Instead of coming out to his parents, Matt Beierschmitt acted out. The sinewy, 6-foot-7 Beierschmitt, who had been a well-mannered jock throughout high school, suddenly threw tantrums and berated his parents after he returned home from his first semester at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania He was 19 years old, with loving, sympathetic parents, friends, out gay buddies, and access to all of the Internet resources created for questioning youth in recent years--yet he still took years to come to terms with his sexuality and felt deeply depressed about the prospect of confiding his secret to his family.
He finally came out to his parents in an E-mail. "It took them a year and a half to get used to it," recalls Matt, now 21. "I think they were waiting for me to come home in a belly shirt or something. Because nothing really changed in me, they eased up a lot. I've introduced them to a lot of my gay friends. Especially in the last six months or so, it's been really good. Now we can even talk about guys."
This young man's journey, not so different from that faced by thousands of lesbian and gay teens every year, illustrates an important reality: Although this generation has unprecedented support services and a legion of out role models, young gays' basic struggle to come to terms with their sexual identity remains deeply personal and incredibly difficult.
Beierschmitt's story is one of five captured in the remarkable new MTV documentary True Life: I'm Coming Out, debuting June 27. On the one hand, the show reflects the great strides in acceptance made during the last decade; on the other, the anguish these young people go through will ring painfully familiar to gay audiences of all ages.
Advocates' best efforts to quell the turmoil of adolescence for gay and lesbian youth have not been in vain. This difficult period is often made easier by the countless individuals gay teens interact with on a daily level: In many places across the country, understanding classmates, out teachers, gay adult mentors, and youth support groups all offer solace and guidance to counterbalance negative reactions and antigay messages. But there's a catch. Even the most available, comprehensive resources and the most sympathetic ears are of little use until the teens first make the brave choice to confront their own sexuality. As long as the youths are focused inward, they may not see what's out there to help them.
Even in the progressive enclave of Berkeley, Calif., with its myriad social services and huge gay community, Vanessa Duran says she was blinded by the closet when she was coming out at age 15. "When I look back, there were so many friends and teachers who were obviously gay," she observes. "They even said things that would lead me to believe that they were. But being so much in the closet, I never imagined that they could be gay."
In Duran's case, her community's progress in providing resources for questioning teenagers finally made an impact. Unlike most American schools, Duran's had a social-living class, which dealt with diversity issues. "At one point we had gay speakers come in, and I just started laughing at myself," she says. "I had been tripping over this stuff over the last three years, struggling and beating myself up over it."
Still, she worried about the reaction of her fundamentalist Christian mom. But when she eventually came out to her parents, they seemed more amused than distraught. "I told them I'm gay, and they busted up laughing," recalls Duran, now 17. "We've come to a quiet understanding: They know, and there's no reason for me to bring it up again. We have a `don't ask, don't tell' policy. My mom is growing to the understanding that I didn't leave church to become a sinner. I still have my beliefs and morals, so she doesn't rub in my face some quote she learned in church that evening."
But Duran is hardly keeping quiet. …