Advice To Newly-Minted Gays

Thanks to Towleroad and Outsports, I came across this blog by a high school kid named Sam.  Sam just recently came out to his family, and is beginning his journey toward gay adulthood, which runs on a different time scale than that of heterosexual teenagers because of a later starting age (although it’s been getting younger and younger in the past decade.)  Sam is three years younger than I was when I came out, and I admire his bravery.  He is also, I gather, from an area near-ish to where I grew up, so I understand the community and the culture.

Sam’s posts got me thinking about what I would tell a newly-out gay teenager (other than “It Gets Better,” to which I direct you to this website.)  Gay people, unlike most other minority groups, cannot generally look to older people in their families as role models.  It is rare for a gay child to have a gay older sibling or a parent, and one is very fortunate if he or she has gay uncles, aunts, or older cousins.  Instead they have the Internet, which is not necessarily a force for good.

So dear gay teenagers, consider this post advice from an ersatz older brother.

1.  If things have gone well thus far, congratulations.  If not, I’m so sorry.  Please know that your life will change.

2.  It gets better is a misnomer.  “It” does not get better.  You get better.  You get stronger.  The situation may or may not change, but you will develop enough strength to make it tolerable or even enjoyable.

3.  If your parents are having a hard time with this, be patient.  Give them a year.  Remember that in their eyes they are seeing all their dreams for you fall apart.  Given time (and help from PFLAG), they will realize that is not the case, and will embrace you for who you really are.  If their behavior does not get better though, find some adult who will support you emotionally.

4.  Just because you can pass as straight and consider yourself masculine, doesn’t give you the right to ever look down on the effeminate gay kids.  Unlike you, they could not hide, and they got the beatings that you escaped.  As a result, they got tougher, and they fought back.  The benefits and the progress that we all enjoy now are because of the effeminate kids.  And the lesbians.  Never think otherwise.

5.  There’s no way around it, American television and movies are almost universally terrible when it comes  to LGBT-themed projects.  The things that we are told we should like–Will & Grace, the American Queer as Folk, Brokeback Mountain, Glee–are not actually that good, and occasionally insulting.  If you want good quality gay-themed entertainment, look to the British who have some excellent gay-themed movies (Beautiful Thing, My Beautiful Laundrette, Derek Jarman’s Edward II) and television shows (Beautiful People and the original Queer as Folk.)  The excellent movie Maurice is an American film, but it was adapted from a British novel.

6.  Make sure you read books and make sure they have some kind of lasting value.  Trust me when I say that people can take only so much talk about Glee and the items you find in Entertainment Weekly.  Books will help you develop interesting things to talk about.  Beauty fades, but intelligence does not.

7.  Music did not start in 2004, and Lady Gaga, as wonderful as she may be, is not God’s gift to us all.  There is a whole world of music spanning centuries and countless genres.  Take in as much of it as you can.

8.  Don’t be too eager to go to bars and clubs; you’re too young.  I know you don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.  You’re not ready for that kind of predatory atmosphere, and you will be preyed upon.  Hell, most of the people who legally frequent these places aren’t ready.  Be comfortable in your own skin first.  The bars will be always be there, even if the names and locations change.

9.  Along the same lines, don’t be so eager to get a boyfriend now that you have just come out.  Believe me I understand why you want one.  Our culture tells us we need to be in relationship, your straight friends are all dating, and you’re lonely.  Here’s the problem though, boyfriends are a lot of work and a lot of drama.  I agree that you need love right now, but this is the time when friends and family have to give you that love.  The boyfriend will come later.  That’s what college is for.

10.  Keeping your virginity throughout high school is not the worst thing in the world, but if you do insist on having sex, always use condoms.  If you don’t want sex, don’t let him pressure you.  If you just want to be held, say so.  Don’t mistake sex for intimacy even if the two are closely related.  If he is not willing to accommodate what you need, get the hell out and never look back. You’re life is precious, and you’re a worthy human being.

11.  Get involved with your Gay/Straight Alliance.  If your school does not have one, consider starting it.  If your school protests, know that you are in the legal right so long as there are other extracurricular activities at the school.  That’s the law.  Here is where you go if you need information to start a GSA.

