When John Schwartz got the phone call from his wife, Jeanne, three years ago, he was horrified to learn that his twelve-year-old son Joseph had tried to commit suicide. “You have to come home,” she said urgently. “Joe has taken a lot of pills,” Schwartz recalls on page one of his new book, Oddly Normal.
Of the couple’s three children, the youngest son had long been troubled. He was withdrawn and tempestuous, often leaving classrooms or having tantrums. Recently, he’d been dropping hints at school that he was gay. This increased his personal stress, especially when the reactions were different from what he expected. He had come out to his parents several weeks before, but they already knew (Joe’s grandmother had said she thought he was gay even at age three).
Of course, it’s always helpful to have a dad who is a New York Times national correspondent to tell the story and do the research that saved Joe’s life and helped him achieve amazing progress since that awful day.
The couple blamed themselves for missing signs of self-destruction in their son, though they had no reason to have seen Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” videos (which have helped gay and lesbian teens to battle through their formative years) or to have read data gathered by LGBT investigators showing gay youngsters are likely to “experience harassment, feel unsafe in academic settings, [and] drop out of school” or to have found the government report Healthy People 2010, which stated “gay male adolescents are 2–3 times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide.”
Joe’s parents immediately put him in a hospital where he could recover from his overdose, and then asked themselves, “What do we do now?” They began to look at his school, peers, social skills, and an assessment by professionals.
The first roadblock the parents ran into was educators and psychologists trying to define Joe’s problems as medical and psychological issues. “They offered a long series of diagnoses we found confusing, conflicting, and more limiting than helpful,” Schwartz writes. Some even suggested Joe should be taken completely out of school, leaving him less likely to go to college.
But more and more, the couple began to think that “growing up gay in a straight world was causing him stress and pressure. The refusal to see being gay as a big part of the picture meant a lack of support for our son at critical times that could have made an enormous difference,” Schwartz notes.
They started working more closely with Joe’s school, suggesting that, for example, he be allowed to work on a laptop rather than writing by hand, which had always caused him stress. If he left the classroom, they requested that he should be told where to go in the building to reduce his anxiety, such as the counselor’s office. They already knew Joe had a low tolerance for stress and a learning disability that prevented him from performing on command under a time deadline.
They eventually met with doctors and psychiatrists whose evaluation of their son was more direct and helpful. What medications could he need? How could his array of symptoms be described? Did he fit into any description in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)? Did he have ADHD? Autism? Asperger syndrome?
Meanwhile on the political front, the conservatives and scientific communities were thrashing their way through other issues. Was being gay a sin or a genetic inheritance? Was it a “lifestyle choice,” or were people born gay rather than “turned gay”?
In 1980, the third edition of the DSM included a new condition—“ego-dystonic homosexuality”—describing people who were deeply distressed by their sexual orientation. Schwartz found that this led to research suggesting that “a higher prevalence of mental health problems were correlated with homosexuality” but found new reasons to explain them, and inferring that external pressures were the cause.
This theory became influential in the 1990s, in part because of the AIDS crisis, but also due to research published by social scientists Susan D. Cochran and Vickie M. Mays. In 2006, they pointed to “the possible harmful effects of social inequality due to social status, including ethnicity, race, gender, and social class.” Thus, gay men and women might show more of a tendency toward mental disorders and suicide resulting from being “other,” shut out of society, disrespected, and barred from full citizenship by law.
Gregory Herek of the University of California-Davis has made a study of prejudice against sexual minorities and summed up the Cochran and Mays paper, emphasizing that gays may be at heightened risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and related problems. “Indeed,” Herek wrote, “given the stresses created by sexual stigma and prejudice, it would be surprising if some [gays] did not manifest psychological problems.”
Dr. Ilan Meyer, who has promoted the idea of minority stress, testified in 2010 as an expert witness in the lawsuit over California’s controversial Proposition 8. He stated that by treating same-sex couples differently and barring them from marrying, American society had created a major source of stress and unhappiness. Questioned on the stand, Dr. Meyer outlined four types of minority stress:
• Prejudice events—beating, bullying, name-calling, or minor discriminatory matters, adding up to social rejection.
• Expectation of rejection and discrimination, e.g. “concealment stress” such as vigilance about showing affection in public. This can affect whether a person feels that life can be authentic.
• Hiding, which “cuts off support one might get from family, friends, and community,” exacerbating the stresses also experienced by racial minorities. “A black child who experiences prejudice can run to his mother for comfort,” which many gays cannot do.
• Internalized homophobia, or taking to heart society’s attitudes toward homosexuality and narrowing one’s future, dreams, and goals.
It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties such stresses would place on 13-year-old boy who was experiencing common difficulties such as developing social skills, raging hormones, separating from parents to seek an identity, fitting in at school, dating, et al. Indeed, this information really helped Joe’s parents to understand him and his reasons for becoming suicidal.
They also began seeking support for themselves, meeting with PFLAG groups, buying a baby monitor to keep tabs on his moods once he was home, and working more closely with school officials. They eventually found the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City, which provides counseling and other social services to gay teens in trouble. The Center’s Youth Enrichment Services program offered a discussion group, drop-in counseling, life skills, and even a camp emphasizing the arts.
They had also waited patiently for Joe to come out to them. When he did, they affirmed their love and support for him.
Slowly, then, Joe began to make friends, become more social, make progress in school, and move toward becoming a strong adult with a sense of identity.
For those trying to understand the gay community, Schwartz’s detailed and highly readable book is an ideal companion to Victory (reviewed in the October 2012 issue of OutSmart), a vast overview of the gay civil rights movement. His focus is on helping other parents and gay kids make the difficult transition from teen years to adulthood—where to go for help, what services are out there, what medications work and which are over-prescribed, and how to negotiate with public schools for best results.
There’s no doubt, however, that without the unconditional love of his compassionate parents, Joseph Schwartz’s story might well have turned out quite differently.
Oddly Normal: One family’s struggle to help their teenage son come to terms with his sexuality. A Memoir
by John Schwartz
2012 • Gotham (penguin.com)
304 pages, $26
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.