Transcript for Oddly Normal

Jim Fleming: When John Schwartz’s  son, Joseph, was born, 17 years ago, John and his wife were already busy raising two kids. They were feeling pretty good about their parenting too, helping their son, Sam, and their daughter, Elizabeth, through the challenges of childhood. As Joe grew in toddlerhood, the Schwartz notice that he was different, not like most of the other boys. And they started to wonder if he might be gay.

They also noticed how the social pressure to be a stereotypical boy weighed on Joe. I asked John Schwartz to take me back to the beginning of the journey he writes about in the book, Oddly Normal.

John Schwartz: Well it started awfully early. Joe was precociously bright, really verbal and for lack of a better word, really fabulous from about the age of three on. This was the kid who wanted to go around the house in the feather boa. And his big sister’s Barbies were his favorite toys, not his big brother’s trucks. And he just wanted to surround himself with things that as a toddler he call “prettyful.”

Now being an effeminate little kid doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be an LGBT adult. My wife thought with increasing certainty that he was probably gay, and I thought isn’t that interesting. My wife is a lot more perceptive than I am. I’m a guy.

Fleming: [laughs]

Schwartz: You know I thought, well that’s interesting, the dolls and everything. And she’s saying, “You know, you really need to think about this cause I think he’s going to turn out gay.”

Fleming: I mean you, obviously, talked about this, the two of you, and you noticed his behavior. Did you have any worry at that point?

Schwartz: We didn’t have any worries that Joe wasn’t going to be great. You know, we didn’t have any worries that we would love him less. Jean had some worries and I had some worries that maybe the things that made him different could lead him to be treated badly by other kids in school because any kid who’s different gets in for a little of that.

And in Joe’s case, it turned out to be a lot of that.

Fleming: Yes. There were these behaviors, the things that he was interested in that were not stereotypical. I understand that you kind of bought into that. When he started kindergarten, was it, your wife actually put the Barbie dolls away?

Schwartz: Well, that’s right. In trying to make sure that he wasn’t picked on by other kids, Jean did some things that she now regrets. She felt, “Well, if he doesn’t have the Barbies, then he can’t take them in for show-and-tell. If he doesn’t take them in for show-and-tell, kids won’t make fun of him for having brought the Barbie. And as Jean said, “We built his first closet.” 

Fleming: Yeah. Well, you were trying to help him, though, with that.

Schwartz: Exactly right, but we were pretty clumsy about it. It took us a while to realize that the best thing for Joe to be was Joe.

Fleming: And that’s the best way to put it, isn’t it? The best thing for Joe was to be Joe. But you didn’t know completely yet who Joe was. Now, you know, what five-year-old knows? But he didn’t know either.

Schwartz: Well, that’s exactly right. And as Joe says, he figured out that he was gay at around the age of eight when he was doing research on the Internet and found the word “homosexuality” and he looked it up. And his first thought was, “Oh, boys like girls?”

Fleming: [laughs] It simply hadn’t occurred to him before that.

Schwartz: No, of course. I mean boys like boys, of course they do.

Fleming: Yeah.

Schwartz: Over time it went from being an interesting observation about Joe from Joe to being something that he was worried about something that he felt should be kept secret. And he started beating himself up with it. The behavior problems were bad. He didn’t do work in school. And the teachers were suggesting, “Well, we think this might be ADHD. We think this might be bipolar or this could be oppositional defiance disorder.”

Everybody had a diagnosis. Nobody was looking at Joe as a whole person. We felt that the pressure he was feeling from being different was exacerbating, whatever was going on. Because he was so difficult in school, we did put him in therapy. We did all kinds of things to try to address the issues. It wasn’t like we just went into a defensive crouch.

Fleming: You knew by this time. You were pretty comfortable, the two of you, believing that he was gay. And so you must have wondered whether some of this came from that thing in society that has been so bad for so long?

Schwartz: We felt that… you know, it was years later that I encountered the work of Ilan Meyer who talked about the various levels of minority stress for people who are part of a sexual minority. And it’s not just that you’re going to be insulted for being, say, LGBT or that you’ll be physically assaulted. That’s one source of stress. But there’s also the stress of concealment. And there’s also the other level of stress that comes from having internalized the messages that society sends.

It says, “This is bad. You’re wrong. You’re different and you’re awful.” There are gay kids who don’t have problems and there are more and more of them, and it’s a wonderful thing. But there are still kids who are more Velcro than Teflon who feel the pressures. And Joe was one of those kids.

