Gay Parade

Chastity Bono Combines Narrative And Case Study To Reveal What 'Out' Is About.

By Leigh Rich

Family Outing, by Chastity Bono with Billie Fitzpatrick (Little, Brown and Company). Cloth, $23.50.

IT'S NOT EASY being gay. Whether you're a small-town boy from South Carolina or the daughter of the celebrated singing duo Sonny and Cher, "coming out of the closet" is a difficult, gradual and, sometimes, painful journey. But according to Chastity Bono, "outing" oneself is rewarding and empowering for both homosexuals and their families.

Books As Bono contends throughout Family Outing, coming out involves and affects the whole family. A family's "acceptance of a gay or lesbian child or sibling is directly tied to the gay person's ability to accept him- or herself...Coming out, then, is a dual process that both individuals and families struggle through and ultimately learn to appreciate."

Thankfully, Family Outing is not an egoistic, Hollywood-ized account of growing up in a celebrity household, nor does it succumb to self-centered biography about the struggles of being gay and famous. Instead, Bono's book is a down-to-earth look at what it means to learn about and accept one's homosexuality. It defends that the stages toward acceptance and living a completely "out" life are comparable for all gays and lesbians, though each greets these steps in their own manner and time. Consequently, Family Outing is a compilation of coming out stories; stories which include narratives of homosexuals and their parents from across the nation.

Excerpts from each history are woven through the book under topic headings that mirror the chronological stages of coming out:

The first step, for example, involves recognizing one's homosexuality. "There's no fixed time that someone realizes that he or she is gay." This can occur anytime, from early childhood to adulthood or beyond. Bono began to notice she was different from female classmates in grade school; even mom Cher had suspicions that something was divergent about her daughter. Conflicts arose between the two over Bono's clothing choices, which tended toward the masculine.

But Bono herself couldn't put a name on her idiosyncrasies until she was 13. She first realized she was gay after seeing the movie Personal Best, about two female athletes who develop a relationship. Today, it's considered a "lesbian classic."

Next, most young individuals undergo a testing phase, often dating members of the opposite sex to verify their homosexuality.

And finally, the lengthy coming-out process begins. Gays and lesbians initially "out" themselves to someone "safe," like a close friend or teacher. Bono told her best friend, who nonchalantly responded, "What's the big deal?" In her book, Bono recalls feeling relieved. She also reaches an important conclusion: "Like many of us when we are young, I looked to my friend to see if I was okay, and since Gina, who was straight then and still is today, never seemed bothered by the fact that I was gay, my immediate fears were allayed."

Whether gay or straight, we as humans, and especially as teenagers, repeatedly look to our peer groups to remind ourselves we belong and are accepted. But homosexual teens, Bono notes, tend to feel increasingly alienated when struggling with sexuality, future success and adulthood--issues all adolescents face. According to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG), 30 percent of youth living on the streets are homosexual; 26 percent are forced to leave home because of conflicts over sexuality; and approximately 30 percent have alcohol and drug problems.

But Family Outing doesn't linger on the hardships; instead, it helps gays still "in the closet" confront their parents, and it dissolves stereotypes of homosexuals as "sex fiends" or (more damaging in its nebulous definition) "unsuccessful."

Most gays dread confronting their parents. Some wait years, drop subtle hints until it's obvious, or write letters from a safe distance. Paul at age 11 hid notes in the house which read, "Dear Mom and Dad, I love you very much. I am gay. This is not your fault. I am still your son." And though Paul's parents responded negatively at first, they eventually found ways to relate to him.

Bono writes, "Paul's courage and hopefulness were the catalysts for his parents' ultimate acceptance of his homosexuality."

Part two of Family Outing recounts Bono's conversations with the parents, and reveals that parental reactions often stem from guilt ("Was I a bad parent?") or fear ("Will my child have a happy, successful life?") rather than anger or disappointment.

All in all, while not necessarily sophisticated, Family Outing is a pleasant, educational read for homosexual and straight alike. The book's structure is a little hard to follow, since the case stories are interlaced throughout each chapter. Bono's subjects and interviewees tend to jumble together. However, this format helps bolster her central theme on "universal stages in the coming out process."

And Bono's own narrative--the tense relationship with her mother, her father's co-sponsoring of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), The Star involuntarily outing her in 1990, and her cherished partner dying of cancer--is tangible and inspiring for all.

Bono is living proof one can succeed in life and establish fulfilling relationships, regardless of sexual preference. Still, same-sex partnering remains all too frequently taboo: Currently "only 13 states in this country have anti-discrimination laws to protect gays against firing or other unjust treatment," the author reports.

A political activist and gay-rights advocate, Bono affirms it's the responsibility of gays and lesbians to change disapproving stereotypes.

But responsibility falls on everyone's shoulders. As Cher says in her daughter's book, "If the majority of people in society didn't consider homosexuality a negative, I don't think anyone would care. Everyone would come out to their parents and life would go on." TW

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