It's a sultry Saturday afternoon in Berkeley. The young men drifting into the big Victorian community center on Telegraph Avenue fan themselves with magazines and newspapers. They chat downstairs for a few minutes until the group's facilitator, Vashti Holt, arrives, and then they shamble up the stairs after her like so many clumsy bears. "Where's the women?" one of them asks dolefully. One finally arrives, in the person of a Berkeley High student who creeps in without saying a word. Holt stops kidding with a few of the guys and clears her throat. "This is the lesbian, gay, and bi youth group at the Pacific Center," she announces. "Let's go around and see how we're doing." Everyone complains for another half-minute -- about the heat, the chairs, life -- and then settles down to listen.
One sixteen-year-old boy, who's been leafing through an issue of People magazine, mentions that he's plastered his bedroom with posters of Julia Roberts. He laughs uncertainly. "That was when I was trying... I mean, when I thought I was straight..." His voice trails off. (A while later, out of sight of the group, he's sobbing to a friend, crying that he doesn't want to be gay. He wants it to stop.)
A Cal student says he's anxious about making a presentation on a gay theme to his class. To do it right, he has to come out, and he hadn't counted on being so nervous. The whole time she's listening to him, the Berkeley High student is shaking her head, quivering with outrage. Flinging her hands up in frustration, she explodes: "Why're you letting them in your business? Man, I go to school and I got to work! I don't let anybody in my business." He tries to explain that he chose his topic because he was gay, and that he'd be letting himself down if he let fear override what he wanted to do. She'll have none of it. "Nobody knows nothin' about me," she says, jabbing her thumb at her chest. "I don't let anybody in."
A seventeen-year-old boy who comes in halfway through the meeting brings a straight friend, a girl his age, for moral support. She tells the group it's been hard because this other girl really likes Frank and is jealous of her. "I keep wanting to tell her, 'If you only knew...'" Frank rolls his eyes and grins.
A twenty-year-old barely speaks above a whisper. When he talks, the raucous group quiets down and leans forward to hear. Everyone holds their breath as he says he had dinner with his father. He looks at the floor, his hands scrabbling over each other like panicked animals. He can't go on.
The two meanings of gay are never further apart than when the word is qualified by "young." In spite of gains by the lesbian and gay community since June 1969, when a group of queens and bar dykes fought back as cops raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, the situation for young gays has not improved significantly -- in fact, there's a growing suspicion that it's become worse.
Some facts: 30 percent of teenage suicides are estimated to be by gays and lesbians; 50 percent of gay youth experience serious depression and suicidal feelings as compared to 19 percent of heterosexual youth; 45 percent of gay males and 20 percent of lesbians encounter verbal or physical abuse in high school, with 28 percent dropping out over sexual-orientation issues; 25 percent of runaway teens are gay or lesbian -- though many of these must be more accurately called "throwaways." Twenty-six percent of gay male teens living on the street had been forced by their parents to leave home because they were gay.
This information is gleaned from a 1989 study on youth suicide commissioned by the US Department of Health and Human Services. "If open about who they are, [gay youth] may feel some sense of security within themselves, but face tremendous external conflicts with family and peers," the study reported. "If closed about who they are, they may be able to 'pass' as 'straight' in their communities while facing a tremendous internal struggle to understand and accept themselves.... Gay youth are the only group of adolescents with no peer group to identify with or receive support from. Many report extreme isolation and loss of close friends."
What must be accomplished in adolescence -- separating from the family, forming a positive personal identity, and learning about relationships -- is made a hundred times more difficult when you're gay. To find out who you are on the often violent proving grounds of an American high school is tough for anyone, but to discover you're among the most despised is devastating. A panic-filled retrenchment can result, a pulling back from contact with anyone who might discover the secret. Just when you need reassurance the most, those whom you've always counted on, your parents and friends, become antagonists to be hoodwinked. Growing up gay in this society is really about different degrees of growing up undercover, and the sooner you know, the harder it is.
