Thursday, October 27, 2005

Prelude to a Leak

Gang fight: How Cheney and his tight-knit team launched the Iraq war, chased their critics—and set the stage for a special prosecutor's dramatic probe.

By John Barry, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

Newsweek Oct. 31, 2005 issue -

It is the nature of bureaucracies that reports are ordered up and then ignored. In February 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney received a CIA briefing that touched on Saddam Hussein's attempts to build nuclear bombs. Cheney, who was looking for evidence to support an Iraq invasion, was especially interested in one detail: a report that claimed Saddam attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. At the end of the briefing, Cheney or an aide told the CIA man that the vice president wanted to know more about the subject. It was a common enough request. "Principals" often ask briefers for this sort of thing. But when the vice president of the United States makes a request, underlings jump. Midlevel officials in the CIA's clandestine service quickly arranged to send Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate the uranium claims. A seasoned diplomat, Wilson had good connections in the region. He would later say his week in Africa convinced him that the story was bogus, and said so to his CIA debriefers. The agency handed the information up the chain, but there is no record that it ever reached Cheney. Like hundreds of other reports that slosh through the bureaucracy each day, Wilson's findings likely made their way to the middle of a pile. The vice president has said he never knew about Wilson's trip, and never saw any report.

Story continues below If he had, Cheney might not have been inclined to believe a word of it anyway. At the time of Wilson's debunking, the vice president was the Bush administration's leading advocate of war with Iraq. Cheney had long distrusted the apparatchiks who sat in offices at the CIA, FBI and Pentagon. He regarded them as dim, timid timeservers who would always choose inaction over action. Instead, the vice president relied on the counsel of a small number of advisers. The group included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and two Wolfowitz proteges: I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, and Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld's under secretary for policy. Together, the group largely despised the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other analyses handed up by the intelligence bureaucracy. Instead, they went in search of intel that helped to advance their case for war.

Central to that case was the belief that Saddam was determined to get nukes—a claim helped by the Niger story, which the White House doggedly pushed. A prideful man who enjoys the spotlight, Joseph Wilson grew increasingly agitated that the White House had not come clean about how the African-uranium claim made it into George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. In June, Condoleezza Rice went on TV and denied she knew that documents underlying the uranium story were, in fact, crude forgeries: "Maybe somebody in the bowels of the agency knew something about this," she said, "but nobody in my circles." For Wilson, that was it. "That was a slap in the face," he told NEWSWEEK. "She was saying 'F--- you, Washington, we don't care.' Or rather 'F--- you, America'." On July 6, Wilson went public about his Niger trip in his landmark New York Times op-ed piece.

From there, as we now know, things got a bit out of hand. Within the White House inner circle, Wilson's op-ed was seen as an act of aggression against Bush and Cheney. Someone, perhaps to punish the loose-lipped diplomat, let it be known to columnist Robert Novak and other reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA operative, a revelation that is a possible violation of laws protecting classified information. This week the two-year-long investigation of that leak could finally end. It is widely expected that Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor appointed in the case, may issue indictments of one or more top administration officials, possibly including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

Of course, Fitzgerald could always pack up without issuing a single indictment, or even an explanation why. Tight-lipped, Fitzgerald has not said a word about his intentions. That has left Washington breathlessly reading into the flimsiest clues. Last week bloggers seized on the discovery that Fitzgerald had set up a Web site, which was taken as a sure sign that indictments were around the corner. Lawyers who have had dealings with Fitzgerald's office, who spoke anonymously because the investigation is ongoing, say the prosecutor appears to be exploring the option of bringing broad conspiracy charges against Libby, Rove and perhaps others, though it's still unclear whether Fitzgerald can prove an underlying crime.

Some lawyers close to the case are convinced Fitzgerald has a mysterious "Mr. X"—a yet unknown principal target or cooperating witness. Some press reports identified John Hannah, Cheney's deputy national-security adviser, as a potentially key figure in the investigation. Hannah played a central policymaking role on Iraq and was known to be particularly close to Ahmad Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress supplied some of the faulty intelligence about WMD embraced by the vice president in the run-up to the invasion. Lawyers for Rove and Libby have said their clients did nothing wrong and broke no laws. Last week Hannah's lawyer Thomas Green told NEWSWEEK his client "knew nothing" about the leak and is not a target of Fitzgerald's probe. "This is craziness," he said. Whatever news Fitzgerald makes this week, however, the case has shed light on how Cheney and his clique of advisers cleared the way to war, and how they obsessed over critics who got in the way.

The Cheney group isn't a new fraternity. Separately and together, they've been fighting the same battle with the intelligence bureaucracy for decades. Libby first worked for Cheney during the gulf war, when W's father was president and Cheney was Defense secretary. Libby was brought into the Pentagon by Wolfowitz, his former Yale professor, who was an under secretary of Defense. The arguments of the time seem familiar today. Cheney backed the elder Bush's vow to oust Saddam from Kuwait by force, over the objections of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who favored negotiations, and over dire predictions of disaster from the CIA. Cheney emerged with a low opinion of his senior military and of the intelligence community, believing both to be risk averse and too comfortable with conventional wisdom.

Story continues below When Bush was elected in 2000, Cheney—who had been impressed with Libby's political savvy and mastery of detail—tapped him as his No. 2. Libby was perhaps the group's most relentless digger. An intense former litigator, he acted as a conduit for Cheney's obsessions. Soon after 9/11, Libby began routinely calling intelligence officials, high and low, to pump them for any scraps of information on Iraq. He would read obscure, unvetted intelligence reports and grill analysts about them, but always in a courtly manner. The intel officials were often more than a little surprised. It was unusual for the vice president's office to step so far outside of channels and make personal appeals to mere analysts. "He was deep into the raw intel," says one government official who didn't want to be named for fear of retribution. (Cheney's office declined to comment on specific questions for this story, beyond saying that the vice president and his staff are cooperating with Fitzgerald's probe.)

