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Growing Up Gay in the 1990s: Has That Much Changed for Today's Gay Youth?

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Sometimes when people ask me why I write, I tell them that it's because I grew up gay (very gay) way out in the middle of cowboy country in the windswept and dusty badlands of eastern Montana. I don't know that this answer is very satisfying to anyone. Sometimes people chuckle, uncertain. Sometimes they cock their heads, ask me to elaborate. Sometimes they just nod knowingly (you know how some people do that). What I think I mean by that answer, though, is that falling in love and in crush with other girls in Miles City, Mont. in the 1990s felt so fraught and, frankly, dangerous that from the ages of 8 to 18, closeted-me inhabited a very active and wholly imagined fantasy world in which a braver, not-closeted-me, was, well, braver and not closeted. All this time spent imagining other worlds, and other versions of me in those worlds, was eventually good fuel for fiction writing. But more than that, growing up this way -- which is to say, growing up in the closet -- kept me on the periphery of so many of the crucial rites of American adolescent passage: first dates and kisses and dances, those formative individual events, most of them small, to be sure, but you add them all up and there's real weight there for those of us who missed out on all of them. And I suppose it's fair enough if you want to say, "Get over it. Adolescence sucks for everyone. You're not so special." I understand that reaction. But the problem, as I see it, is exactly that: just how not unique my adolescent experience in the closet was, and, incredibly, unjustifiably, still is today -- some two decades later -- for teenagers all over this country. Sure, you can point to signs of progress, impressive ones -- marriage equality in a slew of states; the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell; various kinds of LGBTQ "visibility" on TV and in movies, in politics, even in some faith-based organizations -- but I guess, at this point, still just making progress, inch by inch, feels like not nearly enough. Though picking one event as the start date for the LGBTQ rights movement is misleading, it's worth remembering that we're now 40-some years out (pun intended) from Stonewall, and yet today, in 2012, actual contenders for the office of the President of the United States still feel perfectly at ease, and, in fact, in the right, campaigning on garbage-tides of homophobic hate speech. How can any of us, out and proud or not, hope to convince an uncertain and frightened 13-year-old in rural (or urban) Wherever, U.S.A. that it's OK to love the way you love, whatever way that is, when someone like Rick Santorum is telling his followers that a child is better off having a father who abandons him or her and goes to prison than being raised by a lesbian couple? Or when Michelle Bachmann is calling anything other than heterosexuality a form of "sexual dysfunction," a perversion, a sin, but one fixable through intensive therapy? If we continue to tolerate this climate of fear, repression, and, frankly, hate, then how can we possibly expect to effectively counteract its obvious outcomes: shame, harassment, violence, and suicide?

The thing is: I know that I'm a better fiction writer than I am speechmaker. (I also know that making a statement like that sets me up for all kinds of unfortunate, "You're no good at either!" kinds of responses.) I wrote my debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, because the best way I knew to "get at" all of this was through fiction. Fiction allows us to live in the heads of characters in ways that no other forms of art or entertainment quite match. In fiction we can inhabit other worlds and times and places so fully that we are, in effect, transported to them. In his (sometimes stuffy but other times essential) book, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner calls on novelists to make some attempt to replicate the whole of the world on the page, as messy and complicated and blurry as it unquestionably is. In fact, this pretense of "imitating the world in all its complexity" was part of his definition of what actually makes a work of fiction a novel in the first place. I'm drawn to this definition. Maybe it's better, more accurate, to say that I cling to it: it's my lifeboat and my scaffolding; it's the single piece of specific advice about novel writing that makes most sense to me.

The complexity of Cameron Post's world is funneled through the eponymous narrator of Cameron Post herself. As narrator she's a bit removed from the events she's narrating, but not much, maybe three or four years. She hasn't yet fully processed everything that happens to her over the course of the novel, but she's sorting through it, making sense, and asking readers to join her as she does. Cameron is not a speechmaker. Cameron is not, in the traditional sense, anyway, an activist. However, she is a person who has spent too much time on the periphery, half-experiencing those crucial small moments of development that she should have felt safe to experience fully and openly but did not. All of this makes her a keen observer and, I hope, a useful chronicler of time and place. The time in question is the early 1990s. The place is eastern Montana. Cameron Post has just been made an orphan, and she has also just kissed a girl for the first time. Now those two events are fused together for her, for always. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is "about" other things, too: it's about the intensity of first love; it's about stolen bubble gum; it's about discovering dinosaurs; it's about making out with a girl in the bed of a pickup truck on the side of a hill cloaked in sagebrush and sandstone; it's about conversion therapy and pseudoscience and Biblical literalism; it's about the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture; and, ultimately, it's about trying to find your voice when you're 15 and told, repeatedly, that you don't have one, or that the one you have is incorrect, insufficient, perverse, dangerous, wrong.

I wish that the whole of Cam's world felt dated to readers -- not just the movie references or the song titles, but also the culture of overt and sanctioned bigotry. It would be nice if a teenager could read the book and say, "Wow, things really were so much worse then. What a bunch of homophobes." And maybe some can. But what's absurd, what's unthinkable, is that there are plenty of teenage readers today who can fully relate to Cam's experiences (and much, much worse). Just change the fashion, switch mixtape to iPod, but keep the culture of hate and fear. That's just not "progress" enough.