I don't ever remember not knowing. For awhile I talked about it, saying I wanted to be strong ("Girls don't need to be strong"), that when I got married, my wife and I would have a wonderful house ("You won't have a wife, you'll have a husband"). By age five I was sick of the flak, so I kept my mouth shut. I figured they just didn't get it. It wasn't that I wanted to be a boy, those strange mixes of overly rough and teacup-fragile, with exotic problems like athlete's foot and undescended testicles, but I did want to be the kind of girl I was, and I thought those people who were telling me I couldn't have a wife just hadn't met girls like me before.
In the closing days of summer camp, when I was seven, we were supposed to announce with whom we were going steady. Of course, no one really was -- we were all too young -- but nevertheless I was thrown into a quandary. If I were going to pledge my troth, it certainly would be to Stacy, with whom I'd been sneaking off all summer to plan our wonderful life together. Ken snagged me after dinner one night, just before campfire. "Look," he said bluntly, "you want to go with Stacy and I want to go with Roger. So what we'll do is just tell everybody you're going with me and she's going with Rog."
God, what a mind! Such duplicity would never have occurred to me. It made me feel a little funny -- wasn't it like lying? -- but still.... I edited myself more and more as I became older and realized it wasn't that people hadn't known about girls like me, but that those girls were so horrible no one wanted to ever talk about them. I believed I was hiding successfully until my Girl Scout troop leader threw me out for being "too masculine." My world fell apart. Everyone knew. I was completely obvious. Something drastic had to be done.
Something was. I dropped out of the athletics I loved, I started setting my hair, I changed my style of dress, I developed an imperious persona to go along with my attire, and I began pretending an interest in boys. From seventh through twelfth grades, I was another person, someone I became in the morning and shed in the afternoon when I got home from school and put on my normal clothes. After awhile, I wasn't sure who I was or what I felt. My romantic experiences were limited to trying not to be alone with the boys I dated. By the time I got out of high school, I knew less about myself than when I'd left sixth grade, and I was alcoholic and suicidal to boot. The only thing I did right was to get straight As. I was one of three people voted "Most Likely to Succeed" from our class of six hundred. What that signified to me was how successfully I had already hidden.
There are those who cannot hide. Says "Charley," a high school junior in El Sobrante: "Some people say they've known their sexuality since they were three, whether they were straight or gay, but I think for most people it's later. For me it went both ways, so I didn't think anything was weird at all until the fifth grade, when I started realizing that maybe something was different. When I was thirteen I figured out the label. And that's around when I started being hassled in school, people calling me pussy and fag.... By the ninth grade, I would be happy if I came home from a day in school and I hadn't been called faggot or cocksucker once. That's really a sad standard for what makes you happy.
"One time I was in the locker room and this guy who didn't like me starts going over and over, 'Charley sucks dick, Charley sucks dick,' and soon the whole locker room full of guys was yelling this for like maybe three minutes. And I had to pretend I didn't give a shit about it, but really I wanted to kill myself. That's when I started cutting school. It's sad because I had a 4.0 grade average, I'd won all these awards, and within a few months I went to Ds and Fs. Now that I'm at a different school, I'm still cutting. It's like I got in a rut."
Charley, to me, is not obvious, but he says he saw a videotape of himself in the seventh grade and he was "kinda effeminate." Since then he's worked hard to hide any clues that he's gay -- "Sometimes I don't know what's me anymore" -- but it hasn't helped much, especially not at his old school in Oakland. Finally he was expelled for cutting classes and sent to live in El Sobrante with his father, a remote man who beat Charley when he was younger.
"I just withdrew from everyone," Charley says, as we sit in Willard Park on a sunny holiday afternoon. "The whole point of talking to guys after the eighth grade became to prove my heterosexuality. I was never outgoing, but after people started picking on me I got even worse. I've always had a hard time relating to men anyway because of my father beating me. It was like a one-two punch: first I was beaten and then I found out I was gay."