12.  Keep informed about politics.  Gays don’t just have to worry about physical threats.  There is a whole American political party, as well as multiple religious hierarchies and organizations, devoted to keeping us from full equality and to rolling back the gains we have made.  Ignorance of this will not protect you.

13.  Read Dan Savage’s column, and listen to his podcast.  He’s one of the most prominent and important gay thinker/activists out there, even if he pretends he’s not.  Also you’ll learn how to deal with sex in a much more mature way.

14.  Don’t fall in love with the first gay person you meet; it will only lead to heartache.

15.  Drugs are bad, particularly drugs found in clubs and bars (stay the hell away from meth.)  And remember that alcohol is a drug.  I’m not telling you what to do, just begging you to act prudently.

16.  Finally, read this advice that was published in The Stranger some time in the early 2000’s I believe.  The original page seems to be gone (and the author no longer works for The Stranger), but it is the best advice out there, and for an entire year I had it posted on my apartment wall.

Good luck, kiddo.  I’m rooting for you.

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The Existential Struggle Over Homosexuality Part II

This is the second post in what I hope will be an ongoing series.  Part I is here

The most egregious and vituperative example of the systematic attempts to turn back the hands of time against the inevitability of LGBT equality is not the fight against same-sex marriage, which is merely the most high-profile struggle.  It is actually the systematic and vituperative attempts to keep any discussion of homosexuality out of the schools, which touches on a series of other issues.  This campaign has taken many different turns which has included at various points: (1) discrimination against gay teachers; (2) attempts to prevent stronger anti-bullying laws; (3) school and community pressure to prevent the formation of Gay/Straight Alliances; and (4) the elimination of all mention of anything LGBT-related in the schools no matter how innocuous it may be.*

Political campaigns against gay teachers rarely happen anymore.  They are not successful.  The most famous failure was the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which brought Harvey Milk to national prominence.  Even so, every once in a while some idiot politician will make a remark about trying to ban gays from teaching.  One example was South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who proudly continues his state’s shameful history of hatred and bigotry toward minorities  (whose prominent exponent of modern times was, of course, the late Strom Thurmond.)  The real danger against LGBT teachers though is in internal not external.  LGBT teachers have to censor themselves out of fear of the reaction from parents and the larger community.  Sometimes the self-censorship is so oppressive that gay teachers will not prevent students from using homophobic slurs, thereby perpetuating the circle.  Yet the reaction is completely understandable.  LGBT teachers are afraid of coming out to their students, lest they be fired.  Most states still do not have anti-discrimination statutes to protect the LGBT community, and Congress has thus far failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Because of a rash of suicides among LGBT teenagers, Dan Savage began the It Gets Better Project (IGBP).  One side effect of both the prominence of the suicides in the media and the IGBP, is that it became easier for states to pass tougher anti-bullying laws.  Once again, Congress has failed to act, but at this point that should come as no surprise.

Although finally action is being taken against bullying, this is a relatively new phenomenon.  Stronger anti-bullying laws had been a huge point of contention, especially for the religious right who views any attempts to prevent bullying, especially anti-gay bullying as both tacit and explicit acceptance of homosexuality, and something that cannot be allowed.  Hate groups such as Focus on the Family perpetuate scare tactics which follows this line of thinking:  ” (1) Outlawing bullying is the same as outlawing any criticism of homosexuality;  (2) The gay rights activists want to criminalize your religious beliefs and your thoughts; (3) They want to either criminalize your children or turn them into homosexuals.”  Hence they justify themselves with the canard that bullying is just a fact of life, and these sissies need to be toughened up.

This justification is incredibly dangerous.  If these bullies were adults, their actions would be blatantly criminal and would involve prosecution.  Yet no one wants to get involved when it happens in the schools, often including school officials.  There are occasionally court cases against schools for their failure to protect, but they are rare.  The reason they are rare is because the facts of the case are usually so horrific that legal action is the only alternative.  Take any of these cases for example, and then imagine that you were in the shoes of these children.

