award for GSA of the Year. Not only that, but GLSEN offered to fly us to New York City to receive the award. New York City was the town of my dreams, the one city I always dreamed of living in, of going to, that I had no idea when I would visit in my lifetime. I completed my work as a student activist with my attendance at the Respect Awards ceremony in New York City. And this definitely puts the cherry on the cake: the award was also being presented to us by our very own Janet Mock. After hearing her story at the beginning of our journey, it was the best experience ever to finally meet her, modeling my priorities for happiness after her, making plans to move onto New York like her and make something of a name for myself, it was pure bliss, and I got to finally encounter her. I literally felt like I was meeting Beyoncé. At least that is how I remember it. I felt like meeting Janet was very symbolic. Getting to start my journey as a gay rights activist with her as my inspiration in my hand, ended years later when I was at my prime, at the end of my journey with this GSA program, it felt as if I were being rewarded for all my hard work and commitment for influencing acceptance and equality within my alma mater. The icing on the cake was as sweet as it could get.
Do not ever feel like you should be locked in yourself by other people’s opinions. If you feel different, and you know you are different, then be you. People are only hating on you because chances are, they are unhappy with themselves. Your happiness matters, so don’t forget to take care of yourself and love yourself before you love someone else (as the great RuPaul Charles would say).
I had to find out that other people’s ignorance towards me should not make me stray away from what I think about myself. I wanted to be happy so I took the steps to be happy. I educated myself, found resect for myself, and look upon others for fire and confidence. That is how I became happy. Do yourself a favor, find your steps to happiness.
I can’t think of a better organization to link my story to than GLSEN, not only for the opportunity they gave us but also for the great work they do in general. Please CLICK HERE to make a donation, a portion of which will go to GLSEN.