Catching queer kids who fall through the cracks

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Tynan Power*/TRT Columnist-

“Michael (a fictitious name used to protect his identity) told us he’s bi during lunch,” my son Justyn announced one day when he came home from sixth grade.

Until that moment, LGBTQ had only applied to adults in my son’s world. Now it also included a new friend he’d made at school.

After the initial surprise, this announcement didn’t matter much to my son. His other friends took it in stride, too. Another friend even announced she was a lesbian.

I marveled at how wonderful it was that young people in middle school could come out now. When I was in seventh grade, coming out would have been a fast ticket to social doom – assuming I even had the words or a firm-enough grasp on my own identity to do so. I imagined my son’s middle school as a kind of nirvana for queer kids.

That nirvana existed only in my imagination.

Over the course of the year, Michael’s identity shifted more clearly toward “gay.” A tall, lanky boy with a dramatic flair, he became more notorious the more he flamed. He got in trouble often, but had the kind of charisma that made “trouble-maker” just another part of his off-beat persona. He drew a different group of friends, moved away from Justyn’s circle, and I heard less about him.

Still, I took a particular interest in Michael because he was, in my mind, one of our community’s “young.” I worried about whether he was getting support and acceptance from his family and other adults in his life.

One time we ran into Michael in Northampton when we were out with friends, and I invited him to join us for dinner. Michael left his friends and came with us. I introduced Michael as my son’s friend, but also noted that he was “one of us.” My friends welcomed him and there seemed to be nothing odd about having a stray 13-year-old at dinner.
I hoped that he took from our time together a sense that he was cared for and that people were looking out for him. I hoped, too, that we’d provided a good example that queer people can be well-adjusted, smart, healthy and loved.

If I’d had my way, we would have drawn Michael into our family of friends, taken him with us for dinners and movies and Pride parades. I sensed that he needed both affirmation and strong, healthy role models. Without that, I worried he might fall through the cracks – joining the many young queer kids we lose each year to suicide, addictions, and the dangers that come with sex work and homelessness.

“Michael came to school in a skirt today,” my son told me one day the following year. He looked disturbed.

“Did anyone tease him about it?” I asked.

“No … but he got in trouble,” he said. “I wasn’t there, but that’s what I heard.”

The story my son heard was that an angry teacher sent Michael to the office, accusing him of cross-dressing to get attention.

I felt furious – and helpless. There was no question in my mind that the teacher was out of line, and that his statement in front of his class would reinforce prejudice and rigid gender norms. Yet I didn’t know which teacher it was, hadn’t heard the story directly from Michael, and didn’t know how to counter the argument that Michael was trying to get attention, because he often was trying to get attention – attention he probably desperately needed.

I resolved to talk to Michael directly. By the next time I saw him, though, a gulf had opened up. I was unsure how to approach him. I heard rumors that made me worry that he was on a self-destructive path, but didn’t know if they were true or how to intervene.

Now I open the newspaper and see his name connected with a drug-related charge. It gives me chills of fear for him. He is legally an adult and the charge is not minor, but it does not have to be catastrophic. I hope this is the jagged edge of a crack in the path of life – one that breaks his fall, however painfully.

I wonder how I could have done more to bring him into the embrace of the local, warm and mostly-safe queer community in which my sons and I have thrived. I wonder, too, how the community itself could have offered more to this queer kid. Would it have helped if PrideZone were still around and active? Do we err on the side of assuming our schools are safe enough for queer youth?

I don’t have solutions, just questions – and the hope that, as Rilke said, we will someday live our way into the answers.

Questions about the FTM experience? Comments or ideas? Email Ty at [email protected]

*Tynan Power is a parent, a writer, a progressive Muslim leader, an interfaith organizer, a (very slow) runner, mostly a big goof, sometimes taken too seriously, loving, gentle, queer and queer-cultured, a pen geek, often dehydrated, and full of wanderlust. He also happens to be a transgender man.

 

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