Ellen Bass’ daughter had good friends, those who couldn’t have cared less that she was gay. But her daughter also had classmates who cared too much. It was their whispers that got to her, sly snickers that crept up behind school lockers. The occasional name calling that stung more than any punch could.
“When I saw what she and her peers were experiencing, that really alerted me,” says Bass, a writer who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. “It’s true for a lot of adults in the gay community to have had painful experiences when they were growing up. They want to put all that behind. One of the things we want to say is these kids need and deserve our support and attention.”
Bass says her daughter’s coming out as a teenager made her realize what gay youths face routinely.
“When you tell your parents, it makes it more real,” says Bass. “Even though she comes from a family where she knows she would be accepted, she was aware there would be a lot of challenges.”
Bass says her daughter’s experiences prompted her to write, “Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth - and Their Allies” (HarperCollins) with family counselor Kate Kaufman. Described as a practical guide book, the 417-page paperback has advice on coming out, finding supportive adults and participating in the gay and lesbian community.
Over two years, Bass and Kaufman interviewed 50 young people and 50 parents, teachers and counselors around the country, gleaning their experiences and wisdom.
“Their stories profoundly moved and inspired us,” says Kaufman. “We were struck by how much they wanted to tell their stories.”
The teenagers were easy to find, many wanting to share what worked for them and what didn’t. They talk about falling in love, their first kiss, a crush.
“It really hit me, my freshman year, when I totally just fell in love with this senior girl. She was the most popular girl in the school. She was like a poster girl for heterosexuals, so it was doomed from the beginning, but I completely tumbled for her,” one girl says.
“I was thrown out five days before Christmas,” one boy recalls. “My stepbrother told my stepfather that I was gay and he kicked me out immediately. I was in bed. It was eight o’clock in the morning. He picked me up by my nightshirt and punched me.”
They talk about their fears of being labeled.
Kaufman recalls one San Francisco youth, who avoided the city’s Castro District, a well-known gay community, afraid someone would see him there and tag him as gay.
Being invisible has consequences as well, the guidebook says.
“What makes it so especially hard for gay teens is the very thing that protects them, their invisibility,” says Chris Kryan director of OutProud, a San Jose youth organization. “What Jewish family would sit around commenting on how God condemns the Jews. But lesbian, gay or bisexual teens sitting there in their cloaks of presumed heterosexuality, laugh outwardly, or join in expressing shared disgust, while yet another chunk of their self-esteem has been chiseled away.”
In many ways, today’s young gays and lesbians struggle like prior generations with stereotypes and slurs and the fear of violence. Being different is still a chore.
Today, gays and lesbians are more visible in the popular media. That helps, Kaufman says, but gay and lesbian youths still feel isolated, thinking they’re all alone and fearful about coming out, which is never a one-time deal.
“They still have to swim upstream,” Kaufman says.
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