Everybody else had a childhood, for one thing—where they were coaxed and coached and taught all the shorthand. Or that's how it always seemed to me, eavesdropping my way through twenty-five years, filling in the stories of straight men's lives. First they had their shining boyhood, which made them strong and psyched them up for the leap across the chasm to adolescence, where the real rites of manhood began...And every year they leaped further ahead, leaving me in the dust with all my doors closed, and each with a new and better deadbolt. Until I was twenty-five, I was the only man I knew who had no story at all. I'd long since accepted the fact that nothing had ever happened to me and nothing ever would. That's how the closet feels, once you've made your nest in it and learned to call it home.
—Paul Monette in Becoming a Man
When he started grade school, Nic already knew that he was different from the other kids in his class. By the time he was 10, he knew what the difference meant.
"In the first grade I saw boys as cute, or nice-looking," he says. "I didn't really know what I was feeling, but I found that I liked guys better than girls. In the fifth grade, I had a really close friend. We just connected. He always spent the night at my house, and we slept in the same bed. One night we started wrestling, just play wrestling, and all of a sudden, we found each other, you know, that way, and said, 'What the hell,' and tried it."
Now 19 and a second-year student at the University of Tennessee, Nic is finally open about his homosexuality. He told his parents during his senior year at Catholic High School, and most of his friends knew he was gay by the time he was 16. But for most of his teenage years, Nic kept that significant part of his identity hidden from the people closest to him.
The emotional turbulence of raging hormones and the awkward first steps of sexual awakening can make adolescence a nightmare for any kid. But for gay teenagers, those years can be especially traumatic. If they're out of the closet, gay teens risk the disapproval of a culture that can be openly hostile to them. They may be bullied or harassed at school, or fired from their jobs, or kicked off of sports teams. Often, teenagers who come out to their families are cut off or kicked out of the house, or sent to counseling to get "cured."
But if gay teens keep their sexual identity hidden, they face a social isolation that can be as emotionally devastating as the angry, hateful pronouncements of anti-gay politicians, parents and preachers. Even in the best circumstances, with parents who are tolerant and open-minded, young people who hide their homosexuality usually have low self-esteem, have a hard time with their parents or in school, or delay the normal emotional development of adolescence—rituals like dating and sexual experimentation—until they're adults.
It can be even worse than that: Gay teenagers are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior or drug and alcohol abuse than straight teens, and the suicide rate among gay teens is, by nearly every estimate, substantially higher than it is for straight teens.
While the brutal open homophobia of, say, the rural Deep South is absent here, Knoxville also lacks a large, open gay community like the ones in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or even Atlanta that could offer support and guidance for kids struggling with their sexual identity. Gay teens here are generally safe from violence, but many of them feel that they've been nudged back into the closet by a conservative, religious culture that would prefer not to see them.
For many gay kids, the first signs that their emerging sexual identity is unacceptable come from home. "The first place [homophobia shows up] is in their own families," says Dr. Terry Molnar, a local psychologist who has worked with several gay teenagers. "Their own fathers have probably expressed a distaste for and rejection of homosexuals. So this poor kid thinks he's going to grow up and his father will hate him and kick him out of the house."
Zac Talbott, 18, grew up in Maryville and went to a small Southern Baptist church. That's where he first encountered the message that homosexuality was a sin—a message that followed him home and stuck with him. "It's hard growing up in a small Southern town and going to a small country church, where every week I hear that gays are going to hell, and knowing I didn't choose it," Zac says. "It killed me going to that church every week. A lot of my extended family believed, and still do believe, that I'm going to hell."
Even when parents aren't explicitly homophobic, gay and lesbian kids can get the signal that their attractions are unnatural or immoral. From church, school, television, their own friends—the message is that guys and girls go together. At best, homosexual relationships are largely invisible. At worst, they can be presented as deviant or perverted. For young teenagers who are beginning to question their own identity, the message can be overwhelming—and their lives lonely.
"Middle schools are just crammed full of kids with their hormone levels high, struggling individually with this issue, and they do it in isolation," says Molnar. "They're confused and upset, and they express that. It shows up in their school work, in their relationships with family members and peers."
School can be an especially torturous experience for gay teens. Even though attitudes about homosexuality have changed in the past 10 years, particularly among teenagers and young adults, and school administrators have gradually become aware that they have gay students in their classrooms, schools are still full of hostility, open and otherwise.
"Thinking back to gym and sports, I had tremendous fears," says Bill O'Connor. O'Connor, 31, grew up in Knoxville in the 1980s, and worried about his sexual identity throughout high school. "In sixth grade they said we'd have to shower after gym, and I was terrified. There were stories about being able to tell you were a queer, I don't know how. There was something about being exposed. It was dangerous to be there. I tried everything I could to get out of gym class. I was very aware of the comments. I was a big guy, so the football coach said, 'O'Connor, you're a big kid, why don't you play football?' People would ask if I was a sissy—'You're not one of those faggots, are you?'"
