By Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D.
Reviewed by Michael Walker, Oasis Science and Medical Editor
Sometimes, whether rightly or wrongly, we find ourselves judging a book or movie or other creative product based on the track record of its author, director, or other individuals responsible for its respective merits. I guess such is human nature, but I am always wary on giving credence to something based on reputation alone. In the case of this book, the first thing that came to mind, honesty, was the fact that it was written by Ritch Savin-Williams -- a fact I was aware of before even reading the first page. Dr. Savin-Williams is a well-known scholar of gay-related psychological and anthropological material, and a respected Professor of Cornell University's Department of Human Development. Along with such fellow gay studies luminaries as anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, literary scholar Judith Butler, and physician Gary Remafedi, Ritch Savin-Williams has produced some of the most lucent and most-widely taught and referenced commentary on the social dynamics of being gay in contemporary society. He has written numerous journal articles as well as five books. Certainly, this book -- his fifth -- had a considerable reputation to measure up to in my eyes. I am happy to report that it did not disappoint me in this regard.
Without sounding awe-struck in some bizarre sort of academic hero-worship, I do want to impart the effect that Dr. Savin-William's work has had on my own scholarship of gay youth issues. When I first became interested in gay studies and first became aware that people -- serious people -- actually devoted their lives to learning more about all aspects of what being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is all about I was amazed by the great vista this world opened up for me. Savin-William's journal articles were among the first pieces of scholarly research I read that approached the issue of how gay kids grow up and how they related to the so-called straight world. This was fascinating stuff to me, and made me want to delve deeper into these issues myself. Because of the profound effect Savin-Williams and others like him have had on me, I have always wished that the type of writing and scholarship I found in those academic journals was available in a form that was more accessible to the general public, especially to gay and lesbian youth. This book, And Then I Became Gay, brings Savin-Williams comprehensive and lucid manner of investigating what being gay is all about to a broad audience.
The premise behind the book is simple, and is even reflected in its title: this is a documentation of how gay male youth grow up, how they discover their own sexuality, how sexual attraction and relationships evolve, and what these processes mean to their development as people. Since Savin-Williams is a psychologist, the book does use some of the empirical and qualitative methods common to his academic discipline, but it is neither a text on psychology nor an overly technical piece of academic writing. Instead, this book presents a very clear and well-organized synopsis of information on gay adolescence as a personal and social process. It is not meant to be specifically an introduction to gay studies -- although it serves well in some regards in this role -- nor is it meant to be a direct means for gay youth to come to an understanding of who they are. Instead it presents the findings of Savin-Williams qualitative research and his work with a variety of young gay men, showing and telling -- most often in the words of gay youth themselves -- what the maturing process brings to the gay male individual. The diversity of experiences and perspectives covered in this book merits comment: Savin-Williams has gone to great lengths to accurately show that not all gay men grow up the same and that stereotypes are nothing more than trite and easy ways to talk about issues that are in reality very complex and multiform.
The book itself is rather short, with less than 250 pages in all, including its extensive endnotes. Despite this, there's a lot of information crammed into this space, in the form of both text and tables. The format and approach often did remind me of journal articles by Savin-Williams and other scholars in the social sciences, but the technical jargon of academia is removed and replaced by more accessible language. I have no doubt that this book will serve as a handy reference resource for graduate students and professors interested in gay issues, but more than that, it should become one of the leading sources of such information for the general public. The book is broken up into various chapters detailing such topics as first homosexual sexual experiences, first relationships, the process of coming out, and so forth. The division of subject matter in this fashion is very useful in assisting the reader in his/her progress through the book, making it very easy to find specific information that you may be interested in. Additionally, each chapter is treated with equal care in comparison to the others, and no aspect of growing up as a gay boy seems to be neglected. I think a lot of the success of this book is a direct product of Dr. Savin-William's long process of learning all he has about gay youth before sitting down to put this volume together. This is the work of many years, and not just of the compilation of the results of several research studies. Savin-William's acuity of interest in gay youth and their lives shines through in his treatment of the text, expressing both care and respect for the variety of experiences and topics thus addressed. The chapter on childhood memories of same-sex attractions is especially interesting and well written, placing a sensitive emphasis on how we grow up often unaware of the fact that we have crushes on other boys or men, while at the same time having an uncanny awareness of this fact whether we desire to admit it to anyone or not.
I cannot say that I really have any strong complaints or regrets about And Then I Became Gay nor can I see how it could be improved upon. Savin-Williams should be commended not only for producing a consummate work of the highest quality, but also one that sticks to a simple format and is not overly ambitious in its length. The publisher, Routledge, has been known over at least the past decade for being one of the foremost publishers of gay and lesbian material -- especially of scholarly works on sexuality and gay studies. Their production and promotion of this book provides further credit to their commitment to gay and lesbian readers, as well as others who wish to learn more about what is still an underappricated and misunderstood minority in contemporary society. Many of us as readers take the publisher for granted, not realizing the true expense and commitment requisite to publishing a book and that publishing a book like this one that is certain not to really be a best-seller is something that requires great integrity from the publisher as well as great foresight and vision. I would recommend this book to both individuals who may find it interesting and useful and to all libraries -- whether community, school, or university-supported -- as And Then I Became Gay places a great wealth of information together in one slim volume and makes it available to all of us who may find such scholarship illuminating.
MICHAEL WALKER is the interim Science and Medicine Editor of Oasis Magazine. He also has published articles and research proceedings in the following journals: Diagnostic Imaging Europe, GayPlace, Translation Journal, CATScan, Acta Medicinia Slavica, ATA Chronicle, Fetishes, and AirMed. He is also a published poet and writer of fiction as well as a photographer and artist. Mike may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com.