Author John Schwartz on Oddly Normal

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First aired on Q (01/03/13)

At the age of 13, a boy named Joseph Schwartz came out to his schoolmates as gay. He then went home and tried to kill himself. Despite the It Gets Better campaign and media awareness of the difficulties faced by gay teens, his story remains all too common: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths are at much greater risk of committing suicide than their heterosexual peers. Fortunately, Joseph Schwartz is still alive. And his experiences are the subject of Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality, a memoir written by his father, John Schwartz, a reporter for the New York Times.

In a recent interview on Q, John Schwartz told host Jian Ghomeshi that Joseph's problems began when he entered the school system. "Joseph was really effeminate, he was a very fabulous five-year-old," he explained. "And as the kids started to differentiate, boys becoming boyish and girls became girlish, Joe was a girly boy." He wasn't interested in sports, like the other boys, but at that age the girls don't like boys. This led Joseph to feel isolated and lonely.

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Joseph was not directly attacked or bullied because of being gay. But Schwartz attributes his son's difficulties to suffering from "minority stress," as it's described by American psychiatrist and author Ilan Meyer. At one level, someone who's gay might be worried about being bullied. But at a deeper level, he might be worried by remarks not directed at him but at homosexuality in general. "Beyond that, you have the stress, if you're in the closet, of concealing who you are, of concealing your own nature. And that's a terrible thing," Schwartz said. There's also the added stress of hearing negative remarks about gay people, which can be taken to heart and affect how a person sees himself.

In the first few years of school, Joseph was the object of attention from teachers, doctors and therapists, all trying to figure out what was wrong with him and coming up with diagnoses of various learning or emotional disorders. Schwartz acknowledged that his son had other issues beyond being gay -- in particular, he had emotional problems and had difficulty fitting in -- but the experience was still "very frustrating." Although he believes that labels can be helpful, in terms of identifying treatment options, "in the case of Joseph, especially in those early years, those labels were being used to narrow his options, not expand them."

A few weeks before Joseph attempted suicide, he had come out to his parents. But he also confided that he was being bothered by dark impulses, which he said he "was handling." But clearly, he wasn't. When Joseph finally came out to his classmates, he did so in a way that intimidated some of the other boys, because he attacked them verbally. He then went home and in the grip of an impulse, took two dozen Benadryl. When Schwartz's wife came home, she found him delirious and raving, but got him to the hospital in time to save his life.

Once Joseph passed this crisis, the family was able to turn to resources available at New York City's LGBT Community Center. As a result, "he became better, happier, and more comfortable in his own skin," Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that he wrote his memoir in order "to reach other parents, other families. You know, one of the things that helps people understand that being gay isn't a choice, isn't wicked, is just knowing someone who is gay. The idea was if people got to know our family, they might think that the way we looked at things was okay."

Schwartz emphasizes that he wrote the book with his son's encouragement, a fact supported by Joseph himself, in a recorded clip. "Honestly, some books just need to be out there," the teen said. "We need more stuff about growing up being gay, and if I have to be mildly inconvenienced for that to happen, then that's okay."

Joseph was brought into the process of writing, and read the manuscript and made suggestions. "I worry about his privacy over time," Schwartz admitted. "But Joseph was less worried than I was. At the LGBT Community Center in New York City, he's part of a culture in which people share their stories to help each other, and to Joe, this was an extension of that."

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