Growing Up Gay

In and out: Christina and Adam.Photo: Nigel Parry

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.”

Teenagedom allows a certain lateral freedom of identity, with elaborate costume changes built into the school-year schedule: Someone comes back from summer camp a goth chick. Following spring vacation in Florida, she’s a surfer girl. She hits the clearance rack at American Eagle at just the right time, and suddenly she’s a hippie-preppy hybrid. And even within those roles, some shape-shifting is required – it’s as if inside those overstuffed backpacks and messenger bags, teenagers carry around their multiple selves: the school self, the neighborhood self, the friend self, the family self, the online self.

Gay teenagers have to cram yet another identity into their bags: the gay self.

In a weird way, it might stand to reason that coming out could lighten the load. A kid who identifies herself as lesbian has, perhaps, found her people and can get on with her life. “I went through my stages. I was a lot of things,” says D.J. She now classifies herself as “femme-agress,” but freshman year she was very feminine. Then she tried being a candy raver, then she was goth for a few months. “I guess that’s when I was trying to find who I was. And it took being with my girlfriend” – an 18-year-old from Brooklyn whom D.J. started seeing two years ago – “to realize you don’t have to be like other people. You can be your own person.”

“I feel like I’m finally secure with who I am,” says Adam. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and I feel confident.” Coming out “was the moment when I merged two different identities of myself in front of my parents. Like I had my parent identity and my Bard-best-friends identity, and to have to merge those was just kind of scary. But I never felt like anyone stopped loving me, and I feel really privileged in that.” A lot of gay kids, however, aren’t as lucky. In New York, fully 35 percent of the city’s homeless kids identify themselves as gay or transgendered; many of them have been kicked out of their homes.

Coming out for kids can mean coming into a phase of meta-homosexuality – self-observation from a slight distance, figuring out which impulses come from within and which ones they feel obligated to adopt so they’ll fit the part. Each behavior is parsed and examined: Is this who I am? Is this? Or is this? Their age exacerbates the process, of course, since everything a 16-year-old does tends to be fraught with uncertainty. When Devin started going to Hetrick-Martin for counseling shortly after he came out, he says, he was “scared. No, I was terrified. I thought gay people wore big feather hats and boas and swung their heads and snapped and had attitude.” In fact, the teenagers at Hetrick-Martin look and act a lot like, well, teenagers: preppy or pierced or club or Goth or hip-hop or Powerpuff – or a value-meal combo of all the above. Nevertheless, Devin admits that “vocabulary is just one of the things that have affected me since I’ve been at HMI.” After a week hanging with the other gay kids, he says, he went home one day and found himself complimenting his grandmother’s outfit: “I was like, ’Mamí, you are ovah. Oh, my God, it’s working. You are so fabulous. I love it,’ ” he says, balancing on the hyphen between self and parody.

Sitting in an Upper East Side coffee shop with his elbows on the table, Adam gestures while telling a story, then stops mid-sentence and stares at his hand. “It’s moments like this,” he says, focusing on his wrist, held ever so slightly limp, “that I’m like, ‘What am I doing? What is that on my arm?’ “

A student of ballet since he was 6, and of modern since freshman year, Adam says it’s in the dance studio at his school where he feels “I’m becoming more and more flamboyant every day. I’m not even sure if it’s because I’m finally letting myself be who I am, or whether it’s because I have to fall into this stereotype. I honestly don’t know the answer.” One thing he’s sure of, though, is that growing up, he was constantly teased and called a girl, a sissy, a flower boy for dancing, and when he was realizing he might be gay, he didn’t want to admit it. He says he felt that “I didn’t want them to be right about me.”

Adam started thinking about his sexual orientation the summer he was 13, on a Unitarian retreat in New Hampshire. He and his longtime best friend Erika shared a fascination with another boy at the camp. But when the trip was over, “I convinced myself that that was something special about that guy and it was a summer thing and not relevant to how I define myself,” he says. “I was like, ‘I have girlfriends!’ ” This internal resistance worked until about a year ago, at which point he finally came out to himself. “I’m not sure what happened in the spring. But I just started noticing guys on the street and admitting it to myself.” Then he waited six months to tell his parents during that trip to Brown. (September 11 prompted his confession, since “it reminded me of my mortality and I wanted my family to know who I was.”) Another five months or so passed before Adam felt slightly comfortable saying “I am gay.”

Ross says he knew he was gay in the eighth grade “or maybe earlier,” but waited three years to tell his parents. D.J. came to her own realization even younger. When she was 10, she had an intense flirtation and physical relationship with a 13-year-old girl who lived in her building. “That’s when I began to find out that I was more interested in girls than guys, and I got happy with it.”

