- Associated Press - Sunday, May 18, 2014

CRESSKILL, N.J. (AP) - At first blush, it seemed like just another teen dance in North Jersey. Lights were flashing. Lady Gaga was wailing over the sound system. And 70 or so brightly dressed teenagers were jumping around, laughing, tearing up the dance floor and waiting for the pizza to arrive.

One notable difference: All of the teens at this event at the Cresskill Congregational Church of Christ identify themselves as LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The teens, who hail from about 20 towns in North Jersey, are also members of The Rainbow Cafe, an LGBT social program created four years ago by the church in collaboration with the Bergen County chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG is the nation’s largest support organization for gays and their loved ones.

These youths seem unlike previous generations of gay teens, who hid or submerged their sexual orientations. But that could be because their world is so different from their predecessors’. From legislation to mainstream pop-culture depictions, society has changed how it views and integrates these kids, just as it has affected how they view themselves.

Last weekend, when Michael Sam celebrated being the first openly gay football player drafted by the NFL by kissing his boyfriend on the lips, video of that kiss aired repeatedly on ESPN and the NFL Network; morning TV’s top-rated show is headlined by Robin Roberts, a lesbian who frequently discusses her partner on the air; the right to be married is legal in 18 states (including New Jersey) and the District of Columbia; and gay characters and actors are the leads of many primetime network TV shows, as opposed to 1997, when there was one.

The Record (http://bit.ly/1kf9rWV) reports that Rainbow Cafe member Michael Morell, 17, of Fort Lee was not quite 10 months old in 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres made headlines outing her character (and herself) on the sitcom “Ellen” to friends, family members and a television audience of 43 million people.

Today, Morell (who said he didn’t even know DeGeneres had a sitcom), is an openly gay student at Fort Lee High School and a self-described activist, who is involved in a variety of school organizations, from the Spanish club, color guard and fashion club to his school’s chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which he founded two years ago. He’s also senior class president and, in the words of his principal, Dr. Frank Calabria, “super-involved, extremely mature and a young man we can always count on to get things done.”

Morell is one of more than 25 of the teenagers at the dance who talked to The Record, shared their personal journeys and explained why they’re “out of the closet” - to their friends, their parents and, in some cases, their entire high schools. Or, their entire middle schools.

Morell said he waited until high school to be open about his sexuality, because, “in middle school, it was different.”

“I was confused,” he said. “But as I got older … it’s great to come out for your emotional and physical health. Keeping that secret, which means you’re basically lying all the time … creates an unhealthy atmosphere.”

While Morell has a real interest in the post-Stonewall gay rights movement, he said at least one buzzword from that era makes him bristle: “‘Tolerance’ is not a word I’m comfortable with,” he said. “If you don’t like me because of my personality, that’s fine. But not accepting me because I’m gay? No. Being gay or black or Hispanic … doesn’t mean you have different values or morals. And there’s no way I’m going to walk around saying, ‘I’m Hispanic and I’m gay. Tolerate me.’ That’s not what I’m looking for. That’s not who I am.”

There are now about 2.7 million school-age LGBT young people in the U.S., according to the national organization Lambda Legal, which notes that, based on recent studies, the average age for gay and lesbian young people to come out is now 16 - down from 19-23 years old, previously. (There are no numbers available for North Jersey, specifically.)

Some of these openly gay millennials came out in the spirit of activism. But most said they were simply tired of lying and hiding who they are. Either way, they’re part of a trend that Michael Hellegers, a high school English teacher from Totowa, attributes, in large part, to the national shift in attitudes toward lesbians and gays, as well as the immense influence of social media - which today’s teens use to share almost every aspect of their lives.

“To today’s kids,” Hellegers said, “everything is an announcement.”

All of the gay and bisexual teens interviewed by The Record agreed there is no one-size-fits-all way of proclaiming one’s sexual orientation in school - assuming a student even wants to. Among kids who are “different,” observed one, “everyone is different.”

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