Novel looks at being gay in high school
Thair Thompson is a high school junior, openly gay and keenly aware of the pressures that youths like him face in the classrooms and hallways jammed with awkward teenagers struggling to fit in.
He sees how some of the students look at him, as if there's something wrong, how some boys turn their backs to their lockers when he passes by. He reads about gay teens committing suicide and hears political candidates decry homosexuality, comparing it to alcoholism, saying gays should be barred from teaching or serving in the military.
Recently, however, Thompson read something that validated the life experiences he's having as a 16-year-old at Northtown Academy, a Northwest Side charter school. James Klise, the school's librarian, has written a book a fictional comedic thriller that captures what it's like to be a gay teen in high school and gives Thompson hope that more people might come to understand the problems he and teens like him face.
"It was really refreshing," Thompson said of the book Love Drugged. "I've read teen gay fiction before, and it's all about sex and only a little about acceptance. This is the first time I've read something that talks about what actually goes on and how somebody chose to deal with it.''
Klise's book, his first novel, arrives at a time when the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community is dealing with issues on several fronts, from debate over the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy to the suicide of a gay Rutgers University freshman after a video of his sexual encounter was streamed online by other students. In addition, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina recently said he didn't believe gays should be allowed to be teachers, and New York Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino last month said children shouldn't be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option."
Richard Carroll, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said LGBT teenagers are four to five times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide, compared with heterosexual adolescents.
"These external stresses, which often take the form of being openly negative about being homosexual, they creep their way in internally," Carroll said. "The suicide at Rutgers, attacks on adolescents who are gay and adults who are gay. It's hard for most straight people to appreciate how insidious those negative messages are."
Klise, who is gay, said it wasn't until he began working at the high school eight years ago that memories of his own youthful struggles with identity resurfaced.
"I had forgotten what it was like to be a gay teen," Klise said. "Society has changed a lot, but that doesn't make it easier for a kid to admit they're different from their friends and their families. I wanted to express that fear and that confusion that a lot of closeted gay kids feel, but do it in a way that would be entertaining and approachable."
Love Drugged is the story of Jamie Bates, a Chicago high school freshman who is gay but in the closet. He wants nothing more than to fit in, but when a classmate learns his secret, he fears his life will be ruined. Jamie tries to keep his cover by getting involved with a beautiful female student, and that relationship leads him to discover an untested drug that can "cure" homosexuality.
Told with a dark sense of humor, the novel gives readers a firsthand look at the pressures closeted gay teens can face and the lengths they might go to in order to conform with what they believe is the norm. Through Jamie, Klise describes "those harrowing years between ages 10 and 18, when the meanest, most dreaded, completely acceptable, worst insult for any boy was to be called simply 'fag.'"
"When I was in high school," Klise said, "there wasn't a single openly gay student in my school. I think a lot of us were just sort of clueless. We didn't even see it as an option."
Klise runs the Northtown Academy library, routinely works with students on their writing and advises the student literary journal and the school's gay-straight alliance. He said his sexuality has never been an issue, though he recognizes there are places in the country where he might be out of a job for writing a book like Love Drugged.
Brock Goldflies, a straight 18-year-old senior, is vice president of Northtown's gay-straight alliance. He said students view Klise as an educator and an intellectual resource, not as a gay man.
He said the librarian's book nailed the modern-day high school experience, particularly the uncomfortable emotions gay students or teens unsure of their sexuality have to work through.
"One of the main things about the book is the idea of trying to diminish homosexuality as a foreign source, as something bad," Goldflies said. "It was really unjust, this idea of taking a pill to change who you are. It's a human soul that it's trying to get rid of."
Yet Goldflies and Thompson both said they believe there are people who would be all for such a "remedy," people who think homosexuality is an affliction that can be cured.
And that reality lies at the heart of Klise's motivation for exploring his own life experiences and weaving them into the fictional, modern-day world of Jamie Bates. He said he hopes teenagers, both gay and straight, read the book and take from it a sense that the best way to be "normal" is to simply be yourself.