Behind their backs, their detractors dubbed Cheney and his minions "the commissars." The vice president and Libby made three or four trips to CIA headquarters, where they questioned analysts about their findings. Agency officials say they welcomed the visits, and insist that no one felt pressured, though some analysts complained that they suspected Cheney was subtly sending them the message to get in line or keep their mouths shut.

Cheney and the commissars seemed especially determined to prove a now discredited claim: that Muhammad Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had secretly met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer in April 2001. If true, it would have backed administration assertions of a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, one of Bush and Cheney's arguments justifying an invasion. The story fell apart on serious examination by the FBI and CIA—Atta was apparently in the United States at the time of the alleged visit. But Cheney continued to repeat the story in speeches and interviews, even after the 9/11 Commission found no evidence to support it.

Behind the scenes, no one pushed the terror link harder than Libby. He urged Colin Powell's staff to include the Prague meeting in the secretary of State's speech to the United Nations. But Powell wanted no part of it. After one long session debating the evidence before the speech, Libby turned to a Powell aide. "Don't worry about any of this," he said, according to someone who was in the room. "We'll get back in what you take out." They didn't. Powell refused to use the line, but Libby's audacity stunned everyone at the table. "The notion that they've become a gang has some merit," says a longtime colleague of Libby's who requested anonymity to preserve the friendship. "A small group who only talk to each other ... You pay a price for that."
Libby seemed to bring the same kind of intensity when it came to Wilson. The timing of the diplomat's fiery op-ed couldn't have been worse for the administration. It was July 2003, two months after Saddam's statue fell, and still no WMD had been found. The administration's primary sales pitch was being called into doubt.

Libby and other administration officials were quick to denounce Wilson's claims, and to allege that it was his wife who had chosen him for the African trip. (Wilson and Plame say she merely recommended him to her supervisor when asked.) According to the Los Angeles Times, Libby began keeping close track of Wilson's interviews and television appearances, and pushed for an aggressive PR campaign against him. He also began chatting up reporters on his own. An outgoing schmoozer who's been known to trade shots of tequila with reporters until the wee hours, at the very least he reached out to members of the press. The New York Times's Judith Miller, one of the reporters caught up in the investigation, wrote last week that she had three conversations with Libby before Plame's name became public. And Rove, who talked to Time magazine's Matthew Cooper about the case, reportedly told the grand jury that he may have also spoken to Libby about Plame. It's now up to Fitzgerald to decide if those conversations were more than just talk.

With Richard Wolffe and Daniel Klaidman

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Just Don't Do It!

Are we teaching our kids way too much about sex? Or not nearly enough?

By Katy Kelly

Joshua Linen was a high school freshman when he announced, "Hey, Dad, they gave me an ATM card in health class today!" The card can't deliver a dime in cash, but his parents see it as invaluable in terms of Joshua's moral development. ATM in this case stands for abstinence till marriage. Expiration date: wedding day. For the Anaheim, Calif., father and his wife and for Joshua, now a junior, the high school's emphasis on abstinence is exactly right.

But for parents Ed Gold and Amy Robinson, who split their time between Charleston, S.C., and Washington, D.C., the card and the class that went with it are an absolutely wrongheaded way to teach teenagers about sex. "What if they can't just say no?" asks Robinson. "What if they are overwhelmed, or think they are in love, or their bodies overrule their heads? The reality is that children are having sexual experiences younger and younger. I don't understand the concept of not wanting the child to have all the available information. I don't think that's any way to make a child whole."

Etiquette says that to avoid an argument, one should never discuss politics, sex, or religion. And sex education is chock full of all three taboo topics; few discourses have made so many so mad. Still, the question remains: Are we teaching our kids too much about sex? Or too little?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Sex may be a private matter, but sex education is a public one, especially since it is taught in public schools with public funds. The debate over what to teach has ratcheted up in recent years, but the topic has been around for decades. The arguments have remained much the same, but the recommended curriculum has flipped, flopped, and flipped again. The passage of the Adolescent Family Life Act in 1981 gave money to educational programs that would "promote self-discipline and other prudent approaches." But during the '80s and early '90s, as AIDS became an increasing threat, sex ed became "comprehensive." Often taught by educators associated with Planned Parenthood, the classes covered contraception, disease protection, and much more. Then in 1996, as part of the Welfare Reform Act, Congress established a federal program to exclusively fund abstinence-only curricula. "The abstinence-only program really stirred things up," says Deborah Roffman, author of Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide.

End results. California, Pennsylvania, and most recently Maine have chosen to turn down the money and teach what they want. In Franklin County, N.C., the school board ordered that three chapters be sliced out of the ninth-grade health book, including pages that revealed more than the abstinence-only state law allowed.

But that doesn't mean sex ed is the same the state over. Because one man's (or woman's) fancy may be too broad for one and too conservative for another, curriculum decisions tend to be made locally, sometimes in favor of the majority and sometimes to grease the squeakiest wheels. Current sexuality education curricula vary from graphic to limited, ranging from in-school comprehensive presentations by Planned Parenthood to abstinence-only courses, which often rely on outside lecturers who, critics charge, sometimes present the subject from a Christian point of view. Course content doesn't just differ from "red state" to "blue state" but also from "community to community and ultimately from classroom to classroom," says Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, an organization that promotes sexuality education. Time is another variant. Some schools spend a total of two hours on sex ed; others, a full semester.

Granting that this is a topic fraught with dueling statistics and conflicting studies, the generally accepted figure is that only 15 percent of parents want an abstinence-only curriculum. Nonetheless, the movement has steadily gained momentum. Backed by many conservative churches, a vocal group of parents, dozens of conservative organizations, an impressively organized PR campaign, and, since 1996, more than a billion federal and state dollars, the unambiguous message that postponing sex until marriage is the only option is being delivered in 35 percent of public school districts in the United States. (If birth control is discussed in these classes, the focus is on failure rates.) An additional 51 percent of school districts teach abstinence-plus, a course in which chastity is the preferred and safest option but in which information about contraception as a way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is also included. And 14 percent of school districts teach a comprehensive program that can include discussions on abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, oral and anal sex, and masturbation.

Which means, says Roffman, that no one is doing enough. "We give young people the organ recital, and we do disaster prevention, but we don't do good work helping young people prepare for their adult lives."

