Ask the Brain: I’m a Teen with Homophobic Parents — Do I Come out? Plus, is Tokenism Okay?

Ask the Brain is a column where readers can ask me advice about love, life, writing, and, well, just about anything. My massive, all-powerful brain will deign to grant an answer. Either that, or I’ll just pull something out of my ass.

Speaking of which, do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the city, state, or country where you’re writing from, though that can be obscured if necessary.)

Dear Brain: I’m a teen who’s scared to come out that I’m bi. My family is super-religious and strict and heavily involved with church. I told them gay marriage was legal somewhere and they were all “EEWWW THATS SO WRONG.” I’m scared they’ll sent me to straight camp or something if i tell them? Should I tell them or not? — Scared Bi Teen

The Brain Responds:

You didn’t give your exact age — if you’re a legal adult or not — but it doesn’t matter, since it’s clear that your parents still have a lot of power and control over your life.

In your case, the answer to your question is really, really, really easy: Don’t come out!

I repeat: Do! Not! Come! Out!

Your family clearly has a lot of prejudice and misconceptions about gay people — and probably even more about bi folks. So there will come a day when you’ll definitely want to come out to them: it will be empowering to you and, more importantly, it will be enlightening to them.

But it probably also be ugly and awkward and messy. Who knows for how long?

But this is why, five or ten years from now when you finally do come out to them, it will be so incredibly important for you to have:

(1) Complete financial security and total control over your life. You will need to be physically safe, so you can’t be thrown out on the streets or sent to an ex-gay camp.

To any teenager thinking about coming out, this is a very important thing to consider. It’s even more important than making a difference to the world or your own empowerment. Could coming out put you in personal or physical danger? If so, don’t do it. Case closed, no arguing.

Five or ten years from now, you’ll also have:

(2) Much more psychological support. Being rejected by your family, even if it’s only for an hour, a day, or a week, is just about the most difficult thing a person can go through in life. And it sounds to me like there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll be rejected by your family, at least for a while. If that happens, you’ll desperately need the support of your many future GLBT-supportive friends and loved ones who will be able to say to you, “It’s not you, it’s them.” And: “You are fantastic and loved exactly the way you are.”

It’s really important for everyone to come out eventually — especially bi folks, who (for important reasons) are less likely to be open about who they are, but who, as a result, live in a world of more misinformation. (It’s a vicious cycle).

But Scared Bi Teen, the key word here is “eventually.” There is no rush to come out, no deadline.

You’ll know when the time is right. But I can tell you strongly, clearly, and unequivocally, this is not yet it.

Dear Brain: I have a writing question for you: do you have any tips on how to handle ‘tokenism’ in YA? Many of the characters in my book are minorities, and I want to know if you have any characterization tips on how I can avoid having them coming across as tokens. — Virginia

The Brain Responds:

It’s an excellent question, and in fact, I just wrote a blog post about something similar to this — stereotypes — that might be helpful for you to read.

Everyone calls for more “diversity” — racial and otherwise — in books and movies. And yet everyone is also critical of “tokenism.” What’s the difference?

To some degree, this is subjective. Someone’s “diversity” is someone else’s “tokenism.”

I think it’s a question of intent. If you’re writing a story about a character who happens to be white, and you’re making an effort to include other well-rounded, non-stereotypical non-white characters, I think that’s usually clear and good for all involved.

But it’s worth asking: are your non-white characters involved in the heart of the action? Even supporting characters can play pivotal roles in a story — or they can just be window-dressing. And if you’re non-white characters are both non-essential and stereotypical, that is telling you something about your own intent — and your commitment to the cause of diversity.

Take the recent phenomenon that almost every single police chief on TV (along with many mayors and judges) is now black. On the surface, these seem like powerful characters: after all, they’re mayors and judges and police chiefs, right?

But leading characters on TV are rarely mayors, judges, and police chiefs. On the contrary, these are usually the stuffy, by-the-numbers characters that the rookie, but plucky, eager-to-prove-herself lead character goes up against … in one or two scenes per episode. Either that or these black police chiefs are simply part of the backdrop, with no essential dramatic role at all.

This is where the criticism of “tokenism” comes in. Racial and sexual minorities have made clear and undisputed case that they’ve long been unfairly censored from TV and movies.

So how has Hollywood responded to this withering and totally accurate criticism?

With tokenism. By pretending to give audiences “powerful” minority characters, but not really.

Clearly, this is better than the alternative. But it grates nonetheless, because it seems so half-assed and insincere. “Yes, yes, we gave you a black character — are you still complaining?”

Minorities want minority characters that are more than just background characters; they want well-rounded, active, main characters. You’d think this would’ve gone without saying.

But no. Tokenism is alive and well.

I suspect this is not what you’re doing in your books. But it’s still worth asking yourself: “Are the most active, well-rounded, and interesting characters in my books always white?” If so, you might have a problem.

Now do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the location where you’re writing from, though that can be obscured if need be.)

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