Imagine you are cleaning out your attic one day and find that dusty old box of photos you have stored deep in the corner. You know the one. Now imagine picking through each photo, smiling with fond memories. Then, before you even have time to gear up, it happens. You come across that one picture you forgot all about. The one of you sitting there on the front stoop all ruddy and dirty and happy as a clam. It all makes sense now. You think: I should have known back then.
This, or some variation of it, is what one imagines the contributors to Paul Vitagliano’s new compilation Born This Way: Real Stories of Growing up Gay (Quirk Books, 2012) felt when they looked with fresh adult perspective on the various “telling” moments captured in their childhood photos. To see themselves, albeit often much smaller and with more hair, reflected back in the timeless moments of their youth proved to be quite the profound experience for each author.
In fact, this is such a universal experience among queer adult people – a feeling of having been “different” since birth. That Vitagliano had his work cut out for him when deciding which stories would make the cut for the final book. What originally began as a blog project based on a childhood photo a dear friend of his in which the friend was posed ever so precisely – a tiny arm popped out at the perfect 45 degree angle on a tiny hip – has garnered worldwide attention. With over four million page views since its 2011 inception, Vitagliano’s blog has not only started the conversation about childhood experiences among queer people, but also served to normalize an almost universal, yet very rarely discussed, phenomenon.
“Forums like Born This Way,” Vitagliano explains, “show young gay kids that they’re not alone. LGBTQ narratives also educate the straight community, especially parents. Everyone has gay family members and friends. But much of straight society has no concept of the hatred, violence, and discrimination that gay children face.”
Indeed, when you flip through your own childhood photos, the realization of your difference is only the first layer of the proverbial onion. Falling quickly inline behind this with rapid succession are the not so pleasant memories of being taunted on the schoolyard, being called “sissy” by Dad or begged by Mom to “please just wear this one dress!” On some level you’ve always known. Finding that photo only served to remind you that perhaps you weren’t all that closeted as a young person after all.
In one particularly poignant story, readers are introduced to seven-year-old Noah. The picture accompanying his adult reminiscences is of a happy young boy with hands proudly flung up and legs in perfect fourth position. As Noah explains, “I didn’t mind being a queer. Of course, I had no idea what queer meant…I thought it merely meant that I was strange and unusual, something I thought I wanted to be back then. I soon learned that being queer wasn’t something you should wish for, after the taunting and tormenting I suffered at the hands of my classmates.”
He continues, “Today when I hear about kids coming out at the ages of 14 or 12 or nine, I am shocked and amazed. I salute those kids and hope that the trend continues.”
Indeed, it was this very reason why Vitagliano first began his blog and compiled the stories in this book. Far from living in a perfect world where every child can come out without fear of severe repercussions, we do still experience the reality of children taking their own lives because they are so desperate for the pain associated with being gay in an un-accepting family and community to stop. Even still, Vitagliano explains, “I wanted the larger message [of the book] to be: I faced the same adversity you do today, and I ended up as a happy, loved, and proud gay adult.”
Born This Way, which contains 100 photographs and narratives from LGBTQ adults and spans more than six decades – from the 1940s to present day – includes contributions from readers of the blog in addition to various public figures. Barney Frank, the first openly gay Congress member, Michael Musto, Village Voice columnist and Perez Hilton, blogger and television personality, are among those whom readers might easily recognize. In these pages, however, one cannot tell actor from the average Jane. All autobiographical narratives are accompanied by first name only along with the year the picture was taken.
Ultimately, the stories in Born This Way offers readers both an opportunity to experience secondhand the transformative, full circle, power of sitting with and accepting one’s childhood self as well as a chance to laugh at the adorable hilarity of our youthful hijinks. Whichever way you look at it, Born This Way is a must-have for every queer person’s bookshelf.