The disagreement is deeply ingrained in religious beliefs and ideas that, although discounted by the medical profession, are held as truth. Some abstinence-only advocates say that discussing sex acts can inspire experimentation and fantasies that would otherwise not occur. Some charge that they promote homosexuality. And many point out that some of those practices are contrary to their religious beliefs. Stepping on anyone's religious beliefs is a problem for many Americans. But so is failure to teach according to the accepted science. "It reminds me of the evolution versus intelligent design theory being taught in science classes," says Christine Coleman, who is a member of Sex Etc., an organization for teens to give other teens correct information about sex.

Grass-roots abstinence organizations have advanced the movement and given abstinence a certain, if limited, cachet. Their video and live programs are as teen-friendly as MTV, encouraging teens to take a no-premarital-sex pledge or, if the teen has already had sex, to stop. Online, kids can "Take the Chastity Challenge" and join a local Pure Love Club. Purity rings, designed to be worn as a reminder to self and a proclamation to others, say virginity is chic, not geek. Some girls wear their belief not on their finger, or even their sleeve, but on their underpants. Among the slogans on WaitWear undies: "Virginity Lane. Exit when married," and "No vows. No sex." The worth-the-wait message was underscored by the well-publicized news flash that pop singer-actress Jessica Simpson waited until her honeymoon to sleep with her boy-band husband, Nick Lachey. And, says Libby Gray Macke, director of the Glenview, Ill.-based Project Reality: "When we bring in somebody like Miss America 2003, and she says, 'Part of the way that I got where I am today is abstaining from sexual activity, drinking, and drugs,' they love it! Teenagers are longing to hear it's OK to be abstinent." Even Princeton, a university that, like many others, has been known to give condoms to incoming freshmen, has the student-founded Anscombe Society, a club that promotes chastity until marriage.

Teaching the children. All that said, 1 out of 5 teens has intercourse before age 15, and, says a new study released by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 50 percent have had oral sex. And, research shows, at least 75 percent of American parents want schools to take a comprehensive approach that covers abstinence along with birth control--including abortion, sexual orientation, how to use condoms, dealing with pressures to have sex, and emotional consequences. "We would not send our children to a book club without having them read the book," says Robinson. "Why would we send them into the world without information about sex? It makes the child so vulnerable."

Those who think the way Robinson does point to the tell-all programs and to Planned Parenthood's and similar websites as proof that knowledge is the power driving the teen birthrate down. The 30 percent drop between 1991 and 2002 is proof of their success, they say. The pro-abstinence movement makes the same claim. Who's right? An Alan Guttmacher Institute analysis of the teen pregnancy rate between 1988 and 1995 showed that 25 percent of the drop was due to delayed onset of intercourse and 75 percent was because more sexually active teens were using long-acting, ultra-effective contraception. A Columbia University study by Peter Bearman showed that it is true that for some young people virginity pledges can be a protective factor. But it also found that 88 percent of middle and high schoolers who pledge to stay virgins until marriage end up having premarital sex anyway. The bad news is that they are less likely to use contraception the first time they have intercourse. As for students who get comprehensive sex education, they do not have sex earlier or more often, but, although they are reported to practice safe sex more frequently, both groups had the same rate of sexually transmitted infections.

Nor did the pledge do much to repaint the bigger picture. "Young people who have taken a virginity pledge do tend to delay the first intercourse but only by a few months," Rodriguez says. "And they engage in other riskier sexual behaviors like anal sex at a higher rate." Says Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse: "The Bearman study is flawed. They got to the island but never got to the ocean. They never saw the whole picture."

Taking sides. The root of the sex ed problem, says Roffman, "is that we keep [talking about] it as if there is a right side and a wrong side. We're all on the same side: the side of supporting kids. If we abdicate our roles as adults, it will be media and peers that educate our kids."

Roffman believes kids need to know. She is in well-regarded company. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have called for a program that includes abstinence, STD s, and the needs of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.

Abstinence-only is "catastrophe from a public-health point of view," says Joshua Sparrow, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor with T. Berry Brazelton of the bestselling Touchpoints. "Aside from pregnancy, there are so many diseases that are quite preventable--chlamydia and herpes are on the rise. If kids who chose abstinence waver but do not have information on how to protect themselves, that is a recipe for a public-health nightmare that is entirely preventable."

That extends to mental health. Research shows that 97 percent of public high school students say they hear antigay remarks regularly, and 80 percent of gay and lesbian students say they suffer severe social isolation. "The data has consistently found that gay and lesbian and bi teens have at least three times the rate of [teen] suicide and suicide attempts," says Ron Schlittler, deputy executive director at the national office of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, adding, "The fact is, kids self-identify as gay or lesbian whether we like it or not." About 9 percent of high school students say they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. "Gay kids--just as straight kids--are figuring out these new things that are happening in their heads and bodies," he says. "They need information."

"I didn't think homosexuality should be taught as something that is natural or the same as heterosexuality," says Michelle Turner, a Montgomery County, Md., mother of six. Last year, the county adopted a sex ed curriculum that included information about same-gender attraction and a film that demonstrated putting a condom on a cucumber. Turner and others objected so vehemently that they--encouraged by national supporters--formed a group called Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, took the school board to court, and won. The curriculum was dropped before it was ever taught. Reaching a national consensus on what should be taught seems unlikely.

What do teens want? Like their parents, teenagers have different notions of how much is enough. For a comparative few, abstinence-only classes are--or would be--something of a relief. "Had there been an abstinence-only course, I would have taken that," says John Maddrey, 16, a junior at Einstein High School in Kensington, Md. "To be in a class of people who do think like you think--the way you have been brought up by your family--to get that sense that you're not the only person like that would be a more comfortable environment."

Instead, he took a class that emphasized abstinence. Says Maddrey: "Our teacher always went back to, 'Yes there are these other means of birth control,' but she said they are always fallible. We had a speaker who told us the four types of sex--oral, anal, mutual masturbation, and sex--and told us the risks of all of them. Her concluding point was that abstinence was the best way to keep you healthy," he says, adding, "Homosexuality is a bit of a hot topic. We didn't really go into that. Had they gone into abortion, I would not have attended; I would make my own crusade."

