When Jamal Marshall came out during his freshman year of high school, he knew only one other gay persona classmate he'd been friends with since the fourth grade.
"It'd have been way different for me [if I knew about other people]," Marshall says. "I could never really imagine someone being gay. I had no clue how big the population of homosexuals was… At that moment, it just seemed like being gay was really rare."
Through his work with Youth Pride Services (YPS), an advocacy and leadership organization for LGBTQ youth of color, Marshall, 18, hopes to reduce stigma and create positive images of Black gay men for younger generations.
"YPS is about getting people to view us as being normal," Marshall says. "I feel like everyone out here has an equal opportunity."
For Marshall, a high school senior who lives with his mother in Maywood, Ill., much of that work starts at home. He describes his family as tolerantbut not supportiveof his sexual orientation.
Marshall recalls coming out to his mother via text message because "it was kind of awkward to talk to her in person." His mother, a registered nurse, cried for several days and asked Marshall whether he wanted to become a female and wear dresses or makeup.
"She was asking me stereotypical questions based on stereotypes about gay people… and it really, really bothered me," Marshall says. "I feel I've been gay all my life. But for the simple fact that my mom and my family taught me religion, I thought it was wrong, and I kind of questioned myself."
About a year after he told his mother, other relatives discovered Marshall was gay through Facebook. One aunt reacted particularly harshly, calling him out during his final exam week.
"She was texting me, telling me I was going to go to jail, that I was going to put my momma in the hospitalnot knowing that my mom already knew," Marshall says. "She told me she didn't love me no more. I was in tears taking my final. I couldn't concentrate. I ended up flunking my final."
Over time, Marshall's family has come around. His auntwho Marshall describes as a typical Virgo, "that type of person to react first, and then think later"is now the most accepting of his family. And his mother is warming up to the idea of a gay son.
"We have a lot of youth who have parents who say that they're supportive," YPS founder Frank Walker says, "but they're really more tolerant than supportive."
Marshall explains: "To be supportive, you will embrace the fact that your child is gay, instead of just trying to ignore it and not really bring it up. Like, my mom can't use the word 'gay' or 'boyfriend.' She'll just say 'your friend.' She doesn't really embrace the fact that I'm gay."
Despite the difficulties, Marshall considers himself lucky.
"[My mother's] intentions are always good, and she ain't ever done me wrong," he says. "Compared to how I see most people, it could be ten times worse. You've got people out here, whose parents are kicking them out, sending them to a psychiatrist, beating them… My momma has always been there to hold my hand through it all."
Marshall travels from his Maywood home to the Loop for YPS meetings, a trek he finds daunting but worthwhile because it connects him to the larger gay community. He says there aren't many LGBT resources in the suburbsechoing a sentiment Windy City Times has heard in countless youth interviews.
As Marshall applies for colleges for next fall, he says his life goals are to be successful and to bridge gaps between gay and straight communities. He credits YPS with connecting him to LGBT peers and leaders, who are helping him come into his own as a gay man and activist.
This eight-week series seeks to capture youth voices not typically represented in Windy City Times and other media. The young people portrayed have many housing situations, gender identities and sexual orientations. The series looks primarily, but not exclusively, at Boystown, where an influx of young LGBTQ people has been a source of controversy. Windy City Times will continue to explore the issues raised here beyond this series.
See more from this series on www.youtube.com/windycitytimes and www.vimeo.com/windycitytimes and or click the "YOUTH" tab at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com .