“Oddly Normal” By John Schwartz: His Son Grows Up Gay

Oddly Normal is a book for parents, teachers, and anyone who works with children. Mr. Schwartz illustrates how even the most accepting parents often need assistance staying engaged, to best help a child who is not fitting in—in fact, there is a little bit of Joseph Schwartz in every kid. Joseph Clementi, founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation

“Mr. Schwartz” is journalist John Schwartz, who recounts in Oddly Normal the struggles of his teen son Joe to deal with an emerging awareness of being gay.

One day Schwartz was notified that his son was in the hospital after trying to kill himself. From the book description:

Mustering the courage to come out to his classmates, Joe had delivered a tirade about homophobic and sexist attitudes that was greeted with unease and confusion by his fellow students. Hours later, he took an overdose of pills. After a couple of weeks in the hospital and in the locked ward of a psychiatric treatment center, Joe returned to his family. As he recovered, his parents were dismayed by his school’s inability to address — or reluctance to deal with — Joe’s needs. Determined to help their son feel more comfortable in his own skin, Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne, launched their own search for services and groups that could help Joe know he wasn’t alone. In Oddly Normal, Schwartz writes of his family’s struggles within a culture that is changing fast – but not fast enough. Interweaving his narrative with contextual chapters on psychology, law, and common questions, Schwartz shares crucial lessons about helping gay kids learn how to cope in a potentially hostile world. From buying rhinestone-studded toddler shoes to creating a ‘Joseph manual’ for Joe’s teachers; from finding a hairdresser who stocks purple dye to fighting erroneous personality disorder diagnoses, Oddly Normal offers a deeply personal look into one boy’s growing up. Joe, far happier today than he was three years ago, collaborated on this work.

What about therapy? Couldn’t that have helped? Schwartz writes that in crucial and early phases of Joe’s development there was not only a decided lack of help but also a significant dose of misdirection from therapists and counselors.

Shouldn’t it easier today for kids to come out? In a related article for the New York Times Stephen Karam points out that although growing up gay today has its advantages, there are also some “less obvious challenges.” He adds a pertinent example from his own experience:

Things are vastly better, unquestionably, but for youngsters like Joe, it can also mean losing ‘the ability to hide in the ignorance of others’ during the sensitive years leading up to the decision to come out. (I can relate. As a closeted 14-year-old in Scranton, Pa., I sang a song from ‘Miss Saigon’ in a school talent show; my friends thought I was a tenor and kind of pitchy, not gay.)

Selected Reviews

Kirkus Reviews: “Schwartz’s frank discussion of a subject many still find taboo will be helpful to parents of LGBT children as one example of how to accept a natural condition with dignity and love. An added bonus is the delightful story written and illustrated by Joe. An honest, earnest, straightforward account of one boy’s coming out.”

Publishers Weekly: “[A] moving account of a family’s journey to raise and protect their gay son…Equally humorous and heartrending, this memoir reveals just what it takes to raise children who are different in a world still resistant.”

Stephen Karam, The New York Times: “In real life, of course, Mr. Schwartz knows no father can guarantee his child will always be happy. But in sharing his family’s story, he may free up other kids like Joseph to be something greater: themselves.”

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