USED TO BE, one of the sparse compensations of getting on in years was being able to say "You kids have it too easy these days." Now all but the most oblivious old gaffer knows better: guns, pornography, television, drugs, broken homes. . . . There ought to be some kind of certificate issued at age 10, just for surviving into double digits.
For a long time, though, I still believed that in one area, kids today were better off than their elders. When I was a rising lad, in those golden years of Eisenhower's first term, "the love that dare not speak its name" practically didn't have a name. Coming to terms with nonstandard sexual impulses was something you did on your own, all alone. Surely the process must be somewhat easier for adolescents today, when queer images and role models are everywhere, inescapable? I guess I went on thinking that till the day I heard a receptionist say "Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender and Questioning Teen Hotline, how may I direct your call?"
How indeed? Recalling my own adolescence, lacking words to describe and label what was happening to me was certainly a problem, but having too many words would have been a worse one. Besides, how are you supposed to connect the words to the phenomena they're meant to describe? In an emotional seedbed where innumerable tender shoots are sprouting simultaneously, how are you supposed to know which is which?
Answering that question is what counseling services for the young are all about, and god knows such services are not hard to come by these days. According to Pamela Hillard of the Seattle Public Schools Health Education office, seven out of 10 area high schools have an officially sponsored support group "to open up a space, for kids who would like to be there." And that's not the only option. Most high schools also have health clinics, operated by independent contractors with the school system. And all schools have a school nurse program, qualified to deal with far more than routine cuts and bruises.
All these opportunities for counseling are fine for those who can be persuaded to take advantage of them. But from the child psychology point of view, they all suffer from one major drawback: their identification with the word "health." You don't go to the school nurse when you're healthy; you go when you're sick. So if you need to talk to the nurse or the health counselor about your suspicion that your sexual orientation may be nonstandard, that means you're sick, right?
Wrong, but try telling that to a teenager. And there's even a grain of institutionalized truth to such a suspicion. Hillard's office was created 13 years ago with a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control as a way of disseminating information and counsel about HIV and AIDS, and though its range of activity has grown immensely since, it still derives its funding from the same source.
While you're telling a teenager that a health program isn't really a health program, try telling them too that anything said to nurses and counselors is totally confidential. To most teens, until proven otherwise every adult is a member of a vast conspiracy to violate their barely formed personal integrity. How can such peekers and pryers be trusted with information we're afraid entirely to trust ourselves with?
A wide range of public and private agencies outside the schools also offer counseling to GLBTQ (pronounced "Glib-Tic"?) youth and presumably are less wired into the grownup spy network. But in some ways, such agencies may be even less supportive of kids' need for understanding, nonjudgmental support. The people who create such programs, find continued funding for them, and staff them are usually deeply dedicated to the work, and, like most true believers, have agendas of their own.
Except when confronting the notorious indifference and hostility of the Straight World to their common cause, partisans of Glibtic agree about very little: The kind of direction a questing teen will receive from a given counselor is likely to be based as much on the counselor's social and political worldview as on that kid's specific emotional needs. Troubled adults can choose their psychotherapist: Freudian, Jungian, or Prozaquian; few kids are qualified to make such a choice, or even know there's a choice to be made.
NO, IT'S CERTAINLY no easier for contemporary kids to find professional support in resolving their psychosexual dilemmas. But the pressure to resolve them has surely increased immeasurably since my day. I try to recall mere mentions of sexual deviancy overheard while I was growing up queer; try and fail. True, there were mutterings about the guys who hung out on my high school stage crew, but the mutterings never coalesced to anything as concrete as a rumor. I recall a choir teacher suavely recommending that I dip into the autobiography of Andr頇ide. Whether his motives were benevolent or otherwise, there was something so insinuating in his words that their only result was a lifelong disinclination to read a word of the man's work.
I suppose I heard the word "queer" from time to time, but I can't recollect it ever being directed at a specific individual. Certainly not me, and if not me—who through sheer recalcitrance and physical ineptitude managed to serve out his two compulsory years of physical education classes as permanent locker room towel boy—if not me, whom?
Such innocence—maybe the right word is obliviousness—is utterly lost. Puberty is the life period when the peer group begins to exercise its terrible dominion, with the taunt as a paramount tool in its armory. I recently asked a young friend about his own experience moving through middle school; did the subject of sexual orientation ever arise? Only in terms of abuse, he told me. The most popular guy in his class, I was told, exhibits his topdoggery by calling every subordinate male around him "faggot," while the word "gay" has come to serve as a synonym for "weird"—uncool, unconventional, discomforting, not-to-be-dealt-with.
I asked my informant, remarkably sophisticated for his 13 years, whether his noisy friend knew just what crime he was charging his victims with. "He has nooo idea," was the answer. And what do your teachers do when they hear him doing it? "Nothing. I think some of them even like it." And this points up another flaw in the ideology of toleration so laboriously and expensively erected in our educational system.
"We have a policy of zero tolerance for taunting," says the school district's Hillard, "and we expect staff to respond to it immediately, no matter what the subject: racial, religious, sexual, or other." But she admits that changing adult attitudes on gender subjects is at least as difficult as dealing with the predictable cruelties of children to each other. "All I can say is that we are making progress in that area—slowly."
There's probably nothing anyone can do to make the internal process of "coming out" any less painful. It can't help but be a shock, just as the psyche longs for seamless integration with the group, to discover that one is irrevocably assigned by nature to an outwardly invisible minority. Counseling, education, even sloganeering can help, a little. But ultimately all adults can do to help is understand the agony and help those suffering to survive it.