'Oddly Normal'

“Oddly Normal”: a Father’s Struggle to Help His Son Come Out

John Schwartz embraced his son’s homosexuality, but his son still nearly killed himself. Mark McKinnon on America's responsibility.

It’s hard to imagine parents any more understanding, empathetic, caring, and, well, perfect, than John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon. And yet even this intuitive and smart couple couldn’t save their child, Joseph, from attempting to take his own life after the harassment he received from his peers when they discovered he was gay.

Unlike too many parents in society today (still), John and Jeanne weren’t upset to discover Joseph was gay. They figured out the “big honking clues” early on, like when Joseph wanted to look like a “disco yady” and played with Barbies and feather boas, and they did not penalize him or try and modify his behavior. “It seemed obvious to us that sexuality is biological in origin,” writes Schwartz “as baked into who you are as eye color and height … we’d no more try to change a child’s sexual orientation than his biological tendency to write with his left hand instead of his right.”

Despite what seems like enormous societal shifts in attitudes toward homosexuality in recent years, Schwartz, who is a national correspondent for The New York Times, painfully illuminates just how far we have yet to go in our schools, medical diagnostic community, and psychological counseling services to provide the appropriate response and environmental conditions to save kids like Joseph from the gauntlet he had to navigate before emerging a healthy, happy, well-adjusted teenager. In his book, Oddly Normal, Schwartz alternates chapters between the moving narrative of Joseph’s ordeal and sharp reporting on the history, culture, and politics of homosexuality in America.

Early on, when Schwartz asked a therapist whether Joseph’s sexuality might be related to behavior issues at school that had led them to seek help, he was shocked at her response: “What a terrible thing to say about your son.” Which naturally made the Schwartzes “reluctant to talk about their strong suspicions about Joseph’s sexual orientation with authority figures for some time.” But after “some time,” things just got worse.

School-related problems continued to surface and inevitably they needed help from outside the school’s available counseling resources and sought it as Joseph was entering seventh grade. They found a psychologist, and after three visits, John and Jeanne were called in for meeting to discuss how he intended to approach treatment. Again they were floored as the doctor’s told them his diagnosis: Joseph suffered from Asperger’s.

“The doctor’s verdict—a verdict, because he explained that there really wasn’t much he could do as a psychologist for an Asperger’s patient, and that Joe could never really enjoy a normal life—was arrived at with aura of speed dating, as if he’d just read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink and had decided it sounded like a terrific idea,” writes Schwartz. “Joseph would never be able to go to college, he said, and probably wouldn’t even be able to deal with summer camp.”

Floored, John asked about the question of Joseph’s homosexuality. “I don’t think he is gay,” the therapist responded, suggesting that John and Jeanne were “over interpreting things.”

And, not surprisingly, given the sort of ignorant advice and therapy he was getting, Joseph’s problems escalated and things started getting darker. He had trouble sleeping and he would say things to John like, “I am by subconscious’s bitch.” And then, when he was 13, Joseph revealed his secret to his parents, on his own terms, as they had hoped and been encouraged to facilitate. They sent a note to the school psychologist to encourage support. Things seemed to be going well, and the Schwartz’s were cautiously hopeful. But then Joseph came out at school with his classmates, things turned ugly and cruel, and the next thing they knew, Jeanne found Joseph naked and delirious on their bathroom with empty pill bottles scattered around him. Of course, John and Jeanne lashed themselves over the guilt they felt for not having done more to prevent the incident, but as any parent or reader will conclude, no one could have done more than the Schwartz’s to help their son, and nothing could have prevented the sad event. Alas, there is a happy ending, as Joseph recovered, and with the ongoing support of his parents, found his footing and is a well-adjusted kid, proud of his sexuality and comfortable with his life. And Joseph adds a touching picture book of his own at the end of Oddly Normal that itself is worth the price of admission.

Schwartz offers a terrific summary and guidance to parents who may undergo similar experience with young children struggling with sexual identity: “Whether they see themselves as secret wizards or little princes or Martian children, many kids feel left out of this world. It’s up to us to make them feel at home. To help them feel loved. To let them be themselves. Happily.

John Schwartz has now written compelling books about what it’s like growing up gay today, and what it’s like growing up short in his manifesto Short. Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At All. If Schwartz starts to lose his hair, like his legendary father, former Texas senator “Babe” Schwartz, we can only hope that he will lend his unique perspective and acute reporting to this other needy demographic in need of his attention. And if he gets fat, well then, he’ll have about covered all the bases.