Feature Cover Story

By Jeff Walsh, October 1995

Author gives gay youth their due in new book

As the late Kurt Cobain used to sing on-stage in Smells Like Teen Spirit: "Our little tribe has always been and always will until the end."

Author Linnea Due, 47, agrees with Cobain, but says considering the strides and volume of books and information written for the gay community, youth have been snubbed in those advances.

Due is the managing editor of Express, an alternative weekly in Berkeley, Calif. She wrote an article on gay and lesbian youth for the weekly in 1993, and subsequently won a Media Alliance Award for the article.

"After I did the article, I really started researching what had been written about gay and lesbian youth," Due says. "There was very very little. When I saw the real dirth of material, I realized somebody's got to do something."

So Due wrote Joining The Tribe: Growing up Gay & Lesbian in the '90s (Anchor Books, $12.95). The book looks at 15 different people from 16 to 23 years old. Due says the reactions to the book from youth have been great.

"I suppose younger people are not going to come racing up to me with negative comments, but the young people that have read it that have come to my readings really like it a lot," Due says. She thinks one of the main reasons people enjoy the book are due to the "very, intensive interviews" she does with the book's subjects.

"Most people don't get to talk at that length, especially people at that age," she says. "[The book] feels really real to them. I think that would be true whether gay, straight, no matter what. Friends of mine with straight kids say their kids start reading it, and then start reading it compulsively."

When Due started the book, she wasn't sure what she was getting into. Two previous features she wrote "shattered" her previous assumptions about gay youth.

"I assumed that things were a lot better now, and in some ways things are better obviously," she says, "but in other ways, I think things could be said to be worse or more difficult."

Due says that one way the gay community has kept itself "safe" and visible is by fencing off anyone under 21. Quoting Paul Gibson, Due says the "biggest insult you can make to a group of people is to say they don't exist." She says it's "because we can't separate orientation and sexuality. Human's can't, so we don't believe innocence and queerness can coexist."

Her book challenges such rampant pedophobia, giving a wart-and-all look at the youth that are part of today's gay community. She says the people featured in her book "are all different and all have compelling stories."

"I think there's a fascination of reading people's stories, but more than that I think it gives a really good overview of the emotional turmoil and the emotional rewards," she says. "(The book) also gives some insight into how people make connections with chosen families, and how people are able to blot out memories that are unpleasant. Unfortunately, in the blotting out, people blame themselves instead of situation."

Some youth also feel a pressure to come out at an early age, she says. "I think that there's sometimes been an unfortunate pressure that people are cowardly if they don't come out," she says. "But in many cases, in quite a few cases, there is not only the possibility of danger, but extreme physical danger is involved. It's not like we're giving people a lot of support, so people are often making that decision on their own, and dealing with consequences on their own, which can be very hard."

Many youth also turn to online services and the Internet for help. Three of the people features in Due's book were found on America Online. "A lot of the youth activist online was really in its beginning stages, so I have very little about that in the book," she says.

"I think the online thing is really important," she says, "because it is a way of coming out and talking to people without putting yourself at personal risk. The guy I talked to in Santa Fe was disappointed because he would talk to people in San Francisco and they would be willing to chat online for hours, but they would not go to movies with him [because he was a teenager.]"

Another teen was featured in her previous gay youth article, and she further tracked the progress he made in his life since she wrote that first piece. "I'd seen him in the closet, and saw him coming out in senior year of high school and being taunted, harassed, death threats, the whole deal," she says. But at the same time, the teen was "lionized by media on the other hand, because he was willing to be a visible gay youth."

She thinks such visibility has created a slight backlash against gays. "I'm more thinking of it as simply certainly people are extremely homophobic, and I think they couldn't recognize as people before," she says. "Now that it's there for us to recognize as ourselves, it's harder to hide now."

Due says a 1991 study at Yale University found that 65 percent of gay and lesbian students had been harassed on campus. She says considering the number of gays and lesbians that pass as heterosexuals, "it's a pretty amazing statistic.

"Part of the hysteria is because things are changing," she says. "I think we're in a period where a lot of things are in flux. Pam Walton, who did the film Gay Youth made an analogy to a pond with a lot of muck at the bottom." The only way to get the muck off the bottom is to stir things up.

"In a way, I think that is what we're getting now. There's a lot of stereotypes, lies and demonization going on about gays and lesbians. But the more people that come out, and more people speak up, and more we bring up all these topics, people will be affected eventually.

But the adult gay community, as well as adult heterosexuals, must help gay youth on an advocacy level, Due says, in helping gay youth socialize with one another at gay youth groups, proms and all-ages clubs.

She also had some hesitation doing a non-fiction work, as her three previous books were novels. "Several people encouraged me not to do it. But I'm really glad that I did it. It was very personally fulfilling to do, because I hadn't known that I would actually enjoy doing it. Meeting someone, and really getting to know someone, I consider myself more shy than that. But the young people that I interviewed were really incredible people."

Some people had blocked out portions of their lives, and as they were being interviewed, they realized what had actually happened.

"People couldn't remember why dropped out of high school," she says. "When we went back over their stories, it was obvious what happened. They had landed, so they were no longer in that state of being so miserable. In a way, it was kind of healing to the interviews. In some ways, it would be healing to read the book."

The book was cathartic to Due in the same way.

"I wasn't pleased to see this, but people were going through the same things I had gone through as far as school," she says. "I had kind of looked back and thought that I had been weak. I blamed myself for dwelling on particular incidents, but when I talked to a couple of the kids and saw really how young they were and how courageous they were in dealing with these things at all.

"It made me forgive myself for dwelling on things," she says. "I felt like I was too hurt or too upset, I should have been stronger.

"I knew that I was gay from a very early age," Due says. "I don't even remember not knowing. And I talked about it for a while, not that I was saying I was gay, because I didn't know those words, but saying I would be married to a woman, and people saying 'No, no, no, you'll have a husband.' By the age of six, I realized I should keep my mouth shut, which I did for another 13 years.

"By the time I was in junior high, I dropped out of all the sports that I loved and, to me, put on a total mask," she recalls. "It was like getting dressed up in theater to go to school. I put on this role every day, and I hated it."

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
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