A Lifeline for Gay Teens
On a winter night about two years ago I came upon a message in a bottle.This was not a note cast into the sea by some shipwrecked sailor, but words sent into cyberspace by a boy who felt lost on dry land:"I am a gay teen and I haven't told anybody yet because I am afraid of what they might think. Could somebody please give me some advice?"Something about that message, posted on a bulletin board on America Online, hit me like a punch in the stomach. Its simplicity spoke volumes -- "Could somebody please give me some advice?" Ordinary words, but the author did not feel safe speaking them to anyone in his world, so he heaved them out into the electronic unknown, hoping a friendly voice would answer back.I wrote to him and quickly found out that Adam (not his real name) was a wonderful kid, bright and charming and talented, with a marvelously goofy sense of humor. He was 14, lived with his mother in a small town in Alabama, and referred to his family as "a long line of rednecks and psychopaths."He was absolutely sure that if his mother ever found out he was gay she would throw him out of the house, and I believed him. I have interviewed kids who have been through precisely that, and have heard far too many horror stories from adults who run shelters for runaways and throwaways about gay kids rejected by their families.Two years have passed since I answered that message, and though we have never met in person I count this kid as one of my best friends. We exchange e-mail almost every day and talk on the phone three or four times a month. Sometimes he asks for advice, but mostly he just likes being able to talk about what's going on in his life -- what happened in school or who he has a crush on-- without worrying.It's almost impossible for someone who hasn't lived through it to understand the pain that many gay and lesbian teens endure. As one writer observed, gay people are the only minority that grows up behind enemy lines. An African-American or Latino child knows he can turn to his family if he runs into bigotry at school or among classmates, but gay kids often find their parents are the ones telling fag jokes. Too often they literally have nowhere to turn.So the Interment has proven to be such a lifeline for kids like Adam. It is often the only safe place they can go for support.That may seem like a strange thing to say, given the periodic waves of sensational headlines about stalkers, pedophiles and other lowlifes haunting the internet. While it's true that no human community -- on line or off -- is completely free of losers and criminals, a handful of incidents have been exaggerated out of all proportion. One case that received massive publicity two years ago -- the story of a Washington teenager lured to San Francisco by a "sexual predator" he met online proved to be a complete fiction, the product of the overheated imaginations of parents, police and headline writers. The "older man... prowling through cyberspace" turned out to be another lonely gay teenager in need of friendship.Something much closer to reality can be found by pointing your Web browser to http://www.youth.org, a Worldwide Web site that connects to a variety of resources and information for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth -- and gets over a quarter of a million hits per month.One resource is a "newsgroup" -- a sort of worldwide electronic bulletin board --called soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi. A handful of volunteer counselors and educators moderate, screening out harassing messages, sexual solicitations and other inappropriate material.Most of the messages the kids post are pretty ordinary -- or would be if anti-gay prejudice wasn't nearly universal. Here, protected by the anonymity available online, they can speak openly. One young man from Toronto simply asked if any other gay teens in his area were looking for friends. Another said she was trying to figure out whether a classmate might be gay -- but was afraid to bring up the subject. One girl recommended a couple of good books with lesbian characters while another worried about how she could be honest with her friends who "think that being gay/bi/lesbian is gross."The responses, most from other young people but some from adults, are usually simple. "Your true friends will like you whether you are rich or poor, white or black, gay or hetero," was one boy's answer to the worried girl. A woman identifying herself as the mother of a lesbian offered to send along her account of how her daughter came out to her and of her own "road to acceptance."As for Adam, he is doing just fine despite the stress of being a gay teenager in an extremely conservative environment. "I go online to meet friends and talk to people I have things in common with," he says. A couple of those friends are adults; most are other kids. Many are gay but some are heterosexuals who share his spiritual and literary interests. "Oftentimes," he says, "I get help from my online friends with advice, particularly if it pertains to my being gay."Reading these messages, it's clear these kids are simply trying to cope with the stress of adolescence, just wanting to hear some understanding words. They are "different" only because too many of the people around them are blinded by prejudice. It's nice that they have found this small oasis, but it would be better still if they didn't need one.Mirken is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.