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Friday, April 6, 2007

What’s the Matter With Kansas?

posted by on April 6 at 11:15 AM

Not much—provided you stay in Lawrence, Kansas, home to the University of Kansas and a pretty liberal, gay-friendly place. For, you know, Kansas.

Queers and Allies, the University of Kansas’ gay group, brought me in as a part of their Pride Week programming. I’m an odd choice for Pride Week . I have a rather famously low opinion of “pride” as currently practiced by the gays. Basically I think we should keep the parade, keep the parties, keep the floats and sex and dykes on bikes, but jettison the idea that being gay and out today is an accomplishment that should fill a person with pride. In the ’60s and ’70s? Sure. Now? Uh… I don’t think so. (I devoted a whole chapter to pride in my book Skipping Toward Gomorrah.)

Four of the guys that run the gay group took me to dinner before the event…


From left to right, Stefan, Ryan, David, and Jonathan.

Going out to dinner with thems that brung ya’ is a contractually obligated aspect of most speaking gigs—and it’s not always a pleasant contractually obligated aspect. Before you stand up and talk for a couple of hours in a lecture hall… you’re forced to sit down in a restaurant and talk for a couple of hours. But Stefan, Ryan, David and Jonathan were gracious enough to talk about themselves while I ate instead of making me talk. We discussed—what else?—their coming out stories. All four came out in high school or immediately after—two in small towns, two in the suburbs—which is more and more common.

Gays and lesbians are coming out younger and younger—lots of folks have pointed that out. I started coming out in high school and was totally out by the time I got to college. But I was exception among gay men at the time. How much so? I was the only out gay guy in the theater department at the University of Illinois. Years later most of the straight guys in my theater department had come out—after graduating from college, which was how most gay guys used to do it.

The most moving part of Stefan, Ryan, David, and Jonathan’s coming out stories, however, were the parts their parents played. With one exception, all four sets of parents were supportive—even if the boys didn’t always realize it. One set of parents oppressed their son by insisting that he, a sophomore at the time, not date a senior—because he was too young to be dating a senior, not because the senior was another boy. Another set of parents strongly disapproved of their son’s boyfriend—because his boyfriend directionless loser with a drug problem. But they’re delighted by his current boyfriend, a guy that’s in school, doesn’t abuse drugs (except tobacco), and has ambitions.

Another set of parents constantly warned their son to “be safe.” It got on his nerves. What he heard his mother saying was, “Gay people are diseased and you’re going to catch something now that you’re gay.” What I heard—as a grown-up gay person and a parent—was, “We know you’re sexually active and we want you to be careful. So be careful.”

That’s better than the old deal parents used to offer gay sons. Back in the bad ol’ days most parents couldn’t deal with idea that their gay sons might be having sex. They didn’t want to meet your boyfriends—and they certainly weren’t going to offer you any advice about your sexual conduct (“be safe”). They were willing to put up with your being out—they wanted to see you but not see it—but on the condition that you spare them from unpleasant mental images. The same parents that pried into every aspect of your straight siblings’ romantic lives—from who they were dating to whether they were sexually active to what kind of birth control they were using—were silent on the subject of their gay children’s romantic lives. They didn’t ask, you didn’t tell—and these were the supportive parents!

Things have changed so radically for the better. Even in Kansas. We obsess about the haters—there were rumors that Fred Phelps was going to show up at my talk in Lawrence, which is only 80 miles from his home base in Topeka—and sometimes forget to mark the slow, steady progress is being made. Increasingly parents with gay children step up and do the right thing. They treat their gay kids like the treat their straight kids—more straight parents are actually parenting their gay kids. They’re meddling, demanding good conduct (“be safe”), setting limits instead of turning a blind eye, expressing their approval or disapproval of certain boyfriends or girlfriends.

When it comes to the difficulties faced by gay youth—substance abuse, violence, depression, sexually transmitted infections—the discussion often goes like this: “What is the gay community going to do about the problems facing gay youth?” Uh… nothing? What can we do? The overwhelming majority of gay youth have straight parents and it’s up to straight parents to do something about the problems that confront their gay kids. Out gay adults living big cities can’t do anything for gay teenagers coming out in high school in Kansas. It’s up to their parents to, well, parent them.