While those wanting a comprehensive approach would feel shortchanged, Maddrey feels he could have done with less. "I'm a very intelligent individual," he says. "You can give me a pamphlet, and I can read it. I have already learned about condoms and birth control. The rest I can put together from TV, the Internet, current events, and what I read in the newspaper."

When Taylor Moore, 16, goes to abstinence-only classes in Chicago public schools and other venues, she's a speaker, not a student. "My message is sex is for marriage. They need to stay focused on their education, dreams, and ambitions," she says. "They will be sent a husband or a wife. God has already ordained that special someone. We don't have to go on the market."

Having done 95 speaking engagements so far this year, she is not worried about those who might think her message is too religious for a public school. "I'm not beating you over the head making you become a secondary virgin," says Moore. "They have to understand, abstinence benefits their future. They have the right to say, 'I'm going to throw my life away.' That's on them." Students listen to other students, she says. "Sometimes all they see [around them] is the booty shakin'. Then they see that I look hip but I'm not hootchy. I'm saying you can look good and be abstinent doing it."

But most students want more from their sex ed class than a just-say-no message. "I couldn't fathom only having covered abstinence," says Jeff Vautin, now 21 and a sound engineering major at the University of Michigan. "You don't have to be married to be in love." And he questions the longevity of some pledges. "It's hard to know at 15 where you are going to be. I don't know if that's something they can really maintain for six or 10 years. Better to be honest to your feelings and very conscious of the decisions you make rather than to say, 'I will not be sexually active.' "

Hunter Kincaid figured out that he was gay when he was in high school in Billings, Mont., and so did his peers, who carved "fag" on his locker. Like them, Kincaid took the abstinence-only class. "As a gay student, I thought it was ridiculous," he says. "Abstinence until marriage for people who can't even get married."

Max Mintz, 17, who like Christine Coleman is part of Sex Etc., thinks the sex ed question is a no-brainer. "Teens given a good education can make good choices. If they are denied the education, they can't," says the Metuchen, N.J., teen, who successfully persuaded his school to broaden its sex ed program.

Coleman believes a comprehensive approach is good for everyone, including the ATM teens. "It makes teens think a lot more and decide, 'Here are my options; here are my limits.' I think they should know how to take care of themselves. Everyone is eventually going to have sex." Her ideal sex ed class would include "a demonstration on how to use a condom; learning about heterosexual and homosexual relationships; different types of birth control; and the three different types of sex (oral, anal, and vaginal)--and you are going to need to know three different ways to protect yourself depending on which kind of sex you choose, including about oral dams and abstinence. You would learn about romantic relationships and about the different things you can do to prevent actual intercourse but still be romantic--like taking a bath together, sleeping in the same bed together and just cuddling, watching a romantic movie, or just being alone and discovering what they believe is romantic without being sexually active."

As for abstinence until marriage? "They should still have the opportunity to go for a test-drive," she says.

One of the few points on which all sides agree is that the best way for kids to learn about sex is from their parents. "Talk about sexuality openly and honestly from the beginning," says Sparrow. "Be the most important, reliable, trustworthy source of guidance for your child--not just giving the mechanics of reproduction but that part of caring about and understanding another human being."

Workable answers? The notion that schools could please all the parents all the time by offering both types of sex ed classes is an idea most experts say is not financially feasible--particularly since many parents would want something in between.

Many believe religious organizations should provide part of sex education, and many do, almost always in the context that sex should be saved for marriage. But some have a more comprehensive take, such as the Unitarian Universalist Church's OWL ("Our Whole Lives") program. "It's much, much more," says Pam Luttig, 47, who has two children in OWL. "Sexuality is bigger than sex. Just as important is relationships, intimacy, making decisions." Adds Unitarian minister Debra Haffner of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, "It's not just about sexual behaviors like making love and masturbation. It's about values, friendship, dating, marriage and committed relationship, sexuality, being safe, body anatomy, puberty, sexual language, unintended pregnancy options, defining and redefining abstinence." The first lessons are taught by trained teachers during Sunday school for 5-to-6-year-olds. "It's age-developmentally appropriate," she says. "We say all families are special without talking about a romantic, sexual attraction." In fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, the program introduces issues such as sexual orientation. We talk about values and respect. The next program--offered to seventh, eighth, and ninth graders--is 27 workshops."

The workshops, says Luttig's son Caleb Stoltz, 15, teach kids to think for themselves and about others. "They're not saying, 'You have to be abstinent or else.' They kind of say, 'Save it. It's worthwhile to do it with someone you love.' "

Roffman has come up with a plan that could be called comprehensive-plus. "One of the reasons the Christian right is so mad is that teachers are not allowed to talk about religion in school at all," she says. "That is absurd. Religion is a cornerstone of our society. We should say, 'We have to raise children in the world in which they are living, but we will insist that your religious views are heard.' " She adds, "Present the controversy while still giving the facts. Present it as part of your lesson. Say, 'Masturbation isn't harmful; some people do, some don't, and some religions believe it is a sin.' Better to say there are a range of beliefs and not pretend that there is only one point of view. "

Besides, Roffman notes, the world in which they live is brimming with information. "The same child that gets an abstinence-only education can go on the Internet and see not only the word; they can see sex." And the parents may never know.

Says Coleman: That kid "could be the unknown sexpert of the teenage world."

