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Growing Up Gay

New York may be the best place in America to come out. Which doesn't necessarily mean it's easy -- especially if you're 16. Rory Evans reports from the teen front.

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In and out: Christina and Adam.  

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."

When Christina came out, her grandmother asked, " 'Is it because I told you you have to stay home and cook if you have a guy?' Because I was a real feminist when I was little, like 'I'm not going to cook! I'm not going to clean!' " she explains. "Now I'm like, 'No, I just don't like guys.' And she's like, 'There are some guys who cook.' And I'm like, 'It's not the cooking! I promise, it's not the cooking.' " Eventually, her grandmother understood, but she warned Christina, "Don't bring it here" to Washington Heights.

Ryan, an 18-year-old freshman at a college in Brooklyn who lives near Lincoln Center with his parents, emigrated from Hong Kong when he was 2. He's not out to them, though he sheepishly admits he's been careless a few times around the apartment -- leaving Men's Health open to certain pages. He's not out to his 23-year-old brother, either, though they share a bedroom crammed with an electric piano, a television (constantly tuned to the Cartoon Network), and a computer on which Ryan estimates he spends eight hours a day: Ryan is out online, has a profile up at a site for gay teenagers, and about twenty gay friends on his Buddy List. This year at college, he's also out to a handful of friends, most of whom are girls. "I'm very cautious," he says. "I don't even use the G-word," meaning gay. Sitting at a McDonald's in midtown, he quickly surveys the nearby diners, leans into the table, and discloses his code word: grizzly.

Ryan keeps his secret because he doesn't trust a lot of people. Other kids, though, don't trust entire neighborhoods, and fear for their safety. Joshua, for instance, says he feels like he has to put on an act when he's in his Bronx neighborhood. "When I come to Manhattan, I'm kind of feminine," he says. "But in the Bronx, I have a serious face, I even walk a different way." He definitely wouldn't consider holding hands with someone up in his neighborhood. "Uh-uhnnnnn," he says emphatically. "I would be scared I'd be jumped."

Near Devin's home in the Bronx, he has been called "faggot this and faggot that" when holding hands with a date, and those instances have ignited a willfulness in him. "I will purposely hold his hand because I'm headstrong and determined. I want to reinforce that I am not afraid." (It helps that Devin, a competitive sprinter and gymnast, has studied ninjitsu since he was 4.) Even with scarier threats, like the time gangbangers lobbed beer bottles at him and his cousin (who's also gay), Devin wouldn't so much as think of contacting the police. Not only is that just not done, he says, but he rationalizes his inaction because "I think it comes with the job description, if you will, of being gay. Not being afraid because you're always afraid. So you get used to it."

David Mensah, the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute on Astor Place -- the social-services organization, general hangout den, and home to the two-room Harvey Milk alternative public high school -- says, "We served 8,000 youths last year, and we think we just scratched the surface. We still get calls from schools requesting 'safety transfers' because their environment became dangerous once a student came out." In fact, about 90 percent of Harvey Milk's 50 students transferred there either because they felt unsafe in their own schools or because the atmosphere was so hostile that they were chronically truant.

Even though outer-borough kids say Manhattan in general and "the Vil" in particular are the easiest places to be out, Adam points out the considerable distance between Park Avenue and Central Park West: "My friends on the Upper East Side would have a really, really hard time coming out to their conservative families," he says. "With my family, like, half my dad's office is gay."


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