Charley is tall -- over six feet -- a big, good-looking kid with soft eyes and a tentative smile. He used to run cross-country, but he dropped out of that too. He says it's better at his new school, and that this year he's finally made some friends. Then he shakes his head. "But how can I consider them friends when, if they knew, they'd hate me?"
"If I dropped out, I guess I'd go live with my mom again," he says, his voice tinged with hopelessness. "Last week I just wanted to lash out at the straight world for doing this to me. I realize I've made choices, but when I first started cutting school I felt like I was making the only choice. It was for simple survival. I wasn't just choosing to fuck up, I was choosing to not kill myself. Cutting was my drug of choice, my way of avoiding those situations. If I had to do it again I don't know if I'd be able to do it differently.
"This year I auditioned for a play, and I got a big part. I was so excited. Then people started calling me faggot. Some of the people doing it were gay; these guys who were heavily closeted. I didn't want to say, 'I'm not a fucking faggot. Get off my case,' because then I'd be the homophobic homos they are. So I dropped out. I'm tired of trying to be someone else.
"I see these kids at school who are gay. This one girl who's really popular is a total dyke. That makes me jealous 'cause they have their lives totally together, like they're going on to college and they're prom queens, or whatever. But they're in the closet. They're being whatever everyone else wants them to be." He stares off across the park. "Sometimes I just feel so desperate. I can see wanting to settle down and have a longtime companion and children and all that, but right now I just want action." He laughs. "And that's not happening either. I don't want to be promiscuous or anything, and I want to find someone my own age, 'cause then -- well, we'd be in the same place. But after six years of knowing, it's just so much pent-up frustration."
He fishes around in his backpack to find his journal so he can show me the entries he's written to himself. They start, "Dear Charley." "I must feel better about myself to write that, don't you think?" He replaces the journal and stretches his long legs. "There's no way I could be out at school without being totally ostracized, without violence. But I'm lying to myself and to the world every day I'm in school."
My father once told me he hoped I wouldn't get involved in the gay subculture. Once you do that, he said, you're lost. You can never come back. Apart from the fact that I couldn't go "back" to some place I'd never been, what he was asking me to do was, in essence, hold a loaded gun to my head and pull the trigger.
Gays without a community are defined by straight people's homophobia -- you are the "other," the pervert, the freak. Viewing yourself through the eyes of a society that loathes you is a devastating experience. It's impossible not to internalize that level of contempt. The armor that will eventually defend you comes from lovers and friends, and being one among thousands like yourself who are living fruitful, happy lives. But there's no easy fit for teenagers in the adult gay community -- a world that to teens, if they even know about it, seems far away and unattainable. Adults steer clear of gay youth, fearful of charges of "recruiting" -- even though, as Charley says, if any sexuality could be induced, it would be heterosexuality, given how we're bombarded with it. And because almost every teen who can is hiding, it's near impossible to develop your own community.
Julie Stevens, a 27-year-old Berkeley hairstylist, grew up gay in what a lot of people might think was an ideal situation: her mother is also a lesbian. Instead, her childhood was a nightmare of conflicting perceptions. "I grew up in Southern California, in the most oppressive place I could think of -- the San Fernando Valley, kind of like where they dropped the Rodney King verdict. When I was about five, my parents got divorced. My mom came back when I was around seven and came out to me, my brother, my father. She'd gone to Mexico and fallen in love with a woman. I didn't know what it meant. I remember telling kids at school that gay meant happy, that she was happy and gay.
"My dad wouldn't let me see my mom. I had a lot of shame about her...I knew my dad didn't like what she'd done, that there was something wrong with her. I thought maybe she was crazy. Now, as an adult, I dream that my mom's crazy and my family's trying to keep me away from her. But when I was a kid...you know, if they cut off your left arm, you don't question where's your left arm. It's just that you don't have one."
Stevens sighs as she gazes across the long back room at the Tea Spot Cafe on San Pablo Avenue, where we're having lunch. She looks younger than her age, with an open face and a quick smile that comes and goes like the sun on a cloudy day. "They sent me to a shrink when I was, like seven, you know, to deal with my problem."
"What was your problem?" I ask.
