by Frank J Miles

Los Angeleno Tomas Mournian calls his first young-adult novel, hidden, “a dystopia at the end of the rainbow.” This Bildungsroman is horror, thriller, and romance – including a soaring story of young gay love. hidden centers on gay suburban teenager Ahmed, who is sent to Serenity Ridge, a behavior-modification facility, by his parents to cure his homosexuality. The gripping novel opens as Ahmed – shocked, drugged, and battered – escapes and with nowhere to go runs away to San Francisco, where he moves into an underground safe house, populated by homeless LGBTQ teens from all walks of life who have all been down the same ghastly path. The novel is based on a true story. Mournian – who has written for Marie Claire, Los Angeles, US, InStyle, and Movieline – investigated and wrote “Hiding Out,” for The San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1998, about contemporary gay teens who escaped from mental hospitals into such an underground network. The article won the Peninsula Press Club, East Bay Press Club, and GLAAD Media Awards. Mournian produced a short film based on the article that was shown by George Michael at Equality Rocks in Washington, D.C. in 2000. Mournian, who studied at the University of California, Berkeley, rewrote the novel while in residency at Yaddo, where he was awarded the prestigious Eli Cantor Chair.

What was the impetus to write hidden and to tell Ahmed’s story?

I had a written a news article about the safe houses called “Hiding Out.” Then, a couple years later, the pop singer George Michael hired me to make a video based on the article. After that, MTV wanted to turn “Hiding Out” into a reality TV show. Didn’t happen. I went off and wrote a screenplay – and, then rewrote it. But through those drafts, the story kept getting further away from the original safe house story.

A friend out here, Marilyn Atlas, suggested that I turn it into a young-adult novel. There was a bigger shift, not just of form, but voice, when I switched from third person to first. Now, I was writing from the boy’s point of view. Once I embraced that possibility, writing the book took about six months. Between the article, George Michael video, and screenplays, I had done a lot of preparation for hidden. Rewriting hidden, though, was a longer process – about four years. In the last couple of years, hidden went through multiple drafts.

Are these characters based on real people or did they sprout from your imagination?

A lot of Ahmed is me. I knew him very well. Ahmed’s running internal monologue – blasé, overexcited, and hyper-intellectual with the ever-present chance for breakdown – is some version of me. Ahmed’s need to transcribe his life – that’s me, too, but a much milder version. One way I find to navigate reality, or pretend I am, is through journals. I think Ahmed has a fearlessness about him – generally, I’m cautious, but if the circumstances demand, I can turn on a dime. Ahmed is, like me, someone who is both able to endure the moment, and willing to hold out for the future.

What about the other characters?

There’s a scene where Anita Fixx comes back and she’s just been caught on camera getting in a fight with someone over who’s prettier. That was something I actually heard. I ran into a friend of mine at a Starbucks on Fairfax in Santa Monica probably about six years ago, and he told me this story. I was like, “That is hilarious – they got into a fight over who’s prettier, really?!” That always stuck with me, and that was a moment in the story that fit. There were a lot of things in the book that were things that I had heard or observed or experienced. They all came together. There are a couple characters in there that are close to people that lived in the safe house or kids that I knew in Los Angeles. It all blended together. I was careful not to do strict transcriptions or renderings of people because I also felt that that would have constrained the writing. As I got deeper into the revision process, the hardest thing was abstracting the novel from the origin story of the article. Fiction is incredibly free- even though hidden’s based on a true story. There is a truth to this kid’s story, or that one’s. I think there are these sort of archetypal stories that resonate. You meet people and they say, “Oh, that story again” – different person, same story.

What literature were you reading at the time when you were writing hidden?

David Levithan’s The Realm of Possibility, Patricia McCormick’s Cut, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, E.R. Frank’s America. The YA novelist, Rachel Cohn, had given me the galleys of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. And I was reading adult literature: Dennis Cooper, Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea, Paul Golding’s The Abomination. The latter, especially, I remember The Abomination’s heft and scope and how it laid me out on the sofa for a weekend. Then, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, several Dawn Powell books. And Mrs. Dalloway – I seem to reread Woolf every other month.

What’s your target audience? Who needs and who should read this book?

Everyone! I would love for queer kids to read hidden, obviously. Adult gay men have really liked it. When I was first talking about the publishing campaign, I wanted kids, adults, straight women, and I was also very intent on reaching out to straight girls, teen readers. There’s a big interest among young women who are under eighteen or in their early twenties in gay stories. It’s a way to read about guys – a nonthreatening way of doing that. Mostly, hidden seems to be finding it audience. Except with the adult women – Ms., Oprah, Elle – editorially, magazines I thought would cotton to hidden have ignored it. Then, yesterday, I heard People is covering hidden and, you know, I had to revise.