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Battle Over Gay Teens

What happens when you come out as a kid? How gay youths are challenging the right--and the left


Posted Sunday, Oct. 02, 2005

In May, David Steward, a former president of TV Guide, and his partner Pierre Friedrichs, a caterer, hosted an uncomfortably crowded cocktail party at their Manhattan apartment. It was a typical gay fund raiser--there were lemony vodka drinks with mint sprigs; there were gift bags with Calvin Klein sunglasses; Friedrichs prepared little blackened-tuna-with-mango-chutney hors d'oeuvres that were served by uniformed waiters. Billionaire philanthropist Edgar Bronfman Sr. was there; David Mixner, a gay activist and longtime friend of Bill Clinton's, was holding court with Jason Moore, director of the musical Avenue Q.
But the odd thing was that the gay (and gay-friendly) élite had gathered to raise money not for one of its established charities--the Human Rights Campaign, say, or the Democratic National Committee--but for an obscure organization that has quietly become one of the fastest-growing gay groups in the nation, the Point Foundation. Launched in 2001, Point gives lavish (often full-ride) scholarships to gay students. It is one of the few national groups conceived explicitly to help gay kids, and it is a leading example of how the gay movement is responding to the emergence this decade of hundreds of thousands of openly gay youths.
Kids are disclosing their homosexuality with unprecedented regularity--and they are doing so much younger. The average gay person now comes out just before or after graduating high school, according to The New Gay Teenager, a book Harvard University Press published this summer. The book quotes a Penn State study of 350 young people from 59 gay groups that found that the mean age at which lesbians first have sexual contact with other girls is 16; it's just 14 for gay boys. In 1997 there were approximately 100 gay-straight alliances (GSAs)--clubs for gay and gay-friendly kids--on U.S. high school campuses. Today there are at least 3,000 GSAs--nearly 1 in 10 high schools has one--according to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN, say "glisten"), which registers and advises GSAs. In the 2004-05 academic year, GSAs were established at U.S. schools at the rate of three per day.
The appearance of so many gay adolescents has, predictably, worried social conservatives, but it has also surprised gay activists, who for years did little to help the few teenagers who were coming out. Both sides sense high stakes. "Same-sex marriage--that's out there. But something going on in a more fierce and insidious way, under the radar, is what's happening in our schools," says Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, an influential conservative litigation group that earlier this year won a court order blocking a Montgomery County, Md., teachers' guide that disparaged Evangelicals for their views on gays. "They"--gay activists--"know if they make enough inroads into [schools], the same-sex-marriage battle will be moot."
Most gay activists would rather swallow glass than say Mat Staver was right about something, but they know that last year's big UCLA survey of college freshmen found that 57% favor same-sex marriage (only about 36% of all adults do). Even as adult activists bicker in court, young Americans--including many young conservatives--are becoming thoroughly, even nonchalantly, gay- positive. From young ages, straight kids are growing up with more openly bisexual, gay and sexually uncertain classmates. In the 1960s, gay men recalled first desiring other males at an average age of 14; it was 17 for lesbians. By the '90s, the average had dropped to 10 for gays and 12 for lesbians, according to more than a dozen studies reviewed by the author of The New Gay Teenager, Ritch Savin-Williams, who chairs Cornell's human-development department.
Children who become aware of their homosexual attractions no longer need endure the baleful combination of loneliness and longing that characterized the childhoods of so many gay adults. Gay kids can now watch fictional and real teens who are out on shows like Desperate Housewives, the dating show Next on MTV and Degrassi (a high school drama on the N network whose wild popularity among adolescents is assured by the fact that few adults watch it). Publishers like Arthur A. Levine Books (of Harry Potter fame) and the children's division at Simon & Schuster have released something like a dozen novels about gay adolescents in the past two years. New, achingly earnest books like Rainbow Road (Simon & Schuster), in which three gay teens take a road trip, are coming this month. Gay kids can subscribe to the 10-month-old glossy YGA Magazine (YGA stands for "young gay America") and meet thousands of other little gays via young gay america com or Gay boys can chat, vote for the Lord of the Rings character they would most like to date--Legolas is leading--learn how to have safe oral sex and ogle pictures of young men in their underwear on the ruttish Not that you have to search so far into the Web: when University of Pittsburgh freshman Aaron Arnold, 18, decided to reveal his homosexuality at 15, he just Googled "coming out," which led to myriad advice pages.
While the phrase "That's so gay" seems to have permanently entered the (straight) teen vernacular, at many schools it is now profoundly uncool to be seen as anti-gay. Straight kids meet and gossip and find hookups on websites like where a routine question is whether they like guys or girls or both. When Savin-Williams surveyed 180 young men ages 14 to 25 for an earlier book, "... And Then I Became Gay," he found that nearly all had received positive, sometimes enthusiastic, responses when they first came out. (Many others are received with neutrality, even boredom: University of Washington senior Aaron Schwitters, who was not interviewed by Savin-Williams, says when he came out to his fellow College Republicans at a club meeting last year, "there was five seconds of awkward silence, someone said 'O.K.,' and we moved on.") That doesn't mean young lesbians and gays will never get shoved in the hallway, and multiple studies have shown that gay kids are at higher risk for suicide than their straight peers are. But the preponderance of Savin-Williams' 20 years of research indicates that most gay kids today face an environment that's more uncertain than unwelcoming. In a 2002 study he quotes in the new book, gay adolescents at a Berkeley, Calif., school said just 5% of their classmates had responded negatively to their sexuality.
O.K., that's Berkeley, but the trend is clear: according to Kevin Jennings, who in 1990 founded a gay-teacher group that later morphed into GLSEN, many of the kids who start GSAs identify themselves as straight. Some will later come out, of course, but Jennings believes a majority of GSA members are heterosexuals who find anti-gay rhetoric as offensive as racism. "We're gonna win," says Jennings, speaking expansively of the gay movement, "because of what's happening in high schools right now ... This is the generation that gets it."
