First, you have to come out. When doing so, it helps if everyone in the car can hear.
Adam, an 18-year-old junior at a private school in Manhattan, figured this out last November in his parents' Volvo station wagon, 30 minutes into a three-hour drive for a college visit to Brown. On the New England Thruway, his dad at the wheel, his mom and 4-year-old sister in the backseat, Adam seamlessly segued from a discussion of the merits of Bard College to the topic of Curt (some names have been changed), his boyfriend, who happened to be a student there. "I was really nervous," he recalls. "I was like, 'I've been seeing this guy at Bard.' And my dad didn't flinch. He was like, 'Okay.' And we started talking for a bit, but my mom hadn't heard me, and I had to say it again. Which was just mortifying."
His mother responded with a bit more apprehension: "She was like, 'Before I think about what my reaction is, I want you to know that I love you.' And that was really great." Even so, Adam says, he sat there suddenly regretting having said anything, especially considering that there would be two and a half more hours of awkwardness and tension before he could get out of the car in Providence. "It's hard to give up the biggest secret you have," he says. "The only secret you have, really."
His revelation also sort of ruined the visit to Brown: As he talked to admissions reps and toured the campus, he couldn't stop thinking, Why did I have to tell them on this trip? What have I done?
If Adam lamented his impulsive timing, other New York kids have shown great finesse in deciding when and how to tell their parents they're gay. D.J., a 17-year-old senior at a Manhattan high school, came out to her father, who lived in Guyana at the time, on the phone. But she waited for her mom to be laid up in bed in their Flatbush apartment. "She wasn't feeling too well, and I was like, this is the perfect time to tell her," she remembers of the day two years ago. D.J. likes to write poetry, and she went in and sat with her mother and pretended to be doing that when she was, in fact, crafting her coming-out letter. "I put a lot of positive things in it, like 'At least I'm not like my older sister I'm not pregnant and stuck in the house. I'm still in school. I still have goals. I'm doing good for myself.' " After several minutes, she handed her mom the letter and watched her read it. "I was so scared, I wanted to cry," she says. "And she was like, 'You are so lucky my back and legs hurt, because if they didn't, you would get it.' She wanted to just scream on me."
Joshua, a 17-year-old Bronx public-high-school senior, also opted to put it on paper, and he padded the truth a bit "Yes, I'm gay but I'm bisexual," he wrote on his 16th birthday, hoping the bisexual angle would mitigate the shock. Then he went into his mother's bedroom, shoved the page of notebook paper at her, and ran back to the kitchen and sat down with his 17-year-old foster sister, whom he'd already told, waiting for the fallout and "hoping it wasn't bad," he says. When she called out his name many long minutes later, "I was like, 'Come with me, come with me,' to my sister. I was so scared, I didn't want to go by myself. My worst fear was that she might scream at me or wouldn't talk to me." Instead, she told him, "Don't worry about it. I knew. I've always known, and I was waiting for you to come out to me."
Devin, an 18-year-old senior at an all-boys parochial school in the Bronx, also chose to ease his grandmother into things by telling her he was bisexual when he was 16 (his mother is dead). "I find that a lot of people use bisexuality as a stepping stone when confronting parents," he says. "And she was okay with it. Six months later, I told her that I was actually gay, and she was supportive." He still hasn't told his father, however, since he works out of town most of the time, and "he has a problem with me wearing earrings, so you can imagine if I came out to him."
Christina, a 19-year-old senior at a public school in Manhattan, has never come out to her dad, either. (Her mother is dead.) "I've kind of all but come out," she explains. Her Puerto Rican family is pretty traditional, and her father, she says, is "very, very homophobic." When she came out to her grandmother three years ago, she broached the subject by asking what her "Grams" thought of gay people. "I'd read a lot of stories where parents were like, 'I'm going to disown you' and all of this, and I wanted to switch it and be like, 'You accept me or I will disown you,' " she explains. "Grams was like, 'Well, not in my family.' And I was like, 'Okay, well, I'm a lesbian. I like women, so if you don't like me, I won't call you and I won't visit you and it will be sad.' " While her grandmother was uncomfortable at first, she has come to be, for the most part, accepting.
And when his parents caught Ross smoking, the 18-year-old private-school senior from the West Village made a shrewd, lawyerly assessment of the situation. He recognized "that I had to tell them sometime soon, and that if I came out right then, I wouldn't be in as much trouble." Sure enough, the only child, then 17, wasn't severely punished for smoking, "but it was still an awful experience. My dad cried, and my mother said, 'I think you're just confused,' and 'It's not like we can't have grandchildren, what with adoption and stuff,' " Ross says. "So that was fun for me." He adds that he was utterly unprepared for how shocked they were "I mean, they brought me up in the West Village."
But sometimes the West Village is no different from Brooklyn or the Bronx or anywhere else in America. A teenager can grow up a stone's throw from Stonewall and still feel intimidated about coming out. As much as the city offers very public snapshots of gay life, they remain just snapshots of a parallel universe if a kid lives inside a fortress of a school or a family that may not be as gay-friendly as the city at large. Or sometimes the fortress is internal if the kid won't give herself permission to be different, since being different, feeling different, is so scary for a teenager. With a disapproving family or with enough self-doubt, all the city's rainbow flags and wind socks are reduced to mere scenery, and the two men pushing the Maclaren down the street are about as real as David and Keith on Six Feet Under.
"I think there's a perception that New York is a better place to be out," says Eric Pliner, projects coordinator at the Youth Enrichment Services Program at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in the West Village. "But that's not true of the whole city, not all five boroughs." For some kids, he says, it means "creating separate identities from their neighborhoods, families, and churches."