Senior year of high school is a pivotal time in one’s life. Aside from the academic rigor of graduating school with passing grades, there’s the added pressure of getting into college or finding a job.
Students spend their last year before adulthood celebrating with friends, battling senioritis and maybe planning their school’s annual senior prank. Then there’s the romance and excitement of finding a prom date.
For Wilson High School senior Corleone Ham, this year was huge. Coming of age and coming out at the same time, Ham will walk across the aisle and toss his graduation cap having faced more challenges and triumphs than many of his peers.
In just one weekend, Ham attended Prom and Long Beach’s annual Pride parade for the first time after coming out as bisexual to his family and friends. While most of Ham’s friends slept in, recuperating from Wilson’s Prom the previous night, Ham was up and out the door by 8:30 a.m. to march with his closest friends.
The tides have been changing, making it a much more accepting time for those who decide to come out. This year, the NBA had its first openly-gay basketball player in Jason Collins and late last year, hip-hop and R&B musician Frank Ocean came out in a letter to his fans.
While many of those in the public have been receiving support for having the courage to come out, it still isn’t necessarily so easy for others, especially teens. The infographic below, produced by the Human Rights Campaign, states some statistics.
Ham first came out to his friends in October 2012, telling his best friends in person and then coming out to the rest of his friends through a Facebook Post.
“When I felt emotionally ready, I decided to write a post,” said Ham who enjoys writing poems or Facebook entries when he’s stressed out or wants to reflect on important moments in his life.
The post received over 100 likes from friends, and the next day Ham’s friends continued to show him their support in person. At school people patted him on the back, and told him that what he said in his post was powerful. “I was really happy,” said Ham, recalling the positive feedback he received from his peers, “it was like a chain reaction of comfort.”
Ham also received support from organizations like the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network, California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ), and Khmer Girls In Action (KGA)– where Ham has been a leader through KGA’s Young Men’s Empowerment Program.
Although Ham no longer had to hide his identity from friends or at school, he planned not to tell his parents until after he graduated in the summer. Afraid of his parent’s reaction, he hoped that after graduation he might have a job and be more financially secure in case he was thrown out of the house.
Ham’s worst fear came true when in the heat of a family discussion, Ham confided in his step-dad. “I love him dearly because my dad left me when I was one; I trust him with open arms,” said Ham, “I told him that I was bi and the response I got was ‘I don’t think that you’re being serious right now, you must be joking.’”
“I told my mom and she told me that she didn’t accept me. I was basically thrown out and told that I can’t be this way. So I left the house,” explained Ham, who is now living part-time at a friend’s house and staying with his older sister on the weekends.
“It reminds me of people who have joint custody and are moving back and forth between family,” said Ham about his current living situation, “it’s like you’re still trying to get yourself together.”
A Williams Institute study of youth shelters found that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and that family rejection was a leading cause for LGBT youth being forced out or choosing to leave home.
Khmer & Gay
A cultural stigma against talking about sexuality and sexual orientation might have also contributed to the harsh reaction Ham faced from his family. The child of refugees who fled genocide in Cambodia, Ham’s identity as Cambodian American is as important to him as his LGBT identity.
“Being part of the Cambodian ulture, the traditional style doesn’t make it seem that [my parents] would understand the situation as well as I wanted them to understand it,” said Ham, “The standard is that males are supposed to be wedded to females . . . I felt like it was something to wake the world up to say that I am Cambodian and I am LGBT and I still feel like I can contribute to the Cambodian community.”
A recent research report conducted by Khmer Girls in Action found that 1 in 3 Khmer youth identify themselves or someone else in their family as LGBT, and that it is difficult for LGBT youth to come out to their families because of shame or judgment placed on a person.
Despite getting kicked out by his parents, Ham is understanding of his family and hopeful that they will eventually reunite. “Truthfully I felt like [my step-dad] still cared. He was just confused,” said Ham, “They’re still my parents and I love them no matter what.”
“I think of it as a restorative justice circle where we discussed our issues and our conflicts and then we build up from that,” explained Ham, “Because it starts from the biggest pain, which was coming out and seeing all the anger come out of that. But then there’s healing; Healing comes after that. I know that everybody that I know still cares about me and still loves me for who I am, and because of that I think they still want me in their life.”
Looking into the Future
After graduation Ham will attend Long Beach City College before transferring to Cal State Los Angeles, where he wants to get a bachelor’s degree in Fire Protection Administration. Ham has been part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Explorer program for the last three years, and likes the thought of being a first-responder in crisis situations.
Ham also wants to stay involved in his community, as a voice for LGBT youth. “I want to show people that the stereotype of LGBT men is wrong,” said Ham, “I represent the voices of LGBT youth whose voices couldn’t be heard.”
With only a couple weeks of school left, Ham’s senior year has been an emotional roller coaster. “It feels overwhelming,” said Ham about graduating, “I’ve been waiting for this moment.”