He was a stocky young kid, maybe 13 or 14, someone who might have become a starting fullback for his high-school football squad.
Maybe he eventually did. But on this evening in 1996, he was being dropped off at what's now called the Center OC by his father, a red-faced bull of a man who looked none too pleased about either of them being anywhere near there.
At the time, I was a front-desk volunteer at the Center, mostly answering phones. This was the youth rap night, when gay or questioning teens and young adults could get together in a protected environment with others their age to talk about anything and everything. Their freaked-out parents. Campus bullies. Indifferent school administrators. Suicide attempts.
Somehow, they all found their way to this anonymous office park absent any identifiers—no rainbow flag, no sign out front, just an address on the front door. I would eventually learn the Center's low-key approach was for safety concerns; a more visible incarnation of the Center had been firebombed in the 1970s.
The youth-group session was over, and the kid's old man came to pick him up. As he was leaving, he passed by me and started to ask me something, but he got cut off mid-question by his father's abrasive "Move it!" Out the door they went, the son trudging reluctantly—perhaps fearfully—behind by some 20 feet, as if on an invisible leash.
My shift eventually switched to Monday mornings, which brought phone calls from parents who had recently found out that their son or daughter was gay. I remember the awesome mom who loved her son so much that she called to see if we could set her boy up on a date.
But mostly, these were parents who had no idea how to handle their Big Gay Bombshell. Some were angry and in denial—"This is just a thing he's going through, right?" Others were crying and confused, afraid their kids would immediately become targets of violence.
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Policy was that I could only take their contact info and pass it on to one of the Center's counselors, but they all just needed someone to talk to, RIGHT NOW. And so, I listened.
I want to think it's easier to be young and gay in Orange County these days, that stories about marriage equality and endless Internet resources and big public events such as this weekend's OC Pride fest make the world a less scary place. But young LGBT people live in the world they live in. My young friend Brenton, who went to Irvine public high schools in the mid-2000s and who had the courage to come out to his family when he was 13, tells me that he would not have been at all comfortable being out on campus even then, not with the many religious student groups and "gay" constantly being used as a put-down—still—for anything bad. He would have loved to have taken a boyfriend to the prom, but such an act was out of the question. Maybe it still is.
But he remembers one time when some people from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays came to speak during lunch, and it left an impression with him that there are, indeed, supportive people outside of oppressive high-school walls.
I never again saw that kid—or his pissy father—who showed up for the Center's youth group. I hope he eventually broke free and is out there, someplace, happy.