She smiles on-off. "They never told me." She gnaws gently on her lower lip, thinking. "That I loved my mother more than my father, that I identified with her."
"They felt you weren't fitting in somehow?"
"Oh, I definitely wasn't fitting in. I could've saved them a lot of money by telling them that. There was a distinction between me and my family, me and the neighborhood. I wasn't like the other girls who were all interested in boys. I was definitely different. I grew up a tomboy. I didn't wear a shirt until my father said I had to."
"And they associated this with your mother?"
"Yeah, like, 'Her mom's a lesbian and it's really fucking up our daughter, so now we're going to have to send her to therapy.'
"Then my dad started letting me see my mom. I'd go to her house on weekends. She lived in Echo Park, in a real dyke neighborhood. She was active in the lesbian community, and at that time it was really grass roots. I was hanging around all those women, and I was, like, in heaven. I never knew anything better than that. People paid attention to me, they talked about feelings, they took my feelings seriously."
"So I started living this double life," Stevens says. "I was in heterosexual suburban land during the week and on the weekends I was with my mom and her girlfriend. That went on until I was about thirteen and a half. I was begging my father to let me live with my mom. I wasn't being treated like a human being at home. I wanted to get the hell out of there. And I'd been having these feelings for women and girls, getting crushes.... So I moved in with my mom, and that summer we moved up here to Berkeley." She pauses. "By that time, most of the kids in my dad's neighborhood had found out about my mom. I had to walk home all these weird routes so I wouldn't get confronted by those kids. They'd throw things at me and beat me up, say my mom was queer or that I was, chase me down the street."
"Did you feel like they were harassing you more because of your mom or just because of the way you were?"
"Both." Silence. "Then we moved up here, and I went to Willard Junior High. I was fourteen. Not only did I discover women, I discovered all these things, like freedom, being a young woman, being a lesbian. I knew I was a lesbian at that point, no doubt about it.... But you know, that time is a big blur to me." She pushes the food around on her plate for a moment. She hasn't eaten much. "I had such shame about sexuality. From fourteen to twenty-one seemed almost like the same year to me. I did a lot of drugs, I slept with a lot of women. I had a fake ID, I got into bars." She pauses. "It's painful to talk about. It's like that was the package of my life. 'You're a lesbian, your parents got divorced, this is your package.' The alcohol and drugs were part of that. And I was so confused for such a long time. My dad was making it seem like me being a lesbian was my mom's fault. I didn't know that it was me. Like without my mother and without my father, I'd still be a lesbian.
"I hated Berkeley High. It was so big, I was lost, and I was still living a double life. I had this school and home life, and then I had this great nightlife. I didn't understand why people were trying to make me be a kid. It was so much easier for me to be an adult.
"I started getting into all kinds of trouble, with my mom, y'know, about the drugs. And then I was high in classes, cutting all the time. Finally they kicked me out. I made it a quarter of the way through the tenth grade, and that was it for my high school education.
"I was really glad. I hated it there. It was uncomfortable. There were these two young women who went to my school who were gorgeous. I had huge crushes on them. And they didn't take me seriously. They were straight. Everybody else was having sexual feelings, and here I was a freak. How could I be attracted to these two gorgeous women, I mean, what was I thinking?"
"Did you feel it was bad?"
"Did you talk to your mother?"
"You just didn't talk about that kind of stuff. You kept that iron door locked, and don't you dare try to get the key out and open it up." She takes a deep breath. "Besides, I was hassled a lot in school, called dyke all the time. If you have a choice of being hassled or not, you're going to choose not to be hassled. I got screamed at, had shit thrown at me in the hallways. I was afraid to walk down the hallway if it was just me. I'd look both ways and then I'd run.
"Anyway, high school ended, and there I was, out in the real working world. My mom said I had to get a job. I was grateful she didn't make me go to some other school. The part I wish was different was the stuff around the drugs. It's like society just blocks gays and lesbians into this 'Shame on you' kind of thing. There was nothing else for me to do, nowhere else for me to go."
