Posts tagged ‘parents’

“Coming Out” in Non-Fiction for LGBTQ Young Adults

Introduction

We have decided to look at LGBTQ non-fiction for young adults as a compliment to the young adult literature we have been reviewing. No matter how profound, enlightening or meaningful a story is, it is not possible for a single novel or even several novels to address every issue an LGBTQ young adult is wrestling with.  It is in these instances that non-fiction specifically intended for teens becomes very important.  In fact in a survey conducted in 2003 by The New York Public Library, self-identified queer teenagers listed “real stories of real people” as their number one information need and this need got twice as many responses as any others (Martin and Murdock, 21).  Unfortunately, there are a surprisingly small number of non-fiction titles for LGBTQ young adults and many of these titles are written in stale language and read more like school textbooks. The following 3 resources stand out as books which will be meaningful resources for LGBTQ teens and in keeping with the project’s theme we have focused on information pertaining to coming out.

 

Coming Out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents, by Mary V. Borhek (1993)

Coming out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents was originally published in 1983, but updated and re-issued in 1993.  Some of the assumptions in this book are outdated almost 20 years later, but much of the insight is still very relevant. In Coming out to Parents, Borhek focuses on the psychology behind common parental reactions and attempts to help young adults understand the many emotions which their parents may experience:

The disclosure that you are lesbian or gay has set in motion grief reactions within your parents. And chances are that they have not the slightest idea they are experiencing grief…After all you are in good health. Why should your parents grieve?…They have lost an image of you, an idea about you, the identification of you as a heterosexual person (Borhek, 1993, p. 28).

Borhek prepares readers for the possible reactions which their parents may have and provides practical advice for how, when and where to come out and how to deal with initial responses.  Borhek does a wonderful job of explaining and contextualizing the roots of parental fear, guilt and shock and explaining to young adults how they can help minimize the impact of these emotions so the coming out process is easier on themselves and their parents.  She does not address bisexual, transgender or questioning teens, but this is more likely a by-product of the lack of visibility these groups had in the 1990s than a deliberate omission.

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens, by Kelly Huegel (2003)

 GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens is an extremely informative manual, written in readable language with text boxes, sidebars and illustrations. It was published more recently than Coming Out to Parents and includes information not just for gay men and lesbians, but also for bisexual, transgender and questioning teens.  GLBTQ has an entire chapter on coming out which includes a list of questions teens can ask themselves to determine whether they are ready to reveal their sexual identity, information about how to deal with being outed and a list of responses to possible reactions which a parent might have upon hearing the news.  This chapter also has a section on how to come out to friends and includes anecdotes from real teens about their own experiences throughout.  For example, “June” reflects on how important safety is to consider when making the decision to come out:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of who I am, I just have to be proud quietly because I live in a very small (and small-minded) community. Just last year at my school, a boy people called gay was beaten within an inch of his life. I’m a little scared to be too public about it for now. – June, 19 (Huegel, 2003, p. 47)

GLBTQ also has a chapter on Religion and Culture which addresses the feelings of conflict which some young adults may be facing in relation to their cultural/religious and sexual/gender identities.  Though discussion about coming out is very general in this chapter, some difficulties which LGBTQ young adults may face are highlighted:

Coming out can be difficult in many cultures because its seen as embarrassing or bringing shame on the family (or even on the race) because it makes public something that is considered private (Huegel, 2003, p. 161).

GLBTQ also has a chapter on Transgender Teens which contains a section on coming out.  This section includes information about the impact such an announcement may have on parents and also anecdotes from real transgender teens who have had positive experiences coming out to their parents.

GLBTQ is a very comprehensive and informative manual which contains essential information for all LGBTQ young adults. It addresses coming out with complexity, and from many different angles, making it a valuable resource for teens all across the LGBTQ, cultural and religious spectra.

The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Other Identities, edited by David Levithan and Billy Merrell (2006)

One way to effect change is to share truths. To tell our stories. To make our hearts and minds heard.

-Levithan and Merrell, 2006, Notes to Reader

The Full Spectrum is a compilation of non-fiction account written by LGBTQ young adults under the age of twenty-three.  This anthology was published because of the noticeable lack of young queer voices in teen literature.  Their accounts cover a wide range of topics which include fitting in, first sexual experiences, homophobia, bullying, self-loathing, self-acceptance, growing up gay, struggling with religion, relationships, love and heartbreak. Coming out is also a heavily featured topic in the anthology, in which both positive and negative experiences are represented, but more importantly, these young authors also chronicle their paths to self-acceptance in light of their experiences.

In one account, “My Diary:  Documented. Done.” by L. Canale, a teenage lesbian writes about the twenty month period when she is first outed by her religious and unaccepting father to a time when she has come to terms with that period in her life and forgiven her father. In the beginning, her diary entries have titles such as “Dad found out”, “Oh, its killing me” and “F-That”, and include very angry language such as, “OH MAN. My dad is full of SO MUCH SHIT”(Levithan and Merrell, 2006, p. 45).  However, by the end of the account the author is able to look back at the progress she’s made:

It’s funny how things change. Here I am rereading what I wrote almost two years ago and patting myself on the back. How’d I get through it?…Was I ever really alone, though? I don’t think I was but I felt so alone at times” (Levithan and Merrel, 2006, p. 53).

