Greg Whiting, a fifteen-year-old with red curly hair and blue fingernails, has come out as gay three times: once to his parents, once to his school and once to a national television audience on 48 Hours. Asked what it was like to discuss something so personal so publicly, Greg smiles. “Quite the ego boost,” he says. Why? “Well, let’s think about this one. National TV: hmm…” He laughs. “That’s about it.”
We’re sitting in a living room with two of Greg’s friends. Tara Conroy is fifteen, small, busty, cheerful, with steel studs in both ears. Dylan Parker is sixteen. He’s quiet, toweringly tall, with jeans ripped at the knees and shiny Frankenstein shoes. Tara and Dylan came out the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of television. While Greg searches for his 48 Hours videotape, Dylan and Tara tell their coming-out stories. Every gay teenager I speak with has one: For many of them, coming out was the most charged few hours of their lives, the moment the theoretical part of homosexuality ended, when being gay was no longer something over there, it was you. Dylan tells me that he never worried about what his family would think; his school concerned him. His parents – “my mom especially,” he says – are “pretty open people.” This is a distinction I hear often from gay teens: The world is split not into gay and straight but into open and closed. About a month after Tara told her mother she was gay, the Catholic school that Tara attended called her parents in and explained that they weren’t comfortable having a lesbian ninth-grader in their institution. “And I was so glad that I was out then,” Tara says, bugging her eyes, “because if I hadn’t been, they would have outed me to my parents. They would have literally said to them, ‘Your daughter’s a lesbian, and she’s not welcome here.’ “After Dylan came out, school became a nightmare for him. Once a teen comes out as gay, other students are usually eager to remind him of it. Dylan’s home was egged. People called him on the phone, said “faggot,” hung up; in the halls, students would bump him and whisper, “You’re gonna die.” For a year, no one at school would talk to Dylan, even girls. “That actually surprised me,” he says mildly. “Of all people, why should it bother them?”
Greg has found the videotape and pops it into the machine. “Now you get to see me with long hair,” he says. Greg is usually fidgety when he isn’t talking – fiddling with his shoes, clicking his tongue stud against his front teeth – but as he watches himself on TV, his body calms. CBS’ Paula Zahn asks Greg’s parents whether being gay is the life they would have selected for their son. “No,” his mother answers. “I wouldn’t have chosen this.” His father adds, “You know, you tend to want your kids to have a good life, and part of that is not having people hate you.” His mother explains, “I worry about him being hurt.”
Then the image freeze-frames on Greg and some teenagers outside their high school. Greg gets excited and points: “That’s my friend on the right, blowing out a puff of smoke.” Greg, like Tara, like Dylan, is a smoker. Most of his friends are smokers. But his parents asked him not to smoke on camera: “My mom said, ‘I know you do this. But I just don’t want to see you on national TV smoking.'”
Tara nods: “I understand where she’s coming from.”
In 1998, parents might be more unhappy having friends and relatives know that their child smokes than that their child is gay. It’s a watershed time: As adolescents have their first sexual experiences at younger ages (fifteen is the average), gay teens are addressing their sexuality earlier and earlier. They’re forging the pattern and template for gay teenage life in America the same way their predecessors did for gay adult life in the Seventies and Eighties. It’s all uncharted territory – how to have boyfriends and girlfriends at school, how to introduce parents to lovers, how to learn to be in relationships at the same time that you’re learning so much else. I spent nine months traveling the country and talking to gay teenagers in the West, the Midwest, the North, the South. Gay adults, like high school teacher Doug Wortham of Salt Lake City, spoke of having had very different childhoods from those of gay kids now – of being teenagers in hiding. “It was a lost youth,” he says. “Friends my age all felt the same way – it was something other people had that we never did.” Gay teenagers today are having their youth now.
The teens I met didn’t talk much about AIDS – everyone seemed up-to-date on the necessity of the condom. But adolescence is a time of sudden, combustible dramas, when it often feels as though it’s you and your friends squaring off against the world; gay teens know there are portions of the world that really are against them, and I felt as if I were walking into one explosion after another.
Massachusetts, in the liberal Northeast, is one of the friendliest places on the planet for gay teenagers. Before Christmas, I drive to the home of Michael Caniff, a fifteen-year-old sophomore in Hopedale. In the Caniff living room, the gold star on top of the Christmas tree brushes the ceiling, and Michael’s young sister keeps sending a battery-powered toy reindeer cantering across the rug.
“Ever since I was in fourth grade, I’ve been kind of feminine and stuff like that,” Michael says. “So I was nicknamed the school fairy and fag.” Michael is slightly built and handsome, and dresses like an apprentice club kid: black hair, black warm-up pants, black polo shirt, black Dr. Martens. He came out to his mother two years ago, more or less by accident. His boyfriend had been in a car wreck, and Michael was talking to him on the phone in front of his mother and grandmother. “I was flipping out,” Michael remembers. “Then he told me, ‘I’m all right, I’m all set. I’ll talk to you after dinner. I love you.’ And I’m like, ‘I love you, too, bye.'” When Michael hung up the phone, his mother was staring at him. “Who were you talking to?” she said. Michael turned red. His mother followed him into his bedroom. “I think he expected me to flip out,” she says. “And I just went and sat down and put my hand on Michael’s back. I said, ‘I know, but you’ve got to tell me. I want to hear it from you.'”
At first, Michael’s mother didn’t want her son to be too open. “But I’m a normal, rebellious teenager,” Michael explains with a laugh. He dyed his hair purple, started wearing dog collars, platform shoes. “When he came out,” his mom says, “he went from zero to bitching in thirty seconds. He was going to the malls and doing everything but wearing a shirt that said, ‘I am gay.’ I tried to explain that there were people out there – skinheads, rednecks – who would kick your face in just because you’re gay or because they think you are.”
Michael made friends with another gay student at his high school, and together they founded the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance. “‘Cause I was being harassed, and other kids were being harassed,” he says. “It’s just, at Hopedale [High School] there were a lot of mean people who really weren’t open-minded or anything like that. I wanted them to know that gay people exist.”
While we’re talking, Michael’s brother returns home from track practice; the brothers are entirely comfortable around each other. He is straight and speaks with a strong regional accent, which Michael doesn’t have. None of the gay kids I speak to in Massachusetts has the flat New England accent. When I ask a Massachusetts gay organizer about this, she laughs: “You wouldn’t catch a gay kid having a Boston accent – it’s the aesthetics. They’ve got way too much taste for that.”
And that’s true of the gay teenagers I spend time with in Utah, in Indiana, in Georgia. They never have specific accents: They speak the language of Starbucks, the Gap, MTV and Barnes & Noble – the universal language of the American progressive class. Social change comes to different areas of the country at different rates, like weather systems or getting hooked up for cable. But these kids all seem to live in the same perfected, accentless version of America. In the Caniff house, Michael’s nine-year-old sister is the one person who doesn’t know he’s gay: not because his family is embarrassed – Michael’s angry contention – but because it would raise questions of sexuality that his parents don’t feel she’s ready for yet.
