TO GROW UP gay or lesbian any time before the Internet came into wide use, in most of America, was to experience a profound isolation. There were few places where one could go to see the possibility of a normal life. Many of us wondered whether we were alone in feeling the anomaly of same-sex attraction. Only slowly, as gays and lesbians began appearing in the mainstream media, could youths come to know that homosexuality is out there. Everything changed with the rise of the Internet in the mid-1990’s. No young person with access to the Internet could fail to realize that gay people are everywhere, and other people of one’s own age are going through the same process of self-discovery. In a parallel development, “gay/straight alliances” have sprung up at high schools across the country.
Still, finding one’s way into a healthy gay life is largely a “do-it-yourself” affair for youths without a gay-straight alliance in their schools. The information one needs in order to find and follow one’s path abounds on the Internet, but young people must sift through a veritable thicket for good coming-of-age advice. One option is a genre of fiction that’s available on-line that offers information about being gay while imparting a message of proud self-awareness and a sense of being part of a larger GLBT community. The characters in these novels are often isolated youths with whom a teenager questioning his sexual identity might well identify.
Several writers, beginning in the 1990’s, pioneered this genre of romantic adventure story, typically featuring heroic gay youths growing up in the American heartland. These stories follow all the formulæ of romantic fiction—vividly drawn, attractive characters give themselves over to love—with the added ingredient that the characters undergo an inner struggle over their sexual orientation in becoming aware of who they are. In coming out they confront the inevitable homophobia, but they find a way to have dignity and self-respect within themselves. True love follows (or precedes) this self-affirmation. The narrative is usually in the first person singular, and the focus is on the protagonist’s emotions as he or she reacts to circumstances and chooses a course of action.
These works, most of them self-published, stand apart from the bicoastal GLBT literary mainstream; the word “sentimental” would probably figure into a conventional critique. Nevertheless, these gay youth romances have found an audience, and it is an important one, as the membership of the Mark Roeder fan club at Yahoo.com will attest. Three writers stand out as exemplars of this genre. Mark Roeder of rural Winslow, Indiana, has set most of his novels in a fictional town in his home state. Ron Donaghe of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Mark Kendrick of Chicago both situate their stories in the desert Southwest. The Internet makes these works available everywhere: some of Mark Roeder’s novels can even be read for free on the web at www.iuniverse.com. At web sites like Amazon.com, these titles appear prominently on lists of books recommended for gay and lesbian youth.
Mark A. Roeder
Roeder is the most prolific writer of this genre. His “Gay Youth Chronicles” center on Verona, Indiana (after Romeo and Juliet), and feature two interrelated generations of gay youths. Roeder’s first novel, Ancient Prejudice—later revised and republished as The Soccer Field Is Empty—is the only one that follows a convention that used to be compulsory for gay fiction: the protagonists come to a bad end. In Soccer Field, the youthful gay lovers Mark and Taylor are driven to suicide by the hostility of their families and the threat of separation, but Roeder spends the rest of the Chronicles arguing against the finality of this tragedy. In Roeder’s world, the obstacles are formidable but not insurmountable, and no good person is unjustly punished in the end. The shock of losing Mark and Taylor brings out of the closet their friend Ethan Selby, an accomplished high-school wrestler who had been ashamed of his failure to support the two more vocally as the small-town mindset closed in. In Someone Is Watching, Ethan comes to terms with who he is and finds love with his co-worker on his uncle’s farm, Nathan. He also manages to expose and vanquish on the mat a secret antagonist on his wrestling team who had left threatening notes in his locker.
In A Better Place, two boys from across the Mason-Dixon Line in Kentucky, Brendan and Casper, face staggering hardships. Casper is sexually abused by his psychopathic older brother, while Brendan’s parents commit him to a nightmarish institution to “cure” his homosexuality after he’s outed. Brendan manages to escape and join up with Casper, and together they run away to Indiana. Eventually they come to Verona, where they are taken in at the Selby Farm where Ethan and Nathan live with Ethan’s uncle. The first stories in the Chronicles are set circa 1980. A second generation of Verona youths begins coming of age in the late 1990’s. Ethan and Nathan inherit the Selby Farm and adopt a teenager named Nick, who, like Taylor, was kicked out of his house by his parents when they discovered he was gay. Nick finds a boyfriend, Sean, who lives in Verona’s haunted house, Graymoor Mansion.