Christina came out to herself as a 12-year-old. “I started having feelings for girls and I was like, ‘Well, maybe I’m just open-minded and bisexual. It is kind of the trend.’ ” It seems the mid-nineties girl-power movement – which freed girls to be as emotional and sensitive as they wanted to be – left Christina thinking that “girls are just generally open to things. So it’s okay if two girls kiss each other,” she says. It wasn’t until she was 16, and on the phone with a friend talking about a girl whom she secretly had a crush on, that she realized bisexual might not be her category after all. “It was so frightening,” she says, and she immediately “went out and got a boyfriend. And I stayed with him for a month and was like, Yeeeee-ahhhh. This isn’t working out. No, this isn’t it.”

For Ryan, the awareness came before the vocabulary: “When I was 4 – yup, 4 years old – when I first learned that word, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ I just remember knowing.” Devin, too, has known since kindergarten: “I’ve questioned myself as to whether I was gay or bisexual, but I’ve always had feelings for men.”

“Ten years ago, coming out was an adult process,” says Jim Anderson, spokesman for Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in New York. “Now it’s an adolescent process.” And teenagers who have the courage (and support) to come out have an advantage over those who wait until their twenties or later. Eric Pliner of the Gay Center says that when kids “cut themselves off from their sexual identity, their ability to develop appropriately is hindered.” Which can lead, Lord help them, to a second adolescence when they do come out, whenever that may be. (Prime-time example: ER’s Dr. Kerry Weaver and her cringey, Tiger Beat dating tactics as a freshly minted, mid-forties lesbian.)

There’s been another change over the past ten years, too: the emergence of gay youth culture. Maybe the best indication is that for these kids, GSA is simply part of their automatic shorthand, like URL or ADD. It stands for Gay Straight Alliance, and there are about 60 in New York City schools, virtually all of them started within the past decade. (Joshua helped start the one at his school last year – so far, there are twelve members, four of them gay.) Generally, GSAs seem to attract progressive straight girls – almost as if they’re certification programs for the junior fag hag. Christina, who proudly wears an I PREFER GIRLS pin on her school backpack, helped start her school’s GSA during her sophomore year, just as she was coming out. “It’s where everyone gets exposed to gay and lesbian culture, and it’s really a lot of fun.”

Still, since it’s an extracurricular activity, these kids have to contend with that old joiner–lone wolf dilemma. Ryan says he didn’t go for the gung-ho(mo) style of the GSA in his old high school. “They called it the Raaaainnnbow Club,” he says, rolling his eyes as he arcs his voice. “They were always mentioning that club on the morning announcements. Like, ‘Remember to join the Rainbow Club on Monday afternoons.’ And I was like, ’Aaaggghhhh.’ ” And while Adam is the president of the bowling club at his school, he says he would never join the GSA. “I owe a lot to them, and I’m glad they’re there,” he says, “but there was a kid in it a few years back, and he graduated years ago, and he’s still referred to as the Gay Kid. I don’t want to be remembered like that.”

GSA members or not, these kids say they feel supported, in varying degrees, by their friends and schoolmates. Joshua came out at school in the spring of his junior year – his writing class hosted a poetry café where they read their poems and served doughnuts and coffee. “At the time, my mom was getting used to my being gay, and it was not an easy process, so I spoke with anger. I was like, ‘I’m gay, and if you don’t like it, too bad.’ ” The crowd of 50 students and teachers gave him a standing ovation.

The few friends whom Ryan has told have been supportive. “Shocked,” he stresses, “but supportive. Usually, their first response is ‘Prove it!’ And I don’t know how to prove it.” (A few of his female friends have crushes on him, and one girl in particular recently asked him if he was “100 bazillion percent sure I’m grizzly.”) At Devin’s all-boys school, he’s well liked not only because he’s a top student, an athlete, and a clotheshorse but also because he’s friends with a lot of girls outside of school. Thus, straight boys see him as a link to cute girls.

