Growing up as a gay kid, life is a difficult puzzle. You keep getting crushes on the wrong people. If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to be going all gooey inside for Matt and Jason, the hotties on the lacrosse team. And if you’re Matt, you’re supposed to be pining for Ashley or Jessica — not yearning to run away to a jam-band festival with Jason.
You also have to learn to feel comfortable with your newly discovered identity despite the fact that the word gay — for the current generation of kids — is the synonym of choice for lame, clueless, dorky, and generally loser-ish. That’s the thing about the notion that being gay is a “lifestyle choice,” as the Tea Party-anointed Republican candidate for Senate in Colorado, Ken Buck, reiterated last week. What painfully self-conscious, acutely socially aware teenager (i.e., any kid) would make the choice to get ridiculed on a regular basis?
When I hear the phrase “lifestyle choice,” I visualize a couple of tanned, toned, and mustachioed men sitting around reading brochures so they can make a truly informed choice. On one brochure, a suburban family piles into a cream-colored SUV on the way to Wal-Mart to stock up on toilet paper and Pringles. On the other brochure, a crew of oiled-up muscle studs in Speedos sip from coconuts at a pool party while the DJ takes it up a notch. After browsing through both brochures, one guy finally says to the other, “Mario? I think we should make the gay lifestyle choice after all.”
That’s not what figuring out that you’re gay is like. In fact, figuring out that you’re gay is a lot like figuring out that you’re straight, but with the added angst of not knowing if your family and friends will ever talk to you again if they find out who you really are.
Here’s what I don’t think of when I hear the phrase “lifestyle choice”: 13-year old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, California — more alone than he would ever be in his brief and tormented life — looping a belt around a tree branch in his backyard so he could hang himself and never again have to hear his peers shouting Faggot! Faggot! Faggot! Faggot! On Monday, Seth — who his mother described as a “very bright, artistic boy” — died in an intensive-care unit when his devastated parents took him off life support.
This month alone, an appalling number of gay teens have made the choice of killing themselves instead of facing more mockery, bullying, and abuse. On September 9, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana, hanged himself from the rafters of his grandmother’s barn. Not long after that, a 13-year old in Houston, Texas named Asher Brown, after being bullied for years, put a 9mm bullet through his head. (In Asher’s case, the gaybashing didn’t even stop after his death.) Then last week, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his roommate had used a webcam to surreptitiously broadcast him making out with a guy.
Verbal abuse and physical violence against gay and lesbian teens are not the exceptions but the rule. In a recent study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network [PDF link], eight out of ten of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, four in ten reported physical harassment, and one in six reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year alone. Two-thirds of these students reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation.
In some ways, I had it relatively easy growing up gay. The notion that homosexuals might not deserve aversive shock treatment, incarceration, or chemical castration was still relatively new in the ’70s, but I was blessed with very loving, liberal parents. When I informed them that I had a crush on my best friend, they didn’t beat me up, throw me out of the house, or threaten to blow my head off. Instead, they promptly sent me to a therapist, hoping that she could set me straight.
Luckily she turned out to be a very smart therapist. After our second or third session, she asked me, “Are you happy with yourself?” “Yes,” I replied. “Then I see no reason why you have to keep seeing me,” she said.
Unfortunately, I was lying. In fact, I was desperately sad — not about being gay, but about the likelihood that I would never be able to find someone to spend my life with. In the early days of gay liberation, I didn’t hear much about lifelong commitment. Instead, I heard an awful lot about sex, which was the only thing on offer in the bars and bathhouses where I was supposed to look for my “real” community.
Never mind that I preferred reading science fiction books to drinking and dancing. Never mind that I had no interest in pursuing anonymous hookups with men 30 years older than me. Never mind that I felt even more out of place in a bar full of guys in leather than I did among my straight peers. I just wanted what they already had: the hope that someday I, too, would find my soulmate — as my parents had done.
The good news is that my saga as a lovelorn single gay man ended the way that Shakespeare’s comedies do: with merriment and a wedding. After many years together, my science-teacher husband Keith and I got married — once with our friends and families in 2002, and again, this time with a marriage license, in 2008 — a story I’ve recounted in detail elsewhere. My parents happily attended our first wedding; alas, by the time that Keith and I were able to get legally married in California, my father had passed away. But despite the best efforts of the Mormon church, the Republican party, and the bigots who got Proposition 8 passed by playing on fear and equating our marriage to incest and bestiality, we’re still happily married.
