When Tyler Rodriguez came out as gay before his freshman year of high school, he didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect from his “macho, Hispanic, military-driven father.” After causing a scene when his father used the word “fag” in front of him, Tyler’s worst nightmare became a reality.
“He essentially slapped down a pack of cigarettes and a knife and told me, ‘You’re either going to kill yourself this way or you’re going to kill yourself the other way,’” Tyler recalls. He spent that night as a hostage, trapped in the basement of his father’s home. The next morning, he got on a bus to go back home to his mother in the South Bronx.
While Tyler was discouraged by his father’s anger and hostility, he did not let his goals falter. He knew what he had to do next for his future, and the future of LGBTQ rights. As a member of only the fourth graduating class in his high school, he explains, “I was the first to come out in my school. There really weren’t that many openly gay people, but I came out to my school before I came out to my family.”
Because he belonged to such a small demographic at school, he was often bullied and made to feel like he didn’t belong. When Tyler’s teachers didn’t even know what to do to help him, he made the decision to help himself and make a change within his school.
“When I came out to my school, I started its first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). Now it’s an LGSA–‘lesbian’ has been added on. Being from the South Bronx, you don’t see a lot of that. Now, with current events, there are new initiatives to try and get more clubs that are inclusive,” Tyler explains.
Tyler’s main goal was to teach students about LGBTQ sexual education, because this is something he feels schools neglect to teach their students. Soon after the GSA was created, people within the community began reaching out to Tyler over Facebook. They acknowledged what he had done at his school and expressed interest in wanting to do the same.
“I kind of started my own little network of LGBT leaders and students who started GSAs. We all traded resources and that kind of stuff,” Tyler says. As word of Tyler’s work spread, the college access director at his high school gave him an opportunity to become even more involved in LGBT rights in the area. The director introduced Tyler to Sherrise Palomino, who was running for state assembly at the time and was devoted to teaching sexual education to adolescents. Through Palomino, Tyler landed an internship where he was able to teach sexual education himself. For Tyler, though, it was important that he taught not only heterosexual sex ed., but LGBT sex ed. as well.
“I started realizing in the LGBT community, they never talk about sexual education and we have all these apps like Grindr, SCRUFF—I can go on and on. They’re very sexually charged, where older men are hooking up with younger men—it’s a lot of hooking up,” Tyler explains. “Students aren’t getting the proper information. It’s not being offered.”
At this point, Tyler took the initiative to get together with a group of students who acted as LGBT leaders in his community. They became advocates for comprehensive same-sex education, and worked for it to be added in as an amendment to the current New York State mandate through a campaign Palomino had started. Although Palomino did not win the election, Tyler’s work had a big impact on LGBT students in his area.
Ultimately, Tyler’s hope is to provide resources to LGBT students in the South Bronx who wouldn’t otherwise have what they needed to succeed. “People are so ready to quit on these students who have a lot to offer,” he explains. His goal is to give those students the same chance that he had to make a something of themselves, and to make a difference in the community.
Currently freshman at Marist, Tyler’s work for the LGBT community has not halted. He is the treasurer of LGSA as well as an active member. “I try to show that I am an ally in multiple ways,” he says. Outside of LGSA, Tyler works with resident assistants to host sexual education programs in the freshman dorms. He speaks about general college sexual education, but never fails to include LGBTQ sexual education as well, so as to break the stigma that may fall around the topic.
“What I want students on campus to realize is that you can be gay, straight, black, white, Asian–it doesn’t matter. You’re still human and we are all connected. I want people to start seeing the human in people.”