Heartfelt stories from real LGBTQ young adults are what many of the teens who are going through these experiences crave most, and since information in these accounts is true they have the power to touch readers in ways that fictional stories may not.   The Full Spectrum is a powerful anthology which imparts meaning and hope, and will be of great value to LGBTQ young adult readers.

Resources and References

Borhek, M. (1993). Coming Out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press.

Martin, H.J. & Murdock, J.R. (2007). Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Huegel, K. (2003). GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer & Questioning Teens. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Levithan, D. & Merrell, B. (2006). The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Other Identities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Dare Truth or Promise, by Paula Boock (1999)

Dare Truth or Promise is a love story about two girls, Louie and Willa, who meet working at a local fast food restaurant.  Sparks fly and soon they enter into a passionate and loving relationship.  Willa has been involved with a girl before and her mother is both aware that she is a lesbian and supportive of her sexual identity.  Louie is only discovering her sexual identity so she has not come out to her family, yet her mother takes an instant dislike to Willa and tries to prevent the two from spending time together.  Louie’s mother eventually catches the two girls in bed and in an intense and traumatic scene, kicks Willa out of the house and forbids her from returning.

Much to Willa’s dismay, Louie is devastated by her mother’s reaction and internalizes these feelings of shame and guilt, withdrawing from their relationship:

Louie…looked at her in such pain that Willa couldn’t bear it. “I love you, Louie,” she said, starting to cry though she’d promised herself not to.

“I know.” Louie’s voice sounded ready to snap in two. “I love you too,” she said, at last. “But that’s not the point, is it? (p. 104)

Louie’s mother continues to push her away from Willa and tries to convince her to date men, yet Louie is miserable and eventually comes out to her priest in hopes of receiving moral guidance.  In a very touching scene he explains to her what is really important:

Louie stared at him.

“And she? Does she love you?”

“Yes, I think she does.”

Father Campion smiled. “How wonderful.”

“How lucky you are, to love and to be loved in return.”

This wasn’t what Louie had expected. (p. 147)

This information gives Louie a much more positive perspective to reflect on, but it is eventually a car accident which brings the two back together.  After this near tragedy they realize how lucky they are to have found each other and Louie is able to work through the negative messages which she received about herself and her sexual identity.  At the same time Louie’s parents are so shaken by the accident that they reevaluate what is best for their daughter and open up to Willa as well.

In Dare Truth or Promise, we see how damaging it can be for young adults to be “outed” before they have time to work through their own emotions surrounding their sexual identity.  Louie survives this experience and it ultimately strengthens her relationship with Willa but it is a very difficult time for both girls and highlights just how vulnerable young adults are at this stage in their lives.

Boock, P. (1999). Dare Truth or Promise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 1998 Winner, Senior Fiction Category
New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 1998 Winner, Book of the Year Award

The Bermudez Triangle, by Maureen Johnson (2004)

The Bermudez Triangle, one of the few novels to include a questioning character, looks at the evolving relationships between 3 friends as they explore their sexual identities and struggle to understand themselves and one another. Nina, Mel and Avery have grown up together and separate for the first time when Nina spends the summer before their senior year of high school away.  In her absence Mel and Avery discover they have feelings for each other, share their first kiss and begin dating.  Mel has been sure that she is a lesbian for a long time, but Avery is not as certain and struggles to define her sexual identity.

Though Mel and Avery try to keep their relationship a secret from their parents and their peers, they struggle with how and when to come out to Nina:

“We have to decide, Mel,” Avery said. “I don’t think its time to tell her.”

“When will it be time?”

“Not when she steps off a plane. We haven’t seen her since June.”

“So why don’t we get it out of the way?’ Mel asked. “We can’t lie to her.”

“How do you think she’s going to feel?”

“Fine,” Mel said defensively. “Nina doesn’t have a problem with this stuff.”

“Nina doesn’t have a problem hypothetically.  Nina doesn’t have a problem with other people.” (p. 74-5)

Mel and Avery chose not to reveal their relationship to Nina, but she catches them kissing in a department store dressing room and they are forced to come clean.  After this revelation, Nina struggles with how to respond to this new development. Her feelings about her friends and their sexual identities are complicated by the effect their relationship has on the friendship between the three and her own feelings of exclusion. In a letter to her boyfriend she writes:

I hate feeling like I’m always intruding on my friends. This is MEL AND AVERY! I am SUPPOSED to be with them. But they kind of shift around and look at each other with love eyes and I end up saying that I have to go home…I want my friends to be happy, but I also want my old life back.  I feel like some big homophobe for complaining about Mel and Avery. That makes it even worse. And I’m not. At least I don’t think I am (p. 134).

