edited by Kevin Jennings
reviewed by Michael Walker
This anthology of stories from gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals is unified only by its common theme: all the tales included are memories of writers of their schooldays and how being something other than the heterosexual norm affected them at that time. The vast majority of the essays are by authors who came of age prior to the gay liberation movement that started in the late sixties so their experiences are in many ways divergent from those of contemporary gay youth and while many of the essays are upbeat and even humorous, an atmosphere of despondency wafts over many. Although queer youth today still face many obstacles to their enjoyment of a life unmitigated by prejudice on the part of their parents, teachers, and peers, the social atmosphere in America of previous decades was considerably worse. Truly, homosexuality was at that time a "love that dared not speak its name" and this situation is omnipresent in how these writers approach their schooldays. Tales of teachers who either subtlety discriminated against a gay or lesbian student or who -- conversely and refreshingly -- offered a small measure of supplication and encouragement flavor the educational environment relayed by many writers. All in all, Kevin Jennings has provided a good balance of lesbian, gay, and bi writers who show us, tell us, and allow us, to know what school life was like for them, and how it influenced them later in life.
Whenever reviewing an anthology of creative writing, its all too easy to pick a few favorite essays and talk mostly about these, thinking that such will allow the reader to know the book all the better. Having been guilty of this in the past, I will skip the praising of my own personal favorites from this collection and say this instead: this volume offers every young reader something. A trite thing to mention, yes, but very true in the case of this book. All of the writers included are involved in professional writing as either journalists, activists, or writers of fiction or poetry, so the quality of prose is not circumscribed at any point by a lack of talent. Many of these writers -- including several whom I had never read before -- have a real ability for writing literary memoir and thus the anthology reads as good literature should. The essays are just long enough to encourage the reader to read through two or three in one sitting and their language is overall plain and clear enough to be accessible by younger (e.g., high school-aged) readers while attractive and engaging to older, more experienced, readers. The variety of perspectives offered make for good contrasts with each other while the entire book as a whole is a refreshingly personal narrative of scholastic experiences and a nice counterpoint to the much-needed albeit sometimes dry social sciences works that have been published on queer youth and education.
At the time when most of the writers represented in Telling Tales Out of School were in school, the term "gay youth" was non-existent; now, in a period when queer youth are obtaining greater freedom and social agency than ever before, this book can serve as an especially informative record of what a darker time was like, and how queer youth of that time triumphed in their lives and found positive aspects of their school days that they can still cherish -- and share.
MICHAEL WALKER is the Science and Medical Editor of Oasis Magazine. He writes a monthly health and sexuality advice column for this magazine as well as book reviews, editorials, and works of fiction and poetry. He has also written about topics relating to queer youth for a variety of other popular and academic publications and is well represented in the biomedical and social sciences literature for his research on a variety of social health issues. He may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com