Lesbian and Gay Youth Come of Age in New Book

By John Quinlan

"Their journey begins early.

"For as long as they can remember, from five, six, seven years old, they have felt 'different,' say gay and lesbian youth, nothing that they could fix a label to at such an early age, yet something that set them apart and deepened as they grew into their teenage years.

"By early adolescence, say gay teens, they were aware of an affection for people of the same gender. Sometimes it came as an attraction or a sexual fantasy, a crush on a teacher, a lingering glance in the locker room. Whatever it was, they kept it to themselves....

"Adolescence is tough enough. But to suddenly put a word to their lifelong 'difference,' a word used so contemptuously in society--lesbian or gay--can be a wounding experience for teens. On top of all their fear and confusion, they become vulnerable targets of harassment, prejudice, and hatred...."

* * *

So begins Kurt Chandler's landmark book, "Passages of Pride: Lesbian and Gay Youth Come of Age." This is a book that should be required reading for school board members from coast to coast -- and everyone charged with the care and nurturing of our nation's children and youth.

Any one of us who remembers the fear and isolation that we felt growing up as we realized we might be profoundly "different" wishes we could help make a world where kids wouldn't have to live through that experience ever again. However, I have to admit, the whole idea that a teenager might actually be able to be "out" in high school is mind boggling to me.

Chandler charts the voyage of six gay and lesbian teens through the difficult waters of adolescence. He evokes an intimate, and often heart-wrenching, portrayal of their pain. But this is not a story about living on the fringes, or about hopelessness and discouragement.

It is a powerfully universal Coming of Age story that gets at the core of our strengths as lesbian, gay and bisexual people. For in coming to terms with their own gayness, Derek, Amy, Dan, Troy, Michele, and Tara reach deep down into themselves to discover the essence of who they are in a way that goes beyond the consequences of their sexual orientation. These are stories of courage, integrity, and conviction -- and these are young people who seem to possess a depth of maturity that belies their relative youth.

That strikes me as ironic, because for many of us who came out in our twenties or later, being gay has often meant living a delayed adolescence, a postponed exploration of what relationships and sexuality will mean in our lives. For these six young people, however, their examination of these issues actually seems to give them a leg up on their heterosexual peers. For in looking at the meaning of their own individuality, they gain insights that few would ordinarily possess at that young age.

Chandler's book began as a remarkable award-winning 16-page supplement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, first published in December of 1992. Rita Reed, an openly lesbian photographer for the paper, initiated the project as an extension of her own voyage of discovery in learning about the challenges facing gay and lesbian youth.

For Chandler himself, writing the book has involved a journey that still continues. As middle-aged father and husband, he was armed with a parent's empathy for the challenges facing kids, and a long list of experiences as a reporter gained in reporting on social justice issues. Yet he didn't know much about the world of young gays and lesbians when he embarked on that journey.

Chandler says he was amazed at the level at which these young people opened up to him. Once allowed entree into their thoughts and feelings, he lovingly evokes the joy and the pain of their first loves, the often stormy adolescent assertion of their independence from their parents, and their remarkable strides on their journey to self-discovery.

Given his background as a journalist for a daily paper, Chandler covers his subject with a thoroughness and descriptive crispness that provides a solid factual framework for a narrative that nonetheless evokes the intimacy and emotional intensity of selections from a diary. He gets inside the hearts and heads of these kids and their families in an incredible way.

He's chosen an innovative format for his book that weaves the young people's lives together with information about resources and the greater lesbian and gay movement, in the process he provides a well-grounded context for readers for whom this is also unexplored territory. He devotes three chapters to each of his six subjects, weaving their stories together throughout the book in the rich tapestry of their shared voyage of discovery.

He walks an incredibly difficult line incredibly well. His documentation and objective voice pervade the book. But clearly, he makes no apologies about the intimate relationships he's developed with his subjects. To this day, he remains in contact with all six young people, who are now in their early 20's, for they have become like family to him.

One of the most pleasant surprises in reading the book was to discover a chapter about a couple in Fargo, North Dakota who I'd heard wonderful things about from a good friend over the years. Arlene and Lloyd Erickson are typical of the soft-spoken, self- effacing Scandinavians who inhabit the Upper Midwest. However, for almost two decades, they have bravely spoken out for lesbian and gay rights, and made their home into a safe harbor for kids from miles around making the difficult passage into an understanding of their sexuality.

The Ericksons' son Michael had come out to them in 1965, after graduating high school. Although they stumbled at times, his parents strove to understand him and give him support. They describe their son as a caring, fun-loving young man who was laughing on the outside, but crying inside. Ten years after coming out, he committed suicide in 1975.

Since then, with no airs about them whatsoever, the Ericksons have been simply doing what came naturally -- making the lives of other young lesbians and gay men easier so that no young person should face the dilemma that faced their son. For my friend, and countless dozens of other young people over the years, that simple act has meant more than the Ericksons will ever know.

Although Chandler traveled to both coasts in writing this book, there's a distinctly Midwestern flavor to his work. Hence, it conveys a Midwestern common-sensicalness about the lesbian and gay struggle that defies the Radical Right's notion that we are somehow anti-family.

On the contrary, this is very much a story about family, about the strengths we gain in coming out to our families of origin who embrace us, and the more painfully gained strengths we gain when we stand up to the wrongheadedness of those who don't. And it's a story about the families we create ourselves -- families consisting of others making the same journey of self-discovery.

As a so-called "outsider," Chandler's view of our movement is a cornucopia of valuable insights. More than any other book I've read this year with the exception of Urvashi Vaid's Virtual Equality, Chandler's Passages of Pride succeeds in providing a comprehensive overview of both our movement's strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most difficult chapters to read is his discussion of the barriers that older gay men and lesbians face in reaching out to our younger brothers and sisters. He does so without judgment, but the message is clear. As gay men and lesbians, we have far too often let "molestation myths," and the public's general homophobia-based wariness around issues involving lesbian and gay issues and children, prevent us from reaching out to these kids.

Young gay men and lesbians aren't as alone as they used to be, but things still have a long way to go. Chandler thoroughly documents encouraging signs of change symbolized by the lesbian and gay youth centers that are taking hold in places like Seattle, Indianapolis, and New York, and the Twin Cities.

Passages of Pride is a story of hope and courage, but for all too many gay and lesbian youth, the realization of self involves being booted out of their homes, rejection by their peers, or, in frighteningly high numbers, eventual suicide.

We have so much to learn from Derek, Amy, Dan, Troy, Tara, and Michele about taking courageous steps, and living lives full of integrity. This exceptional book charts a journey not only for these six remarkable young people, but for the adults in our movement who have for too long ignored our responsibility to reach out and make a difference in the lives of gay and lesbian youth.

This review originally appeared in the Wisconsin Light. Reprinted with Permission.
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