She pushes her plate aside. "My father told me I was self- destructive. I was bound and determined to show him just how self-destructive I was. Drugs, yeah! Get hurt, yeah! The older I become, the more I'm just...." She shakes her head. "I mean, God, how did I make it our of that stuff?"
The Pacific Center, a gay and lesbian service organization, sits kitty-corner to the Andronico's on Telegraph. The center runs a speakers' outreach to schools and the community, operates an area-wide telephone hotline, offers an extensive counseling program, and hosts twenty-some peer support groups.
One afternoon, about twenty young people sit in the upstairs room at the Pacific Center, sprawled across a collection of old couches and beat-up chairs. Several are talking about last night at the Mix, a dance club down at Aquatic Park. The ethnic makeup of this drop-in group reflects that of the East Bay: a couple more whites than blacks, three Latinos, three Asians. What isn't reflected is gender parity: in spite of having a woman facilitator, the most women I've seen here is three.
"Boys tend to be louder and interrupt each other," Vashti Holt says. She's been leading the group since 1989. "I think some women are put off by that. And it's self-perpetuating. Women see all the guys and don't come back. We should probably advertise again. But if you put up fliers at high schools they're ripped down in minutes. It happens in the dorms at Cal too. They're torn down right away."
One day even Vashti isn't there -- she's out playing softball. I settle into a corner and disappear, made invisible by the generation gap. The group is talking about fathering children. The Asians and the Latinos are very concerned about not carrying on the family name, particularly those who are only sons. The whites and blacks shrug and say, sure, they'd like to know someone would live on after them, but they wouldn't want to have to take care of a kid or support it or anything. I must have made a strangled noise because one guy says (though not to me), "Hey, half the men in the world feel that way. It's cool."
They reassure each other that they can still have children. All they need to do is find a lesbian couple who wants kids. Or they could pay a lesbian to have a child for them. A figure of $2,000 is bandied about. Several think this is outrageously high, but others point out that having a kid must be a lot of work.
Not all the meetings are so hilarious, intentionally or otherwise. But humor does help to make bearable situations that are otherwise grim.
"Because of Rodney King," says one CCAC student, a black man with a ready grin, "we were all talking about how we were prejudiced, and I said I didn't like heterosexuals coming to this gay club I go to."
"Yeah, keep 'em out," several people shout.
"Then the teacher said afterwards she didn't want me to bring my private life into class," he continues. "I mean, that's what we were all doing."
"I sure wouldn't come out at school," comments seventeen-year-old Frank. "Otherwise, the shit'd hit the fan."
The college student shakes his head. "Just get the fuck out of high school."
"I want to know how to meet people," one teen says.
"Go to your school library and get a list of who's checked out the gay books," Frank advises. Then he sighs. "I wish there were places for us."
Vashti wonders whether anyone would go straight if they could. Everyone wants to know if she means like for an hour or two. "Forever," she says with finality.
No one does. "I couldn't get away with as much," says a young man who just moved here from Minnesota. "As a gay man I can be strong, weak, open, closed, everything. I couldn't do that if I were straight."
"What I hate is how we're not expected to be human," Frank says. "They think we have only one thing on our minds."
"Three," the CCAC student counters. "Sex, art, and retail."
But at another meeting, an eighteen-year-old says he would go straight in an instant. "I can't live gay," he says. He tells the group that he plans to marry this woman he knows. That way he can have a family and be accepted. Everyone looks worried. "Do you love her?" someone asks.
"Well, yeah. I mean, I could never love her the way I can a man. But what I hope is that I could learn to love her, over time."
Some shake their heads, but a couple of people are more philosophical. "To close off that part of yourself -- it's a choice some people make," one young man says.
"I guess if both of you agree to try it," another says. "She does know?"
It turns out she doesn't know. Now everyone looks really worried. "It's not fair to her," the eighteen-year-old admits. "But it's not fair to me to have to live like this. I can't stand not being accepted." He looks up at the ceiling and asks, "Is there any way to change?"
