Ian Palmquist is as out as he can be. At 25, he’s assistant director of Equality N.C., a Raleigh-based organization that lobbies for the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender folks. “The first thing people ask you after your name is, ‘What do you do?’” he laughs.
But in 1996 when Palmquist was a junior at Enloe High School, he was a shy boy who didn’t like talking to people. He’d been picked on since kindergarten for being a little different from the other boys. Classmates teased him for being gay long before he had any clue he might be.
That spring, Palmquist started to realize he was gay. One evening he told the secret to a friend. But he wasn’t about to tell the whole world about it. The next day, he entered school to find a bunch of posters all over the walls of the school bashing gays and lesbians.
It was pure coincidence. Palmquist didn’t know the two students who had anonymously put up the posters. (They were soon found out and suspended from school.) But it turned out to be a fateful moment in his life. It was the moment he decided to stand up.
He and five friends–one of them his younger brother, a freshman at the time–decided that there hadn’t been enough of an outcry at the school. They made a leaflet that mocked the posters and included a couple of short articles about why people should be tolerant of gays and lesbians. “Of the six of us, only one was openly gay at the time,” he recalls.
“Honestly,” he says, “when we handed out the brochures, we didn’t think that this was a very big deal. People had been handing out all kinds of things at school.”
The school suspended all six of them, charging that they had broken two rules: First, the administration claimed it had to approve any written material distributed at the school, a rule that hadn’t been enforced for at least 10 years. Second, the six were charged with a substantial disruption of the school.
“There was no protest or walk-out or violence of any kind that we engaged in,” Palmquist says, “but they said that by handing out a hundred brochures and causing people to talk about gay rights and gay students, we were disrupting the school.”
With the support of their outraged parents, the Enloe Six fought the suspensions in a very public battle with the Wake County School Board. “I guess because Palmquist was an easy name to find in the phone book, I became the de facto spokesperson to the press,” he says. The ACLU offered legal help, but the school board overturned the suspensions before the issue went to court.
It was only the following year that Palmquist came out at school–by then, he said, his parents and classmates were prepared for the news. Even so, his mom’s concern only escalated. “I think she definitely felt like I was facing a life of violence and discrimination and isolation from society. Her concern was never that it was immoral, it was that I would have a difficult life,” Palmquist says. “She had an opportunity to meet other gay people and gay adults that were leading happy, successful lives and that made a big difference for her.”
Today Enloe High is a different place. The school has a Gay-Straight Alliance, and over 200 students participated in this year’s national day of silence. “That’s a big change since my senior year when I was the only out student at a school of 2000.”
But not every high school has progressed so far. Equality N.C. is working to make things better for all teenagers. They’ve been fighting abstinence-only sex education in schools, which they say misrepresents health risks and the law. Eventually, they hope to work on a statewide initiative that directly supports out students. The goal, Palmquist says, is ” to create an environment where all students can learn, regardless of their sexual orientation.”