That kind of implicit harassment is still a problem, as are more obvious kinds of abuse. A survey of nearly 500 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens in 32 states, conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in 1999, found that 58 percent didn't feel safe in their schools because of their sexual orientation. Ninety percent said they often heard homophobic remarks—words like "faggot," "queer," or "dyke"—in school; one-third reported hearing such comments from teachers or administrators. Nearly three-quarters said they experienced some form of harassment or violence based on their sexual orientation.
Zac Talbott was teased at Maryville High School, but found that the administration there was supportive. "If somebody called me a faggot, they treated it the same as if somebody had called an African-American a nigger," he says.
One local educator, who asked not to be identified, says there's definitely an ugly strain of harassment in high school halls here. "But as society changes, how we view homosexuality will change, and we have to respond to that," she says. "There's name calling and teasing, but I have to say that our administration has been wonderful. They do not tolerate it, sexual harassment of any sort... The administration will choose, as this evolves, to be affirming of everyone. They're too intelligent to not do that. I genuinely believe they care about the individuals in this building. That's what we're here for."
In some ways, the lack of role models to identify with is as exacting for teenagers as open hostility. Confused teenagers have few resources, no way to know that other people have been through this before, or are going through the same thing.
That's changing, to some degree. Openly gay characters are becoming more and more common on television and in movies, and public opinion—particularly among teenagers and young adults—is also becoming more accepting of gays and lesbians. Gay organizations are more visible now than they were even 10 years ago. In fact, kids seem to be coming out at younger and younger ages, though the exact numbers are hard to tabulate.
The Internet has made information and anonymous connections, through chat rooms, widely available to any curious kid with a computer—but it's also made teenagers vulnerable to predatory adults who misrepresent themselves through the anonymity of the Net.
But those larger national trends have been slow in trickling down to Knoxville. Local groups like Knoxville Pride and the Lambda Student Union at UT are active and have regular membership, but they both maintain low profiles and get little media attention.
Zac Talbott says he didn't know there were other gay people in Knoxville until he was in high school. Others say they didn't even know what their attraction to other kids of the same sex meant.
"It's kind of weird. People say, 'When did you know?' Since there aren't any role models, and you don't really know what it is, you just lump it into this strange category of stuff you don't understand about yourself," says Bill O'Connor, who didn't fully recognize he was gay until he was almost out of his teens. "I was 19 when I first started looking back and could finally say I'm gay. Some of my first memories, from when I was five or six years old, are my brothers bringing their wives or girlfriends home, and my sisters bringing their boyfriends home. I never had a crush on my sisters-in-law. I was always fascinated with my sisters' boyfriends."
When Bill O'Connor moved away from Knoxville and finally started living as a gay man, he began to recover the childhood that he'd lost. "Here I am 23 years old—the only thing I can equate it to is feeling like I should have felt when I was 15 or 16, to talk on the phone to somebody for six hours and want to get to know him and find out everything about him. Here I am finally feeling that... It all made me very nervous. I guess I was kind of learning that things aren't so bad. You think life is a certain way, and all of a sudden you learn that the stereotypes aren't true. I remember that being exciting."
To address the sparse resources available for local teens, Knox Pride started a youth outreach support group, Knox Area Rainbow Youth, last year. Nic is co-chair of the group, which only has a handful of members right now. "There's not a lot happening, but we're getting some results," he says. "We had an outing this past Saturday and had one youth. We went to Celebration Station. We let them mingle in a safe environment, and also let them go to general meetings [of Knoxville Pride]."
Earlier this month, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Kingston Pike, with a $4,000 grant from the national denomination, opened Spectrum Diversi-Tea and Coffee House, a twice-a-month social group for gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students and their friends. Spectrum is modeled on a coffee shop, with snacks, music, and tables set up in the church's fellowship hall, and it is only open to teens between 14 and 18. Nine teenagers attended Spectrum's opening night on April 7.
David Massey, one of the organizers of Spectrum, says the national Unitarian Universalist Church has been supportive of the gay community since the 1960s. "Two years ago, we decided to be more proactive," Massey says. "We didn't want to reinvent the wheel or duplicate what other people were doing in town, and we found that the biggest unmet need was with teenagers. They're not being served by any social service organization in any deliberate way."
Massey expects Spectrum to start slowly, but he hopes it will become a permanent place for gay teenagers, or for any kids who feel marginalized or want to be supportive.