No one offers any hope in that direction. "For weeks I prayed, 'Jesus, change me,'" a twenty-year-old says. "'If I'm not doing Your work, change me.' And I put all gay thoughts out of my head. You know what? All those thoughts came back. I figured if God made me this way, that's the way He wants me to be."
"Unless it's the devil," someone quips.
"But that's what I think," breaks in the eighteen-year-old excitedly. "I think Satan must be inside me."
Charley tells me later in a shaky voice, "We don't need to worry about straight people hating us when we already hate ourselves so much."
No one would argue that it hasn't become better for gay adults in the last 25 years. Yes, of course, it's still awful, and the ships of state are veering into increasingly stormy waters, but still it's better now for adults than it was in the '40s or '50s. So why hasn't the situation improved for teenagers? How could anything be as bad as growing up thinking that there's no one else like you in the entire world?
Today's youth are much more conscious of being gay. The heterosexual presumption which we older types grew up with (and shouted against in the early gay pride parades) is no longer quite so monolithic. But a sense of place for older people can create a dangerous no-man's-land for youth. Before Stonewall, a lot of people didn't figure out their sexuality before their late teens. Today's teenagers are cottoning to the fact sooner that either they're gay or someone near and dear is struggling with his/her sexual orientation. And as the government study on youth suicide says, "The earlier youth are aware of their orientation and identify themselves as gay, the greater the conflicts they have."
Doesn't this fly in the face of all the cries to "Come out, come out" we've heard for years? Yes and no. Clearly there is no more important force for change than for gays to identify themselves as such and to live openly, taking whatever consequences may come our way. But we tend to be protective of our kids, and it's hard to tell someone like Charley that he should be beating the drum. Charley wanted me to use his real name.
"But you just told me that if you came out in school you'd be beaten up," I said.
"Yeah...but don't you think I should come out?"
Again, yes and no. Bereft of a caring community, of adults who could help, Charley is beset by a battle of perceptions: am I a pervert or am I gay and proud? And if I am gay and proud and don't come out, doesn't that make me a coward?
Charley's right when he ways junior high and high school are unreal worlds. They're the last bastions of strict sex-role stereotyping before we enter the grays of adult life, where women of all sexual orientations don't perform as expected and, surprise, neither do men. Whenever you're enforcing something that doesn't really exist, like rigid sex roles, you need a scapegoat to ensure that people stay in line -- enter queer, lezzie, cocksucker, fairy, dyke. You hear it in any schoolyard, luckily most of the time not directed at some one, most of the time simply a mantra of affiliation, like a pack of religious zealots clutching each others' hands as they whisper about heathens.
"What I didn't like about Gay Youth is that it gives the impression that kids should come out," says PE teacher "Joan," who nevertheless plans to use the new documentary in the consciousness-raising classes she runs at her high school. Released this month, the forty-minute film by lesbian filmmaker Pam Walton focuses on Bobby Griffith, a deeply religious young man from Concord who could not accept being gay and finally committed suicide, and Gina Gutierrez, a high-spirited Bay Area native who came out while she was at Los Gatos High School, survived the taunts, and went on to college. Walton, now 47, says she made the film because her own adolescence was so difficult. "A lot of young people don't believe they'll ever not be despised," Walton says. "They don't understand there's another world out there."
"Adolescence is a psychosis," says Walton. "Most kids are rebelling against anything that looks like an authority figure, but there's also a pathological need to be like your peers. I never did rebel. I felt so crooked on the inside that I was completely straight on the outside." She shakes her head. "If you never have an adolescence, you don't enter adulthood as a whole person. I went nuts when I was 25. I had to be a teenager then.
"I remember so clearly when I was nineteen. The first time I told someone I was a ho-mo-sex-u-al." She grins. "She was a very caring, loving person. Her first reaction was, 'Oh, you don't want to live the life of a lesbian.' And I thought, 'Oh, my God, I guess I don't.' What does that mean, I wondered, sleeping on the streets in a dark alley? This was, like, 1965. I got into therapy right away. The therapist I had was horrible, just horrible. She'd sit and look at me and never say a thing. Well, all my friends were starting to sleep with boys, so I made a conscious decision that I would, too. I singled out this guy who was in my art class, and I slept with him. It was one of the most ghastly things I have ever done. I told the therapist, and she said I was cured. When I came back the next week, she'd given my appointment to someone else."
