By Buddy Early, July 2018 Issue.
Earlier this year I saw an advertisement for the movie Love, Simon, and it struck me very odd that the poster included the word “Groundbreaking.” And then I read critics’ reviews that called it “important” and “pioneering.” This story about a high school senior who comes out and searches for an online love did not really strike me as any of those things, honestly.
During my years as editor of this magazine, I met plenty of teenagers who were out at their schools—inner city schools, too—and visited several gay-straight alliances at campuses around the Valley. Teenage same-sex couples on Mill Avenue were holding hands. One of my interns back in the day when PlanetOut personals were still popular even told me about being out to classmates growing up. A 2018 movie that explores this topic, I thought, had been outpaced by real life.
I mean, kids are out these days … right?
Maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I just assumed the climate had changed everywhere, for everyone, since I was in high school during the heyday of John Hughes films. I spent so much time creating clever excuses for not going to the homecoming dance, or prom, or MORP—that’s prom backwards, because we had to invent ways for it to be OK for girls to ask out guys—that I cringe thinking about it now. For the record, I never had to stay home to take care of my wheelchair-bound mother who fell while hiking Devils Canyon; and I had not previously committed to volunteering to teach hip-hop dance to suburban middle schoolers. Yes, I made those things up.
I suppressed my true self by regularly commenting on girls’ butts, making sure others would hear me. (Meanwhile, I was secretly imagining that same butt actually belonged to future Tea Party hero Scott Baio because the heart wants what it wants.) I was so far in the closet I was the only person at Tempe High who didn’t know my best friend was super-gay. “That’s just the way he is,” I told people. I don’t even know what I meant by that comment. Was I helping?
So, 30 years later the notion of an out teen, as in Love, Simon, certainly cannot be groundbreaking, can it? This chasm between my memories of the 1980s and my expectations for today’s youth illustrates something very important about our community: we don’t know each other very well. At my physical age (which, admittedly, is different than my mental age and maturity level), I see the world differently than another gay male 20-30 years my junior.
Issues surrounding age gaps in our community have always been prominent, as young people struggle to be respected and older folks struggle to be appreciated. When you boil it down, however, aren’t we all searching for the same things? I’m certainly willing to acquiesce to the reality that I can learn something from young people, perhaps even have my eyes opened by them. But I will insist that young people try to learn something from me in return.
For example, I still have a difficult time accepting all the new terms. I settled on the acronym LGBT many years ago. But the extra letters always being added seem superfluous and confusing and, given my expanding gray matter, easy to forget. Likewise, a young person could spend 90 minutes, using flow charts and a video tutorial from Alex Trebek to explain “nonbinary,” and I’m still likely to respond with “But what does nonbinary mean?” And even Ruth Bader Ginsburg could make the case for why my gay male friends and I shouldn’t call each other “she,” but we won’t stop.
None of this is to suggest people my age and older are exempt from learning. Instead of simply scoffing at someone who identifies as “genderqueer,” try to learn a little bit about what that means. Spoiler alert: you don’t have to do anything with the term except acknowledge it. Rather than dismissing someone’s sermon about the vitality of intersectionality, realize it exists with the goal of progress. When you begin to judge a young person’s lifestyle, politics and choices, remember that when you were their age there was someone else doing the same to you. And you didn’t like it.
Perhaps the best advice I can give to young and old gay people alike is the same I offer to heterosexual folks: everything is not for you to understand, but an open mind is required. No matter your age, you can always benefit by being open to other ways of thinking. Case in point: the first version of this column included a Helen Keller joke, but I edited it out. See, I’m growing.