We're Teen, We're Queer, and We've Got E-mail
There's a light on in the Nerd Nook: "JohnTeen" is composing e-mail into thenight. The Nerd Nook is what John's mother calls her 16-year-old'sbedroom -- it's more cramped than the bridge of the Enterprise, with a RolandCM-322 that makes "You've got mail" thunder like the voice of God. John's favorite short story is "The Metamorphosis." Sure, Kafka's fable of wakingup to discover you've morphed into something that makes everyone tweak speaks toevery teenager. But John especially has had moments of feeling insectoid -- likeduring one school choir trip, when, he says, the teacher booking rooms felt itnecessary to inform the other students' parents of John's "orientation."When they balked at their kids sharing a room with him, John was doubled up withanother teacher - a fate nearly as alienating as Gregor Samsa's. The choir trip fiasco was but one chapter in the continuing online journal thathas made JohnTeen -- or as his parents and classmates know him, John Erwin -- oneof the most articulate voices in America Online's Gay and Lesbian Community Forum.From: JohnTeen:My high school career has been a sudden and drastic spell of turbulence andchange that has influenced every aspect of life. Once I was an automaton, obeyingexternal, societal, and parental expectations like a dog, oblivious of who I wasor what I wanted. I was the token child every parent wants -- student bodypresident, color guard, recipient of the general excellence award, and outstandingmusic student of the year. I conformed to society's paradigm, and I was rewarded.Yet I was miserable. Everything I did was a diversion from thinking about myself.Finally, last summer, my subconsciousness felt comfortable enough to be able toconnect myself with who I really am, and I began to understand what it is to begay. JohnTeen is a new kind of gay kid, a 16-year-old not only out, but already athome in the online convergence of activists that Tom Rielly, the co-founder ofDigital Queers, calls the "Queer Global Village." Just 10 years ago, most queerteens hid behind a self-imposed don't-ask-don't-tell policy until theyshipped out to Oberlin or San Francisco, but the Net has given even closeted kidsa place to conspire. Though the Erwins' house is in an unincorporated area of Santa Clara County in California, with goatsand llamas foraging in the backyard, John's access to AOL's gay and lesbian forumenables him to follow dispatches from queer activists worldwide, hone his writing,flirt, try on disposable identities, and battle bigots - all from his home screen. John's ambitions to recast national policy before the principal of Menlo Schooleven palms him a diploma (John's mother refers to him as her "littlemini-activist") are not unrealistic. Like the ur-narrative of every videogame, thesaga of gay teens online is one of metamorphosis, of "little mini" nerds becomingwarriors in a hidden Stronghold of Power. For young queers, the Magic Ring is thebond of community. John's posts have the confidence and urgency of one who speaks for many who mustkeep silent: The struggle for equal rights has always taken place on the frontier of thelegal wilderness where liberty meets power. Liberty has claimed much of thatwilderness now, but the frontier always lies ahead of us....The frontier ofliberty may have expanded far beyond where it began, but for those without rights,it always seems on the horizon, just beyond their reach.And the messages that stream back into John's box are mostly from kids his ownage, many marooned far from urban centers for gay and lesbian youth. Such isChristopher Rempel, a witty, soft-spoken Ace of Base fan from (as he puts it)"redneck farmer hell." Christopher borrowed the principal's modem to jack into abeekeepers BBS and gopher his way to the Queer Resources Directory, a multimegcollection of text files, news items, and services listings. My name is Christopher and I am 15 years old. I came to terms that I was gaylast summer and, aside from some depression, I'm OK. I am *not* in denial aboutbeing gay.I would like to write to someone that I can talk to about issues I can't talkabout with my friends. I don't play sports very much, but I make it up in myknowledge of computers. I am interested in anybody with an open mind and bigaspirations for the future.A decade ago, the only queer info available to most teens was in a few dourpsychology texts under the nose of the school librarian. Now libraries of filesawait them in the AOL forum and elsewhere - the Queer Resources Directory alonecontains hundreds - and teens can join mailing lists like Queercampus and GayNet,or tap resources like the Bridges Project, a referral service that tells teens notonly how to get in touch with queer youth groups, but how to jump-start onethemselves. Kali is an 18-year-old lesbian at a university in Colorado. Her name means"fierce" in Swahili. Growing up in California, Kali was the leader of a youngwomen's chapter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was alsothe "Girl Saved by E-mail," whose story ran last spring on CNN. After moodswings plummeted her into a profound depression, Kali - like too many gayteens - considered suicide. Her access to GayNet at school gave her a place to airthose feelings, and a phone call from someone she knew online saved her life. Kali is now a regular contributor to Sappho, a women's board she most appreciatesbecause there she is accepted as an equal. "They forgive me for being young," Kalilaughs, "though women come out later than guys, so there aren't a lot of teenlesbians. But it's a high of connection. We joke that we're posting to 500 of ourclosest friends." "The wonderful thing about online services is that they are an intrinsicallydecentralized resource," says Tom Rielly, who has solicited the hardware andimparted the skills to get dozens of queer organizations jacked in. "Kids canchallenge what adults have to say and make the news. One of the best examples ofteen organizing in the last year was teens working with the Massachusettslegislature to pass a law requiring gay and lesbian education in the high schools.If teen organizers are successful somewhere now, everyone's gonna hear about it.This is the most powerful tool queer youth have ever had." Another power that teenagers are now wielding online is their anger. "Teensare starting to throw their weight around," says