How does one begin to empathize with another’s struggles? In Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son to Come to Terms with his Sexuality, John Schwartz deftly intersperses memoir with research in his attempt to better understand his son’s journey within a larger cultural context. Unfortunately, much of Schwartz’s search began after his son, Joe, attempted suicide after coming out at school. While Schwartz sees the additional struggles his son faced because he lives in a homophobic society, he also explores the defining factors of his son’s life beyond his sexual orientation.
Schwartz and his wife embraced the idea of allowing their children to play with toys, regardless of their designation as boys’ toys or girls’ toys. They were surprised when their first two children conformed to the gendered standard for their sexes. And when their third child, Joe was born, they were unfazed by his love for Barbie—that is until he started kindergarten. Understanding that even five-year olds could be cruel, they quietly packed his beloved dolls away. In his writing, Schwartz notes that in doing so they “had built his first closet.”
While Joe did not enjoy sports or other stereotypically masculine pursuits, Schwartz notes that many of Joe’s problems did not stem from his homosexuality or gender nonconformity. In fact, most of Joe’s elementary school years were filled with doctor and therapy appointments as teachers, administrators, and his parents struggled to help him adjust socially. Sometimes, Joe would act out in class, but other examples were less clear-cut. For instance, Joe did not have good eye contact. And Joe would write inappropriate examples in his class assignments (i.e. “Pick up the fucking gunk” to illustrate his mastery of the short-u sound). Soon Joe was being tested for clinical diagnoses ranging from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to Asperger’s Syndrome. In this way, Schwartz underscores that Joe’s problems stemmed from a multitude of factors. Nonetheless, Schwartz also notes that Joe’s sexual orientation did contribute to his feelings of alienation, and ultimately to some of his behavioral issues.
Lesbians, Gays, and Mental Health
To learn more about sexual minorities and mental health, Schwartz delves into the history of homosexuality as it pertains to the mental health industry. He takes the reader back to 1952 when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the first Diagnostic Statistic Manual. In the initial edition, homosexuality was listed as “one of the ‘sexual deviations’ that fell under the broad heading of ‘sociopathic personality disturbance’” (86). While the APA has evolved, no longer classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, a correlation between homosexuality and certain mental health problems may exist. For example, Schwartz cites “Gregory Herek of University of California, Davis, who has studied the effects of prejudice against sexual minorities…‘The data from some studies suggest that, although most sexual minority individuals are well adjusted, nonheterosexuals may be at somewhat heightened risk for depression, anxiety, and related problems, compared to exclusive heterosexuals.’” Schwartz explains that this phenomenon may be due to “minority stress,” a concept popularized by Dr. Ilan Meyer that explores the ways in which a heterosexist society creates “interconnected ways that stress builds in the minds and lives of gay people, and the effects that it can have” (91). These concepts show that homosexuality is not the cause of mental health problems. Rather, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals may have additional mental health issues because of the stress they face living in a heterosexist world that rejects the validity of their sexual identities.
John Schwartz provides a compelling account of his son’s journey to accepting himself as gay. While Schwartz explicitly writes that Joe’s story is only his story and not necessarily representative of any other gay person’s story, he infuses the book with data and perspectives that shape a more comprehensive picture of growing up gay in America.
For the past twelve years, Robin Petrovic has been teaching English Composition, Literature, and Gender & Women Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she infuses Queer Theory into all of her courses. In 2011, Petrovic co-founded Gay4Good: Chicago, an inclusive LGBT volunteer organization that donates its time to social welfare and environmental service projects. As the literature blogger for IntraSpectrum Counseling, she reviews a variety of LGBTQ texts, so readers can easily find materials that match their interests and needs.