One way to look at stereotypes is that they exist for a reason, based in some sort of reality. Think of the stereotype of the “privileged and perfect” Fairfield County kid who grows up wanting for nothing with, living a typical, cookie-cutter, problem-free life.
Then there’s another way to look at stereotypes–that they’re made to be broken.
Take Olivia Buse, a Wilton 18-year-old who didn’t necessarily fit into the mold, as far as her sexuality was concerned. “I identify as panromantic, which basically means that romantically I can be attracted to someone of any gender,” she says.
In her earlier teen years, when she was coming to terms with her own identity and self, she didn’t know where to find the resources to help her figure out that path, especially when the Fairfield County world around her presented a different journey as the model for the way to be.
“I grew up here. I was born here. There’s not really very much representation in our area for things outside ‘the norm’–at least that’s what I felt growing up. You don’t see a lot of openly LGBT people in the area. I haven’t met any openly LGBT parents. There are some kids I know of, but it’s not as open, I think, as other places. There isn’t any kind of education towards that. There’s health classes and all these things where you could have a unit on LGBT topics, but there isn’t one,” she says, adding, “I just realized that there wasn’t any kind of education on this, at least for me.”
Not only did she work to figure it out herself but she also has taken a major step to help other teens and families who have to navigate the same process. The recent high-school graduate just completed her Girl Scout Gold Award project, creating a set of four presentations designed to educate the community about LGBT topics.
“I created this project in order to address the apathy and the lack of representation of LGBT people in my community. When I began, it was just before I came out to my own parents and I was in the midst of puzzling out my own sexuality. It was that experience that made me realize just how lax the education was in my area about LGBT topics. I had to do all the research myself and go through it alone, and didn’t want anyone else to have to do the same,” Olivia says.
The Gold Award is a significant project that older Girl Scouts can do toward the end of their scouting experience–each girl has to identifying a problems sees in the community, create a project around it to address the problem, and implement it. The work requires putting a minimum of 100 hours toward the project.
“I wanted to change that and make Wilton to be a more open place where people could come and settle their families, not feel like, even if they did grow up here, that they do want to come back. That they feel like it’s a place that they’re welcome to come back and raise their kids, and that it’s a place where they’re represented,” Olivia explains.
The four presentations are designed to help not only LGBT kids through the process but also to help education parents, friends and the wider community. The topics are: “Romantic Attraction and Levels of Sexuality,” which covers the difference between romantic and sexual attraction; “Sexualities,” which discusses labels people give their sexual orientation; “Gender Identity,” which looks at gender as a spectrum; and “Crash Course,” which condenses all the information in a less in-depth overview. In each of the modules, there are activities and lessons meant to education, encourage acceptance and challenge biases.
Olivia has given her program to a national organization called GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which will use the modules as part of their community education efforts as well as at the True Colors conference for diversity and education.
But most gratifying is the response she’s gotten from people who have seen her presentations.
“Parents and family members would come up to me and say, ‘This helped me understand my kid and get more about what’s going on,” she says.
It’s something she can relate to and is thrilled she can help other families going through the same experience. Olivia talked to her parents about her own sexuality in her sophomore year of high school. She says they were very accepting, but she was still scared to talk with them about it.
“I knew longer than that. I probably had a feeling in eighth grade, but I didn’t figure it out until freshman year. I sat on it for a good year. I was terrified. My parents, they’re wonderful people. They’re very loving. Still, I was terrified. I called one friend, she has two moms, and was like, if my parents decide that they hate me, they’ll take me. She said, ‘They’re not going to hate you.’ I was so scared. I can’t imagine what kids who don’t have the environment that I had growing up go through. I can’t imagine. I’m so, so lucky,” Olivia recalls, adding, “There are kids out there that just don’t feel the acceptance that I do from my family.”
She has words of advice for young people who haven’t yet taken the step of telling their families:
“Don’t rush yourself. If you feel like you’re not ready or if you feel like you’re not in a place that you can tell them, don’t push yourself. You don’t have to come out when you’re living in the house. Don’t push it if you’re not ready. You can do whatever makes you feel comfortable. Go to community centers, go to meetings. There are places around here that are specifically for LGBT youth. Just go and even if you’re not LGBT, just go and see the community. That’s where you’re going to feel really accepted. Take your time and self-reflect. You don’t have to rush and put a label on it. You don’t have to stick to one label for the rest of your life. It’s a fluid thing. You don’t have to wake up one day and pick a word that describes it and then stick with that forever. You can take forever to pick a word. You can never pick a word. You can change the word you pick. It’s not something that’s in stone at all.”
And what does she want family and friends of kids who may identify as something other than heterosexual to know?
“They’re still the same person. Nothing’s changed and you love them. I know it can be really hard thinking that it’s changed or not really processing it in your head, because it’s a lot. It’s something that people who aren’t a part of the community do definitely feel like they’re on the outside. Your loved one is on the inside, so try to understand what they’re going through and know that it’s harder for them than it is for you. If you’re having a hard time understanding it, reach out. Take classes, do what you can to educate yourself. Again, there are community centers around here that would welcome you and talk to you. Try and be supportive. Even if you can’t understand and even if you don’t necessarily feel like you can go to those places, support your loved one. If you can’t be as visible about it, that’s okay. Do whatever you can in your own way to tell them that you know that they’re the same person and that you do still love them.”
Olivia’s journey has led her to a place where she’s able to help others with an incredible positivity.
“Some people think that teenagers are too young to know their sexuality. Some people think that it’s a whole millennial craze. Just know that this is something your loved one wanted to share with you. That it’s a really special thing. I haven’t told my whole family. It’s not something that we necessarily broadcast. If you do know, then you’re special–you’re special to them. That’s a great relationship, so treasure that even if it’s hard for you to comprehend.”