Jennings is a spruce, fit, deeply ideological 42-year-old who wants government to spend money to combat anti-gay bias in schools. He often asserts that "4 out of 5" students have been harassed because of their sexual orientation. (He doesn't mention that GLSEN's last big survey, in 2003, found "a significant decline" since 2001 in the use of epithets like fag. Or that about the same proportion of kids--three-quarters--hears fag as hears sexist remarks.) Regardless, the pro-gay government programs he favors seem highly unlikely in this political environment. That's in part because of the growing influence on the right of another gay force: gays who don't want to be gay, who are sometimes called, contentiously, "ex-gays." On talk radio, on the Internet and in churches, social conservatives' canniest strategy for combatting the emergence of gay youth is to highlight the existence of people who battle--and, some claim, overcome-- their homosexual attractions. Because kids often see their sexuality as riverine and murky--multiple studies have found most teens with same-sex attractions have had sex with both boys and girls--conservatives hope their "ex-gay" message will keep some of those kids from embracing a gay identity. And they aren't aiming the message just at teens. On one of its websites, the Christian group Focus on the Family has warned that boys as young as 5 may show signs of "gender confusion" and require "professional help."
It's important to note that nearly all mental-health professionals agree that trying to reject one's homosexual impulses will usually be fruitless and depressing--and can lead to suicide, according to Dr. Jack Drescher of the American Psychiatric Association, who has studied programs that attempt to alter sexuality. Last month Tennessee officials charged that one of the longest-running evangelical ministries for gays, Love in Action of Memphis, Tenn., was operating unlicensed mental-health facilities. The state said Love in Action must close two residential homes--which include beds for teenagers--or apply for a license. (The ministry's attorney, Nate Kellum, said in an e-mail that the licensure requirement "is intended for facilities that treat mental illness" and not for a "faith-based institution like Love in Action.")
Few young gays actually want to change: six surveys in The New Gay Teenager found that an average of just 13% of young people with same-sex attractions would prefer to be straight. Nonetheless, gay kids trying to change can find unprecedented resources. As recently as the late '90s, Exodus International, the premier organization for Christians battling same-sex attractions, had no youth program. Today, according to president Alan Chambers, the group spends a quarter of its $1 million budget on Exodus Youth; about 80 of Exodus' 125 North American ministries offer help to adolescents. More than 1,000 youths have visited an Exodus-affiliated website called live hope org to post messages and read articles like "Homosexual Myths" (No. 2: People are born gay). The website, which started as a modest Texas chat board in the late '90s, now gets referrals from scores of churches in 45 countries. "Twenty years ago, most churches wouldn't even let Exodus in the door," says Scott Davis, director of Exodus Youth. "Now there are open doors all across the country."
Davis and I met in July at Exodus' first ever Youth Day, held at a Baptist convention center outside Asheville, N.C. About 100 people ages 15 to 25 were there to worship, sway their arms to Christian rock, listen to advice about how to stop masturbating ("Replace thoughts that aren't worthy of God with thoughts that are," Davis said) and hear the testimony of adults who say they now live heterosexual lives.
An attractive, married 27-year-old, Davis says he was never drawn sexually to men. Rather, he represents a new group of young, straight Christians who are criticizing older Evangelicals for long denouncing gays without offering them what Davis calls "healing." Davis looks nothing like a stereotypical Fundamentalist; he wears spiky hair, Fauvist T shirts, an easy smile. He first noticed the wave of young people coming out when he was pastor of a student church at Virginia Tech. I asked how his group could succeed when homosexuality has been so depathologized among kids. "GLSEN has 3,000 GSAs, but who knows how many student ministries there are, how many Bible clubs in schools?" he answered. "And my hope is they will be the ones who care for these kids."
In a jarring bit of rhetorical mimicry, many Christians who work with gay kids have adopted the same p.c. tributes to "tolerance" and "diversity" employed by groups like GLSEN. One of the savviest new efforts is called Inqueery (slogan: "Think for yourself"). Founded by a shaggy-haired 26-year-old named Chad Thompson, looks at first like a site designed to bolster proudly gay teens. Pink borders surround pictures of stylish kids, and bold text reads, "Addressing LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered] Issues on High School & College Campuses." Thompson, who realized in fourth grade that he was attracted to boys, remembers hurtful anti-gay jokes, and he is convincing when he denounces such bias. "The Christian church has a sordid history--a history of the televangelists from the '80s who would malign homosexuals and say they're all perverts and pedophiles and going to hell--but didn't actually offer you redemption," he says.
Still, Thompson never accepted a gay identity--"Heterosexuality is God's design," he says--and today he is a leading spokesman for young Christians rejecting homosexuality. Thompson says a new kind of bigotry has emerged--among gays. "Those of us who have chosen not to embrace this orientation are often misunderstood and sometimes even ridiculed," he writes in a pamphlet he distributes at campus speaking engagements. Thompson, who has written a book with the near parodic title Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would, hasn't been completely successful in rejecting his gay desires. He admits he still notices handsome men and says, as though he had an internal Geiger counter, "My attractions are probably about 1% of what they used to be." But the idea that liberals and gay activists are attacking Christian strugglers like Thompson has inspirited and unified social conservatives. The Rev. Jerry Falwell spoke at this year's Exodus conference for the first time, and others have begun to agitate for "equal access" for ex-gays in schools.
Earlier this year, a conservative nonprofit called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX, whose website says it supports "families touched by homosexuality") approached the PTA about exhibiting at the association's conference. The PTA said no: "From what we saw in the application, it seemed more of an agenda than just a resource for parents," says a PTA official. But the association did allow the liberal group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to present an anti-bullying workshop. When I spoke with PFOX executive director Regina Griggs about the PTA'S rebuff, she projected a sense of crepitating resentment: "How can you be more diverse than an organization that says if you're happy being a homosexual ... that's your right? But if you have unwanted feelings or are a questioning youth, why can't you make those decisions? I guess diversity stops if you are a former homosexual."
So the Christian right has found its strategy--inclusion, prayer, the promise of change--and the gay movement has found one--GSAs, scholarships, the promise of acceptance. But what of the kids themselves? In July, I met 30 way-out-and-proud LGBT youths at a Michigan retreat arranged by the Point Foundation; these high-achieving Point scholars are getting from $4,000 to $30,000 a year to pay for their educations and are considered by some gays to be the movement's future leaders. A few days later at Exodus' Youth Day in North Carolina, I interviewed 13 of the kids fighting their attractions. Few at either conclave seemed interested in the roles their movements had set for them. Instead they were gay or Christian (or both) in startlingly complex ways.
