Wednesday, March 10, 2010
YA & Sexuality - Part II: Why This Matters
Now, on to why conversation about YA and Sexuality matters to me.
Like I mentioned in Part I, I finally realized I was gay--attracted to men--but there's a huge difference between being gay and BEING gay.
I didn't have a problem with the sexuality part of it. I accepted pretty quickly that I was attracted to my own gender. The part that was confusing and difficult for me to handle was what being gay actually meant. My role models were few. Because of a lack of LGBT representations in books/movies/television, I began to believe that in order for me to be gay, I had to become a stereotype.
Back then I believed that gay men were flamboyant (Nathan Lane in the Birdcage), obsessed with sex, addicted to drugs, only listened to bad dance remixes of worse pop songs, and shallow. My step-father worked as a police officer and the only gays he saw were the ones he was arresting outside of park toilets. I thought that you were either out, loud, and proud, or a doomed closet case. I didn't want to be either. I felt like an outsider. And that was tough, because I'd always felt like I was on the outside. When I came out, I assumed that I'd get my toaster and be welcomed into the gay community, a place where rainbows hung in the air 24-7. But instead I was an outsider to outsiders.
It was a really lonely place.
I did my best to fit in. I began making bad choices, compromising my moral code, and wearing a lot of stretchy shirts. I traded my indie music cred for Jessica Simpson remixes. I smoked and drank and experimented with drugs. I managed to have some fun and meet a few genuinely great people, but at the end of the day, when I was home and didn't have anyone to impress, I knew I wasn't being me.
My sense of self was in the toilet. I was cutting myself frequently and engaging in risky behavior (like wearing shiny shirts in public). Years later my best friend wrote me a letter about how I was during that time. She said that in me she'd found her outcast soulmate but that I'd become someone else. Someone "cool" who smoked and went to clubs and had boyfriends. I look back on that time and, while I may have looked cool on the outside, I was miserable and I hated my life.
The dichotomy between who I was and who I was trying to be was tearing me to shreds. A couple of months before my twentieth birthday, I reached a breaking point. I reasoned that if I couldn't stand being who I'd become, and I couldn't be accepted for the geek I knew I was, that I shouldn't be at all.
I took an entire bottle of Tylenol and called it a night.
Fifteen hours later I called 911 and was rushed to the hospital. My parents were prepared for the worst. The doctors were convinced I was going to need a new liver. I'd waited far too long for the one Tylenol counteragent to be effective. I don't know if it was hope of hopelessness, but they gave me the mucomyst anyway.
Any which way you slice it, I should have died. But I didn't. It was a tough week in ICU but slowly my liver enzymes returned to something approaching normal. If I remember correctly, normal liver enzyme counts should be from like 5-50. When I entered the ER, mine were in the thousands. I'm not a believer in the scary Bible God who smites people and kills babies, but I can't deny that some miracle occurred. And I'm thankful it did.
After I left the hospital, I voluntarily checked myself into a mental facility where I spent another week. I'll be honest, I'd decided in the ICU that I didn't want to die, but I was far from cured. I told those doctors in the mental facility what they wanted to hear. It took me a few more years to learn that being gay didn't mean changing who I was. I did stop the cutting and I never attempted suicide again, but my journey to understanding was years long.
These days I'm back to wearing t-shirts and jeans, being unfashionable, and listening to music I like. I learned that sexuality is just a part of me, and not even a very important one. It's a facet. A blip. When I die, my headstone isn't going to read: Here rests Shaun, he was gay. At least I hope that's not what it says. I'm so much more than gay. I'm a writer, a geek, a pet owner, a friend, a computer nerd, a decent skier, a terrible guitar player, an even worse painter, a fair singer, a son...
But I didn't know that then because I was never reflected in the literature I read. LGBT youth were almost never represented in the literature I was reading, and when they were it was all doom and gloom. I'm not pointing my accusing finger at books and blaming my suicide attempt on the lack of positive representations of LGBT, but I also am.
If writers like David Levithan had been writing when I was in high school, I might have been able to see that my limited view of sexuality was wrong. I might have been able to see that being gay isn't a techno prison sentence. Gay people DO listen to techno, but they also listen to country and rap and indie and classic rock. Lesbians and gays and bisexuals and transgendered kids and straight kids--they're artists and football players and debaters and writers and Neil Patrick Harris. Sexuality isn't a box, it's a key.
So being gay isn't a big deal. I learned that. But talking about it is. Talking about sexuality in YA novels DOES matter. Because maybe if I'd seen someone who looked like me, someone I could have related to in a book, I wouldn't have felt so damned alone.
We can't change the past but we can change the future. We can keep the next kid--all the next kids--from feeling alone.
Come back on Friday for Part III where I'll talk about how other writers are tackling this issue, how I tackle it in my own work, and how you can help too.
Suicide sucks. It's just not the answer. If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. A friend, a parent, a priest, a teacher. There are so many resources. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or check out the Suicide Help Line website