by Jim Piechota
Born This Way by Paul Vitagliano; Quirk Books, $14.95
Paul Vitagliano, a Los Angeles club disc jockey, has produced Born This Way, an entertaining and quite campy collection of childhood pictures, memories, and short essays assembled from his blog, www.bornthiswayblog.com. Drawing inspiration from Dan Savage's It Gets Better campaign and originally intending to highlight famous LGBTQ people, he ended up posting an open call for entries and collecting hundreds of pre-teen photographs and stories, and a book project magically came to life.
Six decades are represented that cover a wide swath of gay and lesbian youth, from London to Mexico City, with several featