OUR NEW NORMAL

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

In the lead-up to the premiere of NBC’s The New Normal on September 11 Queerty is launching a new series of features, Our New Normal, where we’ll introduce you to LGBT families of all different stripes—be they same-sex couples raising kids, straight parents raising gay kids, or close-knit groups who view themselves s family.

And we want to meet your family, too: Share your story—whether you’re related by blood or linked by love—by uploading photos, videos or notes on our special Our New Normal platform. You could win a family vacation—not to mention some serious bragging rights!

 

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.

 

Now share your family’s story by uploading photos, videos or notes on our Our New Normal page. The best submission wins a family vacation, but the deadline to submit is September 11 at 11:59pm ET. So don’t delay!