Michael lives a high school life that’s a mix of studying, hanging out with friends and attending gay support groups. One of the programs he sometimes attends is the weekly meeting of FRAGLY – the Framingham Regional Alliance of Gay Lesbian Youth – which is held in the basement of a Unitarian church on Thursday nights. (There are about fourteen regional groups, or AGLYs, in Massachusetts.) I stand on the church steps just before 6:30 one night. The kids quickstep toward the entrance – looking this way and that, looking at their shoes – and when they see the other kids smoking on the church steps, they smile. They arrive driving in beat-up station wagons or with their parents in new four doors. Tara is here; Greg Whiting is here; Dylan slams a car door and clicks across the street with his boyfriend. Somebody asks a kid named Sam whether he’s interested in one of the other members of the group. Tara giggles. “Of course you’re interested,” she says. “You’re interested in anything with a penis.” And Sam – a hugely built kid with an earring and a goatee – snaps her on the back of her jacket. A new arrival walks to the steps, and one of the girls sizes him up. Their gaydar – slang for the ability of one gay person to recognize another – keeps them aware of other gay kids in the area. “You work at the Star supermarket, right?” the girl asks. Greg Whiting looks at the new kid and says, “Marshall’s.” “That’s right,” the girl says. “I knew I’d seen you someplace.”
The meeting is group therapy – like the hundreds of other weekly gay-teenager support meetings around the country, which are usually held on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (evenings when no one is planning for a weekend or recovering from one). Under ice-cube-tray fluorescent lights, at five round tables, the twenty members of FRAGLY discuss what’s happened during the previous week. Sam has just come out at school. He got an orange thrown at him in the lunchroom, but beyond that things went OK. Someone asks why he chose this particular time, and Sam shrugs: “I don’t know. I just got brave one day.” This brings a round of respectful applause. Becky Kent, the group’s adult adviser, asks, “And how about your family? Have you talked to them?” Sam blushes, blinks, sighs: “I don’t even want to go into that.” The room laughs.
The meeting runs so smoothly, it’s hard to imagine that none of this existed half a decade ago. The gay youth civil-rights movement got its start because of a number. In the mid-Eighties, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a study on youth suicides, which had tripled since 1950. A San Francisco-area social worker named Paul Gibson was invited to contribute an essay on the particular issue of gay-teenager suicides. He stated that gay teenagers were three times more likely than their straight counterparts to attempt suicide (there are 500,000 total annual attempts nationwide) and made up about thirty-three percent of each year’s 5,000 “successful” teen suicides.
It was a startling percentage. Gibson blamed what he described as the isolation and negative self-image of gay teenagers, and suggested that parents, churches and other groups should take conscious steps toward promoting a more positive image of homosexuality. Official response to the study – released in 1989 as the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide – was quick and negative. The head of the Department of Health and Human Services publicly disavowed Gibson’s findings and added that he had no plans to reprint them.
But the number took hold in the gay community, mobilizing advocacy groups across the country. If gay teenagers were at risk because of their invisibility, the solution was to make them visible. One development was the formation of the Gay-Straight Alliance – clubs in high schools, like the Hispanic society or the chess club, that would have three functions: help straight students understand that they had gay peers; demonstrate that gay teens were supported by their schools; and end the students’ isolation by helping them recognize that they weren’t alone. At the beginning of this decade, there were no Gay-Straight Alliances in public high schools. By 1997, 400 alliances had registered with the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and there are countless more in addition to those. In 1996, the National Education Association voted to include “sexual diversity” in sexual-education curriculums. Counselors were trained, and groups like FRAGLY – away-from-school support groups – blossomed throughout the country. Surveys were commissioned, and they estimated that among America’s 15 million high school students, about nine percent of teenagers identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or “questioning” – the technical term for thinking it over.
Gibson’s numbers have since been challenged; his conclusions were based on the questionable assumption that if gay kids are three times more likely to consider suicide, then they naturally account for a third of suicides. Mental-health workers, however, consider suicide attempts and actual suicides as distinct phenomena, and in 1994 several government agencies convened a panel to revisit the issue of gay teens and suicide. Their conclusion was that there is no connection between sexual orientation and suicide. Other studies, however, have corroborated the idea that there is an increased likelihood of destructive behavior among gay teens: Twenty-five percent leave home because of conflicts over sexuality; a similar percent drop out of high school because of intolerance. But the three-times-more-likely statistic continues to be cited as the most compelling evidence that gay teens are in trouble. When Ellen DeGeneres appeared on PrimeTime Live during the week of her sitcom’s coming-out episode, anchor Diane Sawyer turned to the camera, quoted the number and said that the evening’s broadcast was “in part to hold on to them.”
Nowhere was the impact of the 1989 study and Gibson’s essay stronger than in Massachusetts. After reading the report, then-Gov. William Weld funded the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, the first such commission in the nation. In late 1993, when Weld signed the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights bill, Massachusetts became the only state to provide full legal protection for gay teenagers (Connecticut, Vermont, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have since adopted similar regulations). In 1996 schools found a new incentive to be careful about the issue. A few years ago, Jamie Nabozny, from Ashland, Wisconsin, sued his school district for not protecting him from harassment. Nabozny had been verbally abused, mock-raped and kicked unconscious in a hallway. In the school bathroom, some kids had pushed him into a stall and urinated on him. The Ashland school district settled out of court for $900,000.
Michael Caniff explains how the Massachusetts protections work. When he was a freshman, four students would harass him. One kid, Sean, would walk up to Michael in the halls and say, “‘Die, fag,’ ‘faggot,’ stuff like that,” Michael says. He asked Sean to stop. Then he went to the guidance counselor, who told him to write what’s called a letter of harassment. “I was really nervous about it,” Michael says. “I didn’t think it would work. I expected – if anything – for him and everyone else at school to laugh at me for writing this little note saying, ‘Please stop harassing me.'” The next day, administrators pulled Sean out of class, showed him the letter and asked him to write a letter of apology. If Sean told anyone about the exchange of letters or harassed Michael again, he would be suspended. If the harassment continued after that, he would be expelled. “It stopped it dead,” Michael says. “Now it’s just like, no big thing.” I ask him what it would have been like going to school before the laws existed – when his choice would have been to come out as gay and get picked on or to keep quiet and wait. “I would have been suicidal,” he says after a moment. “I probably wouldn’t have lived through it – because I’m not really good with bottling things up. And if I can’t be myself in a certain situation, I’m very uncomfortable, and I get very depressed. It would have been a living hell.”
