Growing Up Gay in 2013

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Talking with a 17 year-old about anti-bullying assemblies, daddy-daughter balls, and why theater.

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In his new book Oddly Normal, New York Times writer John Schwartz shares the moving story of how he and his wife Jeanne have struggled against often-problematic systems to support their son Joe, who is gay. I asked Joe, now 17 years old, to expand on some of the themes explored in the book and answer some questions raised by people who have commented on it.


AD: I've tracked in my own work how important it is for young people with socially-oppressed identities to meet other people like them. The book shows that you have benefitted a lot from the LBGT center where you hang out in New York. You have a very supportive family, so why is the LBGT center such a big deal?

JS: There's a difference between having people who support you and having people who are like you. No matter how close my family was to me, I needed to...well, find my culture. These people were having the same problems as me, and many of them had already gotten through them. That's a really valuable resource.

I'm an upper-middle-class white boy who is flamboyant but gender-secure, whose parents love him unconditionally ... I could list my privilege for hours.

The book makes it clear that you're very smart and, in your own words, "gay as Christmas." Do you think that being smart helped you in terms of dealing with growing up in a culture that is still pretty oppressive towards LBGT people?

While I don't really believe I am as smart as some people think, I know that there are purely biological effects of intelligence that make life difficult. One that springs to mind for some reason is a tendency towards depression and insomnia.

The book recounts what a wonderful refuge theatre provided you and other LBGT kids around you. When people ask me how they can support LBGT youth in our town, I often tell them that they should support the local children's theater group. Yes? And why theater?

Unfortunately, you're right. I say "unfortunately" because this is just going to get the damn contra-gender people crawling all over this again, saying, "Nyeh nyeh, there's no connection between sexuality and behavior..." Yeah, thanks, I get that, but there obviously is a connection, because about 40 percent of the theater boys I know are gay. So, leave. As to why, I'm not a sociologist or a biologist so I probably couldn't tell you. It might have something to do with societal expectations and formative pressure, or whatever biological quirk causes variant sexuality in the first place.

Your father talks in the book about how one of the "gay uncles" (i.e., gay friends) counseling him insisted on the importance of letting you come out at your own pace. I generally agree that it's important to let people come out at their own pace, but say there is a middle school child whom I am pretty sure is gay who doesn't have parents like yours -- say I know of a child whose parents would not be at all comfortable with the idea that their son is gay. Is there anything a straight ally neighbor can or should do for such a kid in the neighborhood?

I've found that a lot of parents, especially middle-class ones, will be forced by circumstance to react better than you might think; after all, it's their child on the line now, not some hypothetical queer. However, I've also known a lot of kids who seemed perfectly happy with being only partially out, whether it was only to their closest friends, or being sexually ambiguous, or just being out to everyone except their parents. If they don't admit it yet, of course, don't push them to come out unless it looks like they're really suffering.

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Although your father makes very explicit that he asked your consent before he produced this book, a couple of people commenting on the book have implied that you could not really consent to this book because you are too young, or too naive, or too dependent on your parents to say no. Thoughts?

I'm 17 years old. Anybody who calls me a naïve child is going to get a swift kick in the pants. I'm not naïve, I'm not young enough to be incapable of making relatively minor life decisions, and I'm sure as hell not too dependent on my parents to say "no" if I wanted to. If I had wanted to say "no," I would have said it. Also, obviously, my dad wouldn't even want to write the book if I was uncomfortable with it, yada yada journalistic integrity blah.

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Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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