Monday, May 09, 2011

What We're Reading: Gay Teens

Freaks and Revelations: A Novel by Davida Wills Hurwin.

Freaks and Revelations is a 2011 children’s and young adult Stonewall Honor Book, one of a number of books of merit recognized each year by the GBLT Round Table of the American Library Association for books that highlight the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience. Hurwin’s novel is a fictionalization of the true life story of Timothy Zaal and Matthew Boger. Zaal and Boger met each other in 2005 while they were both working at the Museum of Tolerance here in Los Angeles. But it dawned on them that they had both met once before. Matthew had been beat up and left for dead by Timothy Zaal in a vicious gay hate crime that occurred in Hollywood in 1980. Zaal was now lecturing at the museum about his transformation from his punk and skinhead past, Boger talking about his experience as a young homeless gay teen and as a victim of hate crimes. They have become friends.

The author, it would seem, had some interesting choices in attempting to turn this story into a work of fiction. The chance contemporary meeting so many years after the violent encounter might be treated as the essence of the story, making this a novel about how people can change and how they can come to forgive. In fact, hearing of the true life story and reading some of the reviews, such a treatment might very well be the expectation of the reader. But Hurwin has made a choice here that is perhaps counterintuitive, but it is one that gives this story its particular vitality and impact. Most of her novel is centered not on the subsequent forgiveness and reconciliation of the protagonists, but rather on the long and crooked paths of hate and vulnerability to hate travelled in two different lives, paths that briefly crossed in their violent encounter so many years ago and then moved on. The imaginative effort of understanding those roads and depicting them in a realistic and unsentimental account is the strength of this book. She shows us that the paths to hate and victimization begin in two different families that are intolerant and abusive, each in their own way. While Hurwin presents critical views of punk and gay culture, and the social attitudes of the pre-AIDS 1970s, it is fundamentally the families of these young men that fail them. She suggests that the cause, and remedy of a crime such as this, is centered in how we experience the most fundamental personal relationships in our lives, in the things we teach our children.

Neither hate nor forgiveness is an epiphany. We might wish the path to forgiveness was shorter, and the one to committing a hate crime far longer, but the truth is that both require stages, follow patterns, and depend on personal and social abettors. I don’t know if hate is as hard as forgiveness, but Hurwin makes clear that it is not an instant or easy achievement. It takes a lot to come to the point where you can create a hate crime, which is some consolation, but that a lot is so often given these days lessens much comfort in that notion.

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