On April 19th, 1993, In Newsweekly, ran a story on my friend, Jessica Byers, who was then on the Governor’s Commission for Gay and Lesbian Youth. Jessica inspired me to volunteer with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights to advocate for the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law in Massachusetts.
More from InNews Weekly:
On April 3, 1993, the applause would not stop.
As 17-year-old Jessica Byers held in her shaking hands the gold-plated, wooden plaque inscribed with her name, the very first award to be presented at the Fourth Annual Lesbian and Gay Community, the applause would not stop.
Until the tears in the corners of her swollen brown eyes finally began to trickle down her flushed cheeks, it seemed the applause would never end, and the audience would never sit down.
“I don’t think there has been anyone as ‘out’ in Massachusetts, or, the whole nation as Jessica,” said David LaFontaine, who was standing to the left of her on the stage.
LaFontaine worked closely with Byers, who co-chairs the Commissions’s Education Committee, since the Commission was founded in June of 1992 to address the health needs of gay and lesbian youth. When presenting the award to Jessica looking directly at her, he said “It has been my pleasure to work with her.”
About ten days before, a more composed Jessica Byers walked into Moka, Copley Place’s coffee hangout about forty minutes late for her afternoon interview. Despite the fact that she arrived in the middle of a downpour, this pretty senior from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School held herself with perfect poise.
In fact, after accepting a cup of black coffee and a magnitude of apologies, Jessica sat comfortably answering the questions as they came her way.
“I came out to myself at 13 or 14, or at least, that’s when I stopped trying to deny it,” said Byers, slowly treading the waters of her responses until she made up her mind to trust this reporter. “Once I admitted it, it explained a lot.”
Like, perhaps, the strong attraction she once had for a female summer camp counselor, and the fact that she never liked guys. The fact that she never liked guys was a major concern for Jessica in junior high, a concern which would lead her to come out about her sexuality at such an early age. The adults in her life constantly reminded her there was no rush, but with the passing of each year, Jessica tried to convince herself eventually she would start liking boys.
“Finally, I got sick of having this secret and came out to my best friend, Emily,” says Jessica with her eyes wide open. “I think she knew before I did.”
Jessica who shows her youthfulness only when she talks of embarrassing situations, shakes her head remembering how she and Emily devised a rumor that she liked some boy. The plan backfired when the boy returned the attention.
“Everyone found out I was going with him,” said Jessica. “Afterwards, I realized I was a lesbian.”
After coming out to Emily, Jessica didn’t tell anyone else until she was 15 and a sophomore. Although her group of friends attempted to be supportive, Jessica said it was hard for them because they hadn’t thought it all the way through.
Jessica recalled one girl in particular she wanted to be friends with. During a vacation, the two girls took with her grandparents, Jessica came out to the girl. The girl told Jessica she understood and would support her, but a week later, back at school, the girl told all her friends.
“I stayed home because I was so afraid of how people would react,” said Jessica, who upon her return to school, received a few strange looks. “Nobody said anything blatantly homophobic.”
Eventually Jessica said she got sick of avoiding the topic and joined Boston’s Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY) and Project Ten East at her school. Says Jessica, looking back, “When I started talking about it, people were curious.”
“I know that being gay is not something you can choose, it just happens. I don’t want to be a lesbian though. It would be so hard. I can’t really do anything about it now, but if anyone knew, it would be awful. I know kids my own age would never accept this kind of thing. If anyone reads this, I’ll die. I don’t even want to predict the pain this situation will bring me in the future. It’s bad enough now. I’m just waiting for the time to come out when I am completely comfortable with myself, and all my friends are OK with it.”
– from the diary of Jessica Byers, age 14,
documented public testimony, June 1992
For Adelaide Goetz, who was also 15 when she joined BAGLY and met Jessica Byers, “Jessica is someone I respected then and admire now.”
In speaking with Jessica one-on-one, it’s hard to believe this extremely genuine soft-spoken young woman has been so outspoken over the last year in the press. Although her thick brown hair is cut fairly short and she dresses in non-descript, darker tones, her character remains extremely innocent and feminine. Laughing, she says, “If I had only known that there was going to be so much public speaking….!”
This speaking has been the hardest part for Jessica. “I’m not loud or outspoken,” says Byers, who became involved because she thought it was important to tell people about what she had gone through. “I thought it was the worst thing, no one should have to go through this if I can help them.”