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.

In the book, it's obvious that your parents felt like they often needed to protect and advocate for you. Do you ever find that you've needed to protect or advocate for them?

I have occasionally felt like I have had to help my parents learn certain things, especially about LGBT-related political correctness. Protection, less so, though I have wanted to punch some internet commenters in the face.

I absolutely love the children's book you wrote that's included at the end of the book, the one that basically tells gay children that they're normal, and that the people who have trouble with that are the ones who need to change. I want to make copies of it and drop them on the tables in lunchrooms of elementary and middle schools. Yet adults so often seem afraid about talking openly with children about love, sexual orientation, and sex. Any insights on how to help them get over that fear and do what kids need?

Why parents are afraid to talk to their kids about sexual orientation: They're either religious (in which case they should get over themselves about the whole thing) or stupid (in which case their wishes regarding the education of their children should be ignored). Why parents are afraid to talk to their kids about sex: They follow an absurd system of morality that claims that being human should be a source of shame. Advice to all of the above: Get over it. You live in a society that is moving forward, and you're stuck in the 1950s. Re-examine your morality, because if you seriously think that two consenting adults being in love is somehow wrong, you are the problem. And if you're the kind of person who thinks that it's better to have abstinence-only education or none at all, thereby causing massive teen pregnancy rates, then you're not the kind of genetic line that should be continued.

Every year we get an invitation to a "daddy-daughter ball" sponsored by our city. The girls are asked to dress up as butterflies, princesses, and so forth. A month or so later we are invited to a "mommy-son ball," with the suggestion that the little boys dress up as superheroes or other symbols of hyper-masculinity. Is it just me, or is this part of the heterosexual agenda?

This is less the heterosexual agenda than the heteronormative and, more importantly, gender-binary agenda. While it might be partly a gay-rights issue (as I mentioned, there's an obvious connection between sexuality and contra-gender behavior), it's mostly about gender and the absurdly rigid codes and restrictions thereof. Traditional gender roles need to go. I'd say "that's pretty much all there is to say on the matter," but it clearly isn't since this is still a conversation that's going on ninety years after it was started.

In the book, your father mentions that New Jersey has been out in front in terms of developing programs against bullying and programs to support LBGT youth. From your perspective, how is New Jersey doing?

See, I don't really know if I'm qualified to say. My town, for all its administrative faults, is in such a bubble regarding how the people react to abnormality that it's almost creepy. (Not that I'm complaining, obviously.) I mean, this is a town where you can tell a football jock he'd make a good drag queen and get nothing more than an awkward silence in response. (I speak from personal experience.) I don't know how much, if at all, this actually relates to the rest of Jersey. I can, however, tell you that the anti-bullying assemblies are incessant.

I wonder if, by being an out teenager in a book that gets national attention, you're expected to speak for all LBGT youth?

I am so very deeply unqualified to speak for all LGBT youth, and most of that is for the same reason I'm getting a book written about me: I'm an upper-middle-class white boy who is flamboyant but gender-secure, whose parents love him unconditionally, and who has some minor neurological deficiencies. I could list my privilege for hours. I'm the face that has been put on our community for a really long time, and it kind of sucks for people who aren't me or a reasonable facsimile of me. Though again, I'm not complaining.

Speaking as a gay youth, what message would you like to give President Obama as he approaches his second term?

Please don't screw this up, okay? Don't back down. Be active. Maybe try using some of that executive power on the states' rights jackasses. Don't drop the ball.


This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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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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