Sunday, February 15, 2015

Going the Distance: Ashland's Rhodes Twins' Coming Out

When reality coincides with my fiction in a good way, it's slightly amazing, like when a young cross country athlete comes out to his father. Such is the case with Reid Conniff, the narrator of my Lambda Literary Award-winning novel (I still love typing that) Every Time I Think of You

In reality, the popular Rhodes twins came out to their father in a very modern way, and of course became an internet sensation.

While I was aware of the twins as they came out online (their now-famous video has been viewed more than 15 million times), I wasn't aware of the connection beyond the fact that the two young men, like my fictional character Reid, who were cross country athletes in high school.

The Rhodes brothers' famous coming out video
It wasn't until an old friend pointed out one fact that I got another connection. The Rhodes twins, Aaron and Austin, are from my home town of Ashland, Ohio.

The brothers, who were already a bit famous, with thousands of followers of their videos and Instagram accounts, are slim, handsome (in an Abercrombie & Fitch way) and popular. 

True, it didn't need a sleuth to figure out that they're gay. Since graduating from Ashland High School, the brothers have become fashion models, have visited West Hollywood and hung out with openly gay Internet celebrity Davey Wavey, among others. And they recently appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' show with their supportive dad.

But despite the snarky comments to some of their videos and photos, they've added to the growing trend of LGBT kids coming out and declaring themselves and their right to exist in multiple ways. compared to the frequent tragic news of teen suicides and antigay and anti-transgender abuse, it's a good thing.
Austin Willis (right) and his boyfriend

Compare the Rhodes twins' public coming out to that of Texas gay teen Austin Willis, whose videos and online coming out resulted in a "Christian" high school administrator's abusive and hateful attacks, including tossing him from that school.  A gay father's reaction sums up the majority of supportive responses.

My character Reid's coming out, in Every Time I Think of You, is much more intimate, and funny. You'll have to read the book to enjoy that.

One of the minor critiques I got from a few readers was the lack of homophobia to Reid. I can only respond by reminding readers that there is a violent homophobic incident, but the way Reid tells it is a bit different than the usual coming out story.

My own 'big time coming out' in, or to Ashland and my fellow alumni was in 2002. The New Conservatory Theatre Center's commissioned stage adaptation of my first novel PINS, about a New Jersey high school wrestler, got an expansive wrote-up in the Ashland alumni newsletter, after I sent them a press release. 
Ashland High School Alumni newsletter 2002

Expecting a cursory mention, instead, the editors chose to write an expansive feature. And while I was astonished by the coverage, and my parents (still in Ashland at the time) were quite proud, I was a bit surprised by how darn "gay" the whole thing seemed. I was in the midst of writing my Sports Complex column, and had been (and still am) writing for one of the most prominent LGBT publications in America, the Bay Area Reporter.

While this was pre-Facebook, I still got some nice appreciative emails from high school friends with whom I had been in contact, and even a few who sought me out to congratulate me on my accomplishments.

Even my junior high school teacher gave a mention of PINS in his May 2000 education column in the Ashland Times-Gazette. In discussing the kinds of books teenagers should read, and who those authors might be, Dave Kowalka wrote, about a possible book about coming out and athletics:

"Maybe this author should have had a teacher who taught him to love reading and writing. An author already did that Jim Provenzano, an Ashland boy, wrote PINS, a debut novel about 15-year-old wrestler Joey, who wonders if he is gay. A real problem for the small town boy who yearns to succeed in life, sports, and to grow up a happy adult. Another author of which to be proud."
Ohio media coverage of my 2000 book tour

Aside from a slightly snippy review in the Mansfield News Journal, my reading tour back to Ohio in the snowy winter of 2000 was met with great praise from Ohio publications both gay and straight.

Nothing negative, nothing anti-gay came my way. While I'm sure a few conservative folks back in Ohio may have had their less than supportive thoughts, they kept them to themselves.

That's pretty much what life was like back in Ohio. Despite being a staunchly conservative town, my upbringing back in high school was generally supportive.

Yes, crimes and controversies do make national headlines, as do a seemingly disproportionate amount of America's Funniest Video clips and funny wedding names featured on The Tonight Show.

And while I did date girls, I usually came out to them before or after school dances, and to my nerdy theatre, speech team and yearbook pals.

A 1979 Arrow-gram
But more specifically, the high school itself and its administrators for the most part offered a supportive environment that nurtured creativity, achievement, and respect for others. One of the cute aspects of that were the Arrow-grams. Little half-page notices were sent to every student who participated in extracurricular activities, or made any kind of academic success. I still have all of mine, and wonder if other schools considered such inspirational messages.

While I'm still proud to say that I was on the track team, it was only for one year, and I was one of the lowest-scoring members of the team. Still, the environment was supportive, even 30 years ago.And somewhere along the way, the friends I made who were cross-country runners may have inspired the creation of Reid Conniff.

So it's nice to see how far things have progressed in Ohio. It still remains problematic, politically, and in terms of marriage equality. But on a personal level, for me, and decades later, for the Rhodes twins, it may still be, as the city's motto (written on Ashland's central water tank) says, "someplace special."

No comments:

Post a Comment