Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1996 Issue »

    Two Teenagers in Twenty and Not the Only One

    Two Teenagers in Twenty: Writings by Gay and Lesbian Youth
    edited by Ann Heron.

    Boston: Alyson, 1994. 187 pp. $8.95 (paper).

    Not the Only One: Lesbian and Gay Fiction for Teens

    edited by Tony Grima.

    Boston: Alyson, 1994, 237 pp. $7.95 (paper).

    We know the power of stories. They provide a means of understanding ourselves and others. We seek them out when we need to understand something incomprehensible in our lives and we welcome them as a way of understanding the experience of others. Other people's stories give us clarity, help us through the complexities of life, and offer us the special strength that comes from knowing we are not alone. But what if the topic of the stories you were seeking was considered taboo? What if you felt inferior, immoral, or sick for wanting to share your experience with someone? What if the topic was so remote that even if you got the courage to mention it, you didn't know where to go? Such is the predicament of many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. This is part of the reason why these young people are two to three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide.1 And this is why many LGBT youth are deeply afraid to live as themselves. So to say that these books, Two Teenagers in Twenty, a collection of forty-one autobiographical stories by gay and lesbian youth, and Not the Only One, a collection of twenty-one fictional stories for lesbian and gay youth, are important resources for youth is an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that books such as these are life savers.

    Even though some schools and youth organizations genuinely attempt to accept LGBT youth as community members, the organizations must constantly fight formidable opponents who manage to perpetuate a pervasive climate of homophobia that condones and exacerbates gay-bashing and "fag-hunting." The Reverend Lou Sheldon, who represents 31,000 churches nationwide, is outspoken in his perceived need to "destroy the myth that homosexuality is either normal or hereditary."2 U.S. Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan promoted legislation that would cut off federal assistance to schools that have "any program or activity" that has the "purpose or effect" of supporting homosexuality as a "positive lifestyle."3 In New York City, when a curriculum designed to encourage respect for family differences included discussion of families headed by gays and lesbians, Mary Cummins, president of the Queens School Board, led others in a drive to reject the curriculum, saying it was "dangerously misleading homosexual/lesbian propaganda . . . to promote acceptance of sodomy and cover up its dangers."4 It is no wonder then that LGBT youth have internalized society's negative conception of homosexuality.

    Through the fiction and nonfiction stories in Not the Only One and Two Teenagers in Twenty, editors Heron and Grima offer LGBT youth the opportunity to recognize their goodness, feel pride in themselves, and gain a sense of community. Ann Heron speaks directly to gay and lesbian young people in the preface of Two Teenagers in Twenty: "I hope these stories show that you're not alone; other teenagers have gone through experiences much like yours" (p. 9). Not the Only One has a similar purpose. Editor Tony Grima expresses his concern that gay and lesbian youth "never receive the comforting messages and reassurances that what they're feeling is normal" (p. 8). Addressing the lesbian and gay teen readers of his book, he says: "I hope you'll come away from this book with a clearer sense of what connects you to the millions of other young gay men and lesbians across the country and around the world — and with the realization that you are indeed not alone" (p. 8).

    Not the Only One contains fictional stories written by adults; Two Teenagers in Twenty contains youth autobiographies. Both books illustrate the wide range of life experiences of gay and lesbian youth and the common issues they face. The use of fiction and autobiography offers two different ways to depict these experiences, with different possibilities for readers. The autobiographical stories are particularly compelling and convincing, as the youth tell their own stories with the themes of fear and ostracism. Because the fictional stories are more imaginative, they can take readers places they couldn't otherwise reach. For example, in "The Visitation," a gay high school student commits suicide and his spirit returns to punish those who made his life at school intolerable. Some of the other fictional stories may not seem so fantastic, but, sadly, for many youth they are, since many are about gay and lesbian kids being accepted within their families or finding a good counselor who doesn't think they're pathological.