Thank God more and more straight parents of gay children are doing just that.

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FYI: Topeka is only 20 miles from you ARE lucky that freaky fred and his fat ass family didn't show up...

Lawrence IS a liberal, hipster oasis in a sea of sandy conservatism....

sign me,

an ex-Topekan/frequent Lawrence visitor

Posted by michael strangeways | April 6, 2007 11:29 AM


Posted by Boomer in NYC | April 6, 2007 11:31 AM

Thanks for posting that Dan. It's sage advice and a heartening story. I have not found many resources (even from PFLAG, GLSEN, HRC, etc.) that provide parents today sound advice on how to deal with their teenagers (or younger) coming to grips with a realization that they are "different", and that it's perfectly ok to be so. Maybe an idea for your next book? All the books I've seen are somewhat dated and deal more with parents reacting to their adult children who come out during/post college, as you stated was the case for you.

Posted by Horatio's Man | April 6, 2007 11:42 AM

Things are slowly changing. It warms my heart to know that no matter how loud the fundies shout, people are slowly waking up, and they're waking up on the good side.

Case in point: my Dad. He grew up during a time when it was not ok to be gay. The only gay people you saw/heard about were the ones who would, say, masturbate in public, i.e. the "perverts." So he hated them. Over the years, he found out people he knew, and liked, were gay. He realized that they were good people, and slowly realized there was nothing wrong with them. Now, he defends gay marriage at every chance he gets, getting into arguments with his friends. He and Mom sent a congratulatory card to our lesbian neighbors when they got married (yeah, Massachusetts!). We have a few gay members of the family (who may be out in their lives, but not to the extended family) and it makes him sad when at family gatherings, they don't bring their partners, and refer to them as "friends."

People can change. I hope, in my lifetime, that questions of gay marriage being right/wrong will be a non-issue. I think it just might happen.

Posted by Dianna | April 6, 2007 11:57 AM

While it's certainly true that it is easier to be publicly gay now than thirty years ago, I still firmly believe that as long as mainstream society is telling us to feel ashamed of being gay, Pride should be about pride.

Posted by lee | April 6, 2007 12:10 PM

One lesson from the NYTimes story: When faced with a bully, punch him/her in the face. Seriously, this is excellent advice. Growing up, everyone always told me to "ignore" my bullies, which never works. You just stay miserable for years. They also say you should tell an adult, which only results in even worse bullying. This kid did the right thing.

Posted by story | April 6, 2007 12:19 PM

I like you Dan Savage, but this seems sort of condescending. Now, I understand you're famous. But - I mean - consider what you're able to do for a living. You make it sound like such a chore that you get paid to go around and entertain people and make them think.


I'd trade you jobs any day of the week. And I'd never complain that I might almost have to speak with the people who so graciously appreciated what I had to say that they thought it worth a speaking fee to bring me out - and *gasp* now I have to go out to dinner with them. And maybe even CHAT with them. Those selfish fucks!

Posted by Sam | April 6, 2007 12:49 PM

Well, yes. I realize it sounds... awful to bitch about it. But most of the dinners are pretty miserable. You get up at 5 AM to fly out of Sea-Tac at 6. There's always a connection or two because most colleges aren't in hub cities. You arrive, have five minutes to set your stuff down, and then you're usually hustled off to a restaurant with sometimes 15 people from the gay group that want to... hear you talk. Before you, you know, talk.

Sometimes I beg 'em to let me sleep and then go out after the talk. But, yeah, I sound like a whiner. But you do this a dozen times in two months and... you'll be whining too. But, yeah, it's a great gig I've got. And I'm grateful--for a whiner.

Posted by Dan Savage | April 6, 2007 1:04 PM

Hey Dan,

Thanks again for coming, you were great. But really though, if I FedEx you 5 bucks, will you tell me what TCBATL means? I'm stumped.


Posted by | April 6, 2007 1:18 PM

In all honesty, I probably would whine, too, after a few months, Dan - but us normal average journalists don't have the luxury of speaking gigs. ;)

If only.

