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Holding Hands.

Gay boys and teenage girls have this much in common: both take a long time to get ready to go out, and both love going to malls.

In fact, malls have become the convergence point of modern America: brightly lit and often discounted melting pots of commerce, cash machines, and culture.

So imagine my surprise at my local mall recently, in suburban Des Moines, when I saw two 16-year-old boys walking around holding hands. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I looked around for a camera, thinking there must be a movie filming. But there was no camera. This was real life.

I shadowed them for a time, thinking they were, by example, making fun of gay people. But no – as I watched them move in and out of The Gap and Structure, I could tell the handholding was genuine, and I was awestruck at the simple act.

They were not alone, but were part of a group of teenagers, mixed male and female, including at least one obvious heterosexual pairing. They all laughed together, walked around together, made fun of each other, and shared both a common voice and common ground. It was a remarkable and moving sight, and one that I did not expect to see.

Wasn’t it just a few years ago that Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence post? And isn’t this the generation that is making Eminem a vastly popular hate-monger?

So many questions ran though my head: Was this an anomaly? Could it be some extended social science class project? Or have we been Will & Graced enough to break though some of the last barriers that separate the gay community from the straight community? Are incoming High School students now so comfortable being who they are that they will feel no need to politicize themselves for the cause? Is it simpler to “just do it” than to debate it forever?

There were other eyes following my two young men around the mall as well, especially those of older, married couples who did double takes [and in some cases , triple takes] at the sight of two 16-year-olds boys doing no more, or less, then they were doing themselves. I walked slowly and listened to some of the comments. They were not all positive, yet they were not all negative either. Said one sixty-ish woman to her husband, “It’s just like your brother. Let them be happy.”

Some people shook their heads as they walked by, while other stiffened and refused to look at all, but their eyes betrayed them. You could tell then had noticed and were unnerved by the sight. The boys themselves seemed oblivious to the ruckus they were causing by just holding hands, feeding each other ice cream at D.Q., or by holding up a leather jacket to one another to share opinions on it’s style.

I wondered if they faced persecution by anyone at their school, or if they surrounded themselves with this small group of friends who understand and are supportive. How do other boys react? Do their parents know their children are having a profound impact on people who cross their paths? And do these boys know what they may have to face in their future by being so completely honest in the present?

We hear how cool it is to be gay in high school these days, but in fact thiswas the first conclusive evidence I had seen to support that urban legend. Maybe it is true. I hope it is.

I lost the group somewhere near Sam Goody, where a sign announced that MTV was sponsoring a yearlong examination of hate crimes, urging their viewers’ acceptance of other races, religions, and preferences. And it occurred to me as I stood there in the mall, that we are at a pivotal moment in out times when a media outlet aimed at youth had the foresight to promote tolerance, and young people respond with simpler acts of kindness and affection for one another.

Having been around more teenagers in the last year then I had been for a few years had been quite enlightening for me, and in mostly a positive way. For some time I’ve been an advocate of the idea that the current generation of 16-year-olds is set to take a big step toward compassion for all lifestyles. Although we aren’t completely there yet, I’m happy to see that those steps have been taken out of a conceptual stage and into the malls of middle America-possibly. The most unlikely yet brilliant common battlefield of all.

–Thomas Long

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