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by Adam Mastoon
Harpercollins Juvenile, 2001
Review by Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D. on Feb 23rd 2002

The Shared Heart

            The Shared Heart: Portraits and Stories Celebrating Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young People, edited and photographed by Adam Mastoon, is the initial “project to help heal homophobia.” Endorsed by Elton John and The Indigo Girls, Shared Heart presents in a systematic pattern, first, a photograph of a young woman or man between the ages of 16 and 23 years; second, a sample of her or his handwritten story; and, finally, a 100-500 word essay by each of the 40 young people profiled. Instructions apparently requested that each youth relate experiences of coming out to self and others. The intent was to gather diverse reflections and images of growing up with same-sex attractions because, “to develop a healthy sense of self, we need reflections that verify and affirm our inner feelings to our external lives.” Such an affirmation heals previous emotional and spiritual damage and inspires the development of an authentic self. Shared Hearts offers life-affirming, positive, resilient stories for the young person struggling with her or his sexual attractions and identification. For further assistance, relevant books, telephone numbers, and Internet resources are provided in the last 12 pages.

Aside from a limit regional focus, the profiled youths are diverse, representing the sexes equally and most major racial/ethnic groups. Religious and economic variability is also apparent, but not disabilities. By design, most youths are very out, although they do contemplate a time in which they were not. The content of their stories also depicts a spectrum of experiences. For example, some youths were rejected by their parents and thrown out of the home while others had parents who celebrated their coming out. Some youths had a trouble-free coming out experience with accolades and enhanced prestige; for others, it was treacherous. On the whole, however, the narratives are more positive than negative, presenting, as the sub-title suggests, a celebration of young gay life. As such, this book is a more accurate and representative portrait of young sexual-minority lives than most previous efforts, which have appeared to deliver the singular message, “Coming out is hell and you’ll pay the price.” The stories thus belie Mastoon’s own ill-stated and unsupportable claim “that suicide is the leading cause of death among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youths.”

This highly glossy book has beautiful visual images of youths, the text is well presented, and the handwriting photographs personalize the youths. Unfortunately, the narratives are too abbreviated. I found myself longing for more in-depth accounts of their lives and more photographs reflecting a diversity of moods and activities. Furthermore, without text or commentary by Mastoon, the narratives sometimes fall flat. Although the intent was clearly to let youths speak for themselves, their stories have little personal, social, or historic context. I wanted more – and some youthful readers might feel the same. In addition, if you are wondering about the significance of sex or romance on these young lives, you will be enormously dissatisfied. The youths appear de-sexed, which is consonant with what I take to be the central message of the stories, as stated by Josie, “My sexual orientation is a part of me, but it is not all of who I am or what makes me,” and Nathan, “I am no different that you.” Yes, your sexual orientation is a part of you and yes, you are different from other youths – which is why we need this book and your stories.

The narratives are now 7 years old and the coming out process for most occurred a decade ago. For more recent stories and photographs of young people, go to web sites such as Young Gay America and Coming Out Stories.  Otherwise, this book is valuable for youths considering coming out and recently out teens.

 

© 2002 Ritch C. Savin-Williams

 

 

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of developmental and clinical psychology at Cornell University in the Department of Human Development. He has written six books on adolescent development, including, ". . . And Then I Became Gay." Young Men's Stories (Routledge, 1998) and “Mom, Dad. I’m Gay.” How Families Negotiate Coming Out (American Psychological Association, 2001).