Take Point scholar Maya Marcel-Keyes of Chicago, for instance. The 20-year-old daughter of conservative activist and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, Marcel-Keyes has a girlfriend but has dated two boys; identifies herself as queer (not lesbian), pro-life and "anarchist"; and attends Mass whenever she can spare the time from her menagerie. (When Marcel-Keyes and I spoke recently, she and her girlfriend had a rabbit, a ferret, a cockatiel, two rats and two salamanders.) For their part, several of the young Exodus Christians seemed more stereotypically gay--"I love that Prada bag!" a 16-year-old boy at the Youth Day squealed several times--than some of the Point scholars who had been out for years. Others had gone to Exodus with no intention of going straight. Corey Clark, 18, belongs to his GSA at Governor Mifflin Senior High in Shillington, Pa., and says he sees nothing wrong with being gay. He attended Youth Day because he wanted to better understand his evangelical church and friends who say gays should change. "Actually," he says, "I've heard so many good things about gay pride"--in the media and at school--"but I hadn't heard directly about the downside."
It's remarkable that a boy like Clark could grow up in a small town and hear more good than bad about gays. But he still waited until he was 17 to come out. You don't have to be a right-wing ideologue to ask whether it's always a good idea for a child to claim a gay identity at 13 or 14. Cornell's Savin-Williams, who is generally sunny about gay kids' prospects, notes that those who come out early tend to have a harder time at school, at home and with their friends than those who don't.
Perhaps it's not surprising that the straight world isn't always ready to accept a gay kid. But the gay world doesn't seem ready either.
On the first day of the Point Foundation's retreat, which was held in a town on Little Traverse Bay called Harbor Springs, Mich., the 38 students who made the trip were given gift bags that contained, among other items:
•A 9 ½-oz. jar of American Spoon Sour Cherry Preserves
•A Fujifilm QuickSnap Flash camera
•A small tin of Trendy Mints from Henri Bendel, New York City
•A DVD of the 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which a teenage boy is masturbated by an adult
•The Harbor Springs Visitors Guide
•The Aug. 16 issue of the gay magazine the Advocate, whose cover featured a shirtless man and blared, SUMMER SEX ISSUE.
There was only one Point scholar at the retreat under 18--Zachery Zyskowski, 17, who is in his second year at UCLA. Zyskowski came out at 13, helped start the GSA at his school and graduated valedictorian; he is far too precocious to be scandalized by a magazine or DVD. (He has watched Hedwig twice. Point executive director Vance Lancaster says the film, a cult musical about the relationship between a drag queen and a young singer, was already a favorite for many scholars. He also says it "reflects reality": "I don't see the negative repercussions to our students, who are very intelligent, thoughtful and mature.")
But when I opened my gift bag, it occurred to me that gay adults are still figuring out how to deal with gay kids. The gay subculture, after all, had been an almost exclusively adult preserve until the relatively recent phenomena of gay adoption and out teens. Point scholar and Emory College junior Bryan Olsen, who turned 21 in August and has been out since he was 15, told me during the retreat, "It probably sounds anti-gay, but I think there are very few age-appropriate gay activities for a 14-, 15-year-old. There's no roller skating, bowling or any of that kind of thing ... It's Internet, gay porn, gay chats."
Olsen believes Point is an exception, and despite the gift bags, he's right. The weekend retreat was packed with anodyne activities such as a boat ride to twee Mackinac Island. Lancaster spends an inordinate amount of energy pairing each scholar with a career-appropriate mentor. The mentors are accomplished and tend to be wealthy--a hedge-fund manager, a university president, movie people--and all undergo background checks.
Point was the brainchild of Bruce Lindstrom, 60, who in 1976 helped Sol Price launch the warehouse retail industry with the first Price Club, in San Diego. Lindstrom had grown up in an evangelical family in Riverside, Calif., and says when his parents and two brothers learned he was gay, they stopped talking to him. His nephew Nathan Lindstrom, 29, says whenever Bruce sent gifts home, the kids were told, "This is from Uncle Bruce, the sodomite."
For years afterward, Lindstrom tried to find a gay organization that was helping kids "not to go through what I went through." He discovered that few gay groups did much for young people. Many gay activists didn't want to fuel the troglodyte notion that they were recruiting boys and girls. GLSEN'S Jennings recalls that when he first started raising money more than a decade ago, "the attitude was either 'Isn't it cute that you're working with kids?' or 'Why are you working with kids? What are you, f______ crazy?'"
By the late '90s, Lindstrom was talking about the idea of a scholarship program with his boyfriend Carl Strickland (who is 29 years younger) and with his old friend John Pence, a San Francisco gallery owner and former social aide to Lyndon Johnson. One night in 2001 at Lindstrom and Strickland's home--which they call the Point because it sits on a promontory on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe--the three christened the Point Foundation. Since then, some 5,000 young gays have applied, and 47 Point scholars have been named.
Lindstrom sees the United Negro College Fund and the Rhodes scholarships as his models, and in order to win, Point candidates must prove both academic success and commitment to gay causes. Not surprisingly, many also have biographies resembling Lindstrom's--they come from conservative families that haven't immediately accepted them. Candidates must write an essay on "how you feel you have been marginalized because of your sexual orientation." When scholars were called upon to introduce themselves at the retreat, many offered heartbreaking stories of family repudiation. It was routine to hear sniffling during these presentations, especially from adults.
But when you talk to Point scholars when they aren't performing for donors, you meet kids who are doing a lot better than those plaints suggest. Some remain cut off from their families, but many have repaired relationships with even the most conservative parents. If you read the online Point bio for Matthew Vail, 19, for instance, it says he "sits alone" at family events, "not allowed to have even a gay friend participate in his family life." But in the months since Vail provided the information for that bio, his parents, who live in Gresham, Ore., have softened considerably, and his boyfriend, Jordaan, was actually staying with Vail's father while Vail was at the retreat. Several other scholars also said their online bios dwelled on old wounds and omitted evidence of resilience.
