When Jorge Martinez-Arevalo was in eighth grade, he was elected president of an LGBTQ+ after-school club at Unity Junior High School, in Cicero.
During his eighth-grade year, the club, which is known as NJAW ( short for "Never Judge, Always Welcomed" ), pushed the school district to be more inclusive of its gay and transgender students. Among other things, they screened a movie about gay teenagers who fall in love, held workshops about gender pronouns and petitioned the administration to respond to incidents of bullying with restorative justice.
Jorge gave his cell number to the group, and told his classmates they could text him with about any problems at school or at home. He said that people reached out to him at least once a day, mostly by text, saying things like, "Hi. I don't know what my sexuality is." He did his best to talk his classmates through whatever they were experiencing.
"There were moments when I would be talking to someone and what they experienced was so heavy that it took everything in my power for me not to burst out crying," Jorge said. "I would always tell them: I am your ally. I am here to help you."
"As heavy as it was, I took confidentiality seriously, and I was willing to be their punching bag."
At home, Jorge decorated his bedroom with rainbow flags and queer posters. He listened to songs about coming out and about self-acceptance. But Jorge never formally "came out" to his parents.
His mom, Elvira, and his dad, Nacor, both grew up in Mexico, and moved to the United States, where they met as adults. They've been married for 32 years and have five children together. Jorge, who is now 15 years old, is their fourth oldest child, and about to enter his sophomore year in high school. "Jorge's a good son," Elvira said. "Respectful. Very studious. A unique child."
Among friends, Jorge identifies as "queer," but he said the Spanish language doesn't have words that allow him to talk about his gender identity properly "It's very masculine or feminine. There is no gray, you know, it's her or him."
Jorge's family moved to Cicero a little more than a decade ago, where LGBT issues are a mixed bag. In 1998, a student who is transgender was crowned Prom Queen at Morton East High School. But more recently, the Cicero Police Department settled a lawsuit with a woman who is transgender and claimed to have been illegally stopped and harassed by police.
Earlier this summer, Jorge decided he wanted to formally "come out" to his parents.
"I would like to make it official," he said, "because, if not, then you're left in this weird sea of ambiguity."
"In the past, I would help others just to avoid helping me, but I feel like I can't do that anymore. You know? How can you love others if you can't love yourself first?"
In June, Jorge found his opening.
He was sitting with his parents, watching television one evening, when a commercial came on about LGBTQ Pride month. Jorge's dad jokingly turned to him and said, "Is there anything you want to say to me?"
"The best thing I can compare it to is like going into a roller coaster line," Jorge said, "You hear all the screaming of other people. And then you just need that final push to step on the platform, to go on the actual roller coaster."
Jorge told his parents: "I like boys and girls."
His mom said he seemed a little nervous when he told them. "Everyone can choose who they want to be with," she said. "I'm always going to be here for whatever he needs. The only thing that I'm a little confused about is whether it's something you're born with or something you grow up with."
"My mom straight up was like, 'Oh, I'm proud of you. You're my son,'" Jorge recalled. "But I sensed some disdain from my dad. And he kind of just took some minutes to himself and came back and said, 'Thank you for telling me.'"
"I felt discouraged, mad, angry," Jorge's father said, "but at the end, I gotta go along with it. What am I going to do? Kick him out of the house? I don't think so. ... I left my house when I was 15. It was real hard for me, being on the streets. I try to give him what I didn't have."
"I think that Jorge right now is still at a young age," his dad continued. "He's got to go through a lot of things still."
Jorge said "coming out" to his parents was about being his authentic self. "You're putting a lot on the line, even if you know you'll be fine, even if you have a safety net. It's still a scary experience."
"I think the neighbors already knew 'cause he wears some kind of a weird shirt," Jorge's dad said. "I wear a very colorful track suit," Jorge shot back.
"Tienes novio? ( Do you have a boyfriend? )" Nacor asked Jorge. "Not yet," Jorge responded, smiling. "Tienes novia? ( Do you have a girlfriend? )" Nacor asked. Jorge smiled again. "Also not yet."
Bill Healy is an independent journalist who produces StoryCorps for WBEZ and teaches documentary radio at Northwestern University.