NYT Writer John Schwartz On His Teenage Son’s Tumultuous Coming Out

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John Schwartz and his son Joe today

New York Times
correspondent John Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne, had a suspicion their son Joe might be gay from an early age—and it never really fazed them. But three years ago, the same day Joe came out to his classmates, he tried to take his own life with an overdose of pills.

Joe was only 13.

In his new memoir, Oddly Normal, the elder Schwarz recounts the years leading up to Joe’s suicide attempt and places it against a larger backdrop of both great social change and persistent bigotry.

As part of Queerty’s exploration of LGBT families in all their permutations, we talked with Schwarz about his son and their experience together with Oddly Normal.


Now, with a few years’ perspective, do you see Joe’s sexuality as something your family overcame or something you celebrate—or just a fact of life?

John Schwartz: Joe’s sexuality is, very simply, part of who he is. As you say, it’s as much an inherent part of him as being tall or having devastatingly good looks. (Hey, I’m the dad. I get to say that.)

There was nothing to overcome as far as his sexual orientation was concerned. What had to be overcome was our son’s unhappiness with himself, which my wife and I came to believe had a lot to do with [his feelings about] being gay and alone. His coming out was rocky at first, as I explain in Oddly Normal, but once he was past that important moment, a huge amount of the pressure he was living under seemed to melt away.

Are we happy about his being gay? We’re happy with Joseph, who happens to be gay. As I say in the book, “Joseph is different. He doesn’t see the world as everyone else does; he is sardonic and hilarious, goofy and grand. We wouldn’t have him any other way.”

For many, coming out at 13 would be considered incredibly young. Did you worry Joe wasn’t ready to make such a determination for himself?

Joseph has told us that he actually realized he was gay much earlier than 13. And frankly, it was pretty obvious to Jeanne and me, too. Hank Stuever, the great reporter at the Washington Post, has written about being one of the “extremely fabulous 5-year-olds who swished around the house and made it very clear what we were, whether anybody was able to read that text or not.” We feel lucky that we were able to read that.

[Joe’s] coming out at 13 was tricky, however, because it’s an age of intense pressure to conform—not all adolescents are emotionally equipped for that moment. Still, what was the alternative? Hang out in the closet for a few more years? It happens when it happens.

Joe is still in his teens. Have you found a community of families with LGBT children?

We have gotten great advice and support from friends in New Jersey whose kids grew up gay. We also talked with relatives whose kids had come out to them. We’re fans of PFLAG, too, which is a great source of support of information to people. We attended a meeting of a local PFLAG chapter, but felt that the members of that group were not quite in our situation: they were generally older, and dealing with the emotions of their children having come out to them in adulthood. They largely focused on the story of their own acceptance of their children’s sexual orientation, in some cases many years before.

I would advise anyone who has a LGBT kid—whether [that child] is out or not—and who wants to talk it out, to reach out to other parents. Whether that’s in their local family or community, or in the broader online community.

Did you discuss writing the book with Joe? What was his feeling about it?

Before I even wrote up the proposal, I wanted to make sure that it would be okay with Joe. I asked him one evening as we were driving around town— to a music lesson, I think. I described the book and what I hoped it would do: That it would provide a narrative thread of our family’s story with alternating chapters providing a greater context of history, culture, science and law. I told him it might help other families. He quickly said, “You should do it.” I stepped back and told him that the book might be uncomfortable in some places, and that I’d be talking about all kinds of things, including his suicide attempt and his time in the hospital. “Do it,” he said.

[My wife] Jeanne and I had been discussing whether we would try to write a book for some time before I proposed it; when it looked like there would be interest from publishers, she sat down and started typing up her own reminiscences and thoughts about raising Joseph; over the following weeks, her notes grew to 120 pages, and were essential to putting the book together.

So as Jeanne and I worked on Oddly Normal, we discussed it with Joe—the day that the first draft was completed I sat down with him as he read it all the way through. It wasn’t easy, but he got through it and had a lot to say over the next few days. We talked about it, and he had suggestions about some parts, which turned into additions to the text.