Fleming: Yeah. How old was he when he finally came to you? And I don’t imagine he just walked into the room one day and said, “Mom, dad, I’m gay.”

Schwartz: No, he didn’t. He was 13. At one point Joe and I go out to dinner and he tells me that at school he’s been trying to freak them out a little bit, the kids at school. He’s sort of dropping lines like do you think Billy knows how attractive he is? I say, “What do they say when you do that?” He says, “Oh, well, the kids say ‘Joseph, are you telling you’re gay?’” And he said, “And I just let them wonder.” And I said, “OK, Joe. Are you telling me that you’re gay?”

And he said, “Oh, I might be.”

Fleming: He’s 13 at this time. I think anybody with a 13-year-old recognizes this as standard behavior.

Schwartz: Exactly right: sideways, sneaky, witty. We continued to eat and I say, “This thing, Joe, that you have not told me. Is it all right if I tell mom?” He said, “OK,” and he was out.

Fleming: At home?

Schwartz: At home. When he continued the unveiling at school, he blew up at some of the boys he was sitting with. Then he said, “You know, I just can’t stand the way you talk about girls. You, you give them ratings. Well, I’m going to rate you. You’re a five. You’re a seven. You’re a three.”

Fleming: [short laugh]

Schwartz: And the boys were upset and unsettled. They actually went to an administrator at the school and complained that Joe had bullied them. And Joe, who had been increasingly agitated, came home and went into the bathroom and took a lot of pills. And from a crisis like that he discovered that [sighs] that he could recover from it, that there were a few days in the hospital. There were a few days in a psychiatric ward to start group therapy to talk about these things too.

And over time, he came to understand that he wasn’t the only kid to have problems. He wasn’t the only kid to be alone. He wasn’t the only kid to be different.

Fleming: Yeah, no kidding. And that’s not the only thing. I gather there’s also a story, we really ought to get into, about the LGBT Center in New York. It took you a while to find them but it turns out to have been a worthwhile search, I’d guess you’d say?

Schwartz: Absolutely. After Joe got out of the hospital, Jean said, “The hospital recommends that you get group therapy. This program sounds a lot like group therapy. And it’s at the LGBT Center. We could take you every week. We want to do this.” And Joe said, “OK.” Well, I think that the center saved his life really. I mean, it gave him a community of other kids. It exposed him to a range of other people’s experiences.

It’s the culture. It’s companionship. It was huge for Joe, just incredible.

Fleming: You know, this is the positive side, of course. You must, at the same time, have run into people, families that didn’t respond as positively as you have for Joe?

Schwartz: One of the most difficult things to deal with since the book has come out is to read the letters from people who simply say, “This is the family I wanted that I didn’t get this support from my parents. I’m still trying to deal with it.” Again and again, I’ve gotten emails from people who simply hope that this is the kind of family we’ll see in the future. You know, the early days of [inaudible] parents and families and friends of lesbians and gays, early on, it was about getting parents to accept their gay kids.

It’s a problem they have to deal with. And that’s sort of the first generation. We’re kind of a different group. We already knew we supported Joe. We already knew we cared about Joe. We were just looking for support in helping him figure himself out.

Fleming: It was so difficult for Joe to come out as it is, I imagine, for a lot of kids in his situation. You’ve really outed him now with this book. And it’s with his permission, right?

Schwartz: It’s absolutely with his permission. I talked to Joe before I wrote a proposal for the book. I sat him down. We were in the car. And I said, “I’m thinking of writing a book about all this.” And he said, “Yeah, you should do that.”

Fleming: [half laugh]

Schwartz: And I said, “That’s too easy.” And I said, “I’m going to talk about uncomfortable things. I’m going to talk about the hospital. I’m going to talk about the pills.” He said, “I said, do it.” Joe not only gave permission before I proposed it. At work, one day, he sends me a children’s book he’d written. He says, “I wrote this ridiculously, adorable children’s story. Maybe you want to use it for the book.”

It’s about a little boy who gathers up some flowers and chocolate and a poem. And he presents them to another boy. He doesn’t see anything strange about that. But it turns out that it’s a little strange and things don’t go as he hopes. But things turn out pretty well in the end. I read it and I cried cause it was so good. And so Joe not only gave permission and helped but he provided the last chapter of the book. And that last chapter is a children’s book called Leo, the Oddly Normal Boy. So, yes, Joe also wrote the title of the book.

Fleming: [laughs] [music] John Schwartz’ book is called: Oddly Normal.

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