by Jim Piechota
Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay by Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Harvard University Press, $27.95
In Becoming Who I Am, a rewarding study of youth, sexuality, and identity, Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a human development professor at Cornell University, offers clear and insightful glimpses into the lives of young gay men. His new book "shares my accumulated knowledge and perspective with those of you who believe you might be gay, know you're gay, or want to find out what gay teens experience."
His text, based on over 40 years of career research, is primarily comprised of expansive interviews with gay youth who were more than willing to tell their stories about "growing up gay in today's world." These profiles, wonderfully diverse with an average age of 20, primarily spotlight the freedom of coming out, the joy in meeting others who share the same sexual preferences, and the possibilities of developing lasting relationships, whether platonic or romantic. Reflected throughout the course of the book is the author's longtime correspondence and contact with then-15-year-old Anthony, and the preferences, attitudes, and behaviors that influenced his adolescence and continued to do so into forthcoming years.
Several participants discovered the author through his 2005 book The New Gay Teenager, a lively, eye-opening project addressing how attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed over time. Drawn to his work, these young men became generous with their time and the personal stories they shared with Savin-Williams.
Chicago-based Latino teenager Adrian admits that "we didn't ask for this blessing of being attracted to the same sex (and I am going to call it a blessing, because that's what it is)." He writes, "Like any other problem one may encounter, it is the fight through that problem from which we learn the most, and for that reason, we should feel blessed to have had that learning experience."
Elsewhere, a Middle Eastern man's first admission of his homosexuality occurred during his first interview with the author, though he remains conflicted about the manner in which he "became gay." Other men share their first sexual memories, experiences, and encounters, which range from a clandestine kiss under bed covers to wet dreams, pornography, the discovery of masturbation, or a first secretive visit to a gay bar. For others, the defining moment of realization arrived later in their emotional development, through "positive peers, crushes, being tired of living a lie, and time."
These young men participated in one of two research projects. 160 men joined the "Friends and Lovers" study, while 229 joined the second study, which investigated issues of sex, gender, and personality. Some first responders never replied back when contacted, and some never openly identified as gay or bisexual.
While there are no shocking revelations here, Savin-Williams' clear-eyed focus remains on the positive aspects of the young gay experience, noting that while nightmarish stories about coming out should be told, "negative experiences should not define what it means to be young and gay." These real-world case studies bring positivity, promise, and a breath of fresh air to a demographic that is too often overshadowed by horror stories of exclusion, bullying, persecution, and misunderstanding.
"Today's gay youths are living the life gay adults could only have dreamed about when they were young. They're proud, popular, respected, happy, and ordinary." Though this blanket statement is not the case across the board, vast improvements in the quality of life for many young gay men today are apparent in this well-researched and important book.