I was so happy to read Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ piece on young gay teens in a preview for this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. Denizet-Lewis, a former writer with young gay mag XY reports, rather upbeat, on how the schoolyard has now become another possible beacon of freedom and self-expression for gay kids in middle school. While never blind to the homophobia that still thrives somewhere on the outer reaches of his article’s universe (and even within it at times, containing stories of verbal abuse of one of the story’s informants), his project is a perhaps even trickier one than the usual story about the hardships of the school gay: To make us revise that perception.
This is kind of scary to admit, but still: It actually took me a while to accept that that was the story’s premise – that more gay kids live comfortably out lives now than before. Not only because I tend to be skeptical of trend stories like this one, but more importantly because I had become so accustomed to the harder stories that I instinctively feared that a story making the contrary case would end up making the problem seem smaller than it is. My attitude of course is one step on the way to apathy: You accept the grim reality as so unchangeable you can’t even see change is coming. At best, this means you’re missing out on positive societal trends. In the worst case scenario, you yourself end up sabotaging that change, by continuing to push an insufficiently nuanced view of reality. Luckily, I’m not there yet, and Denizet-Lewis made me take a few steps back.
One of the many interesting things the article does is to discuss and show how these young people communicate their sexual orientations amongst themselves, and how they, as perhaps the first gay generation ever, demand to be treated the same way by their parents, dating-wise, as a straight teenager would have been. In one of several scenes that are both moving and funny, Denizet-Lewis observes how Ely, 14, is negotiating with his mostly understanding mom the do’s and don’ts of having his boyfriend over to visit. I probably shouldn’t feel proud on his (their) behalf, but was just so moving to read this passage, simply because it could just as well pass as a discussion between a straight girl and her mom:
Ely: So, can we hang out in my room?
Mother: I don’t trust you two alone in there. Period.
Ely: What about if there are no body parts touching?
Mother: You don’t have that kind of self-control.
Ely: Yes, I do!
Mother: No you don’t. How old is he again?
Mother: And he has a shaved head and piercings everywhere. Is this who you really want to date?
In another striking paragraph, we observe a young gay guy, Justin, and his straight girl friends as they move around the school, more or less subtly pointing out where they think their schoolmates fall on the straight/gay spectrum. It’s a sweet scene for several reasons. First, for the sheer fact that it shows that gays that can be like that and still be in a supportive environment. Second, it is a scene that definitely establishes that we’re dealing with kids here. In a bit of really clever writing, Denizet-Lewis seemingly captures that combination of self-consciousness, giggly insecurity and plainly short attention spans that often characterize people at that age. It’s done in a gentle way that never seems to be over their heads, only a sign that they trust each other so much that their behavior is the most natural thing in the world.
There so incredibly many reasons why I would not want to be 13 or 14 again. As I’ve written about before, these were the years when I had my first serious gay crushes, which was lovely in a sort of intuitively liberating way. But it was also very, very confusing. I knew no one who was gay, and I barely dared think of my feelings as gay. I imagine anyone who knows how all-encompassing a crush can be can imagine how hard it was to reconcile my feelings with something instinctively didn’t want to be. That’s another reason why I loved this story: I can only imagine how relieved I would have felt if something had shown me a similar story back in 1999. Stories like this one actually helped me even as I was coming three years ago, at the not-very-teenagery age of 21. Time Magazine had run a cover story on the so-called Gay Straight Alliance the year before, and it really resonated with me as I was trying to convince myself gayness was nothing to be afraid of.
Identifying with these 13 or 14 years-olds, then, has less to do with wanting to be young again, even though a longer gay life in a welcoming environment would’ve been great, that with acknowledging that the need for respect and self-identification doesn’t die with age. This ‘it could happen to me’ impulse is natural, particularly since something quite similar actually happened to me back then, only I wasn’t mature or self-assured enough to take advantage of it. It seems today’s will not settle with not settle with writing teenagehood post-scripts 10 years in retrospect. That’s progress.