We all knew that Ken was a "faggot."
Sixteen years old, a senior in an all-boys Catholic high school in Chicago, I used to cringe each time I heard the other guys talk about him. Because I knew they could just as easily be talking about me.
Now there wasn't anything in particular that I can remember that made people think he was gay. He wasn't overtly effeminate, just kind of quiet. Not much different than anyone else.
But Ken was marked. And that meant that he endured endless hours of verbal torture throughout high school, more or less good-naturedly letting it slide off of him.
Nobody really knew whether or not Ken actually was gay. But I knew that I was, though. And one thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't going to go through the crap that he had to deal with day in and day out. So I stayed in my closet, shut the doors.
You never really saw gay people anywhere, just kind of heard intimation, speculation, like with Ken. Oh, sure, there was John Ritter pretending to be gay on Three's Company so that he could live in an apartment with two girls -- believe it or not, that was thought of as shocking back then. He played the usual swishy, prancing, lisping queen that was the accepted stereotype of gay men.
No real role models for a guy of sixteen trying to figure things out, though. No one I could ever identify with.
I knew I was gay since eighth grade. One day I caught myself looking at another guy in class. Attracted to him in a way that I imagined guys were usually attracted to girls. I can't actually say that I realized I was gay, because I didn't even know there was a word for it. Just that I liked guys. It was kind of exciting, in a way. Scary, in another.
But Mom had always told me I was the greatest kid in the world. Thank God she did, because that meant I didn't really feel bad about myself. This thing about liking guys seemed like it might change everything, though. Could she be wrong?
"I like guys," I thought, "What does this mean for the perfect son?"
Out There, Out Everywhere
It's different now. At least one talk show a week seems to be covering some queer-related topic or another. Even if it's something like "Mom, My Girlfriend Used to be a Boy," it's still something.
Newsweek ponders whether it's chic to be bisexual in the Nineties. Incredibly true stories about two girls in love pack the theaters and lesbian life partners show us that women can be more than just Friends. Gay lawyers, lesbian judges, even TV courtrooms are all at once full of queers.
Queer youth are here now, too. Not just visible, but out and proud. Sorry, Pat Robertson, but PFLAG ads are just the beginning. Much to the consternation of the Radical Right, queer teens give lie to the myth that gay men make their mystic "lifestyle" choices in their twenties, and that lesbians don't even exist. Marching in Pride parades, featured as guests on Oprah, starting gay/straight alliances in schools, queer youth are now very much a visible part of our community.
Closets haven't gone away, though, no matter how visible some people choose to be. In many ways, it just isn't that much easier growing up as a queer or questioning teen these days. Most queer teens, and adults, are still in the closet. And the nasties of the Radical Right, the fundamentalists and the ultra-conservatives, are doing everything they can to try and keep that door shut.
Which is why I'm here.
Which Way Now?
It took me twenty years to open my closet door. Somehow I finally found the courage and self-respect to come out. True, times were different when I was growing up. But I know now that the years I spent closeted in my twenties and early thirties were selfish ones, enjoying what I thought was relative comfort. The fact is, I had just gotten so good at building my closet that it was getting harder and harder to ever take a step out.
No mere coming out for me, though. I exploded out of my closet. And quickly got involved in what I should have been doing years ago, helping our community. I went to our community center, attended benefits, joined Digital Queers and started exploring the world of queer online services. And that's when I realized what could be done.
I discovered America Online (AOL), a service I consider to be a national resource for queer and questioning teens. Logging on, I found teens dealing with their sexuality, learning about themselves, supporting each other. Asking questions.
I wanted to help with some answers, or at least to steer people to other resources, so I started !OutProud!, The National Coalition for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Youth, an organization dedicated to helping queer and questioning youth "make it to their twenties happily and successfully".
I've met, both online and in the "real" world, literally hundreds of queer and questioning youth. That's inspired me to advocate for their needs in front of school boards, to help some launch projects of their own, to help some come out and even to become a foster father to one gay teen who needed a hand.
Oasis is another opportunity to make another difference, I think. I'm starting this column to provide a perspective on a broad range of topics affecting the well-being of queer youth. I hope to identify some areas where you might want to personally get involved, and make your own difference. To raise issues that need visibility, that need to be resolved. To make the world a more welcoming place for all of you, and all of us.
This Way, Please
Several years ago, a gay prep school teacher on the East Coast thought it was important to organize queer teachers. To give them a voice. Kevin Jennings founded GLSTN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Teachers Network, an organization that advocates on behalf of queer youth in the schools, among other things.
Kevin, now Executive Director of GLSTN, speaks in front of thousands of educators and youth each year. And he ends his talks with a few words that to me express our mission so eloquently, if simply. His charge, to all of us, is to "eliminate homophobia within our lifetime."
This, then, is my part, in trying to make Kevin's vision a reality.
|General information: Jeff Walsh|
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