When a photo of seniors Dylan Meehan and Brad Taylor went viral two weeks ago after fellow Carmel High School students voted them "Cutest Couple" in the yearbook, the two gay teens were flooded with personal stories and support by other LGBT young people.
Yet, their story would have been unheard of a decade ago in Putnam County and in many places across the nation.
"We do see institutional changes happening. We're delighted that it's trickling down to high schools," said Joseph Coe, a community liaison for VCS Gay Pride Rockland, a community group promoting social justice and education. "While that is true, we still must acknowledge that not every community or every high school is a safe place for LGBT youth. There is still a lot of work to be done."
The fact is that Meehan, 18, and Taylor, 17, are in a model environment for acceptance. They live in a state where same-sex marriage has been legalized. The couple, who've been dating for more than a year, attends a school where teachers and social workers have made concerted efforts to create a safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.
"Kids aren't hiding anymore," Carmel High School Principal Kevin Carroll said. "They feel free, and they feel safe in the school -- that's the way it is."
The smiling photo of Meehan and Taylor became a national story when their friend, Chelsea Blaney, posted the "cutest couple" picture on Tumblr. The post has received 121,000 notes on the site and spawned news articles and TV stories across the web and on networks like CNN.
Carmel's environment of acceptance was created in part by Mary Jane Karger, co-chairwoman of the Gay Lesbian Student Education Network in the Hudson Valley. Now the head of a regional group, from 1977 to 2008, Karger was a school social worker at Carmel High School. In 1996, her son told her he was gay, prompting Karger to become part of a movement.
"I was so passionate," Karger said. "I wanted to make sure my school could be as safe as any place."
Against that backdrop, Meehan and Taylor told friends and family they were a couple last year and found acceptance.
"Everyone that we told when we were first coming out was completely fine with it," Meehan said. "We've never really faced anyone being like 'oh, you're gay' like that's a bad thing."
NOT ALL ACCEPT CHANGING ATTITUDES
From guidance counselors posting "safe space" stickers, to librarians celebrating Gay Pride month with books in the library, to the eventual formation of a Gay Straight Alliance, over the last two decades, the Carmel High's staff worked to make the school safe for LGBT youth, Karger said.
"It planted the seeds and helped students to understand what this movement is all about," Karger said. "We know that the students are getting it more now and are much more accepting than they were a decade ago for sure."
Still, even at Carmel, acceptance isn't universal.
John Niebuhr, a 16-year-old junior at Carmel, said many students didn't want Meehan and Taylor representing their school. Niebuhr posted a derogatory word in his tweet about the couple with the hashtag "WhatIsWrongWithOurSchool."
Niebuhr said he disagrees with Meehan and Taylor's relationship, though he does recognize their right to live how they want to live.
"I'm a very religious person and I just believe that it's not right . . . and it's not what God would like," Niebuhr said.
He said there are students at his school who feel the same way but don't speak up. That may be because of the backlash: Niebuhr was called names for his post on Twitter.
HUDSON VALLEY AS A REGION HAS CHANGED
Throughout the Hudson Valley, people who had simply been bystanders before have started to speak up for young people, said J.R. Cehonski, a Youth Pride coordinator at CANDLE in New City, a nonprofit youth advocacy group.
"The change is that there are a lot more people who are aware of bullying and LGBT issues," Cehonski said.
Travis Amiel, a 17-year-old junior at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, said his Westchester County school is also generally accepting of gay teens like himself. He came out in eighth grade when he attended Briarcliff Manor schools, which was also a gay-friendly place, he said.
"Kids feel comfortable coming out in general," said Amiel, who leads his school's Gay Straight Alliance and hosts a local radio program on LGBT issues.
Dozens of schools have gay/straight alliances and most in the region already had policies about discrimination based on sexual orientation even before it was required by a 2012 New York State law.
However, Cehonski said, every teen can have a different experience with acceptance, depending on the school they attend or the circle of friends that surround them. Amiel said some individuals often struggle with how and when to announce their sexual orientation.
"It is very different depending on the school district and the schools within the district and the different communities that exist within the Hudson Valley," Cehonski said. "Youth experiences are very different even within the same school as to the relative acceptance and appreciation.
In weekly support meetings that Cehonski runs for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, he hears many stories of struggle. He hears about gossiping, rumor-spreading and name-calling that tell him there's more work to do in supporting youth.
"There are subtle things that people do . . . sideways glances or jokes. Over time those things add up," Cehonski said, noting the common and hurtful usage of the phrase "That's so gay."
"One of the things we've seen in the past couple years has been that as acceptance moves forward, sometimes the backlash gets bigger," Cehonski said. "While the general population is more accepting, a smaller minority are not as accepting and they become louder and more vocal."
TRANSGENDER STUDENTS FACE BIG CHALLENGES
Transgender individuals are still facing some big obstacles, Cehonski said. Those who are transgender -- or gender-nonconforming -- don't fit into the molds of a woman who wears dresses or a boy who wants to play football.
"Often gender-nonconforming people get left out of the conversation," Cehonski said, noting that Meehan and Taylor's story might be different if they weren't "two boys who appear to be pretty gender-conforming."
"Would it be a different story if they didn't conform to gender roles? Would the school have voted them cutest couple? Would people have reacted the same way? Probably not," Cehonski said.
Amiel said Horace Greeley high added gender nonconformity to its anti-discrimination policy and offered transgender students a gender-neutral bathroom.
But Amiel said not every school has such policies and that the next step for the movement is to create supportive environments for transgender people.
"I know that there's a lot of work to be done," Amiel said.