Jan: Thank you for the interview, Lissa. Let’s start by talking about your newest book, Another F-Word. Barb Silvey, Gay-Straight Alliance Advisor of Spokane said after reading your novel, Another F-Word, “We are friends. We are family; but we cannot understand what our LGBTQ students go through.” She says that your book is a ‘must read’ and that it “opens this world so that we all can start to understand the terrible turmoil at school, with family and friends, and in the inner life of teens who are LGBTQ.” And she goes on to say, “We cannot be allies for those we don’t understand.” What led you to write this book?
Lissa: Since you mention Barb Silvey, I must tell you that one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had since publishing Another F-Word was viewing a video of her GSA kids reacting to my book. Those kids touched my heart.
A couple of events led me to write the book. During 2012, NC went through a messy campaign with hate speech flowing from many churches as they tried to rally support to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing recognition of any couple except a married man and woman. The amendment passed overwhelmingly, and I couldn’t help imagining how young LGBT kids or those who were questioning their sexuality must have felt to see such horrible bigotry come from people who were supposed to nurture their spirituality.
The second event was the immediate catalyst. As I drove home from town one day, I read a bumper sticker on a truck in front of me that said, “Santa Hates Jewish Kids.” I honestly don’t know if I was more shocked or angry, probably a combination of both. For days I stewed about how some adults can do such harmful things to kids, some deliberately, and others out of sheer ignorance and insensitivity. I turned my feelings into the start of a book that would illustrate how it happens and the effects it has on kids and the people around them.
Jan: Your book portrays the real and often terrible challenges that a gay boy, Rory faces as he grows up, is bullied by his peers, and rejected by his father. The realistic portrayal feels honest and yet it is a painful journey that you’ve managed to explore with compassion. For whom is this book intended and who do you see as benefiting most from reading this novel?
Lissa: The target audiences for this book are adults and teens. Parents who are wrestling with the reality of having a LGBT child can learn they are not alone. Kids who are bullied will realize that there are people who will be their allies and love them no matter what. Educators will see themselves in some of the characters and perhaps become more sensitive to the environment they create in schools. All readers will learn that the consequences of bullying to victims and bullies are very serious.
Jan: Would you describe this novel as a “coming of age” novel? But it seems to be something more, is it? And if so, how is it different?
Lissa: This is more than a coming-of-age story. Rory’s is not the typical story, fortunately. He does represent a group of kids who often struggle just to get through their days and nights. He’s a gentle boy but has a large reserve of inner strength. I couldn’t resist the urge to teach some important lessons with this book. Old habits die hard. I’m a former teacher. The story examines the behavior of adults as much as the boy’s and that’s what makes it different from the usual coming-of-age novel.
Jan: Your book has a surprising conclusion. Did you explore alternative endings prior to publication? And how did you come to such a compassionate conclusion?
Lissa: I wrote this story three times, each time coming to a different conclusion. Honestly, I was also surprised by the ending. I finally stopped struggling and allowed the characters to tell me how to end it.
Jan: You have captured much of the inner conflict that gay teens, particularly boys, face in this book. I wondered how different and how similar do you see this experience for teen girls?
Lissa: In some ways, girls struggle with more serious issues than boys during adolescence, but when we’re speaking about LGBT kids, research shows and my observations agree that boys have a more difficult time. They are bullied more often, and if their behavior is gender non-conforming, the bullying is often expressed physically. Perhaps because ill-informed adults are still inclined to think that physical assaults are part of normal adolescence for boys, it is still overlooked. Girls who are ‘tomboys’ are accepted far more easily than boys who exhibit effeminate behavior or dislike sports.
Jan: Your book examines the efforts of a mother trying to understand, and a father who refuses to accept his son’s differences. What do you hope the parents of a gay teen – whether of a son or a daughter – will discover and take away from reading your book?
Lissa: First, I hope they realize that they are not alone. PFLAG and other groups provide excellent support and direction. As a parent of a LGBT child, if that adult has difficulty accepting the child as they are, I hope they will examine seriously the reasons for their attitude. Seeking professional help is a great way to start. It is often the case that rabidly homophobic people have some unresolved issues of their own that cause them to feel threatened by LGBT people. That is particularly true with parents since it is known that genetics play a role in determining a person’s sexuality. Further, if a parent believes they accept their LGBT child yet, are uncomfortable about other family and friends finding out, I suggest they have not truly achieved acceptance. It can be a lengthy process.
Jan: What are some of the aspects of the inner and outer struggle that teens face as they attempt to recognize and keep their own self worth intact?
