Active Voice Column: A Different Reality Indeed
by P. Kristen Enos
(All rights reserved)
I never talk to teenagers, much less gay ones. So my only exposure to the under-age set these days is watching “Glee”, which of course is not exactly the best hallmark of reality with its openly gay characters and fully accepting parents. So when I recently volunteered for a pride festival and was paired with a high school student, Kathy, my curiousity was piqued. Using my skills as a casual interviewer, I asked her questions about her coming out moments, and her answers made me reflect on my own parallel experiences of over twenty years ago – or as parallel as possible.
I am currently 43, Asian born, American raised (in a constantly moving military family, no less), and came out at the age of twenty. Needless to say, the tools and means for communication and education that many of the younger people take for granted today just weren’t around. Role models and healthy entertainment were rare. This was before Ellen, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and yes, even the Internet. (Those of you LGBT people who are older than me can go write your own version of this column if you want to brag about what you didn’t have.)
At sixteen, Kathy admitted this was the first year she had ever volunteered for a pride festival. And that she had only come out a couple of years ago by “noticing girls” and therefore accepted the fact that she was gay. She had told her parents, but not any else outside of the family.
I asked her if she had known anyone in real life like a friend or relative who was gay, and she admit she didn’t. It wasn’t something that I had either and always made me wonder if my coming out process would have been different (that is “quicker and less confusing”). However, Kathy stated that her primary support was the youth group at the LGBT Center, which she valued for the close friends she managed to form out of that gathering. When I asked her how she found out about the Youth Group and the Center, she said she searched on the Internet – which I had to force myself from rolling my eyes in an Old Fogy response.
Being a college student at the time of coming out, my own equivalent to that was getting involved in the Gay and Lesbian Student Union at UC Irvine. And I only found out about the group by looking them up in the campus directory as a “I wonder if…” moment. I also had no idea that such things as the LGBT Pride Festivals or Centers existed until I became more immersed in the GLSU activities. And back then the “B” and the “T” were still letters of controversy rather than common place.
As for Kathy’s first experience at Pride, she had come back after a break with a shocked look on her face. She said she had ran into her (female) high school gym teacher, and neither one of them knew they were gay. I pointed out that Monday’s gym class was going to be interesting for both of them.
Thinking back on the gym teachers I had, there were a couple of them that could have been more than a blip on the gaydar. In fact, there were more than a handful of teachers over five junior high and high schools in my teenage years that would raise an eyebrow in my current and more knowledgeable perspective. But I don’t know if confirming they were gay would have made a difference for me. In fact, in my senior year of high school, there were strong rumors that two of my female teachers were a couple and while that mildly piqued my interest, it didn’t make me want to interact with them any differently since I had viewed myself as very heterosexual at the time.
But being an almost lifelong tomboy, I’m very sure that they would have had suspicions about me.
So as the day went on, Kathy admitted that she was having the time of her life doing the various volunteer things she had to do at the festival. In fact, she was already trying to decide on what tasks to volunteer for next year. At the end of her shift, her cell phone buzzed with a page. She smiled at me brightly, said her mom was waiting for her outside, and we parted with a hug.
After she left, I couldn’t help but try to imagine my own mother waiting in the car while outside the gates of a busy pride festival with all sorts of pedestrian traffic passing by, as if she had just come to pick me up from the movies or something. Needless to say, that image was quite laughable and didn’t last long.
Yes, things are definitely different for today’s gay teens, and their parents too. Maybe “Glee” is a little more realistic than I had thought.