"It was really bad at first. I didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was," said Adam Plendl of his decision to be openly gay at Le Mars Community High School.
On the other hand, with the support of administration, some friends and some teachers, the decision meant he found peace within himself.
"My school year was affected more when I wasn't out of the closet than when I actually did come out," said, one of two Le Mars residents to receive the Matthew Shepard scholarship for gay and lesbian students. (See June 21 Daily Sentinel)
"Not coming out had a huge personal impact on myself. I was just really depressed and really just sick of hiding myself and not feeling what I wanted to feel and expressing those feelings openly with everyone else.
"Just trying to hide it, I got really depressed and my grades just started going down. I didn't do schoolwork. I just didn't do a lot of anything. I didn't want to even get out of bed in the morning sometimes," he recalled.
The problem was, he was afraid because he didn't know what the community acceptance level would be.
"But I had reached the point where I couldn't stay in the closet anymore. I had to come out," he said
He made the decision last fall; but he didn't swing the closet door wide. He started opening it slowly.
Told his Mom; then a few friends. Then someone overheard and Plendl started getting questions, which he doesn't quite understand or accept yet. "People don't walk up to each other, 'Oh my gosh, are you straight?' It's nobody's business," said Plendl.
But classmates were making it their business and asked him if he was gay.
"I just finally started saying, 'Yeah. So what if I am? Does it affect you? No.' And then people started being a little more accepting of it," he said.
Nonetheless, "There were a lot of kids still who were just very homophobic," he said. Harassment, mostly in the form of snickers and derogatory comments behind his back in the school hallway, started and continued through the end of the school year.
All-in-all Principal Larry Johnson felt LCHS students were accepting of Plendl being openly gay. "We're talking about a lot of kids there and I think for the most part they were accepting. I think most of the kids were going up and down the hallways and not worrying about it," he said.
"I don't hide it. I'm not ashamed of it. That's who I was created to be. That's who I am," Plendl said. "I just blew it off, because, you know what, I really don't care. It doesn't mean much."
He did, however, tell Johnson and found in him, an ally willing to work against the hate.
"Larry Johnson, the principal, was really great with dealing with me on harassment issues. I would take names and whatever and he would deal with the issues. It got a lot better than I thought it was going to at first," said Plendl.
His car was vandalized and Johnson worked with the student to find places in the parking lot best seen on the video camera tapes.
Asked if a student should have to worry about a car being vandalized because of sexuality issues, Johnson answered, "Well, he doesn't. He has to worry about his car being vandalized because it's parked in the school parking lot. … You can think for yourself what you want and probably figure out it might have been that; but, there's no way to know for sure."
Some teachers were also supportive and one provided the information about the Shepard scholarship to Plendl. The scholarship is for board, room, tuition, and books at any of Iowa's three state universities. It's valued at about $25,000, depending on tuition.
Plendl, a debater, extemporaneous speaker, choir and show choir member and Quiz Bowl member who graduated 23rd in the Class of 2004 with a 3.72 average, will study political science and criminal justice at the University of Northern Iowa.
He was relieved when there was no booing or other outbursts when the scholarship was announced by representatives of the Matthew Shepard scholarship committee, including a description about why the scholarship is given to gay and lesbian students.
But the scholarship is an issue for him with the school district. Although the second biggest of those announced, it is not listed on the school's website.
Johnson said many scholarships aren't listed on the website.
Plendl also said there is no information such as pamphlets, hotline numbers or contact information on sexuality issues in the guidance counselors' offices. "The school has no information about sexuality or resources at anybody's disposal at all. That's very not normal for most public schools in the state," he said. "I felt like our counseling area was very unsupportive of any kind of sexuality, any kind of information or counseling for those issues."
The lack of information, he explained, made it that much for frightening to "come out" because there was "nowhere to go."
However, conversations with Superintendent Todd Wendt led the gay student to believe that will change in the future.
Another issue with the school district for him is the gay-straight alliance he wanted to start. He said he was first told any adult in the community could be a sponsor, then later learned it had to be a school representative. Plendl plans to be a regional advocate and start a gay-straight alliance in the fall with or without school support.
Johnson said the requirement has always been for the sponsor of a school organization to be someone who is a school employee.
When Plendl heard comments from the football team, he said he found it uncomfortable to go to the counselor, who is also the coach, about the problem.
Johnson explained that relating to a counselor can be a problem for different reasons so options are made available. Female students, for example, are sometimes not comfortable with a male counselor so they are directed to other female staff, such as a female counselor in the middle school, he explained.
The situation was investigated and the coach told Johnson he did not hear any comments.
Plendl's plan, besides college, is to support others in Le Mars who face the question of being openly gay which he relates to his own experiences.
"I thought I was different from everyone else since at least middle school, if not earlier. But I really didn't know. I really started thinking about it over the summer last year. I came to the realization that I just definitely was not a heterosexual person and I needed to express myself as who I was if I truly wanted to be happy," he said.
"I will be around in the fall if anybody does want to look at getting more information or networking. There is no one else out there at all right now that's out. When Tyler (Clarey) and I leave, there'll be no one out at our high schools. It's very, very frightening to come out alone."
Plendl's decision to come out of the closet also affected his family. His Mom has been very supportive; but he was worried about community reaction for her, as well.
Then, there's younger brother, Ben Plendl, who has three more years at Le Mars Community.
"…Ben, who's had probably a harder time dealing with this than I have. He's also had his car vandalized once or twice. It's guilt by association. 'Your brother is. Oh my gosh, you must be.' That's just not who he is and that's just not how he is and I wish people would realize that," said the big brother.
For Adam Plendl, it's not an issue for himself anymore -- he is who he is.
"They weren't violent or anything but there were a lot of people that I just knew were very opposed to my choice to be who I wanted to be. I just know that was their prerogative to feel that way but it's still my right to feel how I want to feel and be who I want to be, too."