The confusion of adolescence for gay teenagers can be debilitating. But it's not always bad. For Alissa Reeves, 28, the close relationship she had with her best friend in high school was a pleasant, meaningful experience, free of guilt or repression. It was simply an early step in her growing sexual awareness. "We promised to never get married to boys," Alissa says. "We didn't really understand completely what was going on. We spent a lot of time together and had sleepovers. I didn't understand it. I thought I just really, really liked her as a best friend. We'd hold hands and be a little kissy, probably more than other girls, but I kind of wrote it off, saying, 'That's just how girls are.' But when we were both in college, we saw each other in a gay bar and it all made sense."
At the same time, Alissa dated the same boyfriend through high school and college. By the time they married in 1992—"It seemed like the next logical step to take," she says—she identified herself as bisexual. She's since come all the way out. She's a writer at a local ad agency, involved in a serious relationship with her lesbian partner, and raising her 6-year-old daughter. She and her former husband are no longer together, but they get along and are both involved in their daughter's life.
For Alissa, the coming-out process was just a gradual awakening; even though she didn't full understand her feelings for her high school girlfriend, she never felt pressured to keep her identity secret. Most coming-out stories, however, are more complicated.
Zac Talbott says his coming out erupted into an angry confrontation with his father. Bill O'Connor moved away from Knoxville to come out. That way, he says, he'd still have a safe place to go if there was a bad reaction.
"I started telling a few people each time I came back, friends, then family members," O'Connor says. "Girls first, because they seem to have fewer problems with it. A lot of my guy friends I didn't tell until the very end. But by the time I was 26, everybody knew.
My parents were great. I was really surprised... I was prepared for the worst—I could get on a plane and go home after they told me to get out. But it wasn't like that at all. I couldn't even tell my mom. I just started babbling. I said it was about dating, and started babbling about all this other stuff, and finally I asked her if she knew what I meant. She knew exactly what I meant, and she said, 'Do you feel better now?' and that was it... My dad was matter-of-fact about it. He said, 'Well, you're gay. I can't say I approve, but it's OK.'"
Danny Scates, now 21, though he looks much younger, is fully out, and a student at both UT and Pellissippi State. He had hints throughout adolescence that he might be gay. But he didn't finally acknowledge his homosexuality to himself until he was a junior in high school. When he did, he was tormented by guilt.
"Once I started realizing that I was possibly gay, I had a feeling of disgust, low self-esteem, and depression," he says. "After my first few experiences with guys I felt so dirty. I felt bad about myself. I felt dirty."
Danny, who first started getting hints that he might be gay at 13, spent much of his adolescence trying to convince himself that he was just like everyone else. "I dated a lot of girls. I dated them for a long time," he says. "Everybody thought it was just fine, but I started realizing I wasn't getting any satisfaction out of it. The last girl I dated was my junior year in high school... I'd go out with my friends—I was a pretty out-there, crazy, regular high school student, just going to parties and hanging out with friends, but I felt alone. Part of me didn't feel comfortable sharing that with anybody. Sometimes I ended up crying over it."
According to the American Psychological Association, the coming-out process usually follows a general pattern: first, teenagers will tell other gay friends, then straight friends, then close family members like brothers or sisters, and finally parents. That's what Danny did. He told a friend at school, a girl who later came out herself, and she encouraged him to tell his other friends.
"I was embarrassed at first, but eventually I'm, like, extremely grateful I did," he says. "Since I came out, I'm much happier than I was in the closet. Everybody knows about me now."
But before he could start telling his family, his parents made an uncomfortable discovery.
"I didn't tell them. They found out," Danny says. "They found some gay material, 'gay literature,' in my closet. I was with some friends, and my mom called me up and told me to come home right now. 'I don't care what you're doing. Come home right this second.' They gave me a lecture until 2 a.m. For a long time they were in extreme denial. At first they thought there was really no way, that there was really something wrong with me. They definitely thought I was just confused, that it couldn't be serious."
Even the most understanding parents can be confused and frustrated as they watch their children struggle with their sexual identity. Once a child comes out, their parents have legitimate fears about their safety.
"It doesn't bother me that he's gay," says Nic's mother. "My concern is, I have a cousin who's gay, and I know what he's been through. My fear is someone hurting him because he's gay. To me, everybody's different. Everybody needs to live life the way they need to live it, if that means they're gay or lesbian or bisexual. I think everybody's entitled to happiness."
Beyond the threat of actual physical harm, there's also the risk that gays and lesbians will find their lives circumscribed, to some degree, by their sexual orientation. "[My daughter] called once and said she and her girlfriend were yelled at by some passers-by in a car. She kind of blew it off, but as a parent, it took me a while to calm down. I don't fear that she's going to be the next Matthew Shepherd. I fear a lifetime of reduced choices, where she can work or live, or the friends she'll be able to let into her life," says Paul Baxter, president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Baxter's daughter was raised in Pittsburgh and now lives in Boston, a city that he says has been open and affirming for her.
