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Gay Georgia teen overcomes many hurdles
by Ross Forman

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Derrick Martin starts classes this fall at Georgia Southern University to pursue a law degree, and he's going on a full scholarship after graduating from high school with all honors.

But his final months at Bleckley County High School in Cochran, Ga., were part nightmare, part Hollywood script—and, amazingly, all real.

Let's jump back to the spring, when Martin decided he was going to his senior prom with his boyfriend at the time, Richard Goodman. Martin first told the school's principal and, well, that's when the drama started.

"At first, the school said, 'No,'" Martin said. "My principal told me that Bleckley County was not ready for 'this,' and that I would have to change my date. After some meetings with the superintendent and [ the ] school board, the principal was told that they could not forbid me from taking my boyfriend because there was no mention of this in the handbook."

So Martin and Goodman were prom-bound, all set for the April 17 extravaganza.

"Prom went without a hitch," Martin said. "When we arrived, we were cheered into the building, and no one bothered us all night. We slow danced to a couple songs, and by the end of the night, it was like we were no different from those dancing around us.

"When I [ first ] announced that I was going to take my boyfriend, I got a mixed response. All of my friends were fine with it. In fact, they were extremely proud of me for standing up for myself. However, there was were a few particular social groups in my school that thought what I was doing was wrong, and that I was bringing shame to their town by announcing it, especially on the [ local ] news. I was threatened with things like being paint-balled when I got out of the car at prom, to someone telling me that he had a gun in his car with my name on it. It was a very stressful time in my life.

" [ But, ] from the moment we got out of the car, we were cheered at from everyone at the red-carpet walkthrough. Once inside, we just made sure we were with friends and that we never went anywhere alone, just to be sure no one tried anything stupid. No one bothered us, and we had a great time. We danced all night long, and when we left, I surprised him by blindfolding him and taking him to the beach in Savannah."

Martin and Goodman dated for about a year, but have since broken up.

"We came to an impasse, and felt it was our only choice," Martin said.

Martin was a member of several organizations in high school, including the Future Educators Association, Future Business Leaders Association, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, chorus and drama.

But the drama he endured at home earlier this year was anything but make-believe. It was all-too-real—perhaps surreal.

"I came home the day that I did my first interview with the local paper, and [ my parents ] had already read it," Martin said. "I got home later than usual; I had decided to go eat with a few co-workers after work at a local tutoring facility for at-risk children. When I came in the door, my mother told me, 'You need to move out; get your things and go.'"

Martin, 19, was on his own—because of his parent's objection to his sexual orientation.

"The first few weeks were terrible," Martin said. "I just can not describe the feelings of both abandonment and rejection that were racing through my mind.

"I lived with a really good friend and her family. It was very tumultuous, as I was being contacted by media and countless individuals who wanted to help, but my parents wouldn't even talk to me. It was hard, but it really made me a stronger person."

Martin has, as of mid-July, only spoken with his parents once since he was kicked out—when they informed him that his dog had died.

"My lowest point was the night after my parents kicked me out," Martin said. "I felt so alone, and didn't sleep all that night. GLAAD and all those who contacted me helped me to dig out, by showing me that there were others out there [ who ] wanted to help."

Martin came out late in his sophomore year which, he admits, was dramatic and painful.

"I was kept away from my boyfriend by my parents, and it ended up killing our relationship," he said.

Martin is motivated and driven, a teen with a goal well beyond his ages. This summer, he launched Project LifeVest, and is its president.

"When I first was contacted by an organization that re ally wanted to help, it was GLAAD," Martin said. "They took almost all of the work from me, and allowed me to live the life of a normal teenager, while they handled the media. Then, when I came to California, I was invited to an event where I would be presented with a Courage Award alongside Constance McMillen [ the Mississippi lesbian teen who had her own prom-related issues this past spring ] . It was GLAAD who threw me the life vest that I needed, and it was Lifeworks LA that inspired me to create an organization that does not exist in Georgia where I live.

"Life now is very exciting. I am living with two great friends of mine who took me into their home when I came out to California. Lately, all of my time has been completely devoted to LifeVest, and I am extremely proud of the work that we will be doing."

The mission of Project LifeVest is simple, as stated on its website: "To be a helping hand, a life vest, to as many LGBTQ teens and adults as possible. We will carry out this mission through the establishment of safe places in as many cities as possible; through opening a call center with a qualified and well-educated and experienced team of counselors who can give advice and guidance where needed; through finding qualified and screened families who can, if the need arises, host rejected teens while they finish schooling or find a new place."

Said Martin: "Today's LGBTQ youth have so many pressures to take on. We do have an easier time than the youth of 50 years ago, and times are still changing. I'm just glad to be able to work toward such an amazing goal, standing by others like myself: Constance, Caleb [ Laieski ] , and a few others who are working behind the scenes."

Laieski is a teenager in Arizona who has endured incredible taunts, even death threats, since revealing he was gay. Laieski has since founded Gays and Lesbians United Against Discrimination ( GLUAD ) .

"Derrick Martin's experience in high school is somewhat different than [ mine ] ," Laieski said. "My experience is more bully and harassment based, as his is more discrimination based.

"However, we both share the common experience of homophobia in schools, often cited as 'hatred in the hallways.'

"I applaud Derrick for taking this bold stand in a part of the country, rural Georgia, which is not [ traditionally ] receptive to openly gay people or gay rights. He has brought national attention to bringing same-sex dates to school functions and further put school districts across the country on notice that openly gay teens do attend their schools and, as time goes on, they will no longer accept discrimination. School administrators must modernize their policies accordingly.

"Luckily, Derrick was able to take his boyfriend to the prom. However it cost him his family. Derrick founded his own organization, Project LifeVest. The goals of this organization may seem simple, but really [ are ] one of the top resources that there is a demand for within our community."

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