No one knows how the Abbey – a two-room coffeehouse ten minutes from downtown Indianapolis – became that city’s center for gay teenage life. On weekend nights, kids sit on the curb smoking and hugging each other, answering pages (nearly everyone carries a pager – a way to cut down on parental involvement with the telephone), comparing clothes, drinking lattes, splicing together plans. The Indianapolis kids aren’t old enough for bars; this is their alternative. I’ve never seen more embracing than I see at the Abbey. It’s like being backstage at the Academy Awards.
It’s a Friday-night crowd evenly split between male and female; couples inside are sharing booths and pricey sandwiches. For the unattached, there’s a strong sexual vibe, a feeling of possibility in the evening. Some kids are trying to mount a trip downtown for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, more than two decades after its release, is still going about its business of titillating and reassuring teenagers – a kind of Grateful Dead show of transgressive sexuality. Leaning against a car, I talk to Wendy Craig, a high school junior who’s just been kicked out of her parents home. Wendy is blond and pretty, and dresses like someone in student government. “There’s been this thing lately,” Wendy says, “of all these girls cutting their hair off and trying to be a little more butch, trying to act a little more manly – as if that’s how they have to be to get accepted by other lesbians. They think you have to fit into a mold. I haven’t fallen into that. I’m happy to have my hair long, and I love my nail polish. I love perfume.”
Wendy’s parents learned about her sexual orientation in a fairly common way: They found the books she’d checked out from the library about coming out – how to tell parents, how to tell friends – and some brochures from IYG (the Indiana Youth Group), which is the primary gay-teen support center in Indianapolis. She’d been hiding it all under her bed. “For a while,” Wendy says, “they’d been dropping hints about it. I thought it was my parents saying, ‘Come on and tell us, it’s OK.’ But as soon as I told them it was true, they were disgusted.” Wendy’s parents – her stepmother especially – are extremely religious: Homosexuality is wrong, simple as that. Wendy was prom queen last year at the IYG spring dance; her parents found the photographs – “my prized possessions so far” – and burned them in front of her. For a while, Wendy subsisted on tapes of Ellen and the lesbian crime thriller Bound – she rented it so often that she eventually bought a copy, watching it on the downstairs VCR, flicking the set off and running upstairs whenever she heard her parents pulling into the garage. Before she was kicked out of the house, Wendy was forbidden to talk with other lesbians, go to IYG meetings. So she would hit the Abbey.
Because the Abbey functions as the center, it attracts gay kids from a wide area. Patrick Pearson drives thirty minutes to the Abbey on weekends. He’s a seventeen-year-old junior from the tiny agricultural town of New Palestine, Indiana: cornfields, filling station, convenience store, church, and then you’re driving to the next town. “There’s maybe about a thousand people there now,” Patrick says, “surrounded by corn and hog farms.” The social center of New Palestine is the Taco Bell, which is nestled inside the Gas America station; students sit there and gossip. Patrick’s father is retired and lives in Indianapolis; his mother drives the New Palestine school bus. Patrick is about six feet tall, with a football lineman’s massive build. He has a wide, handsome face that vaguely follows the Patrick Swayze mold; inside the V-neck of his velour polo shirt hangs a big gold cross. He comes from a classically large Catholic family: five brothers, six sisters. He’s maybe the least likely gay person in the world. Right now he’s in a funny spot. New Palestine is the kind of place where everyone shows up for the Friday-night high school football game and puts away some beers – a hard town to be gay in. “I was in the closet and then out, and now I’m …” Patrick laughs. “I’m in right now. A couple of people know: one of my sisters and two of my best friends. I kinda hoped for a while that maybe I was thinking I was something that I wasn’t. But then as soon as I start just trying to date girls, I realize. I’m willing to try it, but I just like girls to talk to ’em. They just aren’t as interesting to me as guys. I don’t feel that buzz.” Patrick began guessing he was gay when he was seven or eight. Last year his sister (“who has a big mouth”) started telling people, and soon everyone at his school had heard, Patrick says. “And then I was criticized so much about it, and I really didn’t know what all was going on. I had, like … really bad relationships. So I just kinda thought I’d stick with girls.”
The kids at his school weren’t any help. “A lot of the girls were cool,” he says, “’cause I’m really good friends with almost all of them. But the guys were complete punks. They never did anything physically to me’ cause they knew that I’d be able to beat them up.” He laughs. “I know if I was, like, a weenie, I’d be beaten blue and straight by now.” In Spanish class, when Patrick’s teacher introduced the Spanish verb jugue, which is pronounced who-gay, the class snickered and someone said, “Patrick.” Patrick is a member of the swim team. For a while he played linebacker with the New Palestine football squad, but he was uncomfortable showering with the rest of the team, and when he told them why – because he’d had many piercings – the guys laughed, and he didn’t much want to play football anymore.
“It was OK,” he says. “I just didn’t want to take showers with them. I’d had my nipples pierced, and – well, I’d gotten my left thing pierced. And they were like, ‘Man, I want to see it.’ And I was like, ‘You’re not going to be seeing anything.’ ‘Cause I was so used to them being jerks to me.” Patrick discovered the Abbey last year when some friends from New Palestine brought him around. At first he didn’t like it. “All the guys were kind of feminine looking,” he says. “And I don’t really get into that.” Around that time, he started to think that being gay was perhaps causing him more problems than it was solving. “I just didn’t want to be criticized the rest of my life,” he explains. He read an article about how a person’s whole future can be determined by his influences. “And psychologically, I thought, maybe it was just because with my parents divorced, I didn’t have a guy role model. So I thought if I started hanging out with my brother a lot, things would be better. We went to Panama City, did all kinds of crazy stuff there. Partied a lot. Coming back here, I just thought, ‘I’m not gonna mess with it anymore.'”
And here’s how Patrick went back into the closet. His mother, driving the school bus, was taking a lot of flak. “She was so miserable about everything,” Patrick says. “She wanted me to be with a girl. She would come home crying from the bus because people would say stuff about me on her route. They’d say, ‘Your son’s gay, he goes to gay bars’ – although I’ve never been to a bar in my life. And she didn’t know how to react to ’em. I just wanted my mom happy.” Patrick spent a few nights last spring writing an essay about himself for New Palestine High’s Crimson Messenger. The editor gave the piece its title: Pat says his Acting Job is Over. “I just wrote that I wasn’t what they thought anymore. Kind of let them believe it. I just wanted to stop the rumors. I just said, ‘I’m not what you think I am.’ I described everything that had happened – that I had tried different things, and I didn’t like it. And that I’m back like everybody else, really. That’s about the extent of it.” His schoolmates read the essay; his mom was OK on the bus. Patrick doesn’t intend to bring it up again. “I don’t really plan on saying anything else to her,” he says. “I want to let her know what I’m really like – but then again, I don’t want to burst her bubble. I just want her to be happy. I’d like to say something, but I’m just not going to mess with it.” Patrick plans to keep dating women in college: “I’ll let her know about the girlfriends I have, but with the guys, I just won’t say anything.” I ask Patrick what being gay means to him. He sighs, and what he says is touchingly romantic: “It’s just where two people can be together under whatever circumstances. You know, they have to put up with a lot to be together, and they care about each other.”