Lissa: Teens do not like to be seen as different. LGBT teens must come to an understanding that we are not all alike. Yes, they can dress like other teens, worship with them, attend school together, but a LGBT kid is different. Ninety percent of teens are heterosexual, so that’s a reality they need to accept. They need to be reassured by family and friends that they are valued and loved, despite being different. Learning about LGBT people who lead successful and fulfilling lives is important and having adult role models in their immediate environment is critical. Living in a state like Maryland that walks the talk can be very reaffirming for them. Finally, if bullied, they need to learn to become assertive and not allow others to perceive them as willing victims. Parents and professionals can assist with that.
Jan: Can you speak about the impact of pervasive rejection and the self-destructive impulses teens in such a situation face?
Lissa: The alarming suicide rate among LGBT teens is the ultimate example of where it leads. The Trevor Project reported that in 2012 its hotline received calls from 30,000 kids, many of whom were considering suicide. Ten percent or 3,000 of the calls came from NC kids. It doesn’t take a statistics whiz to see that the negative impact of the campaign to amend the state constitution was serious. Adolescence is difficult at best. When you throw in rejection by parents, peers and institutions, it takes a pretty strong support network to deliver the message that life is worth living and that it does get better for most LGBT people as they age. The kids who lack that support end up as suicide statistics.
Jan: The book realistically reveals the struggles from a boy’s perspective as he deals with a rejecting parent and bullying from peers. What have you discovered in your own perceptions of the difficulty of “growing up gay” in America? Are teens living in some places more vulnerable to abuse? And why do you think this is so?
Lissa: GLSEN conducted a study comparing LGBT kids in urban, suburban and rural areas. Kids living in small towns and rural areas are more likely to encounter every form of bullying. Kids in the southeastern part of the country report a higher incidence of harassment and a lower degree of adult willingness to address the problem. I think the influence of conservative religious institutions plays a strong role. Areas where the level of education is lower seem to be harder places for these kids. As a result of fewer people being willing to come out as LGBT, the kids don’t have role models and some feel very isolated. Until we have federal legislation protecting LGBT people in the workplace, the people who could be most helpful to kids in rural areas cannot come out.
Jan: Over the past twenty years, indeed over the last ten years, I have observed, as a teacher and mentor for teens, a major shift in my own state of Maryland, in how accepting teens are toward students who “come out” to their peers. What do you think has helped bring about these changes?
Lissa: If you look at the differences within Maryland of support for the recent same-sex marriage law, demographics tell a large part of the story. Where you have stronger local laws guaranteeing job protection, you find higher levels of education and more openness by LGBT people to come out. In parts of the state like Montgomery and Howard Counties that have made it very clear that homophobia will not be tolerated in the schools, teens are learning to be more accepting of LGBT peers. Politics plays a role in this. Look at the parts of the state where the Democratic voters are in the majority. Many of those areas, with the notable exception of Prince George’s County, send affirming signals to youngsters about treatment of LGBT people. Even Anne Arundel County, which has not been a bastion of tolerance, has large numbers of residents whose jobs are related to Fort Meade. The elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has had an impact there. When teens live in a state that will not allow discrimination in employment, housing and education, they receive a very clear message about LGBT people.
Jan: And yet, students are still bullied, teased by family and friends, and rejected by parents. Many of our homeless youth have been “kicked” out of their homes when they came out. What more can communities, parents, and schools, do to help protect young people who are GLBTQ?
Lissa: The latest figures I saw said that somewhere between 30-40% of homeless youth are LGBT. You’re right. Many have been ejected from their homes by hateful parents.
I believe every public school should have a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar group that is openly and vigorously supported and promoted by the school administration, staff and faculty. Every public institution should state clearly and openly that discrimination will not be tolerated and education about the language we use and the standards we employ to determine each person’s value should be examined for the effect they have on LGBT kids.
Kids need to be taught to speak up when they experience negative behavior based on their orientation and parents need to be relentless when dealing with school administrators who lack energy in dealing positively with the environment they create for kids.
Jan: Thanks for the interview. How can people contact you and obtain a copy of your book?
Lissa: Thank you for the opportunity to speak about my passion, Jan. I have been devoting most of my time to speaking to groups about the bullying of LGBT kids and ask only that my expenses be covered if I travel more than 50 miles from my home. I’d love to talk with groups in Maryland. Another F-Word is available on Amazon.com as an ebook and in paperback format. People can contact me through my website, www.lissabrownwrites.com
Each of Lissa Brown’s careers has contributed to her current one, full-time author. She gained insight into adolescent behavior as a high school teacher and honed her writing skills and sense of the absurd during award-winning careers in marketing and public relations. She’s been a media consultant to gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, a columnist, and speechwriter for public officials and corporate executives. She is the author of a humorous memoir, a young adult novel and several published articles and essays. Another F-Word is her latest novel. www.lissabrownwrites.com
About Jan Bowman
Jan Bowman’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers. Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, a Pen/O’Henry award and a recent story was a finalist in the 2013 Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction publications in Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at her website: www.janbowmanwriter.com orvisit her blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com