As the story unfolds and the relationship between Avery and Mel evolves, Nina is at times stuck between her two friends, but ultimately discovers that both Avery and Mel are going through a difficult period in their lives and tries to support both the best she can.

Coming out to parents is not a central theme in the novel, but Mel and Avery are accidentally outed by Nina towards the end of the story and we observe different parental reactions.  Mel’s mother is angry and unaccepting, but her father, while confused and still coming to terms with this development, is quieter and stands up for Mel.  Avery’s mother is surprisingly accepting and even seems a little disappointed to discover that Avery is not in fact gay (p. 324).

Throughout the novel Nina, Avery and Mel all struggle to define who they are and their relationships with one another.  It is a rocky road, but all three come out stronger and rebuild the bonds which originally connected them.  With this foundation it is clear that Nina and Avery will be there to support Mel as she continues to come out as a lesbian and works through her relationship with her mother.

Johnson, M. (2004). The Bermudez Triangle. New York: Razorbill.

 

Sprout, by Dale Peck (2009)

Sprout, the 2009 novel by Dale Peck, explores the life of Daniel “Sprout” Bradford, who is taken from Long Island to a small Kansas town by his grieving father. This novel explores the teen experience of coming out, but encompasses a different view of such an event because Sprout’s mother has passed away: the reactions of his surviving parent and peers are influenced by this added dimension.

The focus of the story is on the dynamics between Mrs. Miller and Sprout.  Mrs. Miller is a teacher at the Hutchinson, Kansas school who takes an interest in Sprout’s writing potential, and much of his character development is instigated by her influence. It is with her prodding to improve his writing that Sprout is enabled to analyze himself in terms of his sexuality, though he never denies homosexuality. One suspects that the one reason Sprout dyes his hair green is that it is a way of expressing his state of being without having to articulate it. Mrs. Miller points this out but ironically she fears that an essay pertaining to Sprout’s sexuality might jeopardize his winning a state writing competition she has pushed him into doing.  Mrs. Miller serves as a supporter who crosses a lot of boundaries (some of them inappropriate, supplying him with alcoholic drinks in her home), but at the same time is a major figure in leading Sprout to suppress his feelings, for which she later expresses regret and reverses (p. 273).

Readers are only occasionally provided the reaction of Sprout’s peers except that he is generally picked last in selecting sports teams, despite his running ability. His best friend Ruthie has pigeonholed him as a relationship failure, but what she does not know is that he has already begun fooling around with the same boy she is after, Ian. Ian himself is furtive as the affair carries on in the janitor’s closet for four years, and he is never exposed for his involvement with Sprout.  In fact, Ian later impregnates Ruthie, perhaps to prove a point (p. 262).

Sprout’s mother never gets to have her say on the matter of his sexuality, but the tension her absence creates makes Sprout’s father have sloppier and more erratic reactions.

A year earlier, when my dad found a couple of gay sites in the cache of Internet Explorer, he threw my dictionary into our PC. I think he thought I’d learned how to be gay from the web, although the truth is I’d only looked at those kinds of sites after I was pretty sure about myself…

“I should have seen it coming. Absent mother, poor role model for a father. I apologize, son. I should have found a maternal figure for you.” (p. 70-71)

The initial hostility of Sprout’s father indicates that he sees his son’s sexuality as another blow or failing. Unlike many parents with a negative view, however, he does not blame his child. His father has also developed alcoholism in the wake of his mother’s death, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances cloud some knowledge as to how the father might react under less duress. Immediately after the first verbal acknowledgement of the situation, his father asks his son to pass him a beer.

     “That’s it? A beer?”

“Oh, okay, two.”

Dad.”

     He didn’t meet my eyes. “Hey. You’re a fag. I’m a drunk. Nobody’s perfect.” … “That was mean. You’re gay. I’m an alcoholic.”

     “Just promise me you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want to have to identify my son at the morgue.” (p. 72)

The father cannot be said to offer any support to Sprout, but his reaction is more indicative of an overall instability and responsiveness to the external culture that might compromise his son’s safety.

Finally, Sprout’s father slowly does a few things that might be considered marginally supportive of his son’s sexuality and overall well-being. He leaves a condom in his son’s room, prominently placed, and with a note that states: “I don’t want to know. But I don’t want you dead either” (p. 135). When Sprout’s love interest, Ty, runs away from an abusive home after Sprout does not stand up for him, his father finally pulls his act together and tries to put a show of tough support for his devastated son, but it is too late in some ways.

Sprout is a work that shows a coming out development period that happens over a number of years, with a few defining, dramatic moments. There are no major moments of affirming support or endangering rejection to the announcement, perhaps suspending Sprout’s ability to become as comfortable with the idea of a relationship with a boy as he is with his sexuality.

Peck, D. (2009). Sprout. New York: Bloomsbury.

ALA Stonewall Book Award Winner in 2010

Lambda Nomination (Dale Peck blog)