Someone is Killing the Gay Boys of Verona is one of Roeder’s more imaginative works, high-flying but great fun. While a corporeal villain is targeting and murdering gay youths, a homophobic apparition (a high school antagonist of Mark and Taylor named Devon) stalks Sean through labyrinthine Graymoor Mansion. Coming to the rescue are the spirits of who else but Mark and Taylor. They help to banish the evil spirit Devon and also foil the anti-gay serial killer, who turns out to be a handsome fundamentalist zealot not above leading his victims on.
In Do You Know That I Love You?, Roeder opens a particularly engaging chapter in the Chronicles when he introduces Jordan, a second-generation character and the lead singer in the world’s most celebrated boy band, Phantom. Jordan, it is revealed, is the son of Taylor, fathered when a sixteen-year-old Taylor went so far as to have sex with a girlfriend to conceal his love for Mark. Taylor died before Jordan was born, and the young mother was too depressed about Taylor’s passing to show much love for her offspring. Handsome and talented, a superstar at seventeen but secretly gay, Jordan is devoted to his music, an all-consuming enterprise. Still, he feels incomplete. While on tour in Indiana, Jordan evades his bodyguards and serendipitously finds someone who has always loved him from afar.
This Time Around finds Jordan happily coupled with boyfriend Ralph as Ethan, Nathan, Nick, and Sean link him to the father he never knew. Moved by his father Taylor’s story, Jordan goes to Verona to seek it out. He hears Ethan’s anguished account of the episode. Nick and Sean give him the journals Mark and Taylor had kept before their deaths, which had been hidden in Graymoor Mansion. Jordan even reaches out to his grandparents, who had thrown Taylor out of the house when they discovered his homosexuality, precipitating his suicide. Having come out to the world after his relationship with Ralph was discovered, Jordan becomes a lightning rod for anti-gay forces waging the “culture wars.” The remarkably diabolical Rev. Wellerson (the name apparently a blend of Falwell and Robertson) denounces Phantom and launches a jihad against funding for agencies serving gay youth. Jordan counters with a benefit concert in the fields of the Selby Farm in Verona, only to have his enemies escalate to terrorism. In a tear-jerking conclusion, Taylor and co-parent Mark intervene to rescue their son, averting a second-generation tragedy.
Another entry in the Chronicles, Masked Destiny, also set in the late 1990’s, takes us into the realm of a veritable gay superhero. Skye is the biggest, strongest alpha male at Verona High School. Moved by the spectacle of fellow jocks harassing the presumed gay boys in his school, Skye is coaxed by an angel (Taylor again) to don a mask and seek out bullies in the act of thrashing smaller boys, in order to turn the tables on them. He relishes fighting, and with his physical superiority can overpower two or more bullies at a time. Skye becomes a masked sensation, even taking time to talk an overweight younger friend out of a suicide attempt in his disguise. Then, at Taylor’s behest, Skye removes his mask (literally and figuratively) and becomes the openly gay tribune of Verona High. Far from vanquished, however, the bullies regroup, find strength in numbers, and acquire their own ghostly patron in the evil spirit of the undead Devon. A climactic confrontation between good and evil, combined with a dizzying series of plot twists, makes for gripping reading.
Ron Donaghe and Mark Kendrick
Ron Donaghe opens his “Common Threads in the Life” series in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and the fictional town of Common, rather implausibly, in the mid-1960’s. Still, Common Sons relates with deftness and feeling the odyssey of two best friends from high school, Joel and Tom, who struggle with their homosexuality and the depth of their love for each other. Tom is the upstanding son of a stern Pentecostal preacher, while Joel, a year younger, is a hot-blooded varsity boxing star with some dangerous enemies. Through the machinations of a self-hating homosexual secretly in love with Tom, the young lovers are exposed just after they find the courage to embrace their love for each other. They come out against all odds and manage to start a life together in Common, standing down their antagonists and writing off Tom’s parents after they disown him for his homosexuality.
We rejoin Tom and Joel, still together, in The Blind Season five years later. They decide to have children and soon cross paths with a young female runaway from a Mennonite colony in Mexico, who agrees to be a surrogate of sorts. Improvising in a time before “alternative insemination,” Joel and Tom take turns having sex with the young woman, Sharon, and contrive to keep the offspring’s true paternity a secret, even from themselves. But the three come up against a torrent of homophobia as their plan for a family becomes known. A friend is battered by a reprobate police officer (an Alabama transplant) who also takes an inordinate interest in Tom and Joel’s lives. In a thrilling display of manly prowess, Joel knocks out the bad cop and frees a gay man the cop had kidnapped, bound, and tortured. More sustained maneuvers are required to neutralize the local fundamentalists, but the lovers never flinch, and they expose the child abuse and spousal abuse being perpetrated by their detractors. The family, friends, and supporters (including a couple of discreet lesbians) they gather round themselves through the hardships form a circle of affinity that serves to anchor them in the rugged New Mexico desert.