As we continued to work on the manuscript, Joe wrote a children’s story—as a school project—about a little boy who offers flowers, chocolate and a poem to another boy. It was wonderful and Jeanne suggested that it could be part of the book; “Leo, the Oddly Normal Boy” is now the last chapter, and gives our book its name.

Oddly Normal is out on Gotham Books on November 8 and available for pre-order now.


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  • ScaryRussianHeather

    Oh so the kid is still a teenager but the parents feel perfectly right in writing a damn BOOK about his personal still unfinished adolescent journey. Leave it to a NYT writer to put himself ahead of his child.

    And also TYPICAL because he couldn’t “GET” anything from PFLAG he walks away instead of exerting his efforts GIVING…to enhance the organization. Better to spend his time on personal profit than helping other families with young children looking for HELP themselves.

  • tdx3fan

    @ScaryRussianHeather: People do not write books such as this to make money. They do it to help people. If even one family is in a similar situation and turns to this book then they will know that they are not alone, and they will have help navigating some very churning waters.

  • John Schwartz

    Thanks for the words of support, tdx3fan and Aidan8! We do hope that the book helps people. I’ve had early readers say things like “I wish I’d had a book like this when I was growing up” and “I need to buy this for my parents; they’ve never really accepted me.” I don’t know how different people will approach “Oddly Normal,” but I hope that our message of support — for our LGBT kids, and any kid who is different — gets out there. Feel free to join the discussion on Facebook (www.facebook.com/OddlyNormalBook). If you read the book and like it, let me know! If you read the book and don’t like it, I want to hear that as well.


    How wonderful that you and your wife were proactive once Joe came out. I was always gay, it was not something in my adolescence that I needed to consider. I never had a problem being gay but to this day I cannot understand why any one else would. For my adolescents it was like going into a mental holocaust ever day at school from being bullied. If your book can help ONE child then the gift your family gave to the LGBT community is priceless. Thank you and thanks Joe for being willing to share your experience.

  • gsingjane

    Although SRH’s comments were expressed a bit harshly, I have to say, as a long-time PFLAG leader (and speaking just for myself of course!), that she does have a point. There are VERY few parents of gay kids who actually want to stick around and help anybody else… particularly, for some reason, parents who get lots of media attention, who are sort of the “poster children” for being tolerant parents. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great if the message of tolerance and acceptance gets out there, in whatever form, but there is a giant need for “boots on the ground,” one-on-one, to help people who are still having trouble. That’s the kind of quiet, anonymous work that the “media stars” don’t seem interested in doing. I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and it’s very hard to avoid burnout at times, and I guess when I see things like Mr. Schwartz’ comments about PFLAG – it just makes me kind of disappointed and sad.

  • John Schwartz

    gsingjane, I’m sorry of the Q and A left the impression that we were critical of PFLAG — I know that it’s an amazing organization that has helped countless families. One-on-one counseling is vitally important, and I admire you for doing it. Jeanne and I urge people to seek out PFLAG in the book. I hope that you do read the book, and that even though I may be a disappointment to you, that the message you want to see about embracing our kids gets out there through the book.

  • Windsor519

    First of all, I do not want to downplay the seriousness of gay teen suicide and the fact that they are really at the mercy of their parents and counsellors. However, what’s largely ignored here are two things that have really changed over the last decade: 1) MANY gay people now have no intentions of ever coming out – they’re hiding online in gay chat rooms behind a screen name that describes a body they wish they had, and success they wish they could attain – there is such an obvious sense of…’don’t bother coming out unless you look perfect, have money, and have a post-graduate education’. The rejection, the rudeness and attitude I received from other gay people after coming out drove me to suicidal behaviours every day – I had a very supportive family coming out, but none of us knew how awful most of the gay male community would be – the very people I had waited a lifetime to find some kind of acknowledge or acceptance from, and they were worse than the bullies who teased me for being gay. Of course, at this point, you’re no longer a teenager, and therefore off of the radar of being a gay teen. There are many more gay men who’ve been out for 10 years or more, never found a partner, never fit into the gay community, have been rejected too many times, and are done. They’ve had enough. This is not what any of us signed up for when we came out. Gay marriage? Who cares about that when there’s nobody to even meet or try to be friends with?

