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New York Times journalist John Schwartz’ book Oddly Normal (Gotham Books) is about two straight parents’ efforts to help their son as he deals with a complex of problems related to sexuality and developmental difficulties. At a very young age, Joseph is identified by his parents as gay, but the drama in the book comes from psychological and social difficulties that keep Joseph bouncing around from therapist to therapist and in constant conflict with the school system in the New Jersey town where his family lives. Joseph’s problems become more complicated as he attempts to deal with them on his own, even as he attempts to come out at school, eventually resulting in a suicide attempt and a new openness with his family.
Though Schwartz has noble intentions in bringing his son’s story to print, ultimately the book adds little to the gay-related memoir canon. In fact, most of the drama in Oddly Normal has little to do with Joseph’s sexuality. Persistent attempts by psychologists, psychiatrists and crusading teachers to diagnose Joseph somewhere along the autism spectrum give the book most of its dynamism, since the Schwartzes are from the start relatively gay-affirmative parents.
Indeed, the Schwartzes decided that their son was gay when he was a toddler, based on his penchant for dolls and glitter. Having accepted this fact, they spend much of the rest of the book waiting for their son to come out to them, wondering how to push him into accepting his gay identity, and fretting because he hasn’t come out yet.
Although it’s encouraging that there are parents out there who would encourage their children to grow up gay, I do find it quite bizarre that the Schwartzes decided their son’s sexuality for him. In fact, the book is stifled by a self-congratulatory tone that seems to be hinting that the ultimate in gay-affirmative parenting involves choosing for your child. This strikes me as especially odd given the emphasis gay communities continue to put on childhood autonomy—given the fact that so many LGBTQ kids grow up in homophobic or transphobic families. Should that autonomy only be something we fight for when the parents hate homosexuality?
Schwartz spends a lot of time referring to, or trying to prove, the biological origins of gayness. While this might be an affirmative exercise for many, I found it a bit wrongheaded, since the author constantly shifts back and forth between talking about same-sex attraction and the fact that “girly boys” seem statistically likely to grow up to be gay.
Partly a defence of his parenting strategy—Joseph’s effeminacy is what led to his and his wife’s pre-emptive acceptance of their son’s sexuality—and partly an education detour, this chapter could be useful if you have friends or family who need convincing that people have little choice over their sexuality. But the conflation of same-sex desire with cross-gender behaviour is not rigorously examined, and it leads Schwartz to misunderstand why some of Joseph’s peers tease him. Does it not seem likely that Joseph’s peers tease him for his effeminacy, not because of his sexual desire? In other words, that what John Schwartz calls “sexual desire” is less of an issue (especially at this young age) than “sexual identity”?
This is the kind of discussion we don’t get in Oddly Normal. While this doesn’t discredit the book as a whole, the lack of discussion about this issue (which is the subject of David Halperin’s new book, How to be Gay (Belknap Press at Harvard University Press, 2012) is just one sign among many that Oddly Normal comes out of a very straight milieu indeed.
The debate over the kinds of romantic relationships gays, lesbians and queers should engage in—or at least talk about in public—is ongoing. While the liberal LGBTQ establishment pursues marriage equality across the board, it also promotes a monogamous ideal based on straight norms (for better or worse). Schwartz’s book reflects this ideal. He turns to his gay friend Brian for advice about getting Joseph to come out; Brian in turn urges John to get him to come out while he’s still in high school, so he can “get the raging-hormones thing out of [his] system at the same time that straight kids do” and thus avoid a “never-ending delayed adolescence.” Reflecting on his own childhood, Brian writes that he wishes he had had gay role models: “The goal would have been to show me that while sex may be great, relationships are better.” The gay identity he grew up into ”led him to anonymous sex for a couple of years after coming out.”
Though the Schwartzes do actively want to introduce their son to gay and lesbian culture—they take him into New York so he can visit a community center, and so forth—they don’t seem eager to have him exposed to much history or debate. This is finally the biggest flaw in Oddly Normal: speaking from a decidedly straight position, only rarely calling on gays or queers to talk about what it’s like to grow up in a heterosexual world, the book feels deeply cut-off from our communities, uninformed by our experiences. While Schwartz does give solid information about the social science on same-sex love, he’s not at all sensitive to the debates that have been raging among LGBTQ people for decades.
Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality
By John Schwartz
Hardcover, 9781592407286, 304 pp.