Donaghe’s other main protagonist is Will Barnett, who grows up in the late-1960’s on a farm in rural southwestern New Mexico. The books of the “Continuing Journals of Will Barnett” are written ostensibly as a diary he started keeping at age fourteen. In Uncle Sean, Will suddenly encounters his homosexuality when his mother’s handsome kid brother comes to live with his family. He is overwhelmed by his attraction to his troubled uncle, who’d had an intense relationship with another gay man while stationed in Vietnam, only to see his lover killed by homophobic “friendly fire.” Sean very properly rebuffs his nephew’s repeated requests to lie with him naked in bed, but they do enjoy a bit of skinny dipping together after a hot day in the fields. As we later learn, Sean is more than a little turned on by his strapping nephew, and has to leave suddenly as Will’s parents begin to suspect something. Will recovers from his adolescent crush on Uncle Sean and goes on to flourish in high school as a writer and football star. He fatefully meets up with a beautiful young runaway from New Orleans, Lance, who had been brought to New Mexico by his abusive stepfather and neglectful mother. With his father dying suddenly, Will is left in charge of the farm. Overruling his mother’s reservations, he moves Lance into the house and his bedroom, and they begin living openly, if discreetly, as “husbands.”
In the novel Lance, we find Will and Lance struggling to finish high school while fending off the hostility of their neighbors. Lance survives a horrific gay bashing; Will has to cope with homophobic football teammates. Yet the pair manages with some difficulty to find two other gay boys in their school, while Will’s tomboy sister turns out to be lesbian. Despite their steadfast love through the tribulations of rural gay life circa 1970, Will and Lance decide to go to college in different cities: Will enrolls in the University of Texas in order to join his Uncle Sean in Austin, while Lance wins a scholarship to an art school in San Francisco.
All Over Him is perhaps the most painful novel of the Will Barnett series, as the “husbands” endure a long separation while they pursue divergent life paths. Each is exposed to urban gay life, with all its blandishments and disappointments. As they reunite for what Lance expects to be an all-too-brief Christmas sojourn, Will surprises Lance with the news that he will join him in San Francisco, his Uncle Sean having at last found happiness in a monogamous relationship of his own.
Mark Kendrick, a third exemplar of this style, has penned two relevant books, Desert Sons and the Jim Morrison-quoting Into This World We’re Thrown. Kendrick’s works, set in the southeastern California desert around 1991, are essentially a pas de deux. Happy-go-lucky redhead Scott Faraday has an agreeable high school existence, highlighted by his energetic desert flute-playing (after Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull) and sound-mixing for a local rock band. Then the dark, mysterious Ryan St. Charles moves to town and brings Scott’s homosexuality into focus. The story centers on the dynamics of the evolving relationship, as Scott helps the very troubled Ryan come to terms with his homosexuality, the loss of his parents when he was a child, and a relationship in which he was exploited by an older man.
COLLECTIVELY these stories offer gay youths hope for a proud and happy future. The characters face hurdles even more daunting than the ones awaiting newly aware gay people, but with a resolute determination—including an acceptance that being gay is essential to who they are—the characters negotiate life’s challenges and make it through hard times. They grow in wisdom and find completion in a dyadic union. Even through times of despair, love nourishes them, rewarding patience and perseverance with a consummation that assures them of their place in the world.
The plots are inventively crafted to appeal to a generation that grew up with Harry Potter. The protagonists’ character development draws you in and you find yourself caring deeply what happens to these boys. They triumph by living out a fully realized gay pride and arranging their own happy endings, which is what makes them role models for gay youths. At a time when the GLBT movement is at war with the religious Right for the hearts and minds of isolated youths, these stories can be just the armor that’s needed to fortify readers against efforts to coerce conformity and enforce a false heterosexuality.