Even those point scholars with the darkest stories of adversity, like Emory's Bryan Olsen, seem more buoyant than Point lets on. I heard Olsen speak to Point donors twice, once in New York City and again in Michigan. Both times he said that after his Mormon family learned he was gay when he was 15, he was sent to a boot camp for wayward teens in Ensenada, Mexico. Olsen says the facility, Casa by the Sea, required residents to wear shoes without backs so they couldn't run. He says that as punishment for a three-meal hunger strike, he was forced to sit in a stress position--cross-legged, with his nose touching a wall--for two hours. Olsen's small face, which is framed by a pop-star haircut that makes him look as though he's still 15, scrunches with tears when he gets to the next part: "I could only come home when I wrote my parents and promised to be straight and Mormon." There were gasps in the room the first time I heard him tell that story.
Such statements have puzzled other researchers. "Ritch has never really acknowledged the fact that the average kid who is gay is facing enormous problems," says Dr. Gary Remafedi, director of the Youth and AIDS Projects at the University of Minnesota. "Most of his subjects have been Cornell students, who are among the highest-functioning students of all." Savin-Williams, who has included many low-income and non-Cornell kids in his work, responds that Remafedi and other clinicians have a warped view because they based early research on gay teens from crisis centers. "Are you only listening to hustlers?" he asks.
Savin-Williams opposes programs designed to change sexuality, but he has won admiration from some ex-gay proponents by writing that "sexuality develops gradually over the course of childhood." Gay identities also develop slowly. Even kids who publicly reveal same-sex attractions can be uncomfortable calling themselves gay; instead they say they are "polysexual" or "just attracted to the right person." Those vague labels sound like adolescent peregrinations that will eventually come around to "Yep, I'm gay." But Savin-Williams says many of the tomboys and flouncy guys we assume to be gay are in reality bisexual, incipiently transsexual or just experimenting.
Because he routinely sees young gays on MTV or even at school, a 14-year-old may now feel comfortable telling friends that he likes other boys, but that doesn't mean he is ready to enfold himself in a gay identity. "Today so many kids who are gay, they don't like Cher. They aren't part of the whole subculture," says Michael Glatze, 30, editor in chief of YGA Magazine. "They feel like they belong in their faith, in their families."
"Increasingly, these kids are like straight kids," says Savin-Williams. "Straight kids don't define themselves by sexuality, even though sexuality is a huge part of who they are. Of course they want to have sex, but they don't say, 'It is what I am.'" He believes young gays are moving toward a "postgay" identity. "Just because they're gay, they don't have to march in a parade. Part of it is political. Part is personal, developmental."
The political part is what worries Glatze. "I don't think the gay movement understands the extent to which the next generation just wants to be normal kids. The people who are getting that are the Christian right," he says. Indeed, several of those I met at the Exodus event had come not because they thought it would make them straight or even because they are particularly fervent Christians. Instead, they were there because they find something empty about gay culture--a feeling that Exodus exploits with frequent declamations about gays' supposed promiscuity and intemperance. "I'm just not attracted to the gay lifestyle, toward gay people--I've never felt a kinship with them," says Manuel Lopez, a lapsed Catholic and University of Chicago grad student who went to the Exodus meeting. "There's a certain superficiality in gay attachments--musicals, fashion ... I do think it's a happier life being straight."
Lopez has only an exiguous notion of what real gay life is like, but such misapprehensions are not uncommon among young people with same-sex attractions. Savin-Williams recalls counseling a kid who, after the third session, referred to his "partner." "And I said, 'Oh, you're gay.' And he said, 'No. I only fall in love with guys, but I'm not "gay." It doesn't have anything to do with me.' He saw being gay as leftist, radical." At Exodus' Youth Day, I met several young gays who spoke of the need to "walk out of" homosexuality because, as a 25-year-old from Boston put it, "I'm not happy going to the clubs anymore," as if being gay were mostly about partying. Frank Carrasco, a 20-year-old from Miami, told me his Exodus counseling had helped cure his porn addiction; Carrasco says that during high school, when he was Bible-club president, he routinely looked at gay Internet porn until sunrise. But he has never had a boyfriend or anything approaching a typical gay life. Carrasco says Exodus has helped him develop some heterosexual attractions, but I met very few at the conference who claimed to be completely straight. (At least two of the young men--one 21, the other 18--hooked up that week and still keep in touch.)
A common refrain from Exodus pulpits is that gays don't form lasting, healthy relationships, but those Exodus youths who seemed most successful in defying homosexual feelings were the ones more interested in exploring themselves than in criticizing gays. "I know gay couples who are in their 40s and 50s who have sex parties and use crystal meth, and I know gay couples who have been in committed, monogamous relationships for 15, 20 years," says Michael Wilson, 22, who lives outside Grand Rapids, Mich. "So people need the facts before they say stuff like that." But while he says he still has gay friends--among them, one of his three ex-boyfriends--Wilson believes God doesn't want him to have relationships with men anymore. He often speaks of his "identity in Christ," and to him that trumps his identity as a gay man. A lot of Exodus youths seemed captives of their Christianity, caught in a hermetic loop of lust and gay sex (or masturbation), followed by confession and grim determination. Wilson is different--calmer, more convincing when he says he communes with God. He doesn't deny that he is still sometimes attracted to men, but he doesn't seem to be struggling. "I don't think God would give you a struggle," he says. "I think he brings freedom."
Until recently, growing up gay meant awaiting a lifetime of secrecy--furtive encounters, darkened bar windows, crushing deracination. That has changed with shocking speed. "Dorothy resonates so much with older gay people--the idea of Oz, someplace you can finally be accepted," says Glatze of YGA. "The city of Oz is now everywhere. It's in every high school." That's not quite true, but the emergence of gay kids is already changing the politics of homosexuality. When their kids come out, many conservatives--just ask the Vice President--start to seem uncomfortable with traditionalist, rigid views on gays. But what happens when your child comes out not at 23 but at 13? At least in the short term, it's likely that more gay kids means more backlash.
"It kind of reminds me of the issue of driver's licenses for kids," says the University of Minnesota's Remafedi. "Yeah, it's great they can get around. But there's also a greater chance you can have an accident ... In my own life and generation, we separated ourselves from the straight community. We lived in gay ghettos, and we saw the larger culture as being a culture of repression. Hopefully, some of those walls between cultures have come down. But walking between those worlds takes a lot of skill."