Possibly thanks in part to Howard Stern’s tireless crusading on their behalf, lesbians win the popularity contest. And this appears to be true even – or especially – in high schools. Christina says that if you’re a lesbian – and “you’re not a man hater” – then you’re “an awesome, cool, tough, or totally femme girl and you strut your stuff and have sexual power.” And with that comes respect from other kids. Although when she first came out, a few boys in school asked her, ” ‘Can I watch?’ And I was like, ‘You watch too much HBO.’ “

Teenage boys in Flatbush, D.J. says, are homophobic toward gay boys, “but for females, they’re more accepting – because then they’re like, ‘I want to do you and your girlfriend,’ ” she says. “I told one guy that I’m gay, and he was upset, but then his mind changed and he was like, ‘You know, me, you, and your girlfriend could get down.’ “

Gay teenage guys, at least, have their own magazine – another manifestation of heretofore nonexistent gay youth culture. San Francisco–based XY magazine, a slick glossy launched in 1996, has a readership of 200,000 (it’s available at Tower Records and Barnes & Noble in the city, and at selected stores in those chains nationwide). XY prints pictures of gay teens and young adults holding hands and kissing (and prints their poetry and essays, too).

And five years ago, here in New York, Jeff Brenner started the weekly Friday-night 18-plus party “Kurfew,” a co-ed event that draws between 500 and 1,000 young gays and lesbians and their straight friends to Twirl, a vast, lounge-style club on West 23rd Street. Brenner, who was then 25 and had just been fired from an accounting firm 48 hours after coming out at work, recognized that “there was nothing for an 18-year-old gay kid to do.” So he started promoting a party where, for $5 to $20 per person, there’s “no pressure. They can sit, they can dance, they can be exposed to the community and avoid a predatory environment.”

In New York, gay kids, like all teenagers, recognize they have a certain strange sway over adults – they realize the culture at large (television, movies, advertising) objectifies youthful sexuality. But unlike a gay kid who lives in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a gay youth here can flaunt that power to a ready, receptive, and sometimes all-too-appreciative audience. (One meet-and-chat Website for gay teenagers features several self-posted professional-quality photos of lovely young men in the metropolitan area who are essentially advertising their availability to older men. “If you have a house in East Hampton, I LOVE YOU!” one aspiring houseboy writes.)

With this in mind, the Hetrick-Martin staff tends to be fiercely protective, and their actions on behalf of the kids fall somewhere between fairy-godmotherly and meddlesome. During the Gay Pride Parade, for instance, the school always has a big, colorful float surrounded by jubilant kids. Understandably, they get wild applause from viewers along the route, as well as from fellow marchers. But if one of those marchers decides to elbow his way into the scrum of teenagers, and happens to be wearing, say, a bottle’s worth of Glitter Girl body gel, white-feather angel wings, a silver thong, and not a stitch otherwise, a staff member will ask him to move along – it’s just not the image they’re trying to convey. HMI staff members also send task forces to Christopher Street, beseeching bar owners to be vigilant about checking IDs.

Adam, who only needs to shave part of his upper lip, and even that just once a month, recognizes and ruminates over his youthful power. At some cafés, he says, he can occasionally get himself a free coffee from gay waiters. “It’s only because I’m young. I’m not flattered by it anymore. In a few years, I will no longer be a commodity, and I know that,” he says. “I definitely feel like I’m being manipulative in a certain way.” This small-beans manipulation could be seen, though, as payback for the unwanted attention he gets from the occasional older man who winks at him at 7:30 in the morning on the crosstown bus when he’s on his way to school.

As recently as ten years ago, a gay kid’s only entree to gay adulthood might have been to sneak into a gay bar and get hit on by an older person and learn the secret code of homosexuality – the grown-ups’ code. Now, though, as gay teenagers are more and more visible, they’re establishing their own code. All the external, cultural changes are making the internal, personal process less terrifying. It’s easier for gay kids to give themselves permission to be who they are. The importance of being out while doing normal teenage things like hanging around or talking or going to the prom or sitting around the cube at Astor Place cannot be discounted, because, as Devin says, “I’m human before I’m anything. I’m Devin before I’m gay.”

GLSEN’s Anderson says the progress is tangible: “I think the difference in the adults these kids will become cannot be underestimated. We’re beginning to see a generation of young people who aren’t forced to hide in the closet, or to be true and honest about only part of themselves.”

And yet – despite their courage, despite the pockets of approval they’ve found, despite the city and its resources and very visible gay community, despite Queer As Folk and Will & Grace and two sevenths of this season’s Real World cast – these kids still have an overarching sense that there’s much work to be done. “You can’t be open everywhere. You have to analyze and observe before you act,” says Joshua, who plans to study political science at Sarah Lawrence next year. His hopes for life beyond college are endearingly and awesomely ambitious: “I would like to be the Martin Luther King of gay rights.” If Joshua has his way, in his lifetime – and in those of D.J. and Adam and Ryan and Devin and Ross and Christina – “people will accept it. You can be any way you want and not have to worry about being beaten up. We’ll get them in the courts and in city hall and in the streets. That’s my dream.”

Growing Up Gay