IN THE 1990s, I facilitated a discussion group for gay and bisexual men. The purpose of the group was to break the isolation that we, men who loved men, felt, by creating a supportive network. We believed this kind of support would lead us to make positive choices in our lives as well as lessen the risk of contracting HIV.
Coming Out often became the topic of conversation. How do we tell our families, our friends, our coworkers that we’re gay? There were those who thought keeping it a secret was a fine choice. It was a choice I respected, but didn’t think it was a “fine” one. Heterosexuals never had to keep their sexual orientation a secret, never had to hide a kiss or a hug — why should we?
One participant, Dan, said he would never hold his boyfriend’s hand in public. When I asked why, he said, “It would shock people.”
“Yes,” I said. “It would shock people the first time. The second time, people would have already seen it, and they would be less shocked. Then maybe by the third or fourth time, people won’t even think about it because … it would be normal.” A kiss can shatter society’s ideas of normality. I’m sure it was shocking when the first interracial couples kissed in public. But even though breaking ground can be scary, there is also something powerful in knowing that you can change the world just by choosing to hold your boyfriend’s hand.
The power of a kiss is the central metaphor in David Levithan’s new novel Two Boys Kissing. Inspired by actual events, Levithan writes a virtual love letter from Generation X to Millennials. He tells all of the young gays living today:
We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining generation. You know some of our songs.
Fortunately, Levithan did not write a mere “It Gets Better” novel. Thank Gawd! “It Gets Better,” a ubiquitous phrase to discourage gay youth from committing suicide, was uttered by every LGBT ally, including President Obama. It was a pat message telling young queers to hold-on-and-things-will-look-up. What was missing in the messaging was this: it only gets better if we make it so. This kiss in Levithan’s novel is a defiant act, one that has actual strength.
High school student Tariq is the victim of gay bashing. Craig and Harry respond to this act of hate with an act of love: they kiss. It’s one for the record books, literally. Craig and Harry hope to lock lips for 32 hours, making it the longest kiss on record. The kiss is live-streamed on the internet, creating a global audience cheering and jeering the young men.
“Everytime two boys kiss,” Levithan writes, “it opens up the world a little bit more. Your world. The world we left. The world we left you. This is the power of a kiss: It does not have the power to kill you. But it has the power to bring you to life.”
Surrounding these two young men are the stories of other young gay men: Peter, Neil, Avery, Ryan, and Cooper. Each character has his story to tell. Kudos to Levithan for creating characters of different racial backgrounds, asserting that, yes, gay boys come in all colors. While the book contains some of the most beautiful, lyrical prose I’ve ever encountered, Levithan chose to write the story in sections, not chapters. Many of these sections are no more than a sentence or two long, denying the reader a sense of beginnings and endings. Instead of feeling grounded, this device left me floating.
One of the endearing qualities of this book is Levithan’s "older brother" approach to the younger generation, informing young gay or bi adults of what it was like in “our day,” from dealing with family troubles to dealing with bullies. He writes: “We wore your flaws. We wore your fears. We made your mistakes” For the most part, his omniscient big brotherly voice is spot on, particularly in dealing with the mass deaths due to AIDS. In some cases, it did come off as presumptuous. When one of the characters chooses the company of his favorite aunt over his other family members, Levithan writes: “We’ve all done this — created our mix-and-match families, our home made safety nets.”
I thought: Actually, no, not everyone has done this. There are gay men who have been so traumatized by their family lives, recreating anything like a family dynamic is the last thing on their minds.
Despite this, Levithan’s story is a thoughtful, heartfelt novel. It is obvious that Levithan cares and admires his young readers, almost apologizing at how Generation X’ers could have done better: “We were going to give you art and music and confidence and shelter and a much better world. Those who survived lived to do this. But we haven’t been there for you."
Thus, he presents this novel as a kind olive branch to a new generation of queers. It is truly a love letter, sealed with a kiss.