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.
what an interesting read , thanks for the link . I think its so great that these kids can be ‘ out ‘ in their lives , wether to family , friends or at school .
I was sort of ‘ out’ at school and i did get bullied for it for a while . So my heart always goes out to people that have a harder time of it . Oddly I was thinking about XY magazine yesterday , and how when I was younger I wish their had been a magazine like that .Instead I remember nervously buying a copy of gay times . I read on twitter that they are going to relaunch XY sometime .
I do think as the article says that on Tv and film now there are more ‘visable’ gay characters and I think this must help , if you see someone on screen that you can relate to , or think ‘oh he’s cool with himself ‘
thanks for the read .
I really admire young guys who have the guts and conviction to come out, too. Me, back in middle school didn’t I even have the courage to think through whether my guy crushes might mean I was gay.
You’re right that there has been great progress on the ‘visibility’ front in pop culture over the last several years. Ten years ago, it was still just ‘Will & Grace’. No more.
Thanks for your continued feedback, jay. Your blog is lovely.
I found and read the entire article yesterday and – yes – I can admit a little jealousy. Would I go back and be 13 or 14 again? I’ll take the plunge. I’ll say yes – but do I get to take my knowledge with me?
More than anything, the piece was heartwarming. The woof and paw stuff was my favorite. I could picture it happening – like a movie. How often do you read an article and think it could be made into a great movie?
The attention this piece has been receiving on the ‘net is much deserved.
It made me happy.
Yeah, Bryan, I loved that part, too. It’s a wonderfully rich, warm and wonderfully well-written piece. I only hope that it’s somewhat representative of the change going on in American schoolyards.
If I could go back to early teenagehood with the experiences, knowledge and temperament I have today, I suppose I would have given it another go. If not, however, I’m very pleased with having it behind me. It was a very confusing time for me, and I didn’t like school that much either. Something about how you were treated as more or less stupid and/or helpless by teachers.
Long time no visit! I actually thought I clicked on the wrong link. Your blog looks different. J’adore!
Anyway, I read the article some time last weekend and I was just fascinated. Personally, I didn’t have THAT much of a difficult time coming to terms with my sexuality despite my own teenage insecurities. I wasn’t bullied or anything, but I was definitely aware of other LGBT people of my age in high school who had a pretty difficult time. Yeah, I was teased, but who wasn’t? I fought back and the same person never did it again. I came from a pretty big high school of 4,400+ students and it was definitely a liberal high school so that helped. It also helped that my parents LOVE gays and lesbians. I guess I was just lucky.
But when the article talked about the suicides, it reminded me of the time during sophomore year when one of the students in my class committed suicide because his parents threatened to disown him after coming out to them. It was so crazy; we even had multiple assemblies regarding acceptance, tolerance, etc.
I’m glad you put the spotlight on the article because now that we have more LGBT role models out there (putting into consideration how many we had 10 years ago), it will be important for parents to talk about their children’s sexualities whether the parents are ready for it or not.
Come to think of it, I wish for a gay son. I don’t know why I said that. lol
Welcome back, Franz. You know how much I love your feedback.
I can’t say I had a particularly ‘difficult time’ in high school either, I just didn’t like it that much. I was confused about who I was, and the atmosphere around weren’t particularly accepting of gay people. Also, school was really awful at the time. Teachers either treat like you’re stupid or as a potential troublemaker. Glad that part of my life is over. But if other find ways to enjoy these years, then more power to them.
Your final point about parents having to talk with their children about this is very important. The article had some great points on that, and as long as this still is a subject not easily talked about in schools (for fear of ‘politicizing’ it), parents will continue to be the most important part of spreading respect and tolerance.
That was an interesting article (thanks for pointing it out). Thinking back to my school days I’m not sure how much of my fear at coming out was justified and how much was just me making a bigger deal of it than it was. I was teased a lot in school (not for being gay, but for just about everything else). Part of my fear at coming out was for getting teased about that too. Just more wood on the fire.
Fortunately, for many of us the coming-out thing is complicated more by our own insecurities and fear of rejection and/or disapproval than by the way people around us actually react. When I came out, years I had left school, I was almost shocked about how well everybody took it. That said, I’m not sure that means the fear is/was absolutely unfounded. It’s a natural suspicion, I guess.
As always, thanks for your input, Smilie.