Walton says she read about Bobby Griffith in the (San Francisco) Examiner series on gay life in 1989. Gina Gutierrez came to her, called her up after she heard that Walton was making a film on gay youth. "She was so much the opposite of the Bobby story. I thought I'd do a full treatment of the two and then touch on other themes -- substance abuse, homelessness -- with short interviews, talking heads."
Gutierrez had chosen to perform a gay-themed monologue for a school assembly. "Gina read Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and she decided she was going to be honest about who she was," Walton explains. Being honest included attending the prom with her girlfriend, coming out to her parents, and, not least, being in Walton's film. Gina's stepfather, in one wonderful segment, says Gina should be able to kiss her girlfriend out on the porch -- doesn't Gina's younger sister kiss her boyfriend? Gina's mother isn't entirely happy with this idea, but can't think of a logical comeback. Gina herself is effervescent, perched on the kitchen counter, as delighted as if she were watching a captivating tennis match.
"The thing is," Joan, the PE teacher, says to me over the phone, "Gina is completely self-assured. And her parents are amazing. It doesn't usually work that way, with either kids or parents."
Many kids know they might get tossed out of the house if they're honest about who they are. "I'm only sixteen," Charley says. "I don't think I can realistically support myself yet, so I can't tell my father." This sentiment was echoed many times at the Pacific Center groups. And as awful as being drummed out of the household would be for anyone, for gays of color it feels like a death warrant. The family is the bulwark against the crushing malevolence of the majority culture; to be banished from or even at odds with your family is like coming to bat with three strikes against you -- race, age, sexual orientation -- and perhaps gender as well.
Several studies have indicated that the later a son or daughter comes out, the easier it is for parents to accept. Once a child is earning a living, making his or her own way in the adult world, parents' fears may be somewhat mollified. When a teenager comes out, almost any parent is thrown into a panic. "I've never dealt with a moment's oppression," admits a father at a meeting of parents of gays. "I was raised upper middle class. I'm a professional. When my daughter told me she was a lesbian, I realized her whole life people would hate her blindly, without reason. First it made me frightened to death for her, and then it made me furious. Now I've been thinking about all prejudice, about how badly so many people are treated." He laughs. "She's made me a radical."
Unfortunately, this man is unusual. Parents moving past the fear stage most frequently go into denial. "My mother said she wished I was dead," one young woman told me. "What she really meant is that it would have been easier for me not to have been born than for her to endure how frightened she is for me. I couldn't take it if she really wanted me to die. But we don't talk about it at all now. It's the big unspoken subject."
Denial can go both ways. If no one talks about it, it's hard to know how anyone feels. And as Charley says, "Adolescence is hard enough as it is without society telling you you should be dead."
What could help? "Consciousness raising would be a start," says Joan. "Every kid has been oppressed. Every kid knows what it means to be trashed. We start with that. We get them in touch with how painful it is. And then we turn it around and say, 'Look at all these other people who are being hurt.' It's really effective, but all I hear is that there isn't time for it." She pauses. "We counsel people not to come out. It's not safe, physically or emotionally. Until we get some assistance from social programs and the government, we shouldn't leave these kids to hang out to dry."
But what about the kids who are already hanging? What about those who can't act straight or who don't want to hide? Some of them are on the streets, some in shelters, some miserable at home. Some are in mental institutions or religious "aversion-therapy" centers, committed by their parents. And some, of course, really are dead.
The figures collected by the government are staggering: 25 percent of lesbians and 20 percent of gay men reported in one study that they'd attempted suicide -- lesbians are twice as likely as straight women to try suicide, gay men six times as likely as straight men. A majority of these attempts took place before age twenty, with a third occurring before age seventeen. But the numbers are somewhat misleading; attempts by teenagers have a much lower success rate than adult attempts, so many of these gestures must be interpreted as a plea for help. Still, out of all suicides committed by teenagers, 30 percent are committed by gays and lesbians, who make up only 10 percent of the population.
