By Jeff Walsh
In a recent phone interview, Brent Calderwood reflected back on his years of being openly gay and politically active. From the time his picture appeared on the front pages of area newspapers, to his stint as senior editor at insideOUT magazine, and then his freelance writing career. Of course, there was also his run as a media mogul, speaking on gay issues on radio shows and on the nationally-syndicated Gabrielle Carteris talk show.
But, he says his time in the spotlight is over, and it's time for a new generation to take over for him. He is 20 now, after all.
"I used to be really succinct and precise. It's been a while since I've been doing the interview circuit," he humbly apologizes. "Then, I'd talk in all soundbites."
Most of the television talk shows that wanted him got rejected because they wanted to be sensational and have him confront a former principal. But now, he's just looking forward to college, and watching new queer teens become media queens.
"I'm a little older now. I'm 20, although I probably look 25. I feel like I've sort of passed the torch to a new generation of queer talk show kids," he says. "Part of it was that I just wanted to write articles and do op-ed pieces. There's such an emphasis on youth and being a little skinny boy. I've never felt... it's hard to explain that I feel out of the loop without sounding like a weird freak."
Far from being a freak, Calderwood says he never felt like part of the larger gay community. Throughout the interview, despite the dramatic things he's gone through, he constantly apologizes and asks if he's being boring. "Talking about high school makes me blank sometimes," he also warns.
Working the media
Calderwood's media stint began with a prom theme when he was 17 years old and a student at Livermore High School. "I had already been coming out and speaking to the student council and then, in December, a writer from the Oakland Tribune interviewed me for an article and took a picture of me," he says. "I assumed it would be a little article in the pages of the Oakland Tribune, but it actually went into all five of the papers in the Alameda paper group and I was on the front page in my town and all throughout the Bay Area, which was fine with me, because I wanted to change the world, help gay youth everywhere and everything.
"I just figured I was contributing to an article she was doing about kids coming out at an earlier age, but it turned out that she sort of profiled me and did an article on me, and there was a big picture of me standing in front of my high school on the front page in full-color," he says. "And I think the first line was something like 'Brent Calderwood, 17, plans to take a male date to his senior prom,' which I had sort of mentioned off-the-cuff, but that had become the focus of the article.
"That's as exciting as it gets," he says, apologetically, "because although that's what I planned, and I did get death threats for the rest of the year, harassment, and picking up fruits and vegetables from my doorstep, I didn't go to the prom because by then I had too many cuts to go, whether or not I wanted to make some kind of public stand. I had been cutting too much to avoid the harassment. So, that's sort of an anti-climax right there."
But, Calderwood did eventually get to go to a queer prom last year in Hayward, where he yelled at some protesters and wrote an article about it for the San Francisco Examiner. His article went out on the news wire, and newspaper started reprinting his column, but many edited his words incorrectly.
"People sort of gleaned information from it out of context that 'Oh wow, here's a story about a kid coming out in Livermore High School, and going to the prom and getting death threats at the prom,'" he says. "They sort of combined the information into one story, that I actually went to the prom in Livermore. Which, I would have."
I admit to Calderwood that that was the story I had heard prior to calling him. He says his name just keeps coming up regarding this issue. "Because I am a token gay youth, my name is mentioned in other people's articles from time to time," he says. "I've been unemployed for over a year and haven't been writing articles recently, and I still read my name occasionally. Apparently, I was in Newsweek a couple months ago related to proms as well."
"The articles I've done and the interviews I did were trying to change the world or something," he says. "It's funny, I'll read my name somewhere and I'll be kind of shocked. It was never my intention, to get recognized, but I just had things to say and things I was pissed off about that I wanted to change."
But in his Examiner column, he did explore his own lack of a high school prom.
"When I wrote that article, I started by saying I didn't get to go to my own, but this is what was so wonderful and different about something specifically for queer youth," he says. "At first, I thought, of all the things they could be doing, why something as silly and as superficial as a prom? But then I realized that was sort of the point, that why shouldn't gay kids get to be as silly and superficial as everyone else?"
'I probably shouldn't tell you in a moving vehicle'
When the article picturing Calderwood standing in front of his high school appeared in newspapers, he was out to everyone except his father. He found out his son's sexuality by reading it in the paper.
"He was reading the paper that my mom had cut the article out of, but I didn't know that, I just saw him reading the paper," he says. "I thought, by then, he must have known. So, I said 'I guess you saw me on the front page.' And he said, 'No, what do you mean.'"
As his father was driving him back home to Livermore from San Leandro, his father asked again what he meant about seeing him on the front page. "And I said 'I probably shouldn't tell you in a moving vehicle,'" he says. "And then he stopped at an am/pm, went inside, and bought the paper. I think the problems I have with my parents are the problems most people have.
"In the scheme of things, I used to consider myself lucky because both of them were fairly okay with it and dealt with it well, better than the horror stories I'd heard," he says. "But since then, I've realized it's not lucky if your parents just sort of, you know, can just deal with who you are. Who you are should be validated for you as much as straight people take for granted."
Calderwood says his family is pretty good about things now, not totally accepting, but just the "usual little awkward things" still come up. "Comparatively speaking, I've had no complaints," he says.
