Getting Out Early

Pin it

Getting Out by Stacey D'Erasmo

Illustration by Shawn Belschwender


Christina, fourteen, on the edge of the dance floor. It’s a “Stomp Out Hate” dance in a Greenwich Village church for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual youth, youth being rather broadly defined as anyone under the age of twenty-five. Christina: slight and square, gelled buzz cut, skateboard, Adidas jacket, way-baggy pants, dog tag with dyke etched on it, dog collar plus bicycle chain in freedom-ring colors around her neck, miniature purple Tinky Winky slung zoot-suit-style on a long silver chain from a belt loop. Shy, roguish smile. A mouth full of braces. Christina has been out as a lesbian since she was eleven.

“Wow. How? Why?” I ask.

“I couldn’t wait,” says Christina, as her friend Justin mock-crashes into her and picks her up.

The subject of girlfriends comes up and Christina modestly avers that she’s had fifteen.

“Fifteen? Get out of town, Christina, you’re fourteen and you’ve had fifteen girlfriends so far?”

Christina tips up her skateboard with a toe. “Yeah,” she says.

Angel, thirteen, on the phone from Texas. Angel is very soft-spoken but lets me know right away, “I’m transsexual already. I have breasts.” Angel, who has been crossdressing since the age of ten, refused to go to public school unless allowed to go as a girl, but even after being granted makeup and earrings, Angel still didn’t go “because it wasn’t what I liked.” It is clear even at a tele-distance that Angel lives very deep in the dream. Lip-syncs to Selena’s “Where Did the Feelings Go,” now attends a school for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual youth in Texas wearing six-inch high heels (“I’ll put on Chinese shoes or something to walk to school. Gym? There’s no gym here”). Angel has a hard time getting up for school at eight in the morning because she generally arises from an afternoon nap at about ten in the evening to “mess around with the wigs” until two in the morning. Angel has fourteen wigs: blue, green, red, black, blond and brown, the
favorite being a waist-length, curly black one. The pretty ones sit in splendor in Angel’s walk-in closet; “the ugly ones are thrown in a box.” Angel would most like to look like Fran Drescher as the Nanny, and loved the films Clueless and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion for the outfits. Angel is quite fond of the word “probably,” as in, “I probably don’t actually have a best friend,” or, in answer to the question, Whom do you most look up to?, “Probably myself.” Angel used to look up to Barbie quite a bit, but now, she says, “I just got fed up with her.” Angel says, “Now when I think that I wanted to look like the Barbie — oh, please.”

Roger, fifteen, at a Manhattan school for the arts, in a room empty except for a few chairs and a rack of flamenco outfits. Roger, a dancer, is lanky, with a thin waist and large hands, endearing ears, small oval glasses, a faint moustache, one pointy tooth and almost-shaved hair. He wears ballet shoes and cargo pants, a silver bracelet, and has been out since the eighth grade. “I’ve never had boyfriends, really,” he says with regret. There’s a flutter in his voice that seems more characteristic than circumstantial, a mix of persistence and tenuousness. “When I started coming out, I did stuff that I regret doing,” he says, and this turns out to mean phone chat lines leading to sex. “I just had people,” says Roger, “that it was like just for one thing.” Last August, before starting high school, he had his last encounter of this kind, after which he decided, “No, Roger, you’re starting a new school. You save yourself for someone who’s going to care about you.”
Roger learned from his Guyanese grandmother to fight until you’re down, and this has been helpful because he’s been getting beaten up since elementary school. Something about playing jump rope with the girls, marrying the boys when everyone played house. Roger, who has been living with his aunt since his mother threw him out last year for not
liking girls, is warm and rueful when reflecting on his past. “I knew I was gay since the third grade,” he says. “It was so childish. There was this boy named Thomas. I was like, Wow, he’s cute. Like, if it was chicken or beef for lunch and he got chicken, I’d get chicken.” Roger laughs at himself. “It was so childish.”

