It was August of the year 2000*, and I was living in London at the height of the dot-com boom, working as a web dev for a startup. I was almost nineteen, and I was about to go on my first date.
We'd met at the atrocious G-A-Y club in Soho -- I was still too young to know any better -- randomly bumping into each other on the stage and making out before we'd even exchanged names, an event that happened dozens of times a night in UK nightclubs but was still very novel to a boy from a conservative Caribbean island. I still thought a kiss was Important. We exchanged numbers, and through texts and brief calls arranged to see each other again.
I was so excited. I had been buzzing all day, anticipating, telling everyone in the office. My final exchange as I left the office was like this:
Me: I'm going on a date!
Me: On a date!
Co-worker: I mean, where's the date?
Me: Oh... a movie! (cringe)
And that's all it was. A movie, the atrocious The Next Best Thing with Madonna (we were gay teenagers, alright?). It never went anywhere, he didn't even really like me, he was just being polite because he'd realised how seriously I'd taken his kisses. It was sweet of him, I guess. In retrospect, it's also horribly embarrassing: how seriously I took it, how excited I got, how much significance I put on everything. It's like something a 14-year-old would do.
But that's pretty much what I was. For a straight kid, age 13 or 14 is when you switch on to the opposite sex, take notice, and begin to try to communicate. You over-think things, over-dramatize things, get infatuated, fall in love and out again a week later, go from elated one day to sobbing into your pillow the next. You do unbelievably stupid things, hurt people, get hurt, learn and grow, all that jazz. By the time you're eighteen, you've been doing it for half a decade. You've learned at least the basics of what is real and what isn't. And you had at least a few years of getting the emotional stuff wrong before sex came into the equation.
For gay kids -- at least, most gay kids, the ones not lucky enough to grow up in enlightened urban centers in the western world -- that's not what it's like. You grow up ashamed of what you are, hiding what you are, pretending to be something else. Then suddenly you're eighteen (if you're lucky, older if not) and out of your home town and away from your parents and BAM! it all starts at the same time: dating, relationships, sex, alcohol**, drugs, all tangled up with no practice runs and a peer group just as anxious to catch up with the straights and prove how liberated and sexually fearless we Big Proud Gays are, like the ones we've heard about. It's time to head out into the world dick-first, and damn the consequences, we know what we're doing.
But we don't. Not anymore than a 14 year old does. Getting this stuff right takes practice, and we've not had any. So then society sees young gay men doing really stupid shit, getting hurt, hurting other people, falling in and out of love in a week, laughing one minute and crying the next, and they think: oh dear. The gays, they're so promiscuous, so catty, so self-centered, so dumb. They see men so emotionally stunted, so damaged that they will probably never be able to sustain a real relationship, and they think: so sad. I wish them well, but I wouldn't want my child to be gay, it such a nasty world, such a sad life.
But it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason the gay Scene is such a trainwreck is because gay men for the last 30 years have always been these emotionally stunted, damaged people, with hang-ups about sex and guilt and love, and worse, also a driving desire to over-compensate for the damage and the hang-ups. To prove we're not guilty we invent Pride, and drape ourselves in rainbows. To prove we're not repressed we're vulgarly open about our sex lives. And to prove we're not promiscuous we leap desperately from relationship to relationship, pushing too hard and too fast***. And yet this just makes being gay seem even more of a freak show.
But the reason they're so damaged is not because they're gay, it's because they weren't gay, not until it was too late. A society that thinks being gay is sick and sad and dangerous is what creates the conditions that makes gay life all of those things. The reason your gay kids are fucked up is because you were wishing so hard that they wouldn't be gay. Even if your kid isn't gay himself, you instilled in him the values that said it's better to be straight, and he passes those values on to his peers, creating the repressive social conditions that fuck up the lives of gay teenagers, giving them suicide rates four times higher than straight teens. 1 in 3 gay teenagers attempts suicide. And if you've ever said that harmless-sounding phrase "I wouldn't want my kids to be gay", then part of the blame lands on you.
The good news is that things are changing. The last decade has seen a radical shift in gay culture -- again, in those lucky, liberal, western, urban centers -- the most obvious aspect of which has been the subtle shift of "gay" from a definition to a description. It's no longer "gay politician", "gay artist", "gay singer", implying that their politics or their art or their music is necessarily about and for gays and only gays, it's "politician, who is gay", "artist, who is gay", "singer, who is gay". This shift is not universal, and it's still often mentioned out of context ("murder victim, who was gay" is one of the more irritating ones), but at least the distinction is clear: gay is a modifier, not part of the noun.
It's also beginning to result, at the leading edge of things, in the dissolution of "gay culture", if such a thing could be said ever to have existed. What the hell was gay culture? Clubs and drugs? Theatre and musicals? Dinner parties and elegant home furnishings? Whatever the hell it was, it's over. Now gay is just a modifier on the older subcultures. The sporty types have gay teams, the intellectuals have queer theory****, the media/finance types have gay networking parties, and the straights are invited even if they don't always show up. Some mourn this death of a gay identity, but in truth it's a triumph. It was always supposed to be the least interesting thing about you, and now it really is.
And the difference is practice. Kids are coming out earlier and earlier. Maybe not quite at 13, but by 14 or 15 -- and they're dating, too. They're getting it wrong and hurting each other and being promiscuous and falling in and out of love, but it's fine, because they're teenagers, and that's what teenagers are supposed to do. And when these kids turn eighteen they're just... another year older. No tidal wave of new experience, no sudden release, and importantly, no damage. They're beautifully, gloriously unselfconscious about their sexuality. It's not the first thing they mention, or even the fifth. From my vantage point -- not one of the critically damaged ones, but not part of this glorious new species either -- it's wonderful to see. It's vindication, proof that we can just be people who are gay, no longer gays who are people too.
But that's just at the leading edge. This glorious generation of second-adjective nouveau-gays is still only being born in the nicer parts of some towns in some countries. For most gay teens life is still the kind of hell you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, a daily torture that makes death seem like a sweet release. And even the ones who escape their teens into liberal societies are still a tiny, lucky minority. The rest are in countries where being gay is a crime, not just a taboo.
So take action. You don't have to donate to the HRC (but feel free), you don't have to march in a Pride parade (they are kind of tacky), you don't have to do something, you have to stop doing something, and that's "being tolerant". Tolerance is insidious. It implies you're being polite about something that isn't good manners, something that is somehow distasteful. Don't be tolerant. Be oblivious. Don't use gay as a first adjective or a second adjective; don't use it at all, unless it's relevant. Don't say "I wouldn't want my kids to be gay" or even "I'd love my kids even if they were gay", as if you deserve a medal for being such a great parent. Just love your kids, and make sure they know that your love isn't conditional.
And when your 14-year-old gay kid wants to go out on a date with a boy, don't wish them straight. Wish them luck.
* Isn't it weird how a phrase that used to be code for "this story is set in the future" is now a declaration that it is set in the past?
** At least, alcohol unregulated by the knowledge that you're going to have to explain your actions to your parents the next morning.
*** Realistically, this might just be me. But I'm sure some other people must do it.
**** And they'll argue for a long, long time over whether "queer" is the right word. That's why they're intellectuals.