One of the people who would have been most surprised and delighted by this happy turn of events was my 17-year-old self. The only married couples I saw then — on the street, in the movies, on TV, and in books — were straight. Gay people? If they hadn’t actually committed suicide by the end of the plot — as so many gay characters did — they still ended up alone, uttering their jaded witticisms to an empty room. By the ’90s, gay characters on TV had become the stylish best friends of the female leads — but equally sexless and bereft of romance. Now, slowly, couples like my husband and I are starting to appear in the media to talk honestly about their own experiences.
But the national debate over the right to marry is still dominated by the shrill voices of people like right-wing pundit Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage (sic), whose life’s work is migrating from state to state, stirring up fear and panic about other people’s marriages, and funneling millions of dollars into local initiatives to “prove” that most voters are dead set against marriage equality.
Imagine a bunch of rabbis in Brooklyn dubbing themselves Concerned Americans for a Healthier Diet, and then soliciting money from orthodox Jewish communities up and down the East Coast to get laws passed in the South banning the consumption of pork. That’s what it feels like to have Gallagher and her crew of aspiring theocrats, fortified by millions of Mormon bucks tithed from Utah, descend on your state in a flurry of TV ads and glossy pamphlets to pass a law like Proposition 8.
Let’s face it: Gallagher makes a strange national icon for the benefits of marriage. She never appears in public with her own husband, a guy named Raman Srivastav. In fact, it’s difficult to find a photo of Gallagher with her spouse on the Internet — or even one of Srivastav by himself. Raman, Raman, are you still there? Speak to us! Why has your wife hidden you away in the attic?
Gallagher wasn’t always a smiley-face cheerleader for bigots; when she was young, she fancied herself a pop sociologist, and wrote several books about her own experiences as an unwed mother. In The Case for Marriage, co-written in 2000 with an actual sociologist named Linda Waite, Gallagher marshaled an array of statistics demonstrating the social and personal benefits of marriage. On the whole, she and Waite argued, married people are happier, healthier, less promiscuous, and more financially secure than single people. Indeed, had Waite been the sole author of the book, it might have turned out to be an eloquent argument that these benefits should be extended to gay couples too.
But there’s a note toward the end of the book indicating why that didn’t happen: “As private citizens, the authors have reached different conclusions, with Linda Waite tending to favor and Maggie Gallagher tending to oppose extending marriage to same-sex couples.” And there’s a second note that, in retrospect, is a poignant commentary on the insidious effects of homophobia.
We suspect, but do not know, that adults in such same-sex couples would reap some, but not all, the benefits of marriage. The benefits accorded same-sex couples by marriage would also depend on the extent to which family, friends, and other social institutions supported these unions.
In other words, the social benefits of same-sex marriage will depend, in part, on the acceptance of straight family members and local communities. Thankfully, our own families were very supportive. I doubt my Fox News-watching Republican relatives from the Midwest would have been in favor of “same-sex marriage” in theory or on a ballot, if they weren’t even more in favor of their son’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The rot at the core of Maggie Gallagher’s heart is the fact that she’s betting her career on being able to prevent other people from finding the fulfillment and security that she yearned for as a single mom.
What does this have to do with gay teen suicide?
Since there haven’t yet been studies of suicide rates in states that have legalized marriage equality, it’s hard to say. But as a former gay teen who thought about suicide on a regular basis through my high school years, I can tell you: If I’d known that someday I might be lucky enough to wed a sweet, brilliant, handsome, science-loving geek, I would have been a much happier and less stressed-out kid. I didn’t need a therapist. I needed visible role models to give me a realistic picture of the happiness possible in committed gay relationships.
If any of the gay kids who killed themselves this month could have gotten that kind of encouraging message about their own futures, they might have chosen life instead of death. That’s why writer Dan Savage has launched a project on YouTube called It Gets Better. Savage (author of the widely syndicated “Savage Love” column) has invited gay people to upload their own videos with uplifting messages for gay teens. Many of those who have already made videos have done so with their partners.
It’s a simple, marvelous, and very 21st century idea. For all the gay kids that people like Maggie Gallagher and Ann Coulter have sentenced to death by helping to promote a climate of fear, bigotry, and bullying, if even one kid’s life is saved by seeing one of the It Gets Better videos, Savage’s project is worthwhile. When you’re growing up gay in a mostly straight world, even one more piece of the puzzle — like the message that you, too, are worthy of love that lasts a lifetime — can make all the difference.