Wake up, honey, the kids are out. Not only at 18, 16 or even 14, but 13. Twelve. Eleven. “Never in our history have we seen anything like this,” says Ritch Savin-Williams, a developmental and clinical psychologist who’s been writing and teaching on the subject of gay kids for the last twenty years at Cornell University. Since the seventies, the average age of awareness of same-sex attraction has dropped from 13 to 9 for boys, with average age of first same-sex experience now at 13; the average age of girls’ first same-sex attraction has dropped from 15 to 10, with average age of first same-sex experience at 15.

Lonn Coward, twenty-five, a legal advocate for lesbian and gay youth at New York’s Urban Justice Center, remembers coming out at thirteen in his Virginia middle school, a lone pink wolf. “There were no agencies set up to talk to me about things,” he recalls.
“People were sort of ignorant — there were issues with my babysitting.” During sex-ed class, he was sent to sit with the girls. “I was the first kid to ever be out in that school,” he says, but there was an upside. “By high school, people really accepted me.” At that school now, says Coward, “there are at least fifteen or twenty out kids, plus a gay student union. It’s amazing.”

Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker and author of the book Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care & Counseling, says, “This is a remarkable shift, with really important implications. For the longest time, we’ve been a generation of gay adults, with no seniors and no youth. But now, there’s the opportunity to live as openly gay across the life-span.” She says with some awe that we’re now witnessing the birth of a cultural cohort — and that cohort, like Christina, isn’t particularly interested in waiting.

In some ways, young gay kids are simply keeping pace with their sophisticated straight classmates, about half of whom have had intercourse by the age of fifteen. What is most astonishing about the new gay youth, however, is not their sexual precocity, but their political precocity. At eleven, for instance, Anthony Colin knew he was gay; at thirteen he was out to family and friends; by sixteen, he and other students were suing their school district for not allowing them to form a gay-straight alliance in their high school and Colin, with painted fingernails, blue-streaked hair and many rings, made the cover of The Advocate.

Gay sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are now the wise elders, the ones who organize and speak and, as more than one kid tells me, look cool in the halls. In 1990, GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network, listed exactly two high school gay-straight alliances; now there are hundreds, including a handful in middle schools.

Right behind kids like Colin are their younger peers, learning to walk the walk. Fourteen seems to be the magic number for coming out, mostly because it’s the first year of high school. The classic, sometimes chaotic, second gay adolescence, the one previous generations went through in their twenties or later because they spent their teens in the closet, is fast becoming an archaic practice, like bundling. Identity politics, formerly an adults-only activity, is currently being employed by the target audience for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“You want my radical interpretation?” asks Ritch Savin-Williams expansively. “They will do away with themselves. As the visibility increases and we become more aware of the diversity and variability of sexual categories, I think it will cease to be of much significance. Our whole notion of sexuality constituting an identity will become much less important. I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end.”

It doesn’t look much like the end. If anything, it looks like a bright new beginning, passionate and optimistic. The new gay kids, born at the end of the Reagan years, are coming of age in a fat, warless, wired moment. Their topography is candy-colored, peopled by trippy and ironic cartoons. They admire RuPaul (“He’s so outgoing,” says Roger, “and because of that right now he’s rich”), listen sincerely to Melissa Etheridge and Britney Spears. They have the crystalline morality of those still too young to drive. Roger says of adults who can’t come out, “They’re just cowards,” but he admits in his soft voice that he really doesn’t “think that much about old people.”

A few days after the dance, in a Starbucks, Christina tells me that she was happy when Ellen came out on television — “Finally, a gay person on TV” — particularly since she’d already been out for a while herself. Up until then, she says, she’d been a little pissed off with Ellen for waiting, because “there’s nothing wrong with it. I came to terms with it, I accepted it, I took my time . . . ”

“You were eleven,” I point out. “How much time could you have taken?”

This Starbucks happens to be so full of kids, it’s as if a bomb has been dropped that vaporizes everyone over eighteen. As Tracy Chapman plays at an extraordinarily loud volume, kids are talking on cell phones, kids are hovering in the doorway waiting for other kids, kids are draped over one another on the clever sofas. One angelic, red-headed girl who looks ten but could be twelve is tucked into her boyfriend’s lap, his arms wrapped around her waist. It’s a city of kids, all busy.