Patrick decides he wants to go to Rocky Horror – he’s never seen it – and we drive downtown. After about half an hour of the movie, he’s had enough. The transvestism makes him uneasy, puts him off – and he gets up and leaves. This isn’t his vision of what being gay is about. Outside, I run into nineteen-year-old Alex, a small sixteen-year-old girl named Christie and a slim Hispanic high school senior named Sidney. Christie is nervous; no one can find her friend Jacob Eiler. Jacob is essentially homeless; he crashes at the homes of people he knows through the IYG. Lately, Jacob has been staying at her house, and Christie doesn’t want him to end up sleeping outdoors. “He’s used to having stuff of his own,” she says. “He used to live somewhere. And he lost it. He woulda had to stand in line for a homeless shelter. So I was like, ‘Look, you can stay at my house.'” We pile into Sidney’s car – or, rather, the car Sidney is borrowing. It belongs to an older friend, the man who owns the real estate agency where Sidney works part time. It’s a new Lincoln Continental, license plate: MORGAGE. It smells like baby powder.
As we drive through the deserted streets of Indianapolis, Sidney tells me why he has this car: His thirty-five-year-old boss has been in love with him for a long time. He bought Sidney a Chevy Cavalier; he pays for Sidney’s cell phone so they can keep in close contact; he bought him rings and a gold watch; today at work, he left flowers on Sidney’s desk. Sidney isn’t sure he likes the situation but doesn’t know how to break things off. Christie lunges between the front seats, picks up the phone, dials a number she reads from her pager and finally locates Jacob. Ten minutes later, Jake gets into the back seat, and the five of us drive to an all-night Denny’s just southwest of the city. Sidney and Alex were reluctant to go there at first (they were hassled by some skinheads at the restaurant on Friday night), but the waitress knows about them, accepts that they’re gay, so they decide it’s OK.
At the table, there’s a lot of joking but some real sadness. These kids don’t have the assurance that the schools in Massachusetts give their students – that being gay is OK, a part of them like an ethnic background or the neighborhood they’re from. Jacob tells me how he came out – his parents flipped out and have still not accepted him – and I can understand his often hurt look. Alex came out at school during his sophomore year, just because he was “tired of everyone accusing me and not really knowing. So I was just like, ‘Fine, fuck you. I’m gay.'” When people followed Alex in the halls, calling him a fag, asking him about boyfriends, he would turn around and say, “‘You’re just jealous because you can’t get up in my butt.’ It just kind of, like, stumps them.” One boy hit Alex. Alex punched back. Both students were suspended; when Alex returned to school, the rumor in the halls was that the principal had taken the other boy to the bathroom and asked what it felt like to hit a faggot.
When men walk by, Alex and Jake lean across the table and whisper. “See his ass? Nope. He didn’t have one,” Alex says. Jake responds, “Never mind that – you don’t have the booty, you’re not getting me.” Alex muses, “I want my butt to go away. Just because that’s all I ever hear: ‘Nice ass.’ ‘Your butt is big.'” Christie laughs. “Gay guys are bitches,” she says. “Lesbians are so much cooler than gay guys – oh, my gosh, they’re just so much fun.” Then she whistles, “I’m a Barbie girl.” Sidney explains to someone on his cell phone that he’s driving the Lincoln this weekend. Then they start teasing Alex – in a strange, reversed moment – because three years ago, at fifteen, he had sex with a girl. They tell him he’s a closet heterosexual. “She raped you, huh?” Sidney asks. “How could you get it up for a girl, anyway?” Jake asks. Then they accuse Alex of having liked it. “I didn’t,” Alex says. “For real I didn’t, guys. I didn’t.” The check comes; Sidney stretches: “OK, girls, shall we leave?”
We gradually drop everyone off. Alex picks up his own car at the Abbey. Jacob and Christie search for her father’s truck in the parking lot of the building where she lives; when they don’t see it, they smile in relief and slip upstairs. Driving me to my hotel, Sidney gets momentarily silent. The Lincoln’s blue clock tells me that it’s 3:20 and sixty degrees outside the car. Sidney carefully asks whether, in talking to gay people in other cities, I’ve found that there’s a history of abuse: “Have you found if anything happened to them as a child or something?” That, like, had a major impact on their life, that made them change the way they were, made them so they’re gay or something?” As he makes his way through the Indianapolis streets, he tells me that from the time he was seven until he was eleven, his teenage brother would sleepwalk into his bedroom at night and rape him. His mother never believed Sidney – “I’ll never forgive her for it. I mean, there’s no way I could. ‘Cause I don’t know what I might have turned out to be; it’s just one of those things” – but over the holidays a few years ago, his brother admitted it. I offer Sidney the standard helpful, truthful line: that most people I’ve talked with are happy and satisfied with the way they are. He watches the road. “I mean, I’m happy the way I am, too,” he says. “But I’d like to have seen what would have happened if that wouldn’t have happened. ‘Cause I don’t know if this is the way I would have turned out or not.”
Three years ago, when Salt Lake City high school senior Kelli Peterson decided to start up the first Gay-Straight Alliance in Utah, she didn’t know what it would lead to: hearings, walkouts, the ACLU, the conservative Eagle Forum, the New York Times, NPR, U.S. senators, Today, the White House. She wanted “to save myself and maybe fifteen high school students from a little hurt and loneliness. That was it.” She knew a handful of other gay kids: Erin Wiser, Nathan Faulkner, a flamboyant sophomore named Jacob Orosco. (“With Jacob, there was never a big coming out,” Kelli remembers. “The closet burned down around him.”) In the fall of 1995, they found their faculty sponsor and filed club paperwork with the East High School principal. During Christmas break, local papers learned about the club request, and for half a year, Wiser remembers, “it became the Salt Lake City version of the O.J. trial.” For months, the Gay-Straight Alliance seemed to be the only news in Salt Lake City.
As home to the Mormon Church, Salt Lake is one of those deeply conservative cities in which it is easier to believe in angels than in the existence of gay teenagers. One of the city’s newspapers ran articles calling homosexuality “an abomination.” The school board and the state legislature held panicked secret meetings aimed at stopping the GSA. Some students at another local high school formed an anti-homosexual league, SAFE (Students Against Faggots Everywhere). Gay students were nervous attending in-school GSA meetings because TV cameras were always there. Kelli Peterson was the spokeswoman for the group, and Jacob was always a useful ally: “He was strong. He wasn’t victimized or traumatized by being gay – if someone at school said, ‘You’re a fag,’ he’d say, ‘Are you interested?'” For shyer members of the gay community, Jacob was “a liberator,” says his friend Nathan. “He brought me out of my shell. He made me an outgoing person.” The school board wanted to ban the club, but a 1984 law called the Equal Access Act stood in its way. The law had been sponsored, ironically, by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch as a way to allow Bible-study clubs in the schools. The basic idea was that high schools had to allow any club with a faculty sponsor (like the GSA) or they could allow no clubs at all. State senators like Craig Taylor led the fight against the group. “It’s being orchestrated by the adult homosexual organizations,” he said at a hearing. “Since they can’t reproduce, they have basically said, ‘We will seduce and sodomize your children.'” At the end of February, the Salt Lake City school board voted to ban all clubs in all high schools – including groups like chess clubs and SADD (Students Against Driving Drunk). At the time, Kelli told reporters, “This is not the end but the beginning of another fight. We will not sit down, give up or be quiet ever again.”