Quirk, the leader of the AOLforum. (Quirk maintains a gender neutral identity online, to be anequal-opportunity sounding board for young lesbians and gay men.) "They'recomplaining. It used to be, 'Ick -- I think I'm gay, I'll sneak around the forumand see what they're doing.' With this second wave of activism, it's like,'There's gay stuff here, but it's not right for me.' These kids are computerliterate, and they're using the anger of youth to create a space for themselves." The powers that be at AOL, however, have not yet seen fit to allow that space tobe named by its users -- the creation of chat rooms called "gay teen" anything isbanned. "AOL has found that the word 'gay' with the word 'youth' or 'teen' in aroom name becomes a lightning rod for predators," says Quirk."I've been in teen conferences where adult cruising so overwhelmed any kind ofconversation about being in high school and 'What kind of music do you like?' thatI was furious. Until I can figure out a way to provide a safe space for them, I'mnot going to put them at risk." Quirk and AOL are in a tight place. Pedophilia has become the trendy bludgeonwith which to trash cyberspace in the dailies, and concerned parents invoke theP-word to justify limiting teens' access to gay forums. At the same time, however,postings in the teens-only folder of the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum flame notonly the invasion of teen turf by adults trolling for sex, but also the adultsclaiming to "protect" them by limiting their access to one another. One anonymous 17-year-old poster on AOL dissed the notion that queer teens arehelpless victims of online "predators": There are procedures for dealing with perverts, which most teens (in contrastwith most of the adults we've encountered) are familiar with. Flooding e-mail boxes of annoying perverts,'IGNORE'-ing them in chat rooms, and shutting off our Instant Messages are allvery effective methods. We are not defenseless, nor innocent.The issue is further complicated by the fact that the intermingling of oldand young people online is good for teens. The online connection allows them toopen dialogs with mentors like Deacon Maccubbin, co-owner of Lambda Risingbookstore in Washington, DC. As "DeaconMac," Maccubbin has been talking with gaykids on CompuServe and AOL for eight years. One of the young people DeaconMaccorresponded with online, years ago, was Tom Rielly. "Deacon was the first openlygay man I'd ever had a conversation with, and he had a very clear idea of what hisrole was. He was nurturing and mentoring; he sent me articles; and he didn't comeon to me," says Rielly. "I'll never forget it as long as I live." In the past, teens often had to wait until they were old enough to get into a barto meet other gay people - or hang around outside until someone noticed them.Online interaction gives teens a chance to unmask themselves in a safe place, in avenue where individuals make themselves known by the acuity of their thought andexpression, rather than by their physical appearance. When JohnTeen logged his first post in the gay AOL forum, he expressed outragethat the concerns of queer teens - who are at a disproportionately high risk forsuicide - were being shunted aside by adult organizations. His post was spotted bySarah Gregory, a 26-year-old anarchist law student who helped get the National Gayand Lesbian Task Force wired up. "I really wanted to hit this kid between the eyeswith the fact that a national organization saw what he was saying and cared thatgay youth were killing themselves," Gregory recalls. A correspondence andfriendship began that would have been unlikely off-line -- for, as Gregory says,"I don't notice 16-year-old boys in the real world." Gregory explains: "I remember one particularly graphic letter I sent John inresponse to his questions. I wrote a huge disclaimer before and after it. But thenI remembered how desperately I wanted to be talked to as an adult, and a sexualbeing, when I was 14. Thinking back, that's the point where John stopped soundingso formal, so much like a well-bred teenager talking to an authority figure, andbecame my friend. It's also the last time he talked about suicide. It scared mehow easily his vulnerability could have been exploited, but I'd do it again in aheartbeat." "I didn't even listen to music," moans John recalling his nerdhood, when the onlything he logged in for was shareware. Now the background thrash for his late-nighte-mail sessions is Pansy Division. "To keep myself in the closet, I surroundedmyself with people I'd never find attractive. I had two different parts of mylife: the normal part, where I worked hard in school and got good grades, and thisother part, where I was interested in guys but didn't do anything about it." Formany kids, writing to John orto other posters is where a more authentic life begins: Dear JohnTeen:I am so frustrated with life and all of its blind turns. Am I gay? What will happen if I tell friends and my mom?... (I still don't100 percent know that I am gay only that I am not heterosexual SO WHAT AM I) Ireally want to fit somewhere and also to love someone (at this point I don't carewho).... Please EMAIL back and enlighten me. You have been very inspirational tome. I have no idea how you gained the courage tocome out. Thanks, James But John Erwin must guard against JohnTeen becoming a full-time gig: he notonly has the frontiers of liberty to defend and his peers to "enlighten," but likeany 16-year-old, he needs space to fuck up, be a normal teenage cockroach, andfigure out who he is. And he'd like to find someone to love. Does he have anyonein mind? "Yes!" he grins, pulling out his yearbook and leafing to a photo of ahandsome boy who says he's straight. Is John's dream guy online? "No. I wish," John says. "If he was online, I could tell him how I feel."SIDEBAR:Accessing Queer Teen Cyberspace* The Gay and Lesbian Community Forum. On America Online. Keyword: Gay. * QueerAmerica. Send e-mail containing your city, state, zip code, area code, andage to: email@example.com. Queer Resources Directory. Anonymous ftp or gopher to vector.casti.com (look inpub/QRD/youth); On the World Wide Web, go tohttp://vector.casti.com/QRD/.html/QRD-home-page.html. Or send an inquiry to:firstname.lastname@example.org. Bridges Project. American Friends Service Committee referral and resource center.E-mail: email@example.com.