Photo by Wunmi Onibudo
Navigating romantic relationships as a queer youth is often like finding a light switch in the dark. Sometimes, you trip over things and fall face-first onto the unforgiving floor. It might take years to find that light switch. Someone might even block off your path and keep you in the dark.
That light switch represents self-care and a whole and unfettered queer identity. That light switch is the knowledge that you have the right to set your boundaries and demand they be respected. It’s your autonomy and the ownership of your own health.
When I went to sex ed in my high-school health class, all they did was show us pictures of STIs and STDs and tell us to practice abstinence. We never went over consent, the forms of abuse, or even what a healthy relationship looks like. According to GLSEN’s recent report, LGBTQ students were less likely to find their sex-education classes useful compared to non-LGBTQ students, and I can understand why that discrepancy may be.
Last year, I’d just gotten out of an abusive relationship, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around just how few resources I had. Because of this lack of resources, I didn’t even realize I was being abused until after I left the relationship.
To this day, I still doubt myself. Many people don’t believe that youth can be in abusive relationships unless the abuse is physical and the perpetrator is a man. My abuser, a genderfluid woman, was not physically abusive, but she was still abusive. She belittled me for my gender, my mental health, and my religious beliefs, and she guilted me into public affection, even when I made clear I was uncomfortable.
When we first started dating, we were the only out queer students in our school. The homophobia and transphobia we experienced created a very lonely game of us-against-them throughout our school, especially when we were unfairly disciplined by a homophobic teacher and principal that year. I think it was this isolation I felt that made me stay in the relationship so long.
I’m a big sap and a hopeless romantic, and although I love Valentine’s Day, I sometimes find myself avoiding the holiday. I remember the Valentine’s Days that passed when we were dating. The first was right after I tried to break up with her the first time, and she gave me several gifts I knew I couldn’t reciprocate. Though she never said it outright, she conveyed that she would hurt herself if I left, and I believed her, as if I were responsible for her health instead of my own.
I couldn’t come to my family. I wasn’t out for much of the relationship, and even when I was, my family still needed to come to terms with my queer identity before I could tell them about the relationship. And with most of my friends wrapped around my partner’s finger, I was completely isolated until we broke up.
When we finally broke up, we both attended a meeting at our school’s GSA, of which I’m now president. At the meeting, she took out her phone and showed the entire club an argument we had. Out of context, it looked like I had been angry out of nowhere, but the club couldn’t see the long history that came before. All of a sudden, people became very distant and even rude to me, and it took two years to break free from the effects my abuser had on the people around me.
The damage had already been done by the time I realized that schools could take part in preventing abuse by teaching what healthy relationships, including queer relationships, look like. No one told me that I was going to spend so long doubting myself and that the abuse wasn’t my fault. No one told me that abuse can show up in all aspects of life: our spiritual paths, our financial standing, our bodies, our minds, our social lives. No one told me that I am the one who has unquestionable autonomy over myself and my choices.
All youth deserve LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed that covers healthy relationships. This Valentine’s Day, during Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, I urge you to contact your state’s department of education about their sex-ed curriculum and how to include healthy relationships in that education. Parents can have honest conversations with their children about boundaries and what makes a relationship work. School counselors can be open and transparent about their desire to support students who are struggling with abusive relationships. You can guide someone to the light switch, and illuminate the room.
Keress Weidner is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact Love Is Respect, a hotline specifically for teens and young adults who have questions about dating violence.
Call 24/7/365: 1 (866) 331-9474
Text: LOVEIS TO 22522
The Anti-Violence Project
Manhattan, NY: (212) 714-1184
24-hour Bilingual English/Spanish hotline: (212) 714-1141
Center for Anti-Violence Education
Brooklyn, NY: (718) 788-1775
Self-defense classes, free for survivors and special programs for trans youth
The Network la Red
Hotline: (617) 742-4911
Survivor-led advocacy group for trans inclusion in survivor programs and shelters
NYC Domestic Violence Hotline
24-hour Bilingual English/Spanish: 1 (800) 621-4673
Sanctuary for Families
Manhattan, NY: (212) 349-6009
Counseling for trans women survivors, especially immigrants and victims of sex trafficking
Intimate partner violence hotline: (800) 621-4673
Rape, sexual assault and incest survivor hotline: (212) 227-3000
Trans Pride Intiative
Dallas, TX: (214) 449-1439
Advocates for making shelters more inclusive of trans women