This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Eighteen-year-old Rymil Johnson said he was doing fine until the summer before 10th grade.
That’s when his dad discovered he is gay.
“He cracked a broomstick over my head,” recalled Johnson. “My grandma made him take me to the hospital. I had to lie and say that I got jumped.”
His mother had died when he was 14. Telling the truth about his beating to the Department of Human Services (DHS), however, was “the biggest mistake ever.”
DHS first placed him in a group home for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth but switched him to a second group home, which he hated. Feeling unaccepted, he dropped out of George Washington High School and fled to New York City. There, he resorted to shoplifting and relied on friends who let him sleep on their couches and shared prize money they won at Balls (“think big gay fashion shows”).
“A lot of gays drop out – or get pushed out,” said Johnson. “They live at home and they’re not accepted, so they look for acceptance other places, and school just don’t become a priority … maybe what they do all day is find somewhere where they feel comfortable.”
Nationally, LGBT students are “1.75 times as likely to consider dropping out of school as their heterosexual peers,” according to a 2009 National Education Association report.
Johnson, feeling “Philly-sick,” returned after a month and enrolled in Ben Franklin High School, which he called “crazy.” He cut class every day.
DHS placed him in another LGBT group home in New York, where he attended Harvey Milk High School, a safe-zone school for LGBT youth.
He loved Milk, but had troubles at the group home and returned again to Philadelphia. Before long, he was kicked out of the educational program he enrolled in (he forgets which) for yelling at a teacher who had said something “inappropriate.”
Some might think Johnson would have lost hope, but he laughed, explaining that his “gay family” got him a long way.
Older gays are his “gay parents.” Peers, including those he knows from competitive ballroom dancing, are his “gay brothers and sisters.”
Johnson suggested that to help gay youth feel comfortable, Philadelphia should create an LGBT-friendly school like Milk High. He said it might “empower” gay youth to think, “I’m gay but, I could do this. … I could really be something.”
His current guardian (his “gay father”) suggested he enroll in YouthBuild, a charter school that integrates classroom learning with internships in healthcare, technology or construction. It is housed in the same building as YESPhilly, a GED and career prep center.
“I was never up for building no houses or nothing,” said Johnson, “but I came here to enroll in YouthBuild, but instead I came to the second floor and thus I found [YES Philly].”
With aspirations to go into fashion design, he took immediately to the program’s media arts component. He plans to earn a GED and a dual degree in graphic and fashion design at University of the Arts before returning to New York. “I will not make it nowhere in the fashion industry if I’m living in Philadelphia,” he laughed.
His career aspirations and his five-year-old sister keep him motivated. He doesn’t want her to ever have to work. To support her, “I would live in a cardboard box in the middle of Broad Street. All I ask is that she stay in school.”