A Fish Out of Water

Commentary by Ian Silver

For about 40 hours a week -- well, supposedly 30, but I get carried away -- I spend my time online, talking on IRC with gay teenagers. Now, that's not such a big deal, because I know lots of gay teenagers who spend easily twice that amount of time, doing the same thing. There's a slight difference: I am not a gay teenager. In fact, I'm as far from being a gay teenager as you could be.

I'm 50 years old, not gay, married for 26 years to the same wonderful and usually-patient lady, with three offspring -- two of them adults, and one nearly 17. Our son and daughters are not gay. So, what motivates me to do my share of volunteer counseling?

Two years ago, my best friend Danny came out to me.

Danny, now 22, and I have been best friends since he was so tiny I had to heft him up to the keyboard to watch, in awe, as this 11 year old churned out his 120 words a minute on a BBS. When Danny came out to me, and I saw and learned what and how his real life had been like, I felt as though I'd been seeing him for all these years from the outside of a glass box. He explained so much to me of the pain, the isolation, and the desperation that was one young man's gay teenhood. That Danny is the sensible, mature, loving, well-adjusted soul he is, is one of the miracles of human survival.

At this point in my life, my health had taken a downturn, and I was retired on disability from my job as a guidance counselor/teacher. I was at home, I missed the kids I worked with, and I'd become involved in an online Youth Rights forum, which related to my volunteer work in the human rights field. I'd also gotten hooked into counseling a few hundred people on a Freenet, most of them teenagers.

Rather abruptly, my family relocated from the Prairies to Ontario, so that my wife could achieve her ambition of finishing her Masters' in Library and Information Sciences. Shortly after we moved, a young man from the forum asked me if I would be interested doing some counseling on #gayteen, the no-sex GLBT youth channel on IRC. This was subject to the kids' approval. He explained there were 300 kids who were channel regulars. I was interviewed online for a few hours, one of the most demanding interviews I've been through, as the young people were rightly concerned that I not have some kind of hidden agenda. After that, it was all systems go.

We started off with myself and 300 people; we now have over 1300 who use #gayteen fairly regularly. As well as myself, we are 21 counselors; two of us are professional guidance counselors, one is a clinical psychologist; another is a resident in clinical pathology; and the remainder are peer counselors from all over North America, and Britain.

We are the most underfunded volunteer agency in the world: hopefully, we can raise some funding for the long-distance phone calls that each counselor makes from her or his own finances, but Governments aren't interested, and the resources of the non-profit community are already seriously strapped. Our program isn't perfect, and we have had to develop many procedures and approaches, as we have few precedents to follow. But we're out there, providing free, non-judgmental help, referrals and crisis intervention for about 90 hours a week in total.

So, what's all of this like for me? After all, I haven't been a teen in 31 years: I'm the most unathletic person you'll ever meet; I never watch TV; so I'm hardly a role model or an anything model. It's been so long since I dated, that I can remember when dressing for a date meant a suit or tuxedo, and you never even expected a kiss on the first date.

What it's like is wonderful. The people I help are incredibly trusting, loving, generous, caring, polite, respectful, honest, angry, bitter, and sad. But what comes from this is a determination to survive, to love and to move forward, to break down the walls of that glass box, and to find happiness. I love the people I try to help; and they give me great love in return.

Love is the ultimate source of healing and recovery. My health has improved remarkably, and if I were to pinpoint the reason, it has little to do with modern medicine and a lot to do with feeling useful, feeling needed, and being hugged and hugging 1300 of the world's most wonderful young people.

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