A new anthology presents oft-painful tales of gay youth.
Thu Oct 26 2006
Soap-opera obsessions. Elaborate fantasy lives. Suburban isolation. Being called "fag." These are standard-issue elements of growing up queer for some gay men—especially for the 21 contributors of From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, which charts the familiar terrain with fresh texture. "To the gay reader," write editors Robert Williams and Ted Gideonse in their joint introduction, "these memoirs will reverberate like the clearest of bells. To the straight reader, we hope you will understand that whom we love is not our only difference: so are the ways that we see the world."
That sentiment gives the collection a twist that separates it from its predecessors. Though the editors say they did look toward 1996's Boys Like Us (Harper Paperbacks) as a guiding light, they made a conscious shift away from traditional coming-out stories. Instead, they asked writers to narrate a tale that illustrated their individual coming-of-age perspectives. "We wanted to know," Williams explains, "How did they view the world?"
Williams and Gideonse are a La Jolla, California--based couple who met in 1999 during their tenure at Columbia University's M.F.A. program for writers. They were approached about heading up the anthology by publisher Donald Weise of Carroll & Graf (an Avalon imprint), who says he's now putting out at least 20 LGBT titles annually.
"While anthologies addressing coming out are nothing new—and many would argue that they've been done to death—From Boys to Men is a refreshing departure," Weise says. "This collection looks at the experience of growing up different, whether you realize you're gay or not. Rob and Ted were my first choice for editors because both had written very movingly of adolescence in the past. I knew they'd just get this project when I presented it to them."
The pair, who had contributed to the 2005 anthology Fresh Men: New Voices in Gay Fiction (which was edited by Weise), happily accepted the offer. "One of the things that's very important to me is changing the fact that there is little out there about being young and gay, or being young and confused," says Gideonse. "And now, this book is in every bookstore in the country. I saw a blog review from a guy in Kansas City!"
He says they chose a mix of already-known scribes—Alexander Chee (Edinburgh), Aaron Hamburger (Faith for Beginners) and Joe Jervis (Joe.My.God blog)—and up-and-comers like Viet Dinh and David Bahr (a TONY contributor). In "Dick," Chee writes with a dreamlike quality about his love of the male member and its connection to his identity, while Jervis describes meeting a fey friend in college who brings him into the queenie-culture fold after initially freaking Jervis out in his contribution, "Terrence." Though his tale is set in early adulthood, it still seemed like a fit, Jervis explains.
"I think I did most of my gay-growing up during those first two years of knowing Terrence," he says. "Before meeting him, I had only considered my own gayness in terms of the literal, physical manifestions of having homosexual sex. I hadn't truly considered how my gayness was shaping my personality, my friendships, my view of the world and my view of my place in it."
In "No Matter What Happens," meanwhile, Bahr tells of being shuttled between two moms—his emotionally unstable biological mother, Sadie, and his foster mom, June. The experience gave him a unique take on adolescence. "I was so overwhelmed with wanting a family and the instability of not having a home that liking guys felt like no big deal in comparison," Bahr recalls. "I do think it compounded my sense of being an outsider."
Still, all of the stories deal with similar themes, from self-hate to pop-culture lust. "There is a fascination with a certain kind of popular culture—soap operas, horror films, a lot of escapism," Gideonse says. "I think it's common for a gay kid to want to be as different from real life as possible, to imagine yourself not in your life at all."
From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up (Carroll & Graf, $15.95) is out now.