    Since authors of both fiction and autobiography make selections from a myriad of possibilities, we found it particularly striking that many of the same themes appear throughout both books. For example, the theme of being forced to pass as heterosexual appears in both books. "Her Sister's Wedding," in Not the Only One, is a fictional account of Veronica, a lesbian who resents having to attend a family wedding where she feels like an "actor." She feels forced to dress and fix her hair differently than she usually does, wear make-up, and catch the bouquet. She resents being forced to attend a wedding and to fit into straight society when she knows that her committed relationships are not openly celebrated. This theme of trying to "fit in" is mentioned by several of the gay and lesbian youth in their autobiographical accounts. In Two Teens in Twenty, Terry, a nineteen-year-old, talks about trying to change his appearance temporarily in order to relieve tension with his parents. During this time, his dad "actually told [him he] was beginning to look and dress like a real man should" (p. 153). Lisa, an eighteen-year-old, describes her efforts to conform based on her desire to have friends. She started "mak[ing] jokes about lesbians and talk[ing] about boys . . . [and] having sex with boys just to prove [she] wasn't gay" (pp. 150–151).

    Central to both books is the theme of the multiple dimensions of the coming out process — whom gay and lesbian youth choose to come out to, how they do it, and the responses they receive. For many of the authors in Two Teenagers in Twenty, the coming out process begins with coming out to themselves. For example, David, a nineteen-year-old from Maryland, reveals that "the most difficult part of this process is realizing and admitting, `I am gay'" (p. 68). In a fictional story entitled "Somebody's Friend" in Not the Only One, a high school boy similarly stresses that the coming out process starts with coming out to yourself: "For a long time I thought I was just slow or something. Lately I've known it's more than that. Not that I've told . . . anyone. I guess I first had to finish telling myself" (p. 21). Adolescent and young adult readers of both books may recognize similar struggles within themselves and find encouragement in learning about the experiences of others.

    In Two Teenagers in Twenty, the authors experience coming out as a process over time. David describes it not as "a single, momentous event, but as a series of lengthy stages" (p. 68). Rick Carey, a twenty-four-year-old from North Carolina, concludes his piece by saying, "I am continually coming out. I will always need to reaffirm the goodness of my gayness and share that pearl with people I care about" (p. 109).

    The autobiographical and fictional stories in both books depict youth who overwhelmingly feel the need to come out to important people in their lives and, more often than not, experience relief when they do. Although the decision to come out is a difficult one, the authors emphasize the positive aspects of deciding to do so. Twenty-four-year-old Gary Dowd ends his piece with this affirmation: "Now my life is in the world and only my clothes are in the closet"(Two Teenagers in Twenty, p. 48). In "Interlude," a fictional story in Not the Only One, Jake agonizes for years but finally chooses to come out to Sara, his best friend. Once he does he feels like "a great weight had been lifted from [his] shoulders" (p. 132). Another fictional story, "It Feels Great," ends with the protagonist deciding to come out, describing herself as feeling as though she is finally "saying yes to life" (p. 143).

    Several of the authors in Two Teenagers in Twenty, writing directly to other gay and lesbian youth, urge them to be honest with others about their sexual identity. Nineteen-year-old Terry writes, "Living two lives will eventually take its toll on you and on those you love" (p. 156). Diane, an eighteen-year-old, agrees: "Denying it only hurts you. . . . Once you admit it to yourself, even though it may cause problems with family and friends, you'll be happier and more comfortable with yourself" (p. 62).

    However, as some authors point out, coming out is not necessarily a panacea. For Elizabeth, a sixteen-year-old author in Two Teenagers in Twenty, the response to her coming out was so hostile that she regretted doing it. As she describes it: "I am no longer my father's little girl. I honestly believe I am nothing to him. I never knew I could feel this alone inside" (p. 148). Her sense of isolation was deepened when she came out and received no support. As a result, Elizabeth writes: "Coming out didn't feel like a good move. In fact, it felt like the worst thing I could have done" (p. 148). In an editor's note, readers learn that Elizabeth eventually killed herself.

    In "About Zan" in Not the Only One, Zan, a young lesbian, concludes that coming out does not bring automatic inclusion or acceptance by others. She comes out to her parents, but nothing changes. She spreads gay magazines and literature around the house, notes gay actors on TV, and talks about her girlfriend, but her mother never takes interest. Her brother Adam points out to her that she's lucky, since their parents' incessant questions about his girlfriend are irritating, but Zan disagrees. As she puts it, she wants to "feel gossiped about, embarrassed, irritated and ordinary" (p. 43). When Adam follows his sister's request to "tell anyone who will listen" (p. 43) that she is a lesbian, he finds that his friends listen, but don't accept. For example, Adam's friend Leon compares Zan's homosexuality with his little brother's shoplifting, and Toby, another friend, offers to change Zan by "show[ing] her a good time." These two books present diverse and complex issues around coming out, including the positive and negative repercussions of doing so. Readers may respond to different experiences or issues based on their own lives.

