how i learned to snap:
a small-town coming-out and coming-of-age story
by Kirk Read

reviewed by Trevor




“Intergenerational sex saved my life.” – Kirk Read

In this, Kirk Read’s first book, the nationally syndicated gay journalist explores his own childhood and adolescence, and coming to terms with his gay identity in the Bible Belt of the Shenandoah Valley.  In what is often a tale of woe and hardship for many gay men, Read’s memoir is a refreshing look at growing up gay in the increasingly tolerant 1980s, when gay men and women began to gain ground as a mainstream cultural force, rather than an unspoken-of shadowy aberration.

Really, Read’s personal story will wax nostalgic with any young man or woman, gay or straight, who grew up in that ridiculous decade of leg-warmers and neon shoelaces. An individual of my generation cannot help but smile at a middle school talent show featuring a lip-synching dance rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” complete with multi-zippered red leather jacket and mirrored sunglasses.

Yet, on another level, Read’s story carries a very significant message on the importance of consensual intergenerational relationships for many burgeoning adolescents who are discovering, or learning to accept, the fact of their homosexuality. In this age of queer politicians and gay adoptive parents, the gay “assimilationist” movement has pointedly distanced itself from the stigma of “child abuse,” which inevitably accompanies almost any discussion of man/boy relationships. Modern “gay rights” groups today often refuse to even recognize such relationships as a “gay issue.” It is therefore reassuring to have a well respected, contemporary gay activist speak up in our defense, and to testify to the importance of such relationships in his own life.

Many of Read’s shenanigans in search of intergenerational relationships as a boy resonate sympathetically with my own memories of approaching puberty in the 1980s. His tale, at twelve years old, of earnestly trying to attract the attentions of the local video-arcade manager, for instance, whom, he has heard it rumored, “touches boys,” sounds very much like a similar experience of my own at that age. In one hilarious episode, he hides in the corner of his bathroom to covertly watch a blind houseguest undress and shower. He laments the fact that the only way for him to find sex was to “steal it from the blind.”

Read finally found that longed-for relationship, at thirteen years old, with an adult neighbor named “Rich,” which, he attests, “saved my life.” He feels that this, and other intergenerational relationships in his youth, greatly contributed to his sexual development, and goes into some detail on the subject. He states:

If it hadn’t been for sex at such a young age, my questioning phase could have stretched on for years, and would have gotten really tedious.

Sex with an older man probably sped up my coming-out process by years. If it hadn’t been for Rich, I might have turned into a mopey Goth kid. The horror, the horror. Had our relationship been discovered, Rich could have done time in jail. During the time we were having sex, it never dawned on me that he was literally risking his freedom over me.

American culture’s only frame of reference for sex with minors is abuse. I don’t deny that abuse occurs, but it should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. A blanket approach that criminalizes all sex between adults and minors undermines the fact that for many gay teenagers, sex with an adult can be a beautiful, life changing experience. It was for me.

This is an all too seldomly heard sentiment today, and his fresh, rational honesty, especially coming from a non-boylover, is greatly appreciated.

Kirk Read, though publicly coming out at an early age, and in a conservatively Christian Fundamentalist area of the South, had a surprisingly smooth transition into adulthood. He endured the inevitable taunts and verbal abuse with a good natured attitude, and was helped along by a loving, accepting, and complacent mother, as well as supportive friends. Although his father was an elderly career military man and devout Christian, clearly unsupportive of gay rights, he too showed complacence by turning a blind eye to Kirk’s often flagrant homosexuality. In one touching episode, shortly before his death, Kirk’s father follows him into an alternative record store, and in his own way tries to bond with the boy by purchasing for himself a Harry Connick Jr cassette. Says Read: “Harry Connick Jr was incorrect, but you gotta love him for trying.” Sounds just like my dad.

But perhaps the most important factor in Read’s successful navigation through adolescence was his ability to express himself as a poet and playwright, and the support he received in such endeavors by his older gay friends and lovers. By writing and premiering his play ropeswing, about coming-out gay in high school, while still in high school himself, he effectively expressed, in a way which he could not otherwise have done, that angst and hardship which is the rite of passage for gay youth everywhere. It elicited sympathy and understanding from peers who had previously taunted him, and gave him the confidence to pursue a career that is today nationally recognized.

how i learned to snap  is a warm, modern, true-story account of a successful journey through that quagmire that is adolescence, and Read’s insights are sharp, witty, and poignant. We should all be thankful for this honest new voice in gay literature, and look eagerly forward to more of his work in the future. Bravo, Kirk!.
 

Copyright © NAMBLA, 2003. All rights reserved.