When Corey Bernstein was in middle school in Millburn, he was bullied so much he faked illness to stay home. When he told his guidance teacher about the bullying, the teacher said he must be lying. In eighth grade, his parents moved him to a private school in Hoboken.
Four years later, Corey, 17, now a senior, has become a vocal leader in the effort to stop bullying and to build support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. After coming out as gay in ninth grade, he went on to head the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and he is now cochair of the Youth Caucus of Garden State Equality, the organization that campaigns for LGBT rights in New Jersey.
In 2010 Corey played a leading role in getting the State Legislature to pass anti-bullying legislation.
Steven Goldstein, founder and chair of GSE, described Corey as “the very personification of tikun olam. To see how he embodies our Jewish values and commitment to heal the world makes me kvell more than words can describe. He has become a light for thousands of others.”
“I was so unhappy in middle school, I can understand why kids commit suicide,” Corey said in an interview with NJ Jewish News on Aug. 15. “I’m not sure why I was bullied; I hadn’t come out yet, and it was never about my being Jewish, but I suppose I was different. I wasn’t into sports, and I was short. But my parents were supportive and I was able to move to a better situation. What about those people who don’t have that option?”
Though watchful and soft-spoken, Corey conveys a kind of steely confidence that he said has been fostered by his family and people at his school and GSE who have taught him to organize and advocate.
It was those skills he put to work recently in confronting actor Kirk Cameron, the former teen star of the 1980s sitcom Growing Pains.
Now a married father of six and spokesman for conservative Christianity, Cameron was quoted on CNN earlier this year describing same-sex marriage as “destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization” and homosexuals as “detrimental” to society.
In the wake of the news coverage that followed, Bernstein wrote to Cameron trying to explain how hurtful such comments can be. “When I heard your comments, I personally felt you hated me — as did many other LGBT teens I know — without your having even met us,” he wrote.
“The problem is not just that you oppose marriage equality — a view we disagree with, but to which you are entitled in our free nation — but that you did so with such disregard for how we youth would perceive your words,” Corey continued. “Your statement that being LGBT is ‘destructive to our civilization,’ when millions of LGBT people like me try our very best every day to make our world a better place, was like a knife in the heart.
“Haven’t my teen colleagues and I endured enough hurtful words at school? What kind of lesson might you, as a public figure, be giving to would-be bullies?”
‘Making a difference’
Cameron was scheduled to speak in Ocean Grove at the end of July at a gathering organized by the Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist organization that plays a large part in the community. Corey invited the actor to meet teens and leaders of the local gay rights group Ocean Grove United for lunch on July 28. Cameron’s manager, Mark Craig, wrote back to decline, saying his client didn’t have time.
Corey earned support from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Dist. 6), who was contacted by GSE. He wrote to Craig, “These courageous young people are heartbroken by Mr. Cameron’s response, and so am I. As a Member of Congress, I have been disturbed by Mr. Cameron’s statements regarding marriage equality, but I am confounded by his reaction to a teen who reached out to him seeking a meaningful conversation.”
As it happens, nine CMA board members did attend the lunch; Corey said they listened attentively and agreed to further discussions about ways to avoid hurtful talk.
Asked by NJJN what advice he would give other teens facing bullying, Corey emphasized that every situation is different. “I tell them to find someone they trust, and tell them what happened, to get it off your chest,” he said, “someone supportive — unlike the guidance teacher I went to. If you’re left with a sense of shame and embarrassment, you start asking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ And then it becomes so much harder to talk about it.”
Corey’s mother, Donna, told NJJN she was relieved when her son told them he was gay. “He had been having so many struggles, and it was a relief to discover that it was just about him coming out.” She continued, “I am extremely proud of his activism and the voice he has taken. I find it extraordinary that he was able to take a negative experience and turn it around into something positive. It’s amazing that he is helping other kids and making a difference in the future for equality.”
Her husband, Ed, mentioned that when he was a little kid, Corey struggled to make himself understood. Now, his father said, “Look what a big voice he has! And he uses that voice to stand up to intolerance and hate. He uses that voice to stand up to people who would deny others their rights simply because, according to them, they have chosen the ‘wrong’ person to love. We couldn’t be prouder.”