What has done a good job creating change is student empowerment for change and specifically the rise of Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs).  The best way to prevent bullying and create safer schools is less about punitive laws (although there is a place for such laws) and more about changing the school environment.  If for no other reason, there is strength in numbers, and bullies attack individuals, not crowds.  It is not coincidence that as more GSAs appear in schools across the country, more LGBT teenagers come out at younger ages.

The homophobes know this too, and for years have fought losing battles across the country to prevent GSAs from forming.  The truth is that legally they cannot stop GSAs without taking extreme action against the school community as a whole.  In 1984, Congress, in its infinite lack of foresight, passed a law called the Equal Access Act (EAA). The intention of the EAA was to force public schools to allow religious (i.e. Christian) extracurricular clubs to use school grounds.  The EAA requires that if a school allows even one club that is not curriculum-related to use school facilities, then it must all clubs regardless of content.  Ironically, the GSAs benefitted most from that law.  Even when the entire school and surrounding community opposed the GSA, the courts demanded that the GSA be allowed to meet.  The only way that a school can get around the EAA is to close school grounds to all extracurricular activities, something few schools would do.

The underlying reason for the centrality of the battles over the schools, is because the homophobes want to stamp out homosexuality or failing that, all mention of homosexuality.  (Take, for example, the idiotic and blatantly unconstitutional law in Tennessee that would prevent teachers from even saying the word “gay” in class before 9th grade.)  The logic behind that is that kids don’t hear it when they are at an impressionable age, they won’t become gay.  This is an obvious falsehood, but it successful marginalizes an entire community, and what’s more it starts the oppression against LGBT children at a very early age.  Children, who absorb everything, intentional or not.

The homophobes want to eliminate anything LGBT-related from the school.  One of the big weapons that the homophobes used in the Prop 8 battle in California was the specter that the schools would be forced to teach children about homosexuality.  Now clearly this is not true, not that truth matters, but even if it were, so what?  There are two responses to this.  The first is that being gay is not about sex, it is about identity.  The LGBT community is a distinct minority with its own history, just like any other.  We are not just about sex.  We exist.  We are people.  We have every much right to have our history (a history fraught with oppression and triumphs) taught as any other group does.  The scare tactic is not about history though; it is about sex.  The fear that is being sold to parents is that their little kindergarteners are going to be learning about such age-inappropriate topics, such as gay sexuality.

Opponents of school desegregation used the specter that allowing little black children (re: boys) to mingle with little white children (re: girls) would lead to widespread miscegenation.  In other words, way back in the day, the same bigoted scare tactic was used: play on parents fears by introducing sex into the discussion.

Schools have always been the ground zero of the civil rights struggles.  No group understands that more than African-Americans.  To see true hatred, watch videos of school integration.  Yet that too passed.  The hell that, for example, the Little Rock Nine had to go through is nearly unthinkable today, and Central High School is a thoroughly integrated school.  In the same way, although not nearly as drastic, sexual orientation is inevitably going to be taught as part of the curriculum.  The LGBT community is to fully ingrained into the schools and the larger society, and history is filled with the community’s contributions.  Save for the Harvey Milk School in New York, there are not other schools that serve primarily LGBT students.  Those who rant and rave about the children are either not thinking about the gay children  or want to brutalize them (making the schools a latter-day Reading Gaol.)

It’s the old canard: Gays can’t have children so they have to take yours.  But that’s not true, and as such young people are being strangled by a refusal the blatantly obvious.  It’s the fear that homosexuality is so much stronger than heterosexuality.  Being near a gay person makes a child gay.  But no one ever turns that around.  One would think constant exposure to heterosexuality everywhere would make ensure that all children would grow up straight.  Nevertheless, that just never enters the conversation.

Footnotes:

* In Britain, the Tory government passed Clause 28 in 1988, and it was not repealed until 2003.  Clause 28 was both extremely controversial and harmful, and just last year, David Cameron, the current (Tory) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom apologized for his party’s role, and his own, in its passage.  As apolitical as the play (and movie) Beautiful Thing is on its surface, because of its aggressively happy ending, it is not hard to read it as both a modern-day Maurice, and a direct attack on Clause 28.