I'm writing to you A) because I like your column, and B) because you were once a 20-year-old male. I've got one of them -- a 20-year-old son, not a column -- and I'd appreciate some advice.
"Kent" is a good kid. Actually more than a good kid; he's a bit of a phenom. Very bright, high-achieving, athletic, popular, good-looking, yadda yadda. Top student in high school, president of this and that, and he's now attending a wonderful university on a pretty wonderful scholarship. He's funny and good company and we've always had an enjoyable, mutually respectful relationship. I feel very fortunate to have such a great kid.
So ... is there a problem? I dunno. Is it a problem that a young man as described above has never had a girlfriend? Dates to the prom and such, sure. But not, to my knowledge, a romantic relationship, ever. He's always had good friends who are girls, but he hangs out primarily with other bright guys not unlike himself.
My gaydar has never "pinged." My husband (his stepfather) says firmly, "He's not gay." And if he is, well, he is. I guess what my dilemma boils down to is this: Is there any acceptable way for me to inquire into his personal life? Am I totally overstepping to even wonder? I suppose I wouldn't be, at least as much, if I wasn't watching his younger brother throwing himself into the joys of girlfriends with such delight. It makes me wonder why that didn't happen with Kent.
I suppose you'll ask, "Why do you need to know?" And I don't, of course. It's his life. But I am nagged at by the thought that if a young man were having concerns in the sexuality department, it could be an awfully isolating experience. If anything is going on, I hate to think of him going through it alone.
Can you give me any guidance?
I was indeed once a 20-year-old male. For a while, I was even younger than that. I remember when I was around 16 my dad and I were out back behind the garage and he was trying to talk to me about my girlfriend. I remember thinking, "What does 'knocked-up' mean?"
He was trying to ascertain certain facts and issue certain instructions regarding the activities my girlfriend and I were engaging in. But the language he used was this weird hybrid of delicate Victorian circumlocution and World War II sailor talk. So I could not be sure if he was saying that we should stop our activities altogether ("She's not some tart, or harpie, or gold-digger, is she?"), use condoms ("Pop two bits in a Texaco slot machine and get yourself some rubbers!"), or perhaps just follow Supreme Court rulings a little more closely ("If she gets knocked up, you'd better hope you've got John Law on your side"). This was a few years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. I told him she was on the pill. He looked relieved -- and also, if I remember correctly, a little jealous. The whole conversation, as one would expect, was awkward.
Today, for public health reasons, parents have been instructed in how to talk to their children about condoms, AIDS and STDs, but that doesn't mean that truly intimate things are any easier to talk about. The intimate is, by nature, difficult.
So how would I like to have been spoken to at that time, or a little later, as a 20-year-old, about the matter of my sexuality? By the age of 20, I had a passionate, if incomplete, vision of where I was headed in my life. I pictured myself being married and monogamous, but I did not picture myself raising a family (I am married with no children). I pictured myself moving to a major coastal city and trying to get involved in literature and the arts (here I am in San Francisco, working for Salon). These things, even at that time, I think I could have told my parents, had we been able to have a kind of neutral, open-ended talk about my dreams for the future.
If I had been gay, I think at the age of 20 I might not have been ready to proclaim myself as such to my parents. But my vision of the future would probably have contained the essential elements. I would probably have not seen a wife in the picture. I would probably have seen a life primarily occupied with my same-sex friends -- the bright young men you refer to. The things I would leave out -- dating women, romancing women, marriage to a woman -- would probably indicate to a perceptive person where I was headed, whether I wanted to disguise my final destination or not. So rather than asking your son point blank, Are you gay? I suggest you take some time -- a good amount of time -- to ask him about his dreams for the future.
He will better be able to answer you if he understands what you want. What you want is something a little amorphous that yet requires great precision in its description: You want to know how to dream about the future.
Put it this way: You're a mother. Mothers dream about the future, about family and what their kids will do. Your son appears in your dreams about the future. But you do not know how to dress him, what occupation to give him, whether to make him married, single, divorced, living with somebody, what. Likewise, sons also dream about the future. They do not want to deceive their mothers. But neither do they wish to be labeled. I'm sure your son would like to give you some reliable sign of what he envisions for himself, as long as he can do it without being misunderstood or pigeonholed.
So I think you absolutely should talk to him about what kind of life he wants to have for himself. I could imagine something like this:
"You know, 'Kent,' I'm a mom, and naturally I think a lot about my kids and the future and our relationships and the things that stand between us and greater understanding, and I've been wondering for a long time now about some of the things we pretend to be when we're really not, so I'm just going to ask you point blank: Are you really named 'Kent'"?
To which he may reply, "No, Mom, my name is not 'Kent'! That's the name you gave that advice columnist, asking him if I'm gay!" [LAUGHTER]
OK, so much for sitcom dialogue. I can't put words in your mouth, but I can suggest a general outline for the kind of conversation that will help you. You need, first of all, the proper setting. For instance, a long drive is a great place, because he can't get out of the car to get a soda or change the channel on the television. Dinner in a private place, or a long walk are also good settings.
I would indeed tell him that you are wondering what the future will hold for him. I would say that there are a lot of choices one can make in life, and that it's vital to be true to oneself when one makes those choices. (Each choice is a blow of the sculptor's chisel -- is that too corny?) Tell him that you sense he is building a very accomplished and admirable life, that you see it in every decision he makes. But tell him that you want to get a better sense of where he is going with this life of his. I would stress that your deepest wish is that he make his decisions in accord with his truest self.
You might also say that the whole question of whether one is to marry and have children or not marry, or whether one even wants to have sexual relations with women or with men, is something that often evolves over a great deal of time, and that one need not place oneself in a box at the age of 20 and say, "This is what I am." One's identity can be more fluid than that. It can evolve. But tell him that you've noticed that he hasn't had any serious girlfriends and you wonder if that means anything. One simply wants to know how to think about another's life, where it is heading, what the choices are, what the possibilities are. What kind of future does he envision? Is it a future with a romantic partner? Is it a future with a man or a woman? Are there kids in that future?
I would not insist that he declare himself in any final way. But if he balks at discussing the future at all with you, there I would press him. I would not say that's OK, we don't have to talk about the future. You do have to talk about the future. Having achieved much already, he obviously thinks about the future; he thinks about rewards and consequences. He's not some slacker dude who lives in the moment. If he resists discussing the future with you, he may be frightened. If you sense this, I would not let him veer away from it merely because he is frightened. This is where you can actually do some good; you can lend him some adult strength. This is where some pressure could be helpful. If indeed he has a secret to entrust to you, this is your chance to accept it. Don't let the opportunity slide by. Resist the impulse to take off the pressure. Let it be an uncomfortable moment. Remain silent and let him speak if he wishes to. Do not interrupt him. Hear him out.
I have had letters from young men who have not yet gotten involved with women because of various things -- religious fears, fears of disease, shyness, ignorance about courtship, performance fears, trauma because of one bad experience. What these young men had in common was fear of some sort. The fact that he hasn't had a long-term girlfriend yet doesn't mean he's gay. We don't know what it means. But I think you are right to try to help him talk about something that he may feel he's going through alone.
The trick is to give him enough room to talk -- and, as I said, to apply gentle pressure if he becomes afraid to speak.
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