With the help of the local ACLU chapter, Peterson and the GSA organized a one-day Salt Lake City student walkout; a thousand students marched on the state Capitol. In the spring, the group reached an accommodation: Following a state law, the GSA would be permitted to rent space from the school after hours. By the fall of 1996, the Gay-Straight Alliance was the only club meeting at East High School.
That year, Erin Wiser (Kelli’s girlfriend at the time) was head of the GSA. After she graduated, the momentum of the group resided primarily with Jacob Orosco, who had always been one of the organization’s most active members. But on September 3rd, 1997, a few days after school had started, Jacob went to his family living room and, with no warning and no note, fixed a rope to the ceiling and hanged himself.
Jacob’s memorial service is being held in a small Unitarian church in the western district of the city. When I arrive, I learn that the press is barred from the service; my tape recorder is confiscated, and when I make notes, people frown. One high school girl confronts me and says what everyone wants to say: “We don’t want it to be covered that way. Jacob Orosco did not commit suicide because he was gay.” The gay youth movement, like any young movement, is still onstage, on opening night, at a moment when it feels as though success or failure can be determined by even the slightest motions of its participants. Everything feels political. As one adult organizer warns me, “They’re worried about how this is going to be seen.”
“People are dealing with this in weird ways,” Kelli Peterson later tells me. “It’s a really scary issue. Jacob was one of the [GSA’s] original founding members. He was supposed to be completely OK with being gay, and he committed suicide anyway. It’s like gay and lesbian organizations are dealing with it as a PR question: How does this look publicly, when these kids who have been fighting for their clubs so they don’t kill themselves end up killing themselves anyway?”
Kelli tells me later that members of adult organizations have told kids not to talk to reporters. But as the service starts, the PR issues melt away: This is a room full of teenagers and adults concerned about teenagers, a room of parents and kids thinking, “With a few wrong turns, that could be me up there” or “my kid up there.” A videotape of Jacob is shown – he was a thin, good-looking club kid who loved techno music and dressing up. The minister makes a speech, which fifteen-year-old Julia Sartain, a good friend of Jacob’s, later tells me misses the point. “She said as much as can be said if you’re a minister. She was like, ‘And when the wind blows, we will think of you, Jacob Orosco. And when the trees are shedding their leaves, we’ll think of you, Jacob Orosco.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, and when I turn my stereo up really loud, I will think of you, Jacob Orosco. And when I drop my tab of E, I will think of you, Jacob Orosco.’ He was a party guy. She just said all the wrong stuff.”
It’s a service unlike any I’ve been to. The most palpable sensation, beyond sadness, is anger: anger at anyone who might be pleased by a teenage homosexual killing himself; anger at the state and city for making the lives of young gays so difficult; anger at Jacob for exposing the risk, the long drop, underneath the ground they walk on. When the minister isn’t talking, there are these astonishing, silent moments filled with sorrow and anger, and the hope that someone will step up to the lectern and say whatever can transform the mood to something purer and calmer – a kind of sustained, anticipatory, pained fury.
Ryan Wallace lives in Sandy, Utah, a suburb thirty-five minutes from downtown Salt Lake. He’s fifteen and shy, with the painful thinness of someone who isn’t sure how much space he has the right to occupy. Although he didn’t know Jacob – they had common friends at the Utah Stonewall Center, a support organization – Ryan was still “really mad that people let it get that far.” He says, “What I thought was an, ‘OK, that could have been me’ type thing.”
Ryan himself has already attempted suicide – the first time, with a razor blade, when he was fourteen. Last June, a few days after coming out to his parents, he started thinking about razors and overdoses again and asked his mother to take him to the hospital. He stayed nine days. It was the intense loneliness of being gay in an area where there are no gays. He had no way of knowing he wasn’t the only one, had no one to talk to.
Ryan and I talk in the Barnes & Noble Superstore. With a certain amount of pride, he leads me to the magazine rack and shows me XY, a magazine for gay teenagers. He shows me the gay and lesbian studies section, which nearly all Barnes & Noble stores have, even in Utah; these specialized bookstore sections have helped support Ryan during the last few years. “I could find the gay and lesbian section in the dark,” he says. “I’d always come in here looking over my shoulder – see if there was anyone I know, stuff like that. They have the one book that’s just pictures of gay couples. When I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh!'” With kids like Ryan who live outside cities, what keeps them going is often TV. For Ryan it was the San Francisco edition of MTV’s The Real World. One of the show’s participants, Pedro Zamora, was a young gay activist with AIDS; Ryan taped all the Pedro episodes, and when things got rocky in his family – when his father or sister made casual anti-gay remarks – he would go upstairs, lock the door and run a Pedro Real World. “I would watch that show religiously,” Ryan says. “Pedro was my role model. “Cause I didn’t know anyone that was gay, I didn’t know that was out there, I had no clue. I’d never seen two guys holding hands in my entire life until I finally saw The Real World. It was just like, ‘If MTV can put this on, then it’s gotta be OK, hopefully.'”
The other thing that kept Ryan going was the Internet. He found the gay chat rooms on America Online. There was a room devoted to Utah, and Ryan began spending a lot of time on it, typing in, “I’m a gay fifteen-year-old from Sandy, Utah.” (This was what prompted Ryan to come out; his mother came into the room to find him chatting by keyboard, and there it was onscreen, his situation in a few flat words: “I’m a gay fifteen-year-old.”) Ryan found his way from AOL to the Web: “I’d put in the word gay, and 15,000 sites would come up. I learned about activities, lifestyles, statistics. It was kind of eye opening. It was like, ‘Oh, there really are gay people in the world.’ When it said that it’s ten percent – that’s quite a bit. That’s enough to have a life in.”
Around the country, the Web has been a lifeline for young gays in areas where there are no adult gays to look to and for children whose parents have tried to prevent them from socializing. Chris Wray, a high school senior, lives in San Diego. His mother and father discovered that he was gay and that he was gay and that he had an older lover “in the same ten minutes,” he says. At fifteen, he’d been dating a thirty-year-old for six months; he was spending a weekend with the man when the school friend he’d picked as an alibi unwittingly phoned his home, asking for him. “When I came home, my parents confronted me and everything blew up,” Chris says. He ended up grounded for two years. His parents reorganized his life to such an extent that they even selected his after-school job, at a fast-food restaurant whose owner is well-known for being strictly religious. Chris had been spending time with gay community groups in the area, and “suddenly,” he remembers. “I had no contact with any gay people, period. It was like going into sugar shock.”