One of the things I have noticed and hear often is the lack of awareness and mobilization about non-mainstream LGBTQ issues. There are many stories that warrant attention and action, such as Ahmed’s. Many think reparative therapy and electroshock treatments are the horrors of yesteryear, or youth running away and living in underground safe houses. Would you speak about what is actually going on today, and how it relates to our culture at large?

When I was writing this book, all the Guantánamo Bay photos were published, and we were starting to hear about waterboarding, and renditions. And I saw hidden’s reparative therapy and those torture practices – the isolation, humiliation, and physical abuse – as being very similar, if not exactly the same.

Does that relate to your decision to make your main character a gay, Middle Eastern boy?

Very much so. We seem to need an enemy. In this era, right now, obviously we’re demonizing young Muslim men. Fifty years ago, Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. Then, we went to Asia, and murdered millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians. For me, these torture practices became a metaphor for reparative therapy.

How did these metaphors influence your process of writing hidden?

Well, the torture wasn’t just written about – there was verifiable photographic evidence. A lot of times, torture and abuse is carried out in secret. So, there’s always an element of skepticism about the victim’s experience. To me, the Abu Ghraib photographs were so real because of their underlying banality. The idea that some twenty-two-year-old, mentally impaired girl was taking pictures with an Instamatic camera, for fun was, I mean, unspeakably … bizarre. Yet, amazing. The idea of her kneeling, and taking, I guess she thought they were souvenirs? Or holiday pictures? Of men stripped, hands bound, hooded – was incredible, really insane. The sleep deprivation, waterboarding, the renditions – it’s all exactly like reparative therapy and, more generally, what many youth in America are subjected to. Basically, there’s a certain strata of people who view, apparently, teenagers as enemy combatants. Which given America’s self-image, as a liberating force, expresses a sort of cultural schizophrenia. What does it say about us, as a people, who exact these techniques on other human beings? Teenagers? In many ways, both philosophical, and practically, those acts at Guantánamo Bay – stripping people of their humanity, of their basic legal rights, human rights – mirrors the contours of reparative therapy. And that’s there, I believe, hidden becomes a social novel – and one that shows, an unique intersection between mainstream and gay culture.

It seems that LGBTQ issues have been placed in the wrong box. LGBTQ issues are traditionally underrepresented in the global nonprofit community and do-it-yourself social activism. These issues that are in your book are not typical front-page or mainstream op-ed news and are rarely seen under the same heading as urgent issues of our day, such as global human rights, climate change, for instance.

There was a lot of stuff that was coming out about people being secular in Iraq before America invaded it, and then it’s become very religious. Gay people – it wasn’t Castro Street – but they were pretty much left alone. Then it became all these reports that people being literally tracked down, castrated, really viciously tortured, and that there was news about safe houses that were emerging in the region, in response to the suddenly changed cultural climate. That was something that really caught my eye when I started to read those reports. There was a big article in New York Magazine about a year ago and that made me think these practices – and responsesare somewhat uniform. It was interesting that the safe house was a solution in Iraq as it is in the United States.

How can these issues brought up in hidden be thought of in new ways or reframed so that there is an increase in awareness and solutions can have more impact?

I think it’s three things. One is resources, or money. Two would be legislative action – laws designed to regulate, and monitor boot camps and residential treatment facilities. Three would be getting real about teen sexuality – that is exists, and will assert itself, regardless of adult fears and efforts to regulate it. On a collective level, the gay community needs to shed an internalized belief system, created and stoked by the Christian Right, that all gay people are pedophiles. This is absolutely wrong, as we know – pedophiles are statistically more likely heterosexual men or women.

What are your views on the responsibility of LGBTQ adults when it pertains to LGBTQ youth – especially those in the most danger and need?

I have mixed feelings about Dan Savage’s It Gets Better – it’s brilliant and pathetic. Brilliant in that Dan Savage made himself available, as a person, in a real relationship with another man in a way – YouTube – that any kid can get online and see and hear his story. Pathetic thing because this is the best we can do? “Hang in there, don’t commit suicide, don’t do this, don’t do that, and then you’ll be an adult, and it will all be okay.” I think that that’s a very false premise to put forth because people when they start dating or being interested in others, when they leave that pre-sexual state, eleven, twelve, thirteen, until eighteen, are just supposed to put yourself on hold. Gay elders offer one solution. I’d love to see queer twelve year-olds being able to go and talk to eighty-year-olds.