Christina, who didn’t turn in her paper on gay teens and suicide today because she had cramps, is wearing more or less the same outfit she wore at the dance, with the addition of a name tag that reads, “Hello, My Name Is Marilyn Manson.” Her skateboard rests under the table.

She looks surprised by my question. “It took me about a year. I knew since I was born.” In which case ten years is a long time to wait, even if you’ve only been able to read and write for five of them.

But, plainly, a lot can happen in ten years, or perhaps fourteen, that is not so easily wrapped in a freedom flag. Dealing with sex and love is never that easy, less so at thirteen, and even less so when you’re queer. Things happen that you can’t always sum up so neatly. Such as: sex with people you meet on chat lines. Or the fact that the name of the one ex-girlfriend of the famous fifteen whom Christina loves best is carved on Christina’s chest, as is Christina’s on hers. Christina has a history of cutting, which maybe has something to do with identity politics, or maybe not.

And even in this tender, sunny landscape where the Teletubbies roam, there are considerable dragons lurking. Nearly every gay kid I spoke to for this article reported being beaten up or harassed by other kids at school. Generally one parent (often the mom) was “fine” with their kid’s identity, but the other was often not so fine to varying degrees. Lesbian and gay youth are still about three times as likely to attempt suicide as straight youth. Angel’s breasts are apparently doctor- and parent-supervised, but she is lucky to be so chaperoned; more than one person who works with gay and transgender kids tells me that underage, underground trade in estrogen is troublingly brisk. These kids are sweet-faced, but they’re also, often literally, battle-scarred: foot soldiers of desire. “I can’t say that I think all queer youth are safer now,” says Lonn Coward, “because I know better.”

Still, more than ever before, they’re not alone. Gay kids are able to connect through the Internet, for one thing. Caitlin Ryan also writes an online teen advice column where she gets letters from kids saying things like, “I’m twelve. I can’t go to a support group, because I’d have to ride my bike.” But where budding gay kids used to skulk around libraries looking up everything under “homosexual,” they can now, in the privacy of their rooms, type in “gay” or “lesbian” and see what flashes up — a lot, as you might imagine. Dave, fourteen, writes an online column, “Just a Boy in the World,” about being a gay teen (“As time went on from October, I think my family forgot I told them I was gay . . . “), because he wants to “support kids and let them know that someone cares.” He writes to me in an e-mail that he remembers what it was like to be twelve, gay and isolated. Ritch Savin-Williams, in fact, found that some of his research was being stymied because when he asked gay kids who they first came out to, the response was often, “I don’t know, because it was on the Internet.” Savin-Williams adds, “Increasingly, kids are coming out to their parents through email.”

They’re also able to connect with all the gay men and lesbians and transgendered people of a certain age who marched, wrote, spoke, died, who founded havens for younger versions of themselves, who not only said the words, but practically invented the words to say and the places to say them. At Roger’s school, there are three out dance teachers; also out are an art teacher, a social studies teacher, a math teacher and a lesbian pianist. When Roger pirouettes, family plays the tune, family corrects his form. Joey Smith, one of the out dance teachers, sums up the ethos of several generations when he says, “I make a point of telling my classes I’m gay. They can’t know you’re a role model unless they know you’re gay.”

But the newest members of the family also have the luxury of not connecting, or not always being entirely aware of how connected they already are. When I ask various gay kids if they knew any gay people growing up, knew the word, how they “knew” about themselves for sure, their answers tend to be vague, to slide off into the watery and telepathic, into Angel’s “probably.” I am continually surprised by how few local, living, gay role models — beyond RuPaul and Melissa Etheridge — they can name, even as they’re taught and DJ’d and counseled by them. (“Oh my God, I don’t know his name,” says Roger. “He has this very hoarse voice . . . “) At first I think this gap speaks to some lack of visibility, and that’s not untrue.