Chris found another kind of group, on the Internet. After half a year of being grounded, he persuaded his parents to get him a subscription to America Online. There he discovered a thriving world of similarly shut-out teenagers – teens from small towns and large cities, locked away from other gays by geography or by their families, who formed a kind of phantom community. He ran into an AOL area called !Out Proud!, with chat rooms reserved for teenagers. “I was a kid in a candy store,” he says. “It was kinda like that first morning cup of coffee, that big caffeine rush that you’ve been waiting for. I’d been cut off from pretty much all forms of the gay community for about five months.” Chris began logging so much time on his computer that he ended up becoming one of the !Out Proud! hosts. Now he’s online fifteen hours a week. This world – as it did for Ryan and for gay kids all over the country – became his own gay world, the main thing that has carried him through the last two years. “At AOL something like seventy percent of the public forums are geared toward some aspect of being gay,” he says. “Maybe I’m exaggerating, but that’s what it seemed like to me. It was incredibly exciting.”
Throughout the week I spend in Salt Lake City, Jacob Orosco’s ghost hangs over everything. Every conversation the kids have finds its way back to Jacob. I go to dinner with a bunch of his friends at a Tex-Mex restaurant, and we’re seated next to four guys wearing white cowboy hats. Two of the girls kiss before we sit down; for the rest of our meal, the cowboys’ narrow eyes never leave us. I have my first clear sense of the bravery it would require to be openly gay in a city like Salt Lake. (Another night, I walk out of the city’s gay Denny’s – every city I visit has a gay Denny’s, an all-night restaurant where teenagers collect to smoke and drink coffee – and there are a couple of cowboys sitting on the front bumper of a truck. They look me over coolly. I think for a second that I’m going to get beaten up. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that feeling.)
“After Jacob died,” Kelli says, “I think the most healthy thing we did was that all of us clung to each other for dear life. We didn’t leave each other’s sight for five days, except to go to work or go home and get clothes. Jacob liked to pretend to be asleep and then scare everybody. So we all went through that first disbelief that at any moment he was going to walk in and say, ‘Ha, ha, I fooled you all.’ Then we went through the rage toward him. Why the hell did he do it to us? We did it together: It wasn’t like we were alone and weird for having these feelings.” Kelli sighs. After the memorial, thirty teenagers drove directly to her house, and “we had a crazy party,” she says. “People spent the night, vomited in the back yard, woke up in the bathtub, went to breakfast in the morning. We had a wild time.”
There are rumors about why Jacob killed himself. After graduating from high school, Kelli spent a year as a spokeswoman for GLSEN; she has received awards from NOW and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; when President Clinton began his youth initiative last fall, Kelli was invited as the gay youth delegate, although the president didn’t field her questions. (“I got snubbed by Clinton,” she says wryly.) Kelli spoke to Jacob a couple of times a week and didn’t see it coming. “Nobody knows what was going through his mind before he did it,” she says. “Maybe he was in a lot of emotional pain nobody knew about.
“There are a lot of theories – one that he found out he was HIV-positive and couldn’t deal with it. Another that he had a drug problem. Then there’s another scary PR issue. I’ll probably get in trouble if you put this in the article, but he was having some problems recently because he was attracted to girls. I think it’s a real problem drawing lines so sharply between gay and straight. Jacob had always really defined himself as being gay. But he hung around a lot at the club scene, and he’d been spotted more than once making out with a girl. There were rumors that he was having sexual activity with her. He got guilt from his friends, people at the club. I honestly think that one of the reasons he committed suicide was that he was afraid of being ostracized. When everybody expects you to be gays and you get that message from just about everybody, what happens to you? It’s like having to go through that whole coming-out process in your head again. And having to reverse everything you’ve done mentally.”
Jacob’s death has rattled Julia Sartain as it’s rattled everyone connected to the GSA. Jacob lived with Julia and her mom for a few months the year he died. “There’s just that feeling,” she says, “with everything he’d done and gone through: ‘Well, if Jacob was this stud of a guy who was so out there and so ready to take on the world and he couldn’t do it, what makes me think that I can?’ Or: ‘I’m such an insignificant part of the group: I wasn’t Jacob Orosco. They wouldn’t even care if something happened to me.'” Julia looks down. She’s upset again. The funeral might as well have been yesterday.
“I have to still deal with Jacob Orosco’s death,” Julia says. “I can deal with my dear sweet brother being dead; I can deal with that. But the second that I think of suicide … you know, if he had gotten in a car wreck or something? It would be so much easier. I can’t deal with the fact that he did it himself. It doesn’t matter how much time goes by – it will still be there. That image of him in his living room – I can’t forget that.” She’s quiet for a long time.
“The Tara is the Central Point – it’s the gay gossip center of Atlanta,” sixteen-year-old Richard Davis explains to me. “I think every gay kid in this city is separated by only one person. And that’s where the Tara comes in. Everyone knows it’s a cruising place; everyone goes when they’re trying to pick up a quick trick. Some people don’t even wait to get home – they do it right there in the parking lot.”
It’s a warm late-autumn night in Atlanta, and even though it’s Thursday, the parking lot of the Tara mall is crowded with teenagers. There’s a movie theater a few hundred yards away and some shuttered antique shops, but the kids are here to use the lined asphalt space. For years the Tara has been the place where gay teenagers in Atlanta head to meet other gay teenagers; and since Atlanta draws people from lots of surrounding counties, there are teenagers at the Tara who’ve driven in from towns miles away: Gainesville, Columbus, Riverside.
Conniption Smith is here, a very tall seventeen-year-old black transgendered teenager. He makes an extremely pretty girl: white patent-leather jacket, denim bell-bottoms, a small leather backpack that says Mantrap. Conniption is preparing for a sex change. When I apologize for mistaking him for a girl, Conniption corrects me: “That’s not an insult: I have a woman’s attitude. I have to wait until I’m eighteen for a sex change, but I’ve already had the psychiatric-evaluation thing. My mom is supportive of it, which is why I’m able to go ahead.” Conniption takes a sip of Surge, which is a 7Up kind of soda with a heavy caffeine bounce; it gives him energy for late nights, going to the Tara, sneaking into Atlanta’s gay clubs. Conniption began cross-dressing in the eleventh grade. When I ask whether the students gave him a hard time, he laughs: “Some people were just laughing or thought it was funny, but I didn’t really give a rat’s ass.” I’m again impressed by the toughness of these kids; they’re not interested in being martyred. They want to get on with it.