    These stories carry important messages beyond giving readers insights into the complexities of the coming out process, such as that homophobia hurts everyone, not just gays and lesbians. In "The Widest Heart," a high school girl discovers that her best friend Marcia is a lesbian and her fear of homosexuality keeps her from maintaining the friendship. Looking back with regret, the narrator likens her own homophobia to her mother's judgment of people based on their weight. Her mother disapproved of Marcia because she was overweight, which she said showed that Marcia was "out of control, without discipline" (p. 13). But through the story, we come to know Marcia as the narrator did, as someone with integrity who is talented and fun to be with. Above all, we are told, she cared deeply about others; she was someone with "a wide heart." The narrator knew at the time that her mother's judgment of Marcia was wrong, and later comes to understand that her homophobic rejection of Marcia was wrong, too.

    In "A Different Teacher," Maddy, a junior high school student, finds a positive, nurturing relationship with her English teacher, Ms. Jaymeson. Before meeting Ms. Jaymeson, Maddy felt "alone and miserable most of the time . . . immersing herself in books, doing her best to escape the world around her" (p. 90). Unfortunately, Ms. Jaymeson is forced to leave after her lesbianism is vindictively exposed by another teacher, and Maddy is deprived of Ms. Jaymeson's company. Because of homophobia, young people, as portrayed in "A Different Teacher" and "The Widest Heart," miss out on nurturing relationships with people who care.

    The presence of homophobia within schools is detailed in both Not the Only One and Two Teenagers in Ten. In both books, authors highlight hostilities towards gay and lesbian youth from students and teachers. In "The Visitation," for example, a story in Not the Only One, Joe's classmates viciously abuse him. He is urinated on by boys in the locker room, and called "homo" and "faggot" (pp. 63–64). Authors in Two Teenagers in Twenty reflect on the pain such harassment causes. "I've tried very hard," one author writes, "but it's hard to be nice to people who call you `queer' or `dyke.' It really hurts. I don't see why everyone thinks that gay people are perverts" (p. 146).

    The authors in both books consider many teachers to be complicit in the hostility, particularly for their lack of action to prevent such harassment. In "The Visitation," a teacher stops harassing remarks in her class not because she disapproves of them, but only for disciplinary reasons:

    The only reason she said anything in [my] defense was that she was a disciplinarian, and students making a scene were distracting from the importance of understanding what a bicameral legislature was, and how the system of checks and balances worked. Such displays of contempt belonged outside the classroom — on the playground, in the lunchroom, or during P.E. (p. 63)

    The teenagers' need for acceptance rings clear. Adult ignorance, deafness, and idleness reinforce and sustain acts of aggression and homophobia. As one author implores:

    If you know someone who is going through a crisis please don't hesitate to offer a friendly ear. Offer support when appropriate, and for god's sake, don't stand idly by and watch a human being self destruct. (p. 74)

    In response to their feelings of isolation, many authors in Two Teenagers in Twenty describe their search for a community of other gays and lesbians, both youth and adults. Some find organized communities such as the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY), a gay community center, or a church youth group that offers support for gays. Joanne, an eighteen-year-old from Pennsylvania, writes, "I would have been ecstatic to find a support group that recognized the existence of teenage gays . . . and mostly just to discover that there were others out there like myself" (p. 43). That such support exists is a message of many of these stories.

    The authors of Two Teenagers in Twenty offer advice to both gay and lesbian teens and to those who have contact with them. Much of their advice to other gay and lesbian youth consists of statements of affirmation: Sue Cline, age seventeen, writes, "I guess what I'd like to say most to the people who read this book is that if you're gay, be proud of yourself, because it isn't wrong or bad" (p. 59); eighteen-year-old Diane Rodriguez emphasizes that "Believing in yourself and accepting yourself is very important. No one should be dirty or immoral or be made to believe it is wrong. No one should ever feel ashamed of something so wonderful" (p. 62); seventeen-year-old Liza suggests, "Try to recapture how happy your gay feelings make you, and how you enjoy being with other gay friends who are like you and know how you feel, or remember how it feels to be with your lover" (p. 77); and nineteen-year-old Terry urges, "Do not try to hide or ignore your feelings. If you are gay, be proud, and if you are straight, be proud" (p. 176). The authors overwhelmingly emphasize pride in their identity, and encourage others to do likewise.

