A Survival Guide for Gay Teens

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Benjie Nycum
Realizing you're gay when you're young can be very scary. Way before you're proud and out, there are all these treacherous land mines to navigate. The editors of XY, the sexy-hip magazine for boys, have put together The XY Survival Guide (XY Publishing, 172 pages, $9.95) to help lube the transition. It's full of information for teen queers on coming out, hanging out, drugs, STDs and so on. I spoke recently with XY's Benjie Nycum.

XY originally wanted to do a club and travel guide that we could market as a handy little supplement to the magazine. As we were throwing around ideas on how to do it, we started adding bits. The first planning meeting didn't focus on underage clubs or travel destinations at all. Instead we kept injecting new ideas like, "Oh I think there needs to be a how-to-make-schools-safe guide, and should we do a bit on safe sex, and what about coming out... Oh, and kids need to know about what to do in abusive situations." We always get carried away. If we had made a travel and club guide the cost would have been about $40,000 lower to make it, and we would have still been able to sell it for $9.95.

That is pretty cheap.

Isn't that a great price? How many books can you get for $9.95? We wanted it to be accessible. I had always felt it would be great to make a complete guide for young gay life, since there is really so much to say about it. I got started and it didn't take much time to realize how much information is missing out there, and I knew I had my finger on all of it.

Aren't there a lot of gay guides out there already?

See, there are so many guides out there about being gay, but they are marketed to the crowd that have basically already been through most of their issues, have developed their sexual identity and are ready to laugh about it, make fun of it, make fun of the gay stereotypes, make fun of their moms' reaction when they came out, etc. Gay teens simply aren't in that head space. Their issue is, "Do I have any chance at surviving this future of mine?" Gay teenagers are often too busy getting through school, dealing with growing up?not to mention dealing with abusive homophobes?to sit down and make a guidebook for their peers. So no one was really ever going to do that. I also felt that any guide out there was only about sex?like the Joy of Gay Sex, an excellent resource?or about everything but sex. This struck me as odd. It was compounded by the fact that in most school programs sex is still a foreign issue, and gay sex is not mentioned.

Did you have a plan or formula for doing this?

Yeah. Accessible information equals knowledge and experience equals higher self-esteem, and confidence equals better/safer decision-making equals longer, happier lives equals more alive gay kids to help other gay kids.

Did you learn things you didn't know about before?

One way writing the book changed me is that now I feel like I am full of soundbites and facts that I can reel off to trigger a response in people. The media coverage for the book is a great way to talk about issues surrounding young queer life. And the media at large is really fascinated by this kind of thing right now...

Another thing I learned, but have a hard time remembering, is that we are now in a phase where there are actually many, many happy young queer people out there leading happy lives. That's a new phenomenon. The young gay out demographic is a new one...

Has gay media been supportive?

The respect and support young gay kids get from straight agencies and people is much higher than what the gay media or gay agencies give. In terms of The XY Survival Guide that has meant a lot more straight media coverage and institutions with straight people behind them wanting copies and being really supportive. I haven't heard very much from gay media. I've done a few gay radio interviews, and I know of one review written in a gay paper. Which is odd, since you'd think the gay press would be really happy about this, and we sent 300 review copies out to the gay press. The only resistance to the book so far has come from university gay groups, who refuse to review the book for some strange reasons, which I think have to do with the people in charge wanting to feel powerful enough to say no or something. I find that strange and sad. When I was writing and compiling the book, the straight agencies that deal with youth in general were overwhelmingly supportive, and the gay agencies were sorta, "Oh...uh-huh," and acted kinda snooty, like I was wasting their time. Even GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network], who provided a lot of the material and did a full review edit of the book at about the 85 percent completion phase, didn't want to do an endorsement on the back cover until they saw the final printed version?an impossible thing, since we would have to reprint to include their endorsement. I find that so strange, but maybe they had other benevolent and perhaps bureaucratic reasons.

You must be like a lightning rod for kids who're coming out and are isolated. How do you deal with that?

We get about 100 letters a week from readers who are really glad that our magazine exists. About 50 percent of these specifically involve our readers coming out because they read a particular article that inspired them, or, in some cases, their parents found the magazine in their rooms or something like that. It's really an amazing thing to be trying to help run this struggling magazine and often feel deflated and like the whole thing is doomed, and then to get a phone call or a letter from someone thanking us for helping them... It would be great if we could operate at a profit?right now our phones are even cut off since we can't pay the bill, but hey, the Survival Guide is out there and that mattered more. And someday, when we have the advertising revenue of any other magazine with our kind of circulation?70 to 80,000?we will.

What are some of the stories you've heard from young guys trying to come out or just be queer in isolated areas?

Kids in remote places who have been to the Barnes & Noble on a weekend shopping trip 150 miles from home have seen our magazine and read it, and realized they are not so strange or alone in the world. I hear a lot of stories about kids who are really scared because they are getting beaten up at home by stupid parents. I have coached kids who forced their school to have a diversity day... I have heard from Mormon kids who are afraid to jerk off. I have heard from boys who feel they are straight but they also happen to be obsessed with the Backstreet Boys and wonder, "Is it true that XY did an issue on them? Just wondering." I have an e-mail from someone who lives in Laramie and says that "not a fucking thing has changed since Matthew Shepard." He's still scared to death when he's not in his house. We get lots of messages from boys who go into their local newsstand and find XY with the porn...

We get some wild letters, too. Sometimes wannabe models send us some wild things to get our attention. We get amazing submissions, also about 100 a week, that are often so good it's a really hard job to decide what to put in. We get letters from older readers who are very supportive and in tune with our mission and ask what they can do to help... And of course, J.T., we get calls like the one that came from you back in March asking us to review your book. You had so many nice things to say, if you can remember. You don't know how much that one phone call sustained our spirits. Our readers have a lot of power to motivate us, I guess.

XY fills a very unique and important niche, yet it has had problems getting advertisers. Can you tell me about that?

There is a general bias with big-time advertisers?and especially big-time ad firms?because they feel there is a risk, although they never say that, in advertising in our magazine. They always give reasons like, We don't have a big enough circulation, or We don't fit their demographic. In some cases those are valid reasons. But in most they are just lies... Our rates are among the lowest going. The thing about big-name advertisers is that they place ads over a long period of time. One or two big advertisers could sustain this magazine no problem, since we only have four on staff and very little overhead...

What happened with Calvin Klein?

About Calvin Klein: nothing is going on with them, although we have heard through the grapevine that CK director of marketing Joseph Janus plans to sue us for quoting in Issue 25 what he said in front of 150 of our readers at the underage New York dance party Kurfew when we were having an XY event there. He said, "You know, Calvin Klein would love to be able to advertise in your magazine, but we can't when you print shit like this"?pointing to a cartoon by Joe Phillips showing a skateboarder whose jeans were falling off a bit. I'm not sure how he could sue us for saying what he said in front of 150 of our most loyal fans, since everyone there was so shocked by it. It was really memorable, and very unfortunate that he said that in front of them. I felt really embarrassed for him.

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