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In Your Face:
Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth

Book Review by Celesta Atkins
Courtesy of the International Gay & Lesbian Review,
One Institute Press

In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth, by Mary L. Gray, Hawroth Press, 1999, 184 pages, paperback, $19.95
When does one begin to discover one's sexuality? More importantly in the case of queer youth, when does one begin to realize that one is "different?" Although this question has been studied in social science, it has always been researched utilizing recollections of adult gay males, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.

There are inherent problems in this methodology, the most glaring being the inevitability of selective memory. Moreover, the social climate in which queer youth find themselves today is very different from that of 50, 20 or even 10 years ago. That being said, there is a very little in the literature that "gives voice" to contemporary queer teens or that even asks them about their experiences.

Mary L. Gray has set out to fill that void with her book In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth. In her introduction, "Why do we need books like this?" Gray posits:

"The lack of firsthand accounts from young people identifying as lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered is not coincidental" (p. 1). Furthermore, she believes "Our society does not ask questions of its youth because it does not expect to get a 'real' answer … Our society does not expect that youth can possibly know who they are or what they want" (p. 2). For Gray, "The motivation, then, to create this book came from the complete absence of voice and testimony from youth talking about their queer sexuality and identity, the result of society's homophobia and its ever-present ageist sensibilities of whose view counts" (p. 2).

This book is significant, due to the growing numbers of youth that are identifying as queer (at earlier ages) and the corresponding numbers of queer youth who, feeling ostracized and demonized, are committing suicide. "In the United States the suicide rate for queer youth is three times the national average for all youth" (p. 3). Anyone who has felt marginalized in this society will understand the need for connection with others like themselves. Queer youth, especially those in rural or particularly homophobic areas need more texts like this one that can be used to fight the feelings of isolation that can end in tragedy.

Ms. Gray takes several innovative approaches to the researching and writing of this book. The book consists of excerpts from oral histories of 15 gay, lesbian and bisexual youth.

Instead of taking the conventional approach to collecting oral histories in which she would, as the researcher, interview the subjects, Ms. Gray has the teens pair off and interview each other. She decided upon this method, "because I thought it would be much more interesting and effective to have young people asking one another the questions-to break out of the traditional social science methodologies of anonymously interviewing numbered subjects" (p. 4). As a group, she and the teens came to a consensus about what issues should take precedence.

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The end result is a book which begins with profiles of the 15 teens and moves on to address issues that they felt were paramount in their lives. These issues include the creation of their sexual identities; coming out to their families and communities; institutions that had a big influence on them including church, school, and to a lesser extent the Internet; finding and getting involved in the queer community; remembering their first kisses and/or first sexual experiences; their thoughts on the future; and finally, a message to others. The book itself is organized in a unique fashion: the table of contents not only includes the chapter headings but under each chapter title is a list of the persons quoted on that subject and the pages on which each can be found. According to Gray:

The structure of this book allows readers to learn some background about each of the speakers. Each of the book's chapters focuses on a different subject so that readers can choose what they wish to read about and see the varying experiences each speaker has with that particular topic. The intent was to show that not all queer youth have the same experiences or feelings. . . This book's format also enables readers to find a particular person's stories quickly and easily in each chapter, without having to scan the entire book for their favorite person or the one with whom they identify the most" (pp. 4-5). This technique is very effective, especially when dealing with so many diverse voices and experiences.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, I found it very informative and I found the youth to be articulate and honest in their views on sexuality and society and the difficulties of being queer in our society. I highly recommend this book to those interested in identity formation or queer studies, but particularly to those who know a young person going through this type of struggle. I believe this text can serve as a valuable resource to marginalized teens struggling with issues of sexuality and identity.

That being said however, I did have some specific criticisms of both the organization of the book and the methodology.

While I applaud Ms. Gray's innovations and creative methodology, I believe that the work would have been better served if the teen/teen interviews had been followed up with more conventional interviews from trained social scientists. I think that her choice to have teens interview each other may have helped to facilitate feelings of comfort, but that the end result was shallow in many respects.

Throughout the book, I found myself looking for more, for deeper answers and expansion on some issues that I believe would have been present had a trained interviewer asked follow-up questions. I felt particularly cheated by Jim's brevity which, again, I believe could have been avoided had he been more intensively interviewed.

My second and more pressing concern is that of diversity. Although Ms. Gray admits "Conspicuously absent from this collection are the voices of transgendered youth…. In hindsight, I wish I had continued to seek out young people who could provide a transgendered perspective" (p. 5) she barely addresses the vast diversity among queer youth.

The cursory attention given to race, gender, and class issues deeply hinders the understanding of identity formation in queer youth and more importantly, serves to isolate queer youth of color and continue to silence them. While I suspect from last names and a few statements that some of the teens were people of color, their racial identity and the differing cultural contexts in which they came out were not explored. Furthermore, although males and females were included in the sample, gender was not deeply explored, nor were the gendered aspects of sexuality.

In conclusion, I believe that Ms. Gray's text represents an important foray into a much ignored, yet extremely socially significant subject: the experiences of queer youth. However, the possible transformatory impact of the book is lessened by its lack of diversity. By not including the voices of transgendered teens, by not exploring racial, class, and gender issues, Ms. Gray ignores a great deal of what constitutes identity and borders on essentializing queerness. While a great deal of innovation and creativity is included in this work, in the end it doesn't go quite far enough.
Celesta Atkins is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Southern California focusing on race and gender. She is also interested in sexuality and identity formation.

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