It's never easy growing up feeling different. For many lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) teens, in addition to feeling different, they often feel disaffected and detached. Pittsfield native Jason Verchot remembers feeling the same as a youth.
"I came out when I was 18 and didn't know anyone in school or anywhere that was gay. Being gay wasn't something people talked about. I didn't actually tell my parents that I was gay -- they kind of suspected, but telling them was the easy part. The difficult part was coming out to everyone else. I came out to a select group of trusted friends, and I didn't really tell anyone else," said Verchot, who also serves as board president of the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition.
Trusting a close knit group of supporters is a common theme among LGBT people. In fact, many supporting organizations encourage waiting until the age of 18 to officially come out, yet research suggests that the age of "coming out" has been dropping in recent years. Easier access to information and widespread availability of support services for LGBT youth, such as those provided by Berkshire Stonewall, have provided greater opportunities for socialization and self-affirmation.
Yet it wasn't until after he graduated from high school and enrolled at Berkshire Community College that things seemed to change for Verchot.
"[By that time] I didn't really care what people thought," he said. "I dressed how I wanted, and it was quite obvious to everyone that I was gay. Then I went to the University of Massachusetts and found a great community there. It was an entirely different experience."
After graduating from UMass, he stayed in Amherst for a while before returning to Pittsfield.
"At first, I was reluctant to come home. I just didn't want to leave [that environment] and my safety net of friends," he said. "But when I did, I noticed that things had changed. Downtown had changed with more of a focus on the arts, and I think it made it easier to find acceptance in this area."
Going back to Berkshire Stonewall was a natural progression for him.
"I'd been a part of the organization since I was 17 as a member of their youth group," he said. "I became a member of the board about seven years ago."
Berkshire Stonewall was incorporated in 1997. Their mission is to promote the wellbeing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of the Berkshires. How they've done that has changed throughout the years depending upon needs. Today, they focus on getting information to the high schools and forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA).
"[At Berkshire Stonewall] we provide people with things to do and a safe environment so they can be comfortable being ‘out' amongst people who they know aren't judging them," Verchot said. "But we find that people still feel that they are being judged on certain levels."
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects released a collective report in May of 2013 on hate crimes against LGBTQ people. It noted that despite increased public and political acceptance of gays and lesbians, the number of crimes against LGBTQ people is the highest since 1998. The amount of physical violence, rather than just verbal abuse, has also skyrocketed -- and, not surprisingly, younger people, transgender people and people of color are targeted the most and are twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school.
For LGBT youth around the world, "fear is part of their daily lives. Fear of their parents finding out. Fear of rejection or of being thrown out of the house. For parents, it's the fear of rejection from their peers. It's fear in the workplace that they can't talk freely about a gay, lesbian, bi or trans loved one. Everyone should be able to live free of fear," says Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)."
Thanks to organization such as Berkshire Stonewall there has been positive change in regards to public feelings toward LGTB people in Berkshire County, and there is help and support to be found for LGBT teens, parents and their supporters.
"Today, it is a much different thing to be gay in Berkshire County," Verchot said.
When asked what words of support he would give to youth still struggling with a LGTB identity, he had this to say: "I tend to go back to that old cliché, ‘It gets better.' The world they live in is different than the world that I lived in, and is certainly different than the generation before me. All we can do is keep working to get things in an even better place for the next generation until the day comes when it won't even matter if we're gay or straight or whatever it is we want to be."
On the bridge
This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.
To learn more about Jason Verchot, visit our blog at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge