Troy Stover did not come out to himself or his classmates when he was a student at Salt Lake City's Highland High in the 1980s. He wasn't ready to acknowledge that he was what the other kids teased him for being gay.
But two decades later, Stover came out to a room full of Highland students as part of a national campaign to connect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths with positive adult role models. This spring, he became the first Utahn to volunteer with Live Out Loud's Homecoming Project.
"[High school] wasn't the greatest time of my life," said Stover, a 41-year-old health insurance analyst. "I just wanted to let them know: life changes. And life is so important."
The campaign is one of many that have sprung up in recent years to combat suicide, depression and substance abuse among LGBT youths. After a string of teen suicides tied to anti-gay bullying grabbed national headlines in September last year, the "It Gets Better Project" debuted on YouTube, inspiring more than 20,000 people, including President Barack Obama and Ellen DeGeneres, to make videos telling LGBT youths they are not alone and life gets better.
Live Out Loud got its start in New York a decade ago, after founder Leo Preziosi Jr. was troubled by news accounts of two gay teens who took their own lives. But his small nonprofit it has two full-time employees, including Preziosi, and one part-timer rolled out its first national campaign with The Homecoming Project and its first celebrity volunteer. Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, returned to his high school in Salinas, Calif., and spoke to a thousand students in spring 2009. He also spoke to a smaller group who launched the school's first Gay-Straight Alliance the next fall.
In a short video of Black's visit, he recalled growing up in a conservative Mormon family and knowing he was "going to hell" for being gay. He decided to "shrink and hide" in high school. But he ended up finding his first positive role model when a drama teacher played a recorded speech by Harvey Milk, San Francisco's openly gay city supervisor who was assassinated after being an outspoken voice for LGBT rights.
"The first time I heard that speech was the first time I really knew that someone loved me for me," Black told the students at his high school. "Ten years after he had given his life for his fight, he gave me hope."
But volunteers do not have to be Oscar-toting celebrities to have an impact, said Preziosi. Most participants in the project have been "average Joes" who have found success in college or careers after high school. Live Out Loud arranges a speaking engagement with the high school, usually to a group of 20 to 30 students in an after-school setting not an assembly of a thousand. The group also gives some guidance on talking points.
"We ask people to share their personal story. It's nothing they have to study for," Preziosi said. "It's going to have a big impact on students, and you're going to change lives and possibly, save lives."
Close to 20 people have participated in the 3-year-old Homecoming Project so far, and Preziosi hopes another 30 volunteer in 2012. The project has grown slowly both because of limited publicity and the time it takes to set up each visit. Not every high school welcomes a speech by a gay or transgender adult, and Live Out Loud has been turned down by some schools, Preziosi said. But the group usually reaches out to a guidance counselor or GSA adviser to see if there is a club setting or diversity class that would welcome an LGBT speaker.
At Highland High, Stover spoke after school at a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Several teachers offered students extra credit to write about the speech. Stover spoke to about 35 students, he said, and shared his high school yearbooks and prom snapshots.
Stover, who grew up in the LDS faith, served a two-year mission in Florida, married at age 23 and had a son. But at age 31, he came out as gay, and he and his wife divorced.
"I just knew I needed something more and I needed to be honest with myself," said Stover, who lives in Salt Lake City with his partner of nine years. "I don't regret the choices and decisions I made prior to that, but it would have been nice to sit down with someone [who was gay] and see how life happened for them."
Ruth Campbell, an English teacher who serves as adviser to the Highland GSA, said the club would love to have Stover back this year. And he plans to return.
"He shared so much of his own personal journey, [the students] seemed to get to know him," she said. "There are more role models now than ever before [for LGBT youths], but I don't know that you can ever have enough."
The GSA at Highland, which has been around for more than a decade, has created a supportive space for LGBT youths and their friends, Campbell said. Nationally, 85 percent of LGBT students experienced verbal harassment at school, according to a 2009 survey of 7,621 teens by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Nearly one in five said they had been punched, kicked or injured with a weapon because of their sexual orientation.
"Every student, every single student needs to know that they have a safe, welcoming environment," Campbell said. "They need to know there are teachers who care about them, that their principals care about them and that they have a safe place to be. We have that at Highland High."
About Live Out Loud
What • A New York-based nonprofit that aims to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths to live their dreams and celebrate their diversity by connecting them with role models in the LGBT community.
Volunteer • "The Homecoming Project" brings LGBT adults who are now in college or careers back to the high schools they graduated from to speak about their experiences. Live Out Loud coordinates visits or offers a "do-it-yourself" kit at http://bit.ly/vVgAO8.
More online • For lesson plans and more information about Live Out Loud, go to http://www.liveoutloud.info.