    Gay and lesbian teenage readers of the Two Teenagers in Twenty will certainly feel that they are, indeed, not alone. Story after story of gay and lesbian teenagers describing their various realizations of their sexual identity and their processes of coming to terms with that realization may likely lessen the sense of isolation among readers. Several authors, such as nineteen-year-old Kris Bowles and eighteen-year-old Lisa, state this explicitly: "I hope that every gay or lesbian out there realizes that they are not alone" (p. 142); "P. S. Remember, you are never alone" (p. 151).

    The authors also provide specific and practical advice, encouraging readers to reach out to find gay and lesbian communities "through youth groups, community centers, bookstores or newspapers" (p. 59). Roy, a nineteen-year-old, suggests looking in the yellow pages or bookstores to contact the gay community, and further suggests reading books to educate oneself (p. 67).

    At the end of her book, Heron adds a note of advice to adults who work with youth, suggesting that they do their part to reach out to gay and lesbian teenagers who might be feeling isolated: "Buy books with gay and lesbian themes. . . . Place those books where they can be perused easily and privately. Post flyers from all kinds of support groups — and include flyers about gay hotlines and support groups. Put them in a place with other notices . . . so that it's safe to stop and read" (p. 178).

    Not the Only One and Two Teenagers in Twenty together offer a rich picture of the lives of gay and lesbian youth. Issues around coming out to themselves, and coming out to their families and friends, are addressed from a variety of perspectives. The isolation and hostility experienced by gay and lesbian youth and their strength and pride in the face of these barriers are apparent in both books. Both the teenage authors in Two Teenagers in Twenty and the characters in Not the Only One rise to the challenges resulting from being gay or lesbian teenagers in an often homophobic community.

    IRENE HALL Notes
    1 Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1989).

    2 Traditional Values Coalition Press Release, October 11, 1995.

    3 "Hoek's Morality Play: Congressman Has Better Things to Do Than Investigate `Gay' Education," Grand Rapids Press, September 22, 1995, p. A10.

    4 Elise Harris, "School Daze," OUT Magazine, August/September 1993, p. 82.
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    Summer 1996 Issue


    By Vitka Eisen and Irene Hall
    Youth Voices
    Stone Butch Celebration
    A Transgender-Inspired Revolution in Academia
    By Wendy Ormiston
    Negotiating Legacies
    Audre Lorde, W. E. B. DuBois, Marlon Riggs, and Me
    By Townsand Price-Spratlen
    A Gay-Themed Lesson in an Ethnic Literature Curriculum
    Tenth Graders' Responses to "Dear Anita"
    By Steven Z. Athanases
    What Difference Does It Make? The Story of a Lesbian Teacher
    By Carla Washburne Rensenbrink
    Toward a Most Thorough Understanding of the World
    Sexual Orientation and Early Childhood Education
    By Virginia Casper, Harriet K. Cuffaro, Steven Schultz, Jonathan G. Silin, and Elaine Wickens
    Race and Sexual Orientation
    The (Im)possibility of These Intersections in Educational Policy
    By Kathryn Snider
    How We Find Ourselves
    Identity Development and Two Spirit People
    By Alex Wilson
    Manly Men and Womanly Women
    Deviance, Gender Role Polarization, and the Shift in Women's School Employment, 1900-1976
    By Jackie M. Blount
    Researching Dissident Subjectivities
    Queering the Grounds of Theory and Practice
    By Kenn Gardner Honeychurch
    Cornel West on Heterosexism and Transformation
    An Interview
    HER Board

    Book Notes

    Open Lives, Safe Schools
    Edited by Donovan R. Walling

    Uncommon Heroes
    Edited by Phillip Sherman and Samuel Bernstein

    Free Your Mind
    By Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman.

    Becoming Visible
    Edited by Kevin Jennings

    Death By Denial
    By Gary Remafedi

    Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?
    By Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.

    One Teacher in Ten
    By Kevin Jennings

    The Gay Teen
    Edited by Gerald Unks

    Tilting the Tower
    Edited by Linda Garber

    School's Out
    by Dan Woog

    The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader
    Edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin

    Joining the Tribe
    By Linnea Due

    How Would You Feel If Your Dad Was Gay?
    By Ann Heron and Meredith Maran; illustrated by Kris Kovick.

    Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth
    Edited by Teresa DeCrescenzo

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.