Austin, age 13, is touching and familiar. With his helmet of short brown hair, biggish ears and sensitive eyes, he's typical of a tender age almost on the cusp of manhood. So little time behind him, so much time ahead of him. If he were Jewish, he might be preparing for his bar mitzvah, thanking his parents for giving him life, expressing his hopes to live up to the respect they place in him.
Tender age notwithstanding, Austin has another agenda. He's on the cover of The New York Times Magazine last Sunday, telling the world what he earlier told his parents and his classmates. He's gay. Not cheerful, happy and carefree in the original meaning of that word, but as how the untender times have redefined the word.
He says he has known his secret sexuality since he was 11, and knew that he was "different" as early as when he was only 6 or 7, and in the second grade. He wants the world to know what it's like "coming out in middle school."
The boy's current confusion, as The New York Times tells it, is a problem familiar to girls: "Austin didn't know what to wear to his first gay dance last spring." Not only is he confused about how to dress, but, as he tells Benoit Denizet-Lewis, the writer who can't wait to tell us that he's gay, too, "I don't have any clean clothes."
We learn all this in the first paragraph, presumably told to make Austin sound like any 13-year-old. He complains that his boyfriend is having trouble getting a ride to the dance because he has a creepy father: "His dad would give him up for adoption if he knew he was gay."
Therein lies the latest trauma of sexual liberation. The culture doesn't "understand" what it means to be gay when a child: Lots of gay kids are teased and bullied. In a survey of 626 gay, bisexual and transgendered middle-schoolers taken by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network, 81 percent report being regularly harassed because of their sexual orientation.
Bullying, of course, is a norm for teenagers, straight as a string or otherwise. Girl-on-girl bullying, as any mother of a daughter knows, is rampant as early as grade school. A top-ranked New Jersey high school reports that when a "slut list," so called, circulated on campus, it was not exactly clear whether a reputation for sexual promiscuity was a "badge of honor" or a "cause for shame."