When Someone You Know Is Gay


Arts & Culture

The author’s copy of When Someone You Know Is Gay.


At the tail end of the Clinton administration, my school library had a miniature gay section hidden in a corner. It took up half a shelf and consisted of maybe four books—half a dozen, tops. As far as I know, no one else was aware of this; I never saw another soul in that section of the library. Perhaps it appeared, like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement, only to those who needed it. I needed it desperately.

I was thirteen, and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I liked girls in the way that I was expected to like boys. After a disastrous game of Truth or Dare, during which I committed the socially suicidal error of asking “Truth: Which girl in our class would you most like to kiss?”—“Ew, Frankie, that’s a gay question!”—I understood that these feelings were classifiable under (a) “ew” and (b) “gay.” It was the memory of that seventh-grade slumber party that primed me to notice, in the corner of the library, a bright turquoise hardcover titled When Someone You Know Is Gay.

Experts estimate that approximately one in ten people are gay. Just as there are gay adults in every walk of life … so there are gay teenagers in high school everywhere. Someone your own age that you know is gay.

When Someone You Know Is Gay, by Susan and Daniel Cohen (whose other books, according to the dust jacket, include Teenage Stress and What You Can Believe About Drugs), was published in 1989. It’s addressed, purportedly, to straight teens who want to understand their gay friends better. Seriously, that’s the premise, and the book commits to it for all 170 pages.

What follows is a list of materials that are easily available and will help you understand lesbians and gays.

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.
This famous novel about a bold, smart, adventurous lesbian named Mollie Bolt is fun to read.

Though they’ve essentially written a primer on how to be gay, featuring chapters on gay history, gay literature, and even how gay people have sex, the authors maintain the pretense with an utterly straight face: This is how your friend would have gay sex. Remember, your friend should always use condoms for anal intercourse. Here are some gay historical figures to inspire your friend. See the appendix for a list of crisis hotlines that could be useful to your friend.

I questioned none of this. You have to understand that this was the era of the Gay-Straight Alliance, that oasis of plausible deniability; the following year, when I joined my high school’s GSA, it was universally understood that we were all S people, in selfless A with the abstract idea of G people. In 2000, it did not strike me as weird that a book about gay people should assume that all its readers were straight. I did what all queer kids learn to do very well: I read between the lines. As if looking at a Magic Eye picture, I diverged my eyes and squinted until I saw myself.

A gay or lesbian teen grows up in a world that still refuses to recognize that he or she exists … Has the subject of homosexuality ever been discussed in any of your classes? If so, try to remember what was said. Very little, we would suspect.

I never formally checked out the book; instead, I took up permanent lunchtime residence in the library, crouching on the floor in the secret gay corner until my legs fell asleep. Once a teacher spotted me and asked what I was reading. Like a five-year-old, I hid the book in my lap and replied, “Nothing.”

When I finished When Someone You Know Is Gay, I moved on to the rest of the gay half-shelf and read my way through the whole thing. It didn’t take long. There was a biography of Ryan White, another AIDS history or two, even—somehow—Rubyfruit Jungle (not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but in retrospect, what the hell?). Still, I always went back to When Someone You Know Is Gay. It was my first, my dearest friend.

That was seventeen years ago. Recently, out of curiosity, I ordered a used copy for two bucks on Amazon. As soon as I unwrapped it and saw the cover, with its clashing panels of turquoise and maroon, its towering title bedecked in authoritarian serifs—an aesthetic you might call “Barbara Bush chic”—I braced myself for a comical eighties relic.

And to be sure, the book shows its age in some ways. Trans people go unmentioned apart from two pages on a trans woman named Angela in the well-intentioned but dated chapter on “Drag Queens, Transvestites, and Transsexuals.” The plight of white gay kids is repeatedly compared to racism against black people, with little awareness of those who manage to be both gay and black (let alone another race). Heartbreakingly, the AIDS chapter predicts the development of “drugs that will suppress or slow [the virus’s] destruction of the immune system and allow a person to live a longer and more normal life,” but acknowledges that “even that is no more than a hope right now.” This last detail makes it hard to condemn the authors for their one misstep in tone, a single sentence in which they seem to lose emotional control:

Anyone who takes chances with AIDS, assuming science will find a cure before they get sick, is crazy.

