Coming Out Now

For gay teens, life is better--and worse. They see more role models but AIDS is unrelenting.

Here's how Daniel Paul Layer Jr., 18, of Castro Valley, Calif., sees himself in 20 years: "I'll have my own business and have made enough money to do what I want . . . I'll have a house in the country . . . I'll have been settled down with somebody for a long time, and have three children: a boy to carry on my family name, a girl to spoil and an 'It'--whatever the third child happens to be. The first two will be mine, but the third could be adopted."

An ordinary enough dream for a teenager-- but Daniel Layer is gay. Ten years ago not many gay adolescents would have considered such a dream obtainable. Traditionally, growing up gay has meant years of self-loathing and a sense of isolation from classmates and family. Hesitant to combat the social sentiments that gay is not good, many gay teenagers still repress their homosexuality until adulthood, spending their adolescence pretending to be straight. Meanwhile, other impulses are at work: in an era when teens feel peer pressure to experiment with sex earlier, many are often forced to face the question, "Am I gay or not?" long before they're ready. For those who are gay, the strain often leads to depression. Paul Gibson, a San Francisco social worker who did a study of teen suicide for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, believes gays nationwide account for 30 percent of all teen attempts. "The root of the problem," says Gibson, "is a society that stigmatizes homosexuals while failing to recognize that a substantial number of its youth are gay."

On top of that, young gay men must now confront the specter of an early death from AIDS. But ironically the AIDS crisis has also made it easier for some homosexual teenagers: over the last decade Gay America has become more visible, often in a positive light as it took care of its own sick and dying. Gay characters now show up on television and in movies, such as the recent "Longtime Companion," the first feature film about AIDS in the gay community. News reports proliferate about the gay-rights movement, the phenomena of gay surrogate parenting and adoption, and about prominent figures who are homosexual--all of them, from congressmen to local AIDS volunteers, providing high-profile role models and raising the expectations of gay youth. Daniel Layer believes AIDS has made many Americans recognize that a gay subculture exists. "AIDS has gotten the straight world involved in the gay world," he says.

The future looks bright to Daniel, thanks to good counseling and an understanding mother. But getting this far was a struggle. His parents divorced when their only child was 3, and Daniel lived with his mother in Auburn, Wash., where she was studying to be a draftsman. On some weekends he visited Daniel Sr., a diesel mechanic, and after his father remarried, Daniel was joined by a stepbrother and a baby sister. Though Daniel liked having a family, he says his father, once a paratrooper in Vietnam, could be intense. His stepmother was a fundamentalist Christian, and Daniel says that she and his father were strict disciplinarians who didn't hesitate to punish him severely. "When he'd come back it'd take two weeks to put him back together," says Heather, 37, Daniel's mother. In 1981, to get a fresh start, Heather took her son to live in Tulsa, Okla., her hometown.

In sixth grade, Daniel got an early taste of homophobia. He and Heather had just moved back west to Tracy, Calif. "A redneck town," says Daniel. "The kids were all Chicanos and cowboys, very rough." On his first day Daniel wore a brightly colored jacket with a big collar that he thought was hip and would help him fit in. He miscalculated--drastically--and heard himself called "fag" for the first time. "The word meant absolutely nothing to me," he said. "I just knew I'd gone from being a popular kid [in Tulsa] to one of the biggest nerds in school."

Daniel says junior high was a nightmare. Because he didn't conform to the local macho standards of dress and behavior, he was challenged to fistfights daily. Once in biology lab classmates threw frogs that they had been dissecting at him. Another time, after a water-polo game, a student held him underwater so long that he almost drowned. Daniel grew depressed, got erratic grades and became rebellious. His weight shot up--"I oinked out," he says--and he quarreled constantly with Heather.

At the same time, Daniel says he recognized that the name-calling wasn't entirely off the mark. "Their words hurt a lot worse because I knew they were true," he says. He was beginning to realize he was sexually attracted to boys, and went to the library to find books and magazine articles on homosexuality. He also started seeing a family counselor to make peace at home, and a school counselor with whom he discussed his feelings of homosexuality. The school counselor's response was orthodox; she told him youngsters often go through a homosexual phase and that he could still grow up straight, marry and have a family. Hoping the counselor was right, he dated girls, but says he soon realized he was deceiving himself. Daniel kept his homosexuality from his mother and the family counselor, but his sexual confusion and years of i taunting had taken their toll. "The family counselor told me to take him out of there and move to the Bay Area," says Heather, "or I would wind up with a dead son." Daniel never considered suicide, but he believes he might have if he had stayed in Tracy.

During his four high-school years in the suburban Bay Area, Daniel continued the painstaking process of accepting his homosexuality. Students at Castro Valley High School are tolerant of differences--one popular clique, with spiky, tie-dyed hair, would look at home in New York's East Village. Though he never came out publicly at school, he was discreetly involved with another gay student for two years.

What helped most was his improved relationship with his mother. Heather says she always worried about the absence of a male role model; she suspected he might be gay, but says, "He had me fooled with all that talk about wanting children." When, at 15, he finally told her he was homosexual, he says she didn't berate him, but instead tracked down a counseling group for gay teenagers in Berkeley. "She thought I would make friends," says Daniel

Daniel's development took a critical turn in the summer of 1988. Working as a salesclerk at a shopping mall, he fell in with a suburban network of young gay men who copied the fast-track behavior of San Francisco: a steady round of dance clubs, stylish clothes--and casual sex. Daniel followed the pack, but says he has since pulled away. He wants someone steady in his life, and doesn't think he can find him there. "They see someone for a month and say they have a boyfriend," he says.

In this period, Daniel also learned firsthand about fear of AIDS. He insists that he and his generation practice safe sex as a matter of course. "We grew up with AIDS," Daniel says. "You just just use condoms without thinking about it." But as his sexual experience grew, Daniel began to worry that he may have somehow been exposed to the virus. In October 1989 he took the HIV antibody test--and was negative.

Daniel appears to have adjusted to his homosexuality at an age when many teenagers are just beginning the struggle. "My friends are starting to call me the gay poster child," he says. But he still attends a group-therapy session in San Francisco where gay teens complain of being harassed for their sexuality. "When I say, 'Mom, Dad, I can't solve this math equation'," says Peter, a member of Daniel's group, "they answer, 'Well, if you weren't gay . . ." The group shares its thoughts of suicide, fear of AIDS and anger at being ostracized by classmates. "You miss out on dating," says another group member. "You feel socially retarded."

Adolescence is never easy, but growing up gay has always been trying. For Daniel Layer, the path to self-esteem and sexual maturity dovetails with a quest for stability in his home life. Recently he walked around San Francisco's predominantly gay Castro district where bar-hopping young men bustle past neighbors on canes, their unearthly pale faces the hallmark of AIDS. But which of all the images of gay life in the Castro struck Daniel most? A couple in their 70s, helping each other down the street, both of them men.