But it may also be that there is something essentially secretive about adolescence, particularly early adolescence: When in doubt, spy. Identity requires cultural support, but also silence, exile and practice, practice, practice. You cleave to it before you entirely know what it is; you rehearse it obsessively in your room, combing out your wigs for hours; you carve someone’s name on your chest, where it will stay for years after she’s gone from your life, and even as you’re writing it you know that it’s an excessive thing to do and that that’s at least half the pleasure of it. You sense that excess is part of it, somehow. You think you’re inventing all of it on your own. It may be the greatest mark of this generation’s relative liberation that they feel free not to know so much, to be as myopically heroic as straight children.

Perhaps their certainty that there’s an out world waiting for them explains how generous they are in allowing us to meet them on the very cusp of knowing, how much they trust us with all their probablies. Christina tells me happily that she took lots of pictures at last year’s Pride March. Roger knows who Harvey Milk is because he saw something about the slain San Francisco gay rights pioneer on an installment of VH1’s Behind the Music.

“It was about a street,” he muses, “about the gay life in San Francisco — this street was called . . . Chestnut?”

“The Castro?”

“Oh my God, that’s it! You know all the names!” He beams.

Of course, the out world that’s waiting for them is also in the process of being made by them, pieced together from the previous generation’s hard work, their own inventiveness, linty bits of pop culture and practices that are half-familiar, half-not, like the kinship structures in some far-off country. For instance, Christina mentions in a passing conversation about chat rooms that her “gay father” helps her out with cybersex sometimes; and then she seems perplexed by my curiosity. What gay father?

“When you’re gay,” she explains to me patiently, “you choose your gay parents. They’re not, like, your birth parents, but they take care of you as if they were. You don’t live with them — I don’t live with my gay father, but she and I are really close — ”

“This is a woman?”

“Yeah. She’s butch.”

They met when Christina, who also identifies as butch, hit on her future gay father’s eighteen-year-old girlfriend.

“My gay father’s name is Dee,” continues Christina, “and this one day, she bought me a pack of cigarettes and we sat in the laundromat and smoked and caught up on what’s been going on in our lives. That day,” she says with pleasure, “she told me she would be honored if she could be my gay father.”

“So what does Dee teach you, besides how to smoke and have cybersex? Or, I guess you already knew how to smoke.”

Christina laughs but then turns serious, ticking off lessons. “She pointed out to me that one of my girlfriends was using me as a yo-yo. She taught me not to go out with straight girls or bisexual girls because it never works out.” A shadow crosses Christina’s face at this. “Never to talk to old men, because they’re really perverted. And she doesn’t let me drink.” Asked what a gay mother — that is, a gay man or very femme-y woman — might have to teach Christina, she looks utterly blank. “I don’t know.”

Christina herself has a gay daughter, a fifteen-year-old cross-dressing boy over whom she often despairs. “He’s a faggot,” she says, “a shady faggot.”

She teaches him to be safe and even buys him condoms (“See, I’m a good father”), encourages him to be more out and do his schoolwork, takes him to a gay youth afternoon drop-in center.

She says wearily, “I try to make him a little bit more manlier, but it doesn’t work.” Still, she’s loyal to her troublesome daughter. “I’m there for her, forever, or until we have a really big argument.”

When I ask Christina how many people are in her family, she replies earnestly, “Which one?”

Conversations like these tend to give one a kind of futuristic feeling: In the
future, no gay people will know what the Castro was, but they’ll all have gay fathers and mothers and Britney Spears will be president.

One evening, I make my way by taxi through a rainstorm to have dinner with some lesbian friends and a straight friend of theirs, a screenwriter. We’re all in our late thirties, early forties — a cusp of sorts. The subject of Kevin Spacey comes up and the screenwriter says, “Well, if he were gay, does he have to be out?” It’s a tricky question. We eat turbot and talk about this for a while as the rain pours down. Listen, we’ll say in the future, or now, you don’t know how it was.

As I sit in another taxi going somewhere else one day, I am struck by the fact that
I didn’t know how much I missed the citizens of this generation until they appeared. Now I think about them all the time.

Stacey D’Erasmo and Nerve.com