In a city like Atlanta, gay teenage life is not the separate world it is in towns without fully formed gay communities. Young gay life functions as a kind of adjunct to adult gay life, with a lot of back-and-forth slippage. There’s a lexicon that a lot of the young guys use: “Chicken hawks” are men who go after teens who’ve just come out, who are “chickens” or “fresh meat”; a “sugar daddy” will set you up in an apartment of your own. If you’re older than thirty, you’re a “father”; under twenty, you’re a “son.” “The good fathers are the ones who act as mentors,” Richard Davis tells me. “The bad ones are the ones that prey.” An “egg” is a gay teenager so inexperienced, he has no idea what’s going on; there aren’t too many eggs at the Tara. Every so often the police arrive to clear out the parking lot; the kids hop in cars, drive away for ten minutes, then come back.
A Mercury convertible pulls up, full of men in their thirties. For a while they watch the teens drinking their sodas. “Trolls,” a kid next to me says. Then one man gets out – a small, short-haired man in a CNN cap. He tells a kid that he’s been studying politics; he’s taking a survey for a CNN Washington talk show airing tomorrow morning. “The only politics I like are naked debating,” the kid says. The man shakes his head. “You almost had the beginnings of a good joke there, but you lost it,” he says.
Shannon Curtis, an eighteen-year-old senior from Riverside (“the Bible-thumping capital of the South,” he says), rolls down the window of his Chevy Blazer and starts playing Portishead. People nod their heads along with the music. Like a lot of the Tara kids, Shannon’s first sexual experience was with an older man; unlike them, it was with two men from his hometown. “I had a job at McDonald’s, and there were two guys who worked there, and they were lovers,” he says. “They invited me over, and it kinda started from there. They gave me a blow job; then they pretty much had sex and made me feel good, too.” Shannon could tell how much it excited them to have him in the room. “They maybe should have known better. They knew I was a virgin. I was glad it was happening, too, but I’d rather have saved it for my first boyfriend or my husband. But I’ve always lived for the moment: Have as much fun as you possibly can at one time.” Shannon turns, knocks over his soda can, says in a perfect Bart Simpson imitation, “I didn’t do it!”
Shannon has never brought a lover to his house (“I wouldn’t want to put my father in that situation”) and has mostly tried to stick with people his own age; even in the Atlanta area, a teenager can grow up without knowing everything. “When I was sixteen and I tried to have sex with my first boy-friend, it didn’t work,” he says. “We were pretty new at this stuff – y’know, lube helps. We didn’t know about it. It was like in science class, when you’re experimenting – you don’t want to make a mistake, because you could blow up. Learn new things every day.”
When I ask Shannon what he’s learned since then, he rubs his head and smiles. “I learned something about myself: that I love men. I love men the way my dad would a women, you know? And a lot of kids, when they’re young, they just want to go off partying or working, and they don’t realize who they are or what they’re going to do – they don’t know that one little thing about themselves that makes them different from everyone else. ‘Cause we all have something that separates us from the group, that makes us who we are, and a lot of people have to find it. Some people will find it when they’re twenty-five or when they’re forty; maybe they’ll never find it. I found it when I was fourteen.”
Shannon slips off the hood of his Blazer; some kids check out his new buzz cut by running their hands over his scalp; he lets the CNN guy hug him from behind, and Shannon spins him around in a circle.
In the Southern towns farther from Atlanta, gay life is more complicated. I sit down with a sophomore named Sam Baldwin at a high school fifty minutes from the city; his parents are divorced, and he was determined not to go through adolescence as a gay teenager in Cherokee County (“real redneck,” he explains), where he’d seen the school’s one gay student get his mailbox crushed and his car tires slashed. So he moved in with his father, in Cobb County, nearer to Atlanta. “I didn’t want to be the only one anymore,” he says. I meet eighteen-year-old Tom White, who grew up in Cairo, Georgia, near the Florida border. “We just got a Burger King there not too long ago, and everybody’s oohing and aahing over that, so that should tell you about how big it is,” Tom says. “Nobody ever used the word gay in Cairo. People in small towns usually tend to have small minds, closed minds.” When I ask whether he would have joined a Gay-Straight Alliance, Tom laughs. “Oh, God, no. There never would have been a gay club. Nobody would have supported it there; nobody would have joined it. The only people that would have would’ve been in it just to be in another club, to get their picture in the yearbook again. But Tom wouldn’t have been in it; I coulda done without that picture.” For Tom – thin, with a boyishly handsome face – the main thing about being gay has been keeping quiet; there were some other students who he knew were gay, but he’d never have gone out with them: “If I even went and talked to’em – automatically, bang! Everybody would associate me. And I figured I might as well just stay out of it. People would say stuff to their faces, and I’m the kind of person, I can’t take it when people talk about me bad.”
So Tom’s solution was straight kids. He’d invite them to his house for sleep-overs. “Not everybody, but almost everybody has urges now and then,” he says. “And, you know, when you get them in the right place and the right time, you go for it. Andthen you keep your mouth shut.” Tom had a practiced routine: “Being our age, you always gotta talk about sex some way or another. And then, you know, just all of a sudden, it would start happening. Usually I was the one that started it. I’d just start talking about guys. I’d ask, ‘Did you ever want to kiss a guy?’ And they’d be like, ‘Well, you know … maybe.’ Then, bam! Go for it. The way I see it, getting off is getting off.” If they said no, Tom was prepared, “but, of course, I didn’t have any of those.” The next day, in school, no one would talk about it. Tom was never afraid that anyone would reveal he was gay. “They were probably more scared of it than I was,” he says.
I drive to Franklin, a small town in Heard County, near the Georgia-Alabama border. A green sign tells me that the Olympic torch passed through here in 1996 and that Franklin is The City of Friendly People. The sign on the Riverside Baptist church has two sides. Side One: We Can Do Anything if we Depend on Christ for Everything; Side Two: Life is a Series of Battles. Are You Training to Win? There are many roadside barbecue shacks, and the town’s one grocery store advertises fishing tackle, a tanning bed, billiards, an on-site deer-curing facility and “the coldest beer in town.” At Heard County High School, I sit down in the library with seventeen-year-old senior David Hopson. He picks two chairs in the corner so he can watch who walks in and out: “I like to be able to see the whole room.” David is the only out gay student at Heard County – smart, freckled, soft spoken. “I’ve never had any, like, physical violence against me,” he says. “I’ve been pushed around a few times, and some people make comments. But as I’ve become comfortable with it, so has everyone else.” His parents – divorced – have responded in their own ways. His mother and grandparents are understanding. “I live with my dad,” he says, “and I’ve tried to tell him two or three times. But he does not … like the idea.” David laughs uncomfortably. “When I’ve talked to him about it, he gets really upset. He does not accept it at all, really upset. He does not accept it at all, really. And he’s mean about anything he doesn’t agree with.”