The stories bristle with didactic content, to be sure, as their authors are clearly out to impart a moral lesson or two. The values they espouse are essentially those of the heartland, with an emphasis on the domestic virtues: conjugal love, commitment, family, home, and children. The characters want a long-term relationship more than anything, and they usually find one, overcoming physical isolation. When we rejoin the first-generation characters of Roeder and Donaghe in later novels, where they appear as adults, we find them still coupled with their first loves.
The love these characters experience is only secondarily about sex: Roeder’s Ralph and Jordan spend an entire summer together (on a rock concert tour) before they consummate their relationship. The transformational fusion of kindred spirits, incomplete until they find each other, is the ideal being held out. The idyllic, Romeo-and-Juliet-esque love of Mark and Taylor has an ethereal dimension. (Apotheosis follows their suicide.) Casper lives a nearly intolerable existence of abuse, neglect, and privation until he joins with Brendan. Ethan goes from a brooding fear of his unknown stalker to cathartic joy as he embraces his love for Nathan. Kendrick’s Ryan recovers from a suicidal depression as he realizes the “sacred” quality of his bond with Scott.
Those characters who are drawn to sexual experimentation are eventually disillusioned by it. Jordan and Ralph each sleeps with another boy—the result of a tabloid misreport—and are chastened for their infidelity. Uncle Sean earnestly tells young Will not to pursue sex with the first willing male partner he finds. Advising the newly self-aware and seemingly sex-crazed Skye (the masked gay avenger), Taylor the angel tells him he must discipline his carnal appetites before he can find a mature relationship. Later aroused by Taylor’s resplendent beauty, Skye is warned off with a penetrating glare from Mark the angel. On the other hand, the relationship between Kendrick’s Ryan and Scott develops sexually and romantically in tandem; Kendrick’s stories are the most erotically charged of the genre. Sex can transport you to a plane of ecstasy, but only when pursued with someone you love.
Monogamy is non-negotiable for most of the young gay protagonists. Jordan is annoyed with Phantom’s randy bisexual drummer Ross when he hears Ross and Nick moaning from the loft of the Selby’s barn. He’s only somewhat mollified when he learns that Nick’s boyfriend Sean was joining them for a three-way desired by all concerned. Jordan resolves that he could never share Ralph with someone else. During their painful separation Will and Lance must fend off determined sexual importunities; they never waver, and steel their resolve by exchanging vials of their semen.
Children figure into the plans of many of the gay couples. Joel and Tom brook strong social disapproval to sire a daughter. Ethan and Nathan adopt Nick and become surrogate parents of a sort to Jordan. Urban gay life, however, does not call to these protagonists as it has to millions of post-Stonewall gays coming of age. Tom and Lance had both had contact with the urban scene before moving to New Mexico; they were not enamored of what they saw. The gay fellow students Will meets at the University of Texas tend to be jaded or adrift. One gay acquaintance goes so far as to drug Will in order to have him sexually, but the young hero resists when he somehow realizes that it’s not Lance who’s caressing him.
Finally, these characters seize opportunities to protect and be of help to others in need. Skye marshals his status as the dominant male in his high school to protect the vulnerable from pervasive bullying; he institutes a social order where alpha males do not dare molest those physically weaker. Joel, passionate, powerfully built, and adept at boxing, will beat up any homophobe who acts out in Common, and get away with it. Along more respectable lines, Ethan and Nathan become leaders and mentors as adults for gay youth in Verona, hosting the members of a gay youth support group for Christmas parties and hayrides.
Jordan, the international rock star, has perhaps the most pronounced social conscience of all: after being attacked by the evil Rev. Wellerson he goes to great lengths to secure social services for gay and lesbian youth. He even buys the gay youth support group in Verona a new facility, named for his father Taylor and co-parent Mark, after a homophobic landlord evicts them from their original quarters. Jordan’s fondest wish for his music is that it will bring reassurance and a smile to young fans facing loneliness or other troubles.
These imaginative raconteurs offer stories of love, conflict, and personal triumph to inspire the millions of gays and lesbians still growing up in relative isolation, for whom the Internet is a lifeline. Unabashedly romantic, books of this genre resonate with the values and aspirations of the American heartland. What they lack in literary or moral complexity is made up for by the feeling depictions of the trials of growing up gay, which bring hope to gay young people who feel marooned in the U.S. With characters who can engineer happy endings and new beginnings wherever they are, these stories reinforce the faith that pride and self-confidence can get you through almost any crisis, and that there is power in being who you are.
Don Gorton, a Boston lawyer, grew up in isolation himself, in the Mississippi Delta.