There has been a lot of recent mainstream attention of David Wojnarowicz in terms of the Smithsonian controversy, focusing on HIV/AIDS and arts censorship, which are proverbial media themes and things we often protest. What has been left out is how Wojnarowicz was a homeless sixteen-year-old hustling in Times Square. Can you talk about how homelessness is a large, regrettable part of the gay experience? How does his experience reflect a larger historical trend? And how do kids, whether the characters in hidden or in real life, bounce from such horrific experiences?

There’s a tremendous capacity for a sort of resurrectionkids are so resilient, so imaginative, I think it has to do with queer intelligence, too. Historically, David Wojnarowicz is an interesting person to reference because it makes me think about Bruce Benderson’s Toward the New Degeneracy, an essay about Times Square right before it was rehabilitated or refurbished. He wrote about how Times Square was a crossroads for all sorts of classes and sexualities. Everything was exchanged in that pre-Giuliani Times Square. I’ve always thought that essay really talks about the possibilities that emerge from being thrust out of traditional nuclear family, of being thrust into an urban setting where you’re going to meet so many different kinds of people that you wouldn’t meet otherwise. David Wojnarowicz was a sex worker and he was on the Deuce, doing the whole hustling thing – and not to romanticize that at all whatsoever, there’s all sorts of risks and pitfalls, and death certainly looms right on the corner. However, like Ahmed, I was very conscious about him, like when he is talking about, “Does this mean I’ll never have a $4 coffee?,” and the smell of poverty in the safe house, and the feeling that his status has slipped by making this decision to run away. That’s a very real consequence of someone having to make decisions based on survival. I don’t think its axiomatically a life-defining thing. Certainly within the safe house, the real safe house and also in the book, they were at least trying to cobble some sense of education. If you can get yourself into college, you will probably be fine.

In regards to me personally, I have been through a lot of horrible things, and I’ve gone back to therapy – you know, you work out some version of It Gets Better. I don’t think it’s as uniform as Dan Savage is putting forth, though. I think it’s a lot more that people go through – drug addiction, sex work, health issues, poverty – that he glosses over. Some of those things are insurmountable. David Wojnarowicz certainly wasn’t able to surmount HIV and AIDS.

How big of a problem is LGBTQ youth homelessness in Los Angeles?

I’m not a social scientist – I don’t have access to figures and stuff like that, but living in Los Angeles, which is certainly a Mecca for a lot of young people; people come here thinking they are going to get into the business, or on a reality show. There was just a piece that ran in The Los Angeles. There are 6,000 youths estimated in Los Angeles that are homeless, and there was this giant photo essay about these two boys, twenty-one, twenty-two, and they were struggling, one was an alcoholic, and where they were going to sleep, how to make a living, all these things. One of them said, “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get out of this.” How does someone who’s twenty-two  who doesn’t know where he’s going to sleep at night and is dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, how do they ever get out of that? Reading the article, what I found myself getting really mad about was the fact that the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center was presented about having 200 beds and how great this is. I thought what the hell?! The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center spent tens of millions of dollars on Proposition 8 – and all of their very traditional, political strategies failed. I couldn’t help but think if that $40 million that they decided to throw at political consultants, dinners, hotels, first-class airline tickets what if that money had been invested in youth and in a school?

In that article, it came down to a decision about one boy getting the bed versus the other boy. That shouldn’t be a decision that people have to make. And you have kids who are, year in, year out dealing with homelessness – it’s become generational. What David Wojnarowicz went through – that issue clearly hasn’t been resolved by the gay community. We are still reading the stories that are basically from the 1990s, which could actually really be from the 1980s, which could be from 1970s, of youth being kicked out.

There is a theme running through hidden that suggests the systems created to provide support for the novel’s characters are irreparably broken. Help doesn’t work – families, kids, and the ways in which people with good intentions want to help others fail. There seemed to be a denouement in hidden that we are part of a culture that must fix everything, but really is quite bad at it?

I mean, we’re talking about such global issues – individually, people can only do so much and, collectively, LGBT exist in the context of a culture that battles between the Left and Right – conservatives believing, if I understand their starve-the-beast posturing, in a safety-net free society. When we were making the documentary in San Francisco for George Michael, we tried to talk to people at the Larkin Street Shelter. When they saw a camera, they said, “Absolutely not, we won’t talk to you, leave.” They did not want to deal with us on any level. I found that that was the same thing when I was reporting “Hiding Out,” was that there was a lot of denial about the fact that there were even safe houses. Lois Lee runs Children of the Night, and I’ll never forget our conversation, and her saying, “Oh, there’s no such a thing as safe houses, they’re called squats.” Very dismissively. Children of the Night is a multimillion-dollar organization. Yoko Ono was or, is, a big contributor. It’s like AIDS, Inc. These organizations start as solutions, and then become entrenched and seem to almost become invested in perpetuating the problem.

