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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, October 10, 2005

In honor of National Coming Out Day

I used to think that so many gay men seem to have such protacted adolescences because they didn't have kids. Nothing brings the realization that I'm getting older quicker than to running into straight friends I haven't seen for a while and asking how little Johnnie or Susie is doing. The kids who were taking ballet lessons or involved in little league the last time I saw them are now driving and making plans for college. Whoa! Suddenly I'm confronted with the reality that I'm no longer a carefree 20-something or a career-building 30-something. Nothing brings on a sudden panic about getting older more than realizing that the kid I used to read Dr. Suess stories to in funny voices is now the young person writing his or her own term papers.

Now it's not just the children of straight friends who can make me feel old, but all the young lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and questioning kids as well.

Take for instance the current issue of Time magazine with it's cover story on The Battle Over Gay Youth. Time, always a belated measure of the cultural zeitgeist, has determined that LGBT and Q youth are coming out at much earlier ages today:

Kids are disclosing their homosexuality with unprecedented regularity--and they are doing so much younger. The average gay person now comes out just before or after graduating high school, according to The New Gay Teenager, a book Harvard University Press published this summer. The book quotes a Penn State study of 350 young people from 59 gay groups that found that the mean age at which lesbians first have sexual contact with other girls is 16; it's just 14 for gay boys. In 1997 there were approximately 100 gay-straight alliances (GSAs)--clubs for gay and gay-friendly kids--on U.S. high school campuses. Today there are at least 3,000 GSAs--nearly 1 in 10 high schools has one--according to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN, say "glisten"), which registers and advises GSAs. In the 2004-05 academic year, GSAs were established at U.S. schools at the rate of three per day. ...

Children who become aware of their homosexual attractions no longer need endure the baleful combination of loneliness and longing that characterized the childhoods of so many gay adults. Gay kids can now watch fictional and real teens who are out on shows like Desperate Housewives, the dating show Next on MTV and Degrassi (a high school drama on the N network whose wild popularity among adolescents is assured by the fact that few adults watch it). Publishers like Arthur A. Levine Books (of Harry Potter fame) and the children's division at Simon & Schuster have released something like a dozen novels about gay adolescents in the past two years. New, achingly earnest books like Rainbow Road (Simon & Schuster), in which three gay teens take a road trip, are coming this month. Gay kids can subscribe to the 10-month-old glossy YGA Magazine (YGA stands for "young gay America") and meet thousands of other little gays via young gay america com or Gay boys can chat, vote for the Lord of the Rings character they would most like to date--Legolas is leading--learn how to have safe oral sex and ogle pictures of young men in their underwear on the ruttish Not that you have to search so far into the Web: when University of Pittsburgh freshman Aaron Arnold, 18, decided to reveal his homosexuality at 15, he just Googled "coming out," which led to myriad advice pages.

Thirty years ago I had just entered college. For the first time in my life I was relatively free to explore my sexuality. (It's not that I couldn't do some preliminary exploring before then, but those first rudimentary explorations in the basement men's room of the Henry County Courthouse some 30 miles from home weren't exactly that I was looking for.)

I envy today's gay youth. It's amazing how far we have come in three decades. Today most kids can go to the library and check out any number of books on gay topics, from books on coming out to novels about gay teens like themselves. Thirty years ago I found exactly two books that dealt with gay issues. The first was Gordin Merrick's The Lord Won't Mind, the first in a series of novels to follow the relationship of preppy lovers Charlie and Peter. At the time I relished reading and re-reading the book. Having picked up a copy of it last year at a thrift store, I'm amazed that I ever managed to read the purple prose in this gay version of a romance novel without hurling it to the floor. I guess my critical eye for literature was a later development.

Then there was Dr. David Ruben's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask. It had an entire chapter on homosexuality it in and I read it many times looking for clues about myself. Looking back on it, I'm surprised I grew up at all after finding out that, as a gay man, my life was doomed to an endless parade of men as I searched for "the perfect penis." (That's Ruben's phrase, not mine.) If I wanted to find a partner, Rubens informed me I'd better start hanging out in dingy men's rooms and if I couldn't find a partner, I could always shove cucumbers, shot glasses and the occasional light blub up my ass as a substitute. Oh, and one more thing ... Rubens assured me that if I ever found that perfect penis, it would never last since homosexuals were incapable to forming lasting relationships.

Growing up in a small town, I already felt like I was the only person like me. Now, thanks to Rubens, I discovered my own version of a "good news/bad news" joke: The good news is that I'm not alone ... the bad news is that all those others are more fucked up than I am.

Once I got to college, I found books with more positive messages. Don Clark's Loving Someone Gay, Carl Tripp's The Homosexual Matrix, The Joy of Gay Sex, a collection of essays called Lavendar Culture, and Johnathon Ned Katz's Gay American History formed the basis of my "library" that was shared among my friends.

It was also the last book in that list that my mother found in my room over summer vacation. If such an incident happened to a young gay man today, I'd imagine it would lead to one of those coming out experiences and the mother's reaction would be tempered by the amount of information out there on sexual orientation. Thirty years ago there was no chance to come out. I can still remember my mother's exact words to me: "If you are (there was a pause here that I always took to mean she didn't even want to say the word "gay") I never want to know about it. (Another pause.) And your father wouldn't either, because it would kill him." In that moment was erected a barrier that was never breached. Even long after I had graduated college and began my career, there was a wall there that remained unbroken. My mother may have suspected from that moment that I was gay, but she died without ever having to hear the words "I am gay" from my mouth. That was a burden of silence she place on both of us - on my lips and on her ears - and it's something I still stuggle with forgiving her for.

So it's easy for me to look at today gay teens and think they have it made. If they want information, they can go to the Internet or the library. They have "Will and Grace" and a host of other shows with gay characters. (My generation had only wisps and hints of "gayness" from celebrities such as Paul Lynde perched in his center square on "Hollywood Squares.") They have rock stars and sports heros and public figures who can serve as role models. They have gay/straight alliance clubs in their schools where they can meet supportive straight friends who aren't threatened by the idea that knowing someone who's "that way" might rub off on them. The world has changed. There is so much information out there that when a teen chooses to come out today, his family has already been exposed to so much information about sexual orientation that parents' "learning curve" is significantly less steep than generations before.

The only thing I don't envy about today's LGBT and Q youth is the open hatred that's aimed their way from the pulpits and halls of power. In my day, that hatred was aimed at the Russians and those "godless commies" or at hippies or bra-burning women's libbers. Being gay meant living beneath the radar.

Nowdays, with LGBTs of all ages coming out, we are firmly on the radar screen and are regularly denounced along with abortion, the ACLU, and liberals in general. Even the Time magazine piece has drawn sharp criticism such as that from the ultra right-wing group Concerned Women of America. In a press release sent out within hours of Time hitting the newsstands, CWA denounced the article as part of a "massive campaign to promote homosexuality to kids."

I'm not sure how my generation would have stood up under that kind of continous barrage from preachers and politicians that is released against LGBTs today. For sure there would probably be a lot less of us as our numbers were thinned by unofficially "sactioned" gay bashings and death by our own hands. My left wrist still bears the scar of a razor blade's bite when I wasn't sure whether death would hurt less than living. Today that scar is my reminder to choose life, even if it means spending it fighting for acknowledgment and respect.

Yes, today's teens have freedom and face opponents I could never have imagined 30 years ago. But by choosing to live openly, they also have something my generation didn't have: allies and supporters who will stand with them against bigotry and prejudice.

For that I envy them.

Happy coming out day!