Two snaps up 

Kirk Read relates an unconventional coming-out story

Conventional wisdom says that high school is pure hell for kids coming out of the closet. Even with gay-straight alliances popping up in schools everywhere, gay and lesbian students are still taunted and are still at the top of teen suicide statistics.

But that's not the side of the story Kirk Read set out to tell with How I Learned to Snap, his new memoir of growing up gay in a small Virginia town.

"I wanted to write a book that will help teenagers," says Read, 29. "I decided to write about my experience of being out in high school. I hadn't seen it done in a way that was not victim-based. I certainly had my share of turmoil, but high school is a nightmare for everybody. It's an awkward, gawky freak show."

A freelance journalist based in San Francisco, Read is best known for his sarcastic syndicated column that has appeared in the gay press across the country. He also has written plays, served as editor of Virginia's monthly gay and lesbian newspaper, washed dishes at a Castro homeless shelter and worked at a free health care clinic for sex workers.

How I Learned to Snap, however, focuses on Read's adolescence and teen years. An Army colonel's son who grew up in Lexington, Va. (and delivered newspapers to Pat Robertson's door), Read explores his coming-out process with hilarity and honesty. He classifies his story as unique, and uniquely Southern.

As his orientation becomes more obvious, Read's mother emerges as a defender of her son. With a sardonic smirk Read divulges his parents' attempts to understand their youngest child, who begins to experiment with sex, alcohol and stolen undergarments. In the title essay, Read recaps his friendship with Jesse Fowler, an older gay student from his school, who teaches him to properly use the words "tragic," "fierce" and "drama" and to begin, whenever possible, all sentences with "Child ...".

"He sometimes crimped my bangs," Read writes, "prompting the Colonel to ask if I'd been hanging out with the Fowler boy again."

"'Yes,' I replied at supper. 'And child, he's fierce.'"

Published last month by Athens-based Hill Street Press, the book has already been named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Book Award in the autobiography/memoir category, and a finalist for the American Library Association Book Award. But a more tangible outgrowth of the book's success has arrived on a personal level.

"I got an e-mail the other day from the brother of the guy who pushed me against the locker," Read says, referring to a bullying incident in the book. "He was horrified. He said, 'How could this be, and if it's true, I'm so sorry.' It was a very powerful moment for me when I realized that people in high school are figuring themselves out, and people are not bullies for life."

Though the book does relate more than a few scuffles with "faggot"-slurring assailants, How I Learned to Snap emerges as a coming-of-age story that any child of the '80s will instantly identify with. But at several points Read repeats his stipulation that his coming-out experience was not the typical one. At age 13 Read started hanging out in a record shop, and his friendship with the two owners led to an early introduction into Lexington's small and closeted gay community. In high school, the young activist staged a play about coming out and lobbied the superintendent over his right to bring a same-sex date to the prom. These and other actions were met with surprising acceptance.

"My point is not that I was safe in high school. I had a handful of supportive teachers and friends. But I think what makes high school safe for gay students is their sense of resilience and resistance. ... We still have a lot of work to do in terms of making classrooms and hallways safe."

Kirk Read will speak and sign copies of How I Learned to Snap: A Small-Town Coming-of-Age & Coming-Out Story at OutWrite Bookstore, 991 Piedmont Ave., Friday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m. 404-607-0082.

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