Ahmed is fear on repeat – at times, frantic, frenzied, anxious, and hallucinatory. Can you talk about the horror aspects of hidden?

From what I observed of youth who’d escaped, that hallucinatory quality is grounded in a physiological and psychological reality. Ahmed, for example, escaped the facility where he’d been heavily medicated. The psychotropic drugs forced upon kids take a period of time to detox off of. The safe house kids tended to have a spacey, disoriented quality – there was something a little off about them. Also, the safe house is kind of surreal. There’s a natural disorientation to it, as a physical space.

Based on his hope and fear, Ahmed sees in poles of either beauty or grotesquerie. Why does he fetishize some of the kids in the safe house, but is so ambivalent or, even, hostile towards the others? Does this not just propagate problematic, exclusionary, myopic gay stereotypes?

Ahmed embodies something you tend to see in young people who’ve survived trauma – a combination of extreme distrust, and yearning for care and safety. Also, he’s reactive because he doesn’t have the skills to deflect or manage conflict. Kidd, for example, is pretty aggressive with Ahmed, so his response is, basically one of trying to gauge, “Is this person going to hurt me? Or, help me?” His interest in Hammer was definitely a conscious thing. Hammer being a “gay ideal” – blond, tall, sixteen years old, and muscular. Sex on a stick. At first, Ahmed sees Hammer and thinks, “He’s exactly what I want.” But then, maybe he’s not – that conflict between what’s culturally constructed – and expected – and what’s closer to the truth of desire. And then there’s Ahmed’s relationship with Anita Fixx, a very confident trans-girl. Their relationship is, even more so than Ahmed’s with J.D., the most nuanced. Anita transforms Ahmed when she dyes his hair. Then she betrays him. And then they bond with each other. She’s the one who sits down and says, “You’ve really got to get real with yourself about who you are and what this is.” These characters, in a sense, all mirror Ahmed’s psyche.

Who are your inspirations? Who are your literary influences and touchstones?

Jean Rhys – love her. Colette. The Bangkok 8 series about a Thai policeman. Dennis Cooper – he still holds my interest. Francesca Lia Block’s mythologized L.A. Reinaldo Arenas. Steve Erickson. Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. Joan Didion. I would take Mrs. Dalloway to an island.

You were an investigative journalist – do you see lines of demarcation with different types of writing? How did you transition from journalism to novels?

I fell into journalism – I didn’t set out to write for In Style or US Weekly. I always wanted to be a novelist but, like Mae West said, “I was Snow White …and then I drifted.” I don’t see myself doing so again. I made a conscious decision not to do it. Fiction lets you [he pauses] – create a world. Whereas journalism requires you to stick to facts – or generally, a held notion of facts – factoring in what we know, the essential incompleteness of facts, and that what one presents is dependent, equally, on what one excludes – the whole myth of objectivity. With novels, or fiction, readers don’t bring that expectation to the text. In fact, flights of fancy and the imagination are valued. So, with hidden, there was something liberating about having license to tell the story I wanted to tell or knew lay beneath the facts.

Do you find novel writing to be more lyrical? What freedoms other than making stuff up does fiction allow you?

When I was a journalist, I existed behind a byline. You never saw me, nor was I expected to be seen, or discuss my work. You read the text, and liked it, or didn’t, and if you didn’t you wrote a letter to the editor. I was generally removed from the reader’s response. A novelist, on the other hand, is expected to present themselves through photographs, readings, and interviews – there’s a whole representation of self, and an apparatus to engender that novel self. Now, I’m learning that writing a novel, in this era, asks the writer to tell a story about themselves. People seem to seek out some connection between author and work, and there’s some meta-narrative that erupts in the process.

The other notable difference between journalism and novels is style.

Journalism is really about writing clear, straightforward sentences – unless you’re Joan Didion, and your style trumps story. My goal in telling a news piece or article was to lay out the story so the reader could follow the thread to a logical endpoint. In novels, it’s acceptable for language and story to be elusive and less immediately grasped. I think part of that’s due to the novel’s length. Holding a reader’s attention for two-, three-, or – in hidden’s case – four-hundred pages requires some flourish. And, really, that’s the essence of the word novel – a novelty.

You can purchase hidden by clicking here.

Frank J Miles is a writer, who has worked for The Philadelphia
Inquirer and New York magazine. As a youth advocate in New York City,
he served on the Board of Directors of the LGBT Recording Academy of
the Arts as well as volunteered with the Global Action Project,
Democracy Prep Charter School, and MCCNY Homeless Youth Services. He also writes political commentaries for The Huffington Post.

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