Posted by Sam | April 6, 2007 2:16 PM

Dan, Great story.

Thanks for putting some perspective on this ongoing struggle and helping us see there IS progress being made.

BTW, if you ever come to speak for me, I won't make you talk over dinner first. I may ask that we make out a little while we sip our Dirty Marties, but not talk....

Posted by Tom in Chicago | April 6, 2007 2:39 PM

Wow, you can get up at 5 for a 6AM flight? You're a lucky guy. If I need to catch a 6AM flight out of San Francisco (or, even worse, Oakland), I need to get there by 4:30 or so, which means getting up around 3:30. Or, more likely, staying up until 3:30.

I hope this helped. It's like reading your column to hear about people who's problems are worse than yours so that you can feel better about your own life by default.

Posted by Dave | April 6, 2007 2:51 PM

Oh, those are just the cutest boys! They look exactly like the freshmen I used to seduce when I was a grad student.

Posted by Gitai | April 6, 2007 4:47 PM

Interesting post, Dan.

It struck me as I read this - in my pre-Clinton college days there were few if any out gay people on campus. The two gay guys I knew then were "townies" several years older than me.

It's strange now to think that there was once a time with no gay people around.

Posted by Sean | April 6, 2007 4:52 PM


A quick Google search turned up a match for TCBATL: The Coffee Bean And Tea Leaf.

Apparently it is a Starbucks-like chain.

Hope this is what you were looking for.

Posted by Charles | April 6, 2007 4:57 PM

@3 I'll second that idea. A great book topic, Dan.

Posted by Paz in LA | April 6, 2007 11:12 PM

Yay for post-gayness.

I came out to my (very Christian yet very Seattle) parents when I was 21, and the worst thing that ever came of it was my dad saying 'I don't think this is God's plan for you.'
Me: 'What? That's a shitty thing to say'
Dad: ... 'Yeah, I guess it was. Sorry.'

Considering the shit that people Dan's age and older had to go through, if all I have to tolerate is an occasional innocently tactless comment, I should thank my lucky gay stars.

Posted by Rottin' in Denmark | April 7, 2007 3:19 AM

HA! "Yeah, I guess it was. Sorry." Priceless.

My orthodox jewish father and irish catholic mother cancel each other out. Holidays are confusing enough without getting into doctrinal disputes about sexuality.

Posted by aaron | April 7, 2007 7:39 PM

I agree keep the festivities but the whole pride thing has always seemed forced to me. I just like a a crowd and a great day out, even if it is raining and I have been to "pride" parades when it is raining and it kinda evened everything out the people that really just wanted to hang out and be with people stayed and the rest went and saw rainbows indoors. We have alternative to pride day here in Vancouver in the east end. That is where the fun is because most of the "Gay Village" is gutted from the party and everyone has fun just hanging out, many are not gay they just come for the involvement. Maybe it is more of a pride in just being a person and living to the fullest. But I do like a good float and I do not mean a drag queen in a car with a rainbow
flag stuck on the side. I wana see something like that "God Queen" in "300" had. Now that would be impressive.

Posted by -B- | April 8, 2007 12:06 PM

@19: "Maybe it is more of a pride in just being a person and living to the fullest." This is what Stonewall started, and what pride stands for. We just want to be able to be ourselves. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less!

If you are gay and can't relate to what gay pride means, then you must be young enough and lucky enough not to have ever had to hide and not be yourself. Go gay youth and parents of today!

Posted by Stephanie | April 9, 2007 8:00 AM

Did I look that young when I was in college? Those guys are just kids.

Posted by littlebirdie21 | April 9, 2007 10:09 AM

Shortly before she died, my last living grandparent, Mom's mother, who was the only member of my family I'd never explicitly come out to (for a variety of stupid reasons), admonished me (as she did every time we talked) to come home and visit. Then added, "And bring your friend with you." (That would be my husband of 12 years who I'd never mentioned directly to her--to the point that I always did her holiday card separately and first so I made sure only my signature was on it and it didn't have the joint year in review letter enclosed) That was the moment I realized exactly how much the world had changed since I'd first come out in the early 90s.

Posted by usagi | April 9, 2007 12:41 PM

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