In general, though, I was struck by the seriousness of the writing. There are no illustrations, no graphics or sidebars, none of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a book marketed to teens—the text speaks for itself, and it’s surprisingly comprehensive. In rereading, I realized that most of my basic knowledge of gay culture, which I thought I’d picked up through osmosis, could probably be traced back to When Someone You Know Is Gay: Sodom and Gomorrah; Plato and Socrates; Sappho; Oscar Wilde (and his “misfortune to become enamored of an upper-class twerp named Lord Alfred Douglas”); the Stonewall riots; Harvey Milk; Anita Bryant; the differences between drag queens, transvestites, and transsexuals; the fact that “rock star Madonna has a huge following among young gay guys,” and a capsule history of the AIDS epidemic that ought to be taught in schools even today.

It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that had this been a disease that afflicted white, middle-class, heterosexual men, the reaction would have been much quicker, and thousands upon thousands of lives would have been saved.

All of this was familiar; some of it I even remembered verbatim. But there was one thing I’d misremembered. If you’d asked me what the book had to say about bisexuality, I would have told you it wasn’t discussed at all.

I would have told you this because—plot twist!—it turned out I wasn’t gay. Though I began to notice girls early on, halfway through high school I also began to notice boys, and so, assuming I’d simply been mistaken earlier, I dated boys and joked with them about the two-year phase during which I “thought I was a lesbian.” I was twenty-two before it occurred to me that I was allowed to date girls as well, and twenty-five before it occurred to me that there existed a perfectly good word for people who did so. In my memory, this word appeared nowhere in When Someone You Know Is Gay.

In fact, it comes up a lot. Bisexuality is invoked over and over, as an example of something that gay people are not. It’s another abstract concept, one against which the concept of “gay” is defined. Gay people are real; bi people are fake.

[Q:] Do gay teenagers sometimes think they’re bisexual?

[A:] Many gay teenagers, confused, ill informed, and scared of the stigma placed on homosexuality by the straight majority, do tell themselves they’re bisexual. It’s a comforting label because a lot of straight people consider bisexuality less drastic than homosexuality. Of course, most people have a very fuzzy idea of exactly what bisexuality is, and even experts disagree. But it sounds better than homosexuality—kind of adventurous and sort of forgivable. You don’t hear of people setting out to go “bi bashing” very often.

As my English teacher would have said, there’s a lot to unpack here. Suffice it to say that the authors wrote no companion volume titled When Someone You Know Is Bi. Buzzwords like biphobia, bisexual invisibility, and bisexual erasure are familiar enough nowadays to be almost vacuous, so it’s difficult to move past the realm of cliché when I try to describe how insignificant, how phony, how outside the scope of this book that passage makes me feel today. How closely it echoes the voice in my head on my worst days. On some level, I think, I never did forget it.

But it’s been a long time. That library was torn down after I graduated; the new one has glass walls, like an aquarium, so people on the street can look in. My younger cousin attended this school, too, class of ’16. According to her, it still has a GSA, but GSA now stands for Gender and Sexuality Alliance—the idea being that queer kids deserve a safe space undefined by straight kids, and that the word “gay” is insufficient because it leaves out the bi kids, the trans kids, the kids who aren’t sure yet. When she told me this, I felt, as David Sedaris puts it in his essay “Road Trips,” “like someone in a ten-pound leg brace meeting a beneficiary of the new polio vaccine.”

I can’t fault Susan and Daniel Cohen for failing to anticipate how dramatically the world would change. Indeed, I marvel that their curious little book exists at all—and that I found it when I did. Today, I keep it in my room as a reminder of the world I used to live in, the girl I used to be, the secret books that sustained her. Every morning, the cover greets me awake.

It says: When Someone You Know Is Gay.

It says: Someone You Know.

It says: You Know.


James Frankie Thomas is the author of The Showrunner, which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology. His writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.