I was born in 1958 to heterosexual parents. I grew up in a home where gay and straight folks sat side-by-side at dinner parties. Friendships formed around personal and intellectual connections. There was no Great Divide between homosexuals and heterosexuals.
I never gave it a thought, until third grade.
In a kickball game, a girl I’ll call “Susannah” crushed the ball and drove in three runs. “Cory,” admired even by the fifth graders for his spectacular use of profanity, shouted a new insult. I asked my mother what it meant; “It’s a rude, ignorant word for a gay man.”
I looked up, puzzled; “What’s gay?” My parents never categorized people by sexuality, but that day, my vocabulary expanded to include “gay,” “straight,” “lesbian,” “homosexual” and “heterosexual.”
High school was an eye-opener. The atmosphere radiated an edgy tension, with gang violence always ready to erupt. The gay boys were targeted continuously. One day, a girl nudged me as a tall, thin boy walked by, frothy blond hair down his back. “The jocks beat him up last week,” she whispered. “He was in the hospital for three days.” She skipped off to class. A month later, she again took my elbow. “Remember the blond guy? I heard he died. Beaten to death. The jocks.” She smiled sweetly, and shrugged. “Who cares, one less —,” and she used the word I learned in third grade.
I cried that night. I had no words to explain my tears for a boy I never knew, the possible victim of a piece of gossip that might not be true. I promised myself that some day, I would write a book about that boy. I would not allow my readers to be indifferent. I would name the book after my high school, and its motto.
Years later, my husband and I were raising our children in Mill Valley, Calif., across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and I began to write. I created gay and lesbian characters. I surrounded them with supporters who rallied for them, shoulder to shoulder, triumphing over a judgmental world.
I completed the final edits in 2008, and prepared to publish.
A few months later, I voted on the losing side of Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage. My reaction to the election was odd: I stopped publication of my book. Something was wrong, and I was still figuring it out three years later, when my family moved to Chapel Hill. I was pleased to live in a beautiful area, with such respect for education. Then with a nauseating sense of déjà vu, I found myself voting on the losing side of Amendment 1, which prohibited gay marriages and civil unions.
The next morning, I knew how to fix my novel. I had portrayed the road to full acceptance for the LGBTQ characters as much too smooth. I rewrote the story, rebuilt the road, offered avenues for people of differing mindsets to become Allies. As I promised myself back in 1973, I wrote about that blond boy, whose name I never knew. I called my novel, “Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable.”
I hope my book will be read by people who feel ready to question their own beliefs, who want to become more accepting but don’t know how. There’s a path for everyone to become an Ally. All you have to do is take the first step.
You’ll find me waiting for you.
Amy Kaufman Burk recently published her first novel as an ebook, available at hollywoodhighbook.com.