Where help might come from is problematic. The findings of the government report on teen suicide have not been publicized and there are those who would like to keep it that way. Soon after the report came out, state representative and spurned senatorial hopeful William Dannemeyer wrote to George Bush and to Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, asking them to denounce the portions dealing with suicide among gay teens. Why? Because the report dared to suggest a remedy: "The root of the problem...is a society that discriminates against and stigmatizes homosexuals. We need to make a conscious effort to promote a positive image of homosexuals at all levels of society that provides gay youth with a diversity of lesbian and gay male adult role models." The study goes on to suggest that families must be educated to accept their gay children, that schools need to include information about sexual orientation and make a commitment to protecting gay youth from abuse.
Sullivan responded to critics of the report by saying that he had neither endorsed nor approved it, noting that it was written during the Reagan administration. He is said to be studying its recommendations, but since he's been doing that since 1990, don't expect a speedy reply. Besides, any politician with his finger in the wind registered on point man Dan Quayle's speech a couple weeks ago, in which he accused the "cultural elites" of believing "all 'lifestyles' are equal."
What are we to think when the vice president says people are not equal because of who they are? When we equate lifestyles with real lives and are willing to let kids die to prove a point, then things aren't exactly cooking in our kitchen.
Most of the people I've interviewed here would rank pretty high on the Kinsey scale (1 = exclusive heterosexual relations; 6 = exclusive homosexual relations). For the most part, people are somewhere in between, with many who identify as gay falling as a 3 or a 4. This can be confusing for teens, who don't understand why they're attracted to both sexes, or why intercourse feels great with the opposite sex yet things aren't meshing emotionally. But because our society is so rigid about gender issues, we all tend to spring to either end of the Kinsey scale like metal filings glomming onto magnets. The gay community can sometimes seem almost as stringent in its mores as its majority counterpart, creating an even greater sense of alienation among despairing teenagers. Almost nowhere -- and certainly not in high school -- is a range of gender and sexuality ever presented as a possibility, as simply what people are or can be. In fact, probably more people than not feel "wrong" in some area of gender identity, no matter what their sexual orientation.
A wider spectrum can be found any Friday night at the Mix, a dance club for young people at the north end of Berkeley's Aquatic Park. Pay your cover, get your hand stamped (a small stamp if under 21, large if over), and enter a dark cave vibrating with music. Large sculptures of dragons and harpies bound off the wall, surrounded by gaudy paintings of lipsticked women and clowns. Strobes flicker, freezing gestures into still-lifes: teeth gleam in ecstatic grins; hands reach towards the ceiling; sweat slices down a bare chest. Dykes with tattoos are dancing with flaming queens. Longhaired girls shimmy against longhaired girls. Hunky guys slam hunky guys. Women have spent hard-earned cash at Victoria's Secret and are flaunting it. Men wear baseball caps with the bill in back. T-shirts are almost a uniform, over breasts or over pecs, the looser the better, so you can pull the cloth free and flap it occasionally for ventilation.
But anything goes, and so does anyone. You can be whatever you like, and that's a big improvement over the not-so-old days. No one's telling you to be butch or femme -- or not to be. No one's demanding mustaches or sculpted bods. People are splattered like a Rorschachs across a Kinsey scale of gender identity that has lots of grays and room to play, whether you're bi, gay or straight. I loved it, but I bet Dan Quayle wouldn't. And that's a problem. When presidential campaigns depend on branding the existence of certain citizens an obscenity, we're skating close to fascism.
But Pam Walton sees hope in potential horror. "The process of getting well is messy," she says. "This culture is so homophobic and so sick that it has to go through convulsions to get well. Coming out into the open about who you are is going to stir up all this sickness. It's like the bottom of a pond. It's got to come up before it can be cleaned."