    When I first came out I felt good about being gay, and I assumed that, since gay people understood that stigma of being dropped into the category of ‘other’, they’d be welcoming and understanding. But there is a real nasty facet to their personalities that just likes to feel good about finally hurting other people – unfortunately, instead of attacking the source of their anger, they attack other gay people who went through the same thing, and drive us away from any interest of partaking in any gay events in the future. I no longer have anything to do with gay people and while I’m not happy, I got sick and tired of constantly not feeling good enough, not having enough money, not having expensive enough clothes, not having a job that meant that I’m ‘worth something’ – this is what is meant by ‘it gets better’? If that’s the case, then what does ‘it gets a hell of a lot worse’ look like?! I’m afraid to even think about it.

    Straight people are coming around and that’s great, but until other gay people learn how to give out that respect we demand from society, we have to learn how to stop this mean-spirited attitude towards each other that is causing us to give up on life.

  • John Schwartz

    At the risk of belaboring all of this, I wanted to get back to a few points. I do encourage people seeking information and help to reach out to their local PFLAG chapter, and the group makes it easy at pflag.org/find. We owe a big debt to PFLAG — one that may not be adequately expressed in the book, or in my answer to the Q&A. We didn’t have great luck with the first group we went to: it was made up of older parents whose children were long grown up. They didn’t have a lot to say to us, and one-on-one counseling wasn’t offered. We were in crisis and needed to find resources to help our son right then. So, was we say in the book, we then went to another PFLG group in Manhattan, at the LGBT Community Center on 13th Street in the West Village. That’s where we learned about programs aimed directly at kids like Joseph, including the center’s amazing Youth Empowerment Services, or YES. If we hadn’t gone to PFLAG in Manhattan, we wouldn’t have found Yes, which has really changed Joe’s life for the better.
    One final point about why we wrote the book. We are hoping to send a message to other families and to parents. But we also wrote it for Joseph, to help him make sense of the confusing conflicts of his childhood and the misery that was a bit part of his growing up. In middle school, he told a counselor that back in elementary school he’d been a demon. The process of working through the manuscript helped us to show Joseph the story of what happened to him in school and why it was wrong, and how the teachers and administrators should have done a better job of trying to understand what he was going through. When we would try to talk to people in the school about the fact that Joe is gay, it was as if they didn’t want to hear us; the words slid by. They preferred to deal with Joseph as special needs — they were all set up for that. But they did not want to hear the word “gay.”
    So that brings us to another reason for writing the book: to get school administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors thinking about better ways to work with children like Joseph. We want them to understand that some children do know they are different from other children as young as five, or four or even three. These children might feel stress in school because of that and might need extra mentoring or an extra sympathetic teacher. That applies to gay children, special needs children, any kind of child who is different. So we’re also asking the schools to do more to help struggling, unhappy students — whatever their needs.

  • PTBoat

    @Windsor519: I think you might need some help dealing with these negative feelings. While it might be true in a nightclub or a concentrated youth culture, being gay is not about fashion, perfect looks, and attacks on others. Especially now, we can more easily meet people who are of our own persuasion when it comes to lifestyle. It’s up to you to get out and volunteer, socialize, and make the first efforts to meet people who are like you and who will accept you for who you are as a whole person. There’s a whole world out there and it is for you to enjoy it, but no one can do that for you.

  • PTBoat

    I cannot wait to read this book. It sounds like a wonderful way for their family to work through and help others with their experiences, especially since they are a writing family. I was recently reminded of the wonderful scene, from “Torch Song Trilogy,” during which the protagonist confronts his mother and makes it clear that he can be on his own if necessary. It’s an empowering, yet ultimately sad, speech that speaks to my generation because of the character’s final release of needing to be just “tolerated.” (I’m not going to link it here, but you should check it out) Gladly, speeches like the one in the film are becoming less and less necessary as families, like the one featured here, are more interested in dealing with raising their kid than worrying that he or she might fall in love with someone of the same gender. This is hope to all of us for a better world.

    I can completely understand the need for support for some people that is outside of the wonderful work that PFLAG does. The family made it clear that their PFLAG chapter, which seems to be the case with many, dealt mostly with older families dealing with their problems with their adult children coming out, which is something that they didn’t need. I t just makes sense to me.

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