Kristel Yoneda remembers her high school years at University Laboratory School as many people remember theirs — as a time of confusion.
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Yoneda had close friends, but she recalls realizing she was "a little bit different" by her sophomore year, and some of her classmates were harassing and teasing her.
"Thankfully our high school had a no-tolerance (policy) for fighting, so I never got beaten up or anything like that," said Yoneda, who grew up in Pearl City. "But there were a few experiences where I felt unsafe or unwanted."
That feeling became magnified when she was called into a counselor’s office and asked about her sexuality.
"As soon as she started talking and I saw the conversation was going to this really inappropriate place, I just felt really overwhelmed," Yoneda recalls. "It was in that tone of, like, ‘OK, you better not tell me you’re gay.’ I kind of adamantly denied it until it got to the point where I was getting a little loud."
Yoneda, now 27, is no longer denying her sexuality. In fact, she made a video relating the incident for "It Gets Better," the online project that encourages members of the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender community to tell their stories. In addition, an edited transcript of her video — one of 1,470 submitted for the project — was selected to appear in the book version of the project, scheduled for release today. Kalaheo resident Matthew Houck, who became active in gay rights while attending Columbine High School in Colorado, also appears in the book.
"It Gets Better," organized by columnist Dan Savage of the Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger, is aimed at young people struggling with their sexual identity. It was launched in response to a series of suicides by gay teenagers who had been harassed and attacked by their peers and ignored by adults who could have helped them. The project has attracted videos from a broad spectrum of people, including President Barack Obama, actress Anne Hathaway, professional rugby player Gareth Thomas, singer Gloria Estefan and hundreds of people from all walks of life.
Yoneda decided to make her own video when she looked at the videos and realized there were no Asian-American contributors and none from Hawaii.
"I thought, ‘I’m in a good place, I’m happy with myself,’" she said. "I’m in a place where I can try to help others."
Her video has been well received, with more than 4,500 views, and Yoneda said she has received emails from around the country and from teenagers in Hawaii. She has also received messages from former classmates offering apologies and support.
Yoneda’s sunny disposition helped her through some of the difficulties of growing up gay, but she also remembers friends who tacitly offered unconditional support.
"One of my best friends gave me a sticker or a patch. It was a gay pride thing," said Yoneda, who didn’t come out to her parents until college. "She was, like, ‘I’m just giving this to you; we don’t have to talk about it.’ At first I was kind of overwhelmed. I didn’t know if I was ready to admit that to her, but the fact that she sort of reached out to me, in her own way …"
Now living in Los Angeles, Yoneda is a freelance writer who has had articles published in Hawaii Women’s Journal and by Bamboo Ridge. Her contribution to "It Gets Better" has given her a perspective on life that should give heart to teens who are facing sexual identity issues.
"I think I ended up being much stronger than I thought I was back then," she said. "Being able to survive something like that, I mean it really changes a person, and I think it changed me for the better."