Zachary Mallory, 18, of Independence is a senior at Van Horn High School. Mallory came out as gay his freshman year. In October, Mallory received the HALO (Helping and Leading Others) Effect Award from Nickelodeon for his work with national anti-bullying and suicide-prevention groups including the Trevor Project. Locally he is active in the LikeMe Lighthouse community center for LGBT people and the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project. The University of Missouri-Kansas City gave Mallory a Rising Star award for creating a more inclusive environment at his high school, where he helped start a branch of the Gay-Straight Alliance. In April, Mallory traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to pass the Safe School Improvement Act. This conversation took place at his home.
When did you become an activist?
It started in 2012 when I went to my first gay pride festival in Kansas City. I was really excited. I was still being bullied in school at that point, getting pushed down stairs and pushed into lockers, so it was a totally different experience to be accepted. There were a whole bunch of organizations down there, and some of them wanted me to get involved with them, so I volunteered.
Why did you make the decision to come out as a freshman, at age 14?
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It wasn’t easy. It caused a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety. I felt like I was living a lie. I felt like I was saying false things about myself, like people didn’t know this true side of me.
When did you realize you were gay?
I knew from a very young age. I had a boyfriend in elementary school, in the same innocent way other young boys have a girlfriend.
A lot of people say homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. Did you choose to have a crush on a boy rather than a girl?
I honestly don’t think it is a choice. It isn’t until you get older and hormones kick in that you fully understand what is going on, but I knew in elementary school that I was different. I only hung out with girls.
By the time I was in fourth grade I had a girlfriend, like a lot of boys did, and I had a boyfriend, who was like my best friend. I noticed that my feelings for my boyfriend were very different than the feelings for my girlfriend.
I jokingly “came out” in sixth grade to my girlfriend at the time but no one else. I was like, “I think I may be gay.” She was the first person I said that to. And she said, “You know what? I think you are, too.” And I said, “I’m sorry.”
As the years went by it became more like a reality and I had to adapt and accept my true self.
What was it like telling your parents?
It was very hard. They did not accept it at first. They were not completely against it; they just didn’t like it. My mom’s problem was, she wanted grandkids — and I’m going to give her some. I can still do that. That was her major thing. She just wants the best for me. Now she is completely wrapped around it, completely accepting.
You said you were a drug addict. When did you start using drugs?
At the age of 12. I had friends that were getting drugs from their parents.
What kinds of drugs did you take?
Oxycodone and OxyContin, anything that made the pain from being bullied go away. The bullying started in kindergarten because I was fat and talked like a girl, walked like a girl, kept to myself. Other kids pushed me off the merry-go-round, pushed me off the swings.
It got worse every year after that. In fifth grade one of my friends called me a faggot.
And then it got even worse in middle school. On top of that, in seventh grade my best friend, the only person I could really confide in at that time, was accidentally shot and killed by his brother. I attempted suicide my eighth-grade year — I still have the knife scars.
What happened when you started high school?
I had thought, “It can’t get any worse.” But it did.
I talked to some counselors at school before I came out. They asked me if I had had thoughts about having sex with a guy, and I said I hadn’t gone that far in my thoughts, but that I definitely thought about having an intimate relationship, in the sense of being there for each other, with a guy.
Because except for my mom and my grandmother (pauses) … my grandmother passed away in February last year, and it’s really hard to talk about her. She was my whole life. She was supportive from the very first time I told her I was gay. She said, “I still love you, regardless. You’ll always be my favorite.”
My grandmother and my mom were the only people that were honestly there for me. I wanted somebody else to be there and in my heart I knew I wanted it to be a man. I’ve seen so many successful people being gay and I just wanted to be one of those people.
What happened when you came out to your classmates?
Most people accepted me but there were jocks on the football team and the wrestling team that would always pick on me in the locker room and in PE class. Getting told that I would never be anything but a failure in life by students and having teachers quote Bible verses at me to try to get me to change got into my head.
I started using drugs even more. I used to make myself throw up at home so I wouldn’t have to go to school just so I could go a whole day without getting bullied.
When you got pushed down stairs and pushed into lockers, did you report it?
No, I didn’t tell anybody.
Back then I wasn’t the person I am now. I’ve overcome a lot. I never shared my feelings, I never shared what happened to me. I always kept it inside.
Toward the end of my sophomore year, after I tried to kill myself and I was using drugs a lot, I asked my parents to check me into a hospital and I stayed there three or four days. I got a lot off my chest and left there feeling great. I got sober and I never even think about drugs now.
How did you end up going to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to pass the Safe School Improvement Act?
It was very sudden and unexpected. I got a phone call from GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) and they said, “You’re going to D.C.” It was the very first time I ever flew. It was the first time I had ever even been outside Missouri except for Kansas.
What is the Safe School Improvement Act?
It says schools have to enact codes that prohibit bullying of gays or anybody, and they have to file a report each year to measure progress. When I got back from the trip there was no backlash at school. I haven’t been bullied since.
Do you think people’s attitudes changed when you started to get national recognition, or do you think they just decided to quit picking on you?
I think they sensed that they couldn’t bother me anymore. I got so much more confidence. Maybe they were growing up but they could also see I wasn’t going to let it bother me anymore.
But the trip to D.C. and the Nickelodeon award also had a big impact on people. The ones I never thought would ever say something nice to me came up and told me “congratulations” and said I was making the school look really good, and that they were proud of me — people that had been bullying me since my sixth-grade year. Whenever that happened, I thought, “Who are you and what did you do with so-and-so?”
And then standing in front of everybody at the pep rally for homecoming when my school presented me with the HALO Award, I couldn’t even finish what I wanted to say, it was so emotional.
How did you find out that you won the award?
I got a call from a guy from Nickelodeon in New York. I was in my garage and I freaked out. I just wanted to throw the phone I was so excited, but I didn’t because I wanted to hear more about it. That was one of the best days ever.
What do you want to do after high school?
I want to become a nurse or an EMT. I’m used to being on my feet and being in stressful situations. I’ve got experience taking care of my dad after he had heart surgery and dealing with my grandpa and grandma and my mom — they all had health issues. I just love helping people. That’s my calling.
I got accepted to Blue River (Community College in Independence), so I’ll start there in the fall.
A federal judge ruled that Missouri’s gay marriage ban is unconstitutional and Jackson County allowed gay couples to get married last month. How did you feel when that happened?
That was one of those historic moments that I’ll never forget. I was in my bedroom and I got a text alert (that Jackson County was going to issue marriage licenses to gay couples) and I started yelling, “Mom! Mom!” She said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “They’re allowing it!” I showed her the text message and she said, “Oh, my God. We’re actually making progress.”
It’s overwhelming to think I will be allowed to express my love to whoever I want.
What do you think your life will be like when you are 30?
I would like to have a husband and kids and a house; I think that’s everyone’s American Dream. But I’m not a person who chases after the “I want” stuff. I’m not greedy. I honestly think I could be happy even if I was homeless.