Saturday, November 22, 2008

Letting boys be boys

A more open attitude toward teen sexuality would help reduce homophobia

Alex Sanchez
Special to the Sun
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sex. The word elicits immediate attention. I know: I'm a novelist, a spinner of words.

My books have been challenged by parents, yanked by schools from summer reading lists, and banned by libraries because -- although my novels aren't graphic -- the teen characters I write about explore sexuality, sexual orientation and, yes, sex.

I don't write about this stuff to sell more books. Contrary to popular belief, sex doesn't always sell. In the teen fiction world, controversial issues and adverse publicity can and do limit book sales. So why continue to write stories revolving around teen sexuality?

I write the books I wish I'd had available when I was growing up, books that would've told me, "It's okay to be who you are." And one part of who I was then was a very normal teenage kid trying to sort out his sexuality.

Sexuality. It's how we experience and express ourselves as beings characterized and distinguished by sex. In the 1970s when I was a teen, sex education programs were limited to the biology of reproduction and the ravages of VD. Judy Blume's groundbreaking novels that speak openly and honestly about teen sexuality were just starting to come out.

There were no books that portrayed teenage boys like me: Struggling with same-sex attraction, questioning my sexuality, wanting to love and be loved. I thought I was the only one in the world. After school, alone in my room, I would tell myself, "Stop feeling this way! I refuse to let this happen."

Such were the dark ages before Will & Grace.

In some ways, the world has changed a lot since then. Young people today grow up watching gay and lesbian characters on TV, hear news reports of U.S. Supreme Court sodomy rulings, and engage in debates about same-sex marriage. And yet, even in today's world, I receive daily e-mails from young readers struggling to accept themselves, harassed and bullied at school, hearing ministers condemn gay people, and fearing that their parents would kick them out if they found out their secret.

Decades after I was a teen, most school sex-ed programs continue to focus on biology and reproduction. Abstinence-only programs in some schools approach sexuality in the spirit of a "Just say no" anti-drug campaign, treating sex as if it were equivalent to some illicit substance that society must control. Little -- if any -- discussion is given to gender identity or sexual orientation.

Only an exceptional few comprehensive school programs address sexuality as a fundamental part of being alive -- a human experience that entails risks but can also yield tremendous benefits, that may have painful consequences, but can also be enormously rewarding and (dare I say it) fun. Instead, we far too often abandon young people to figure it all out on their own.

In my novels, I especially focus on high-school boys because (a) I'm a guy (b) high school was a wicked-tough time for me, and (c) therefore I feel a particular empathy for the struggles of teen boys.

We know that society often imparts a message of "boys don't cry." But from what I've observed, the message is actually far broader than that: Boys shouldn't feel, period. Whereas girls are allowed a wide range of emotional expression, boys are given the message that they shouldn't show or feel any weakness, whether it be hurt, loneliness, sadness, grief, or even too much joy.

What's left? Anger -- directed either toward others or turned inward toward the self. Such is the "box" that we confine guys to. Is it any wonder that males commit suicide about four times more often than females; constitute over 90 per cent of juvenile and adult prison populations; comprise a majority of alcoholics, drug addicts, and homeless of all ages; have lower levels of university attendance and life expectancy? The list goes on, including the striking fact that nearly every school shooter has been a male.

One of the tasks of growing up male is figuring out, "What does it mean to be a man?" In our era of single moms, absent dads, latchkey kids, and an average of six hours per day spent by teen boys in front of a screen, we're largely abandoning a generation to figure out how to be a man from violent, misogynistic computer games and gangsta' rap videos, Internet porn sites, and endlessly gun-filled TV shows -- media that fuel the anger boys feel.

Accompanying the violence and misogyny is an equally strong dose of homophobia. In a majority of schools, religious and ethnic slurs are no longer tolerated, but homophobic remarks remain commonplace.

And anti-gay comments aren't limited to hurting gay and lesbian students; at some point almost every boy gets called "queer," "fag," or worse. To imply somebody is gay serves as one of the most effective and pervasive forms of bullying and harassment among boys. It's a way of keeping males inside their box.

When adults allow homophobia to persist, we're hurting the straight students alongside the gay ones -- and there are 10 times as many straight students. Homophobia hurts everybody, gay and straight.

Some individuals believe that to address homophobia would imply condoning or "promoting" homosexuality. Nonsense.

The reality is that young people today already know gay people. They have gay or lesbian friends, relatives, parents; they regularly see gay people in the media; they hear U.S. president-elect Barack Obama include gay people in his victory speech. What addressing homophobia and issues of gender and sexual identity actually promotes is a climate of inclusiveness in which all young people can feel safe to be themselves regardless of their differences.

Every one of us is different in some way, but we are all essentially the same. I've learned this from my readers, most of whom, it turns out, are straight. Each, in his or her own way, can identify with characters feeling different; wanting to love and be accepted; coming to terms with sexuality; and trying to sort it all out.

Alex Sanchez is the author of Rainbow Boys, selected as an American Library Association 'Best Book for Young Adults,' and other award-winning teen novels. To learn more or to contact him, please visit