'Make me straight, or kill me'
"I've always, corny cliche ... but I've always felt different," he says, laughing. "I think that I would have known if I had any role models or known that this was a real thing. But, I didn't, and so around fourth grade by the time I was nine, I already started having feelings for other boys.
"I started puberty when I was about 10, sort of an early bloomer. But when I was in the sixth grade, I was 200 pounds and had braces and glasses, so I just felt like a totally asexual nerd freak anyway," he says. "That's part of why I had a different coming out experience."
Fat, gay and being harassed, he became anorexic in the eighth grade to be "like everyone else."
"I became really thin and that didn't change the harassment, of course," he says. "Even to this day, we all have issues. I still have this image of myself as this little nerdy kid, even though I'm tall and fairly thin with contacts and no braces anymore."
"So, when I started having these feelings, on top of just recognizing that they weren't appropriate sexual feelings, or normal, I shouldn't be sexual anyway," he says. "And at the same time, my parents were getting divorced and my godfather died. It was a great time in my life. So, that explains why I started feeling suicidal."
"It started out from the time I was 12 until about 14. Every night I would pray to God to either make me straight or kill me," he says. "I had written suicide notes and addressed them to friends. If I killed myself, I would come out to somebody after I was dead, but never when I was living. It was just too humiliating. I planned which pills I would take, but once I came out to a few friends and going to the youth group, I immediately started feeling great about myself. I felt like I had a cause to fight for. I started coming out to a few friends when I was 15, most of my family when I was 16 and I came out my senior year when I was 17."
'Somebody's going to kill you'
Calderwood first started getting harassed in the seventh grade, and started cutting class in the eighth grade. "Since I was cutting so much, I was about to be expelled midway through my sophomore year in San Leandro. They didn't know why I was cutting and I wasn't about to tell them," he says. "So, I moved to Livermore, and I was hanging around with football players just trying to be something I wasn't. After a while, it just turned my stomach and I realized I'd rather be hated for who I was than loved for who I wasn't. So, I decided to come out.
"I came out to a few friends and other people at the end of my junior year, and the following year when I came back, I just figured now's my chance," he says. "It started because I was taking a psychology class and we were given an assignment to spend a whole week acting differently than we normally would. So, I was wearing freedom rings and people would ask me what they meant and I would tell them. And that's how it started, and slowly I started getting harassment, so I started organizing meeting for the student council and talking to school administrators to fight the homophobia that was going on at school."
It was at that time that Calderwood started writing for the sporadic gay youth magazine insideOUT, and was contacted to be in the newspaper article.
"By the time it was on the front page, people who had no idea who I was knew. I could just walk into the store in Livermore or be riding my bike down the street and just have rocks thrown at me or people yelling things. I got several death threats," he says. "People would come up to me at school and say I heard that if you go to the prom, somebody's going to kill you. Bring a gun."
'I was totally isolated and depressed'
Fortunately, Calderwood had already started going to youth groups by that point. So, he was building up his self-esteem and a network of people to support him. He still remembers his first youth group meeting at the Pacific Center, Berkeley.
"That was the first time I had met any openly gay person. Being in a room full of them really freaked me out," he says. "Then I started building a group of supportive friends and felt like I had a support system. I went to my first gay pride parade between my junior and senior year. Being around so many gay people and learning about political awareness bolstered my confidence and made me a lot more sure about what I was going to do.
"It was never about 'Hey everybody, guess what I do in bed' or 'Let me brag about me.' I was totally isolated and depressed," he says. "I began learning that kids were killing themselves, being thrown out of their houses and were homeless, and dropping out of school, and it really made me angry. And I felt if I couldn't at least do something for myself I could stop it from happening to other people.
"That's why I came out. I was being victimized. I saw other people being victimized. I saw words like faggot and dyke being thrown around and they were not addressed," he says. "I wanted to put a stop to it, and a way to do it was to acknowledge the problem, acknowledge that I was gay and that there were other gay people at school, and that it wouldn't be tolerated. I wasn't going to stand by and watch it happen.
"That's what made me able to endure all of that. It sounds like bullshit, but I really wasn't thinking about myself, because before I had come out and started meeting other gay people, I had already lost every shred of self-respect or self-love and so I just felt really angry for other people and wanted to change the world," he says. "I've become a little more realistic now, but that's how I was then. Be a martyr."
Coming out doesn't solve everything
Calderwood says he has been suicidal since coming out, having attempted suicide several times in the past year and a half.
"This is a whole other phenomenon. A few years after coming out and being Mr. Political and doing talk shows and various things, and integrated being gay into who I am, and that it wasn't everything I was, just part of me," he says.
"I found that while I was coming out, I was so happy and so proud, being in the closet was my problem. Hiding being gay felt like I was hiding everything I was, so coming out proud I felt like I was being proud of everything I was," he says. "A few years later, I realized I was proud of being gay, but I'm still not proud of this or this. I still haven't taken care of being abused as a child or this and that. So, I had all this other shit to deal with and it sort of sneaked up on me.
He says lumping all of his problems together, and blaming them on being closeted came back to haunt him.
"Since coming out and doing all this stuff, I started getting depressed again. Now, I'm passed that."
This fall, Calderwood plans to go back to college, after a brief stint at a "rinky-dink" community college, where he hopes to study music.