But still he worries that, because of the reactions of other people, his daughter won't have as full a life as she would if she were straight. "Even though her generation accepts gays and lesbians better than mine, there are still the old hatreds. It's sad that she was born into a time when you can't be as open as everyone else."
Those are legitimate fears, as are concerns about the very real health risks—both physical and emotional—that gay adults face. In the U.S., gay men are still at greater risk for exposure to HIV than any other demographic group.
Dr. Molnar also says the gay community has a "terrible track record" for long-term relationships. "It appears—this has been battled back and forth in research for a couple of decades—that, in general, males prefer multiple sexual partners and females don't. Part of what that means is that males who are in a sexual relationship with each other prefer multiple partners, and having multiple partners flies in the face of long-term relationships... If I were going to say what's good for [gay teenagers], it would be a long-term relationship. The sad thing facing them is they're joining a community that bears a dismal track record."
Even worse for parents can be the ongoing difficulty of watching, for years, the child you love try to come to terms with being gay. That's what happened to H.R., a retired local businessman, whose 37-year-old son only came out three years ago. "One of the hard parts of being the parent of a gay child is the open secrets, the thinly-veiled dishonesty," says H.R. "I know he's gay, he knows, but he wants to explore all the possibilities of not being gay because it's so damn hard to be gay, and once you're out there it's hard to get back in. For 20 years, we basically knew this...To sit and watch your child struggle with that for so long is really hard. You watch him come almost to the point of saying, 'Yeah, that's it,' and then he sends a few little signals that confuse his parents—he'll show up with a girlfriend or talk about having a family, and the parents say, 'Maybe he's not gay.'"
There's a certain bravado that many of these kids share. In part, it seems to be a natural reaction to a looming adulthood where they may be marginalized and isolated and discriminated against. It's also, though, a front that masks the painful memories of coming to grips with their sexual identity and coming out.
When asked to talk about the hardships they faced in school and with their parents, many of them deflected the questions. Danny Scates, asked about what he does when he's not in school, listed all the groups he works with—Knox Pride, Knox Area Rainbow Youth, all the various committees he serves on. Zac Talbott has a position on every national issue that affects gays. Nic initially says his relationship with his father is OK, even though it's clearly not. They're unlikely to provide detailed accounts of their own lives, talking in generalities until they're prodded. Part of that is likely their inexperience. These are kids, after all, and they've probably never been interviewed for a newspaper before. They're also still adjusting to the new-found freedom of being out, and are still probably grappling with the long-term implications of their adolescent experiences, both good and bad.
But there's a fear, too, a fear that they're reluctant to acknowledge. "I would never go back in the closet again," Danny Scates says. "If you let people see that you're weak or scared or insecure about something you are, they'll take advantage of you and hurt you. If I ever do feel scared, I won't let people see that."
In part because of the burden of keeping his sexual identity a secret, Nic suffered from deep depression while he was in high school, especially before he came out. Twice, he attempted suicide. "I never overdosed," he says. "The bottle was in my hand, and then I called Mom and realized that life is important, and that I need to figure out that this is who I am."
After the second suicide attempt, he was admitted to Peninsula Hospital. While he was there, he told his parents that he's gay. "I told my parents while I was in the hospital," Nic says. "I thought it would be a safe place if my dad flipped out."
In many ways, Nic was lucky. His father didn't flip out or call him names or kick him out of the house. In fact, he's paying for Nic to go to UT and pays the rent for his apartment near campus.
Nic moved out last year. He has a part-time job at a nearby restaurant, working mostly on weekends, and goes to dance clubs or gay night clubs when he can. He likes Janet Jackson, and looks forward to the upcoming Ani DiFranco concert at the Tennessee Theater. He has a new boyfriend; it's the first openly gay relationship he's had. He's even stayed a practicing Catholic, despite the Church's official disapproval of homosexuality. He's a creative writing major, and writes poetry with the Young Writers Institute at UT. He wants to become an English professor so he can continue to write.
"It's a pretty good life," he says. But his relationship with his father hasn't been the same since his revelation. Nic says they were never close, even when he was a child, but his father has distanced himself even further over the last couple of years.
"It's so hard for him," Nic says. "We had a long conversation last week, or the week before that, and he was cussing at me and I called him an asshole. He talked about me not giving him any respect, and I told him he doesn't have any respect for me. I told him that when I hugged him and told him I love him, I never feel anything back. He said, 'Honestly, I didn't feel anything.' That hurts."
It's much simpler to Nic's mother. "All I pray for is that he'll find somebody he can be happy with, who will be good to him," she says. "Somebody who will love him and take care of him and won't hurt him."