When my first novel came out about six months ago, many exciting things happened. I got my first glimpse at a trade paperback book I had created up at retailers. There were industry reviews, and chatter at sites like Goodreads. I did readings and signing events. I felt a rush of pride when my book was nominated for awards.
A lot has changed for me since I walked the halls of Amherst High School, which is in a suburban town adjacent to the city of Buffalo. If someone had told me back then that I would return to the school as an adult to talk to students about being gay and writing gay literature, I probably would have crushed myself into a tight ball, begging to disappear from the world. I knew that I was attracted to boys at thirteen years old. But I had been so terrified that I buried those feelings deep in my psyche.
This was back in the 1980s and in suburban Western New York. There were no gay people in that universe, just a few individuals who were assumed to be gay because of the way they dressed or their mannerisms. Those teachers and students couldn’t hide who they were. To me, they were a cautionary tale. Gay people got made fun of behind their backs. Sometimes, they were openly harassed.
It would take going away to college, meeting gay people who weren’t ashamed, and a really affirming psychotherapist for me to come out proud and to embark on a career as a social worker for LGBT youth.
A few months after The Seventh Pleiade released, it occurred to me that my former high school should have a copy. There had to be LGBT students at the school who were looking for books about people like themselves. Even if they were too afraid to take the book down from a shelf, the book would be up there as a symbol that LGBT kids had a place in the school. That was something that would have helped me back when. When I sent the book to the librarian, she connected me to a teacher who advises the school’s GSA. That teacher asked me if I would come back to talk to her students.
Complicated as high school was for me, I’ve always looked back on that era of my life fondly. I wasn’t part of the popular crowd, but I had good friends who brought me out of my shy, inner world, even if they didn’t know me completely. I wrote for the high school newspaper, and I did a lot of creative writing as a teen. I always felt encouraged by teachers, friends and family. That my high school world couldn’t help me come to terms with being gay never struck a bitter chord. I was part of the culture of the time, which believed that gayness was a defect.
I wasn’t surprised that my old high school has a GSA. Most public schools in the Northeast do these days. It’s a wonderful thing. But I was surprised that on a Friday after school, twenty students showed up to their meeting. As groups of students wandered into the room, I heard one young man say: “Oh, it’s that crazy author guy.” That set a familiar irreverent tone that immediately put me at ease.
I talked about my experience as a gay student, becoming an author and my belief that LGBT young adult literature is an important part of creating change and equality. The students had lots of questions.
Some were writers themselves and asked me about overcoming challenges and about my experience getting my work published. Some wanted to know about my coming out experience. When did I know I was gay? How did I know?
I told them that those were questions I had pondered heavily when I was younger, and I did my best to answer honestly and thoughtfully. It took me back to the many mysteries of growing up. Where do I fit in? How will I know for sure? Will anyone ever understand me?
There were students in morbid graphic t-shirts, girls holding hands, boys looking restless and embattled, and outbursts of nervous and triumphant laughter. The sum of it all was like catching on the radio an old song that I had forgotten how much I loved. That’s an analogy I chose not to share with the group in fear that I would be asked: what’s a radio? But some things about being a teenager never change.
For me it was a very special homecoming. I was able to share an important part of who I am with Amherst High School. Even though it took me more years than I care to admit, that afternoon I spent with the high school GSA was one of the most gratifying moments of my life.
For the authors out there who have considered going back to their former high school, this is an enthusiastic testimonial that should come with a flashing pop-up: Do it! It’s a great way to give back. As the GSA advisor told me, LGBT students are greatly in need of adult role models. The experience also made me realize that despite all the ways I tried to distance myself from my hometown—geographically for one thing—that community had a big influence on me. I rediscovered my “tribe,” and it felt amazing to be welcomed back.