One night in early June 2009, Joseph Schwartz, 13, coyly revealed a secret to his father -- he was gay.
An enlightened parent, John Schwartz breathed a sign of relief that something he'd known for years was finally out in the open. He and his wife, Jeanne Mixon, were as supportive as two parents could be. "Jeanne and I were feeling pretty good about ourselves," Schwartz said.
Two weeks later, Mixon came home to find Joe stumbling around, naked and dazed, in a bathroom scattered with pill bottles and a paring knife in the tub.
Although the Schwartz family seems to have done everything right when their son came out -- and even though Joe had never been the subject of any intense and ongoing homophobia -- he had tried to take his own life by swallowing dozens of Benadryl pills.
"Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle To Help Their Teenage Son Come To Terms With His Sexuality" by John Schwartz, national correspondent for The New York Times, tells the story of how even the most loving of parents can't always protect their children from themselves.
Though Joe came out at 13, he knew he was gay from the age of eight. But as he grew older, he began to face bullying at school as a young boy with a flair for pink boas, Barbie dolls and all things "prettiful." (After a Build-A-Bear birthday party, one classmate remarked, "aren't those for girls?")
Unlike some parents, the Schwartzes were eager to see their son come out as gay, sensing the importance of recognizing how growing up gay in a straight world -- and concealing the fact -- was causing Joe stress, pressure and trouble in school.
In an interview this week, Schwartz talked about the importance of parents putting themselves in the driver's seat in an opaque world filled with individualized education programs (IEPs), disability classifications and drugs for behavioral disorders.
"No one is going to do it for you," he said.
Wondering whether sexual orientation might be part of what separated their then 8-year-old son from other kids in his class, the Schwartzes summoned up the courage to tell their son's therapist that they believed he might be gay.
"What a terrible thing to say," she responded.
Schwartz said his jaw dropped.
"It was startling and we went home pretty shaken up," he said. "It led us to think that maybe people are happy to talk about therapy and medical issues but if there is an underlying question that could be making problems worse due to stress ... the stress of feeling different ... people don't want to talk about that so much."
Obviously, Schwartz said, his son is not just gay. "He's not just one thing. He has problems with handwriting and learning disabilities ... but shouldn't you acknowledge the one thing you think might be aggravating and underlying other issues of concern?" he asked.
In the book, Schwartz talked about how, after Joe attempted suicide, a social worker told him it was unfortunate he came out so young, explaining that -- although more kids today are indeed coming out in their early teens -- not all of them have the maturity to handle their emotions. Schwartz wrote that it was an interesting idea: "in your early teens, the kids around you are obsessed with sex without really understanding what's going on."
When asked about the passage, Schwartz said it was a "wistful thought and not a practical one."
He said that "other kids are equipped at that age but some aren't. Most kids who come out today end up in pretty good shape. A lot of them are doing just fine. But if a kid is fragile or vulnerable, things can go harder for them."
Unbeknownst to the Schwartzes as they stood at their son's bedside in the hospital, Joe had come out to some of his classmates earlier in the day -- and it hadn't gone well. Joe had chastised a group of boys for the way they rated the girls. Joe went on to rate a few of the boys, who grew uncomfortable. Joe asked, "are the boys afraid of the big gay man?" The students told a counselor, the news spread fast and a dejected Joe rushed home.
Schwartz admitted he's no parenting expert, and that he and his wife missed a lot of clues along the way.
When Joe was in sixth grade, for example, Schwartz and Mixon noticed a red ring around his neck that looked as though he'd tried to tighten a belt around it. When they asked their son about it, he said the cat did it and they let the incident slide.
Schwartz said he makes no excuses, but did point out that between the family's multitudinous activities and obligations -- meals, laundry, travel for work, deadlines, the needs of two other children -- "it's as if life itself is trying to give all of us attention deficit disorder."
Even so, Schwartz comes across as having been, in many ways, extremely involved in his son's life.
He admitted that Joe was on the computer too much when he was younger but that he checked the browser's history regularly -- just as he had with his two older children -- to make certain Joe wasn't getting into trouble.
"You can say it's a privacy issue ... I say it's a parenting issue," he said.
In the end, Schwartz said that Joe and many gay teens carry around the weight of being different no matter how much public opinion has changed.
He referred to "internalized homophobia," or the process of taking to heart society's long-time negative attitudes about homosexuality in literature and elsewhere. He cited the book "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask," a bestseller in the 1960s that included a passage about the rarity of gay couples living together happily for years.
So, then, what can parents do to help a child who's having behavioral problems in school and/or struggling to come to terms with their sexuality?
"We knew there was a way to get the best out of Joe and the worst out of Joe and so we came up with a Joe Manual," Schwartz said. "We would give it to the teacher at the beginning of the year and tell them what works and what doesn't. We'd tell them, 'don't do a power struggle with this kid ... it won't work.'
"Schools can be pretty opaque -- a lot opaque. We had to figure out IEPs and classifications and [school officials] were not that good at explaining these things to us," he said. "I think they become so fluent in these things and lose sight of how complex it might be for someone just coming in."
Schwartz said he and his wife, told often that Joe had Asperger's syndrome, were part of a community of people whose children may have been swept up in a psychological fad. He said it's up to parents to sort through the various diagnoses being given to see what might actually apply to their child.
And if you're a parent who thinks their child might be gay?
"There's no rush to find out -- especially if your child seems well-adjusted," he said. "If your kid is going to come out to you, it should happen in his or her own time, and in his or her own way. Then say what you would want to hear, 'I love you.' Not 'I love you anyway,' but 'I love you.'"
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