David raps the top of the library table. People in places like Heard, he feels, have the wrong idea about what it means to be gay. He’s a member of the school band, has solid SATs, has been a straight-A student for four years. “I think this can help,” he says. “It’s important for people like me in small places to speak up – to say, you know, that I’m not some freak person who has no morals and that I’m not doing anything wrong. That’s what I want to show – that I’m just as good a person as anyone else.” As he speaks, a tall, older man in a tie and jacket slips into the library – Mr. Jeffries, the school principal. He asks us to stop talking; he doesn’t want an interview about a gay student on his campus. “This is something personal y’all need to do not on school grounds,” he says. “It’s a conflict of interest.” As we leave the library, he tells David that he’s considering calling David’s father and telling him what David has been speaking about. “I don’t want you to do that, please, Mr. Jeffries,” David says. “No, you certainly do not want me to do that,” Mr. Jeffries agrees.
David and I arrange to meet after school outside the public library across the street; when David arrives, he’s rattled, jittery. He glances over his shoulder down the road. Principal Jeffries called his father, who instructed David to stop talking; David said he wouldn’t, and his father is on his way over now. “Mr. Jeffries said it was something about me being gay,” David says. “I don’t understand why he even told my dad that. I’m not committing any crime. I want to talk about this stuff.” A green pickup truck comes over the rise and arrows into the parking lot. David’s eyes get wide. “Shit, there’s my dad. I’m going in there.” And he’s gone, scrambling across the lot to hide inside the library building. The truck’s driver’s-side door opens; a large, bearded man in sunglasses and a sweat shirt steps onto the cement. He stands very close to me for a minute. “I’m gonna let you leave. Don’t let me catch you around my son again,” he says. “He’s done.” He heads into the library, hunting after his son. David had told me his mother was on her way, too. I find her in the band room, frantic, crying. The adult band supervisors are explaining that they can’t do anything. “I just need someone to support this boy – someone in school to get behind this kid,” she says. “He deserves that.” When I go back to the library, two policemen are there. The sheriff of Franklin stands by my car window. He explains that the interview is over. “That boy isn’t talking to anyone now,” he says. “He’s scared to death.”
In late December, I drive back to Massachusetts. Since I began the story, Jacob Eiler in Indiana has found a place to live. No one knows where Sidney is. Tara Conroy has gone back to dating boys. Greg Whiting has dropped out of high school to earn a GED on his own. A gay friend of Michael Caniff’s – the guy who helped found his high school’s GSA – has been having trouble at home and has disappeared. Michael learns that he’s checked himself into a mental hospital for a week and is relieved: Michael had thought his friend was on the verge of larger, more conclusive actions. “He was depressed and suicidal,” Michael says. Even in Massachusetts, he explains, the school support systems aren’t enough. What teenagers need is something outside school. He takes me to a group called MAGLY – the Milford Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth. It’s not an official group. Kathy and Lisa, a lesbian couple, run it partly through a church and partly at their home. When gay kids need a place to cool out, they head there after school to spend time with the large, improvised gay family that Kathy and Lisa have created around themselves. Some kids come to stay for a few nights; some have moved in for weeks and months. Some stop in just to smoke, have a some dinner, unwind with other gay teens. Kathy and Lisa’s home is ramshackle and a Kathy and Lisa’s home is ramshackle and a big house,” Lisa explains. “We’ve got a lotta kids.” In the basement, above the washing machine, there’s a clothesline filled with teenagers’ shirts and pants. Tonight six kids are here. We eat dinner at a table with mismatched plates and jelly glasses; for the three years that Kathy and Lisa have operated MAGLY, Kathy, estimates that she’s rarely made dinner for less than eight kids. Most of the couple’s income has been poured into helping support gay children. “Fortunately, Lisa and I are able to keep up with it, sort of,” Kathy says, collapsing onto a sofa after dinner. “Occasionally, especially around Christmas, the credit cards get the you-know-what beat out of’em. But that can’t be helped. Right now we’re able to make enough money to support it. And if we can survive till we retire, that’s all we care about.”
MAGLY has made people uneasy at the official support systems in Massachusetts. “It’s just kind of scary,” the head of another AGLY explains. “It’s run out of their home, where there aren’t a lot of boundaries.” If something untoward were to happen at MAGLY, it would send a ripple through other state support groups. “There are concerns,” another AGLY facilitator explains. “If anything went wrong, the next time we come up for funding, parents are going to say, ‘What kind of supervision do these groups have?'” But at MAGLY, Kathy and Lisa are determined to continue providing a place for teenagers. The house has one smoking room, and after dinner, Michael and the rest of the kids head there with lighters and cigarettes. Kathy nods after them.
“Michael lives in a straight world ninety percent of his life,” she explains. “And the ten percent of his time he’s here, he can be who he is – all of who he is. I think that’s the problem with growing up gay: that you’re alone. These kids don’t know who else is gay. They don’t know – the majority of them don’t – how to live as gay people. And when they come here, they just totally immerse themselves in it. Once a new kid comes in, they end up spending as much time in the house as they can get. It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s a place that I belong.’On summer nights, there will be ten or fifteen teenagers outside, talking with each other in the breeze. The house does have some rules: No affection outside, so as not to upset the neighbors; no drugs or alcohol inside. No kids can be brought to the living quarters of MAGLY until they’ve been screened at the church first to see how they fit in. “Some of the kids, they would have come here, seen it was a gay household and just been so scared, they would have wet their pants,” Lisa says with a laugh. “And then they would have told their parents or neighbors about ‘the gay house over on Wallace Drive.'” But the primary rule is that the kids be comfortable.
Kathy and Lisa are aware of the risk they run in letting kids stay with them. “A lot of people really care about gay kids,” Kathy says. “But since the gay community carries the stigma of being perverted, most of them are frightened to death about the consequences of being accused of craziness. A lot of gay adults that would love to reach out to the teenagers because they know how painful it was for themselves can’t do that because of fear of repercussions. There’s the problem of liability, of being accused of God knows what. Especially with youth that are under sixteen. You could get dragged through the mud just because a parent thinks something might have happened. A good bit of our community knows exactly who we are and what we’re about and what we’re trying to do for the kids. Should some parents decide they’re gonna yank us, though, we’re going right in the newspaper.”
But Kathy and Lisa are going to keep their house open to teenagers; they see it as a responsibility. “I want the kids to have a place to go,” Kathy says. “If a crisis pops up for them, they know exactly where they can turn to, because there’s always somebody here. There’s nothing more isolating than knowing you’re different but knowing inside that you have nothing different – that you’re good and moral, and society is going to look on you as despicable anyway. The difference between gay people and everyone else takes place maybe one-tenth of one percent of the time – twice a week, if you’re lucky. The rest of the time, everything else is the same: the same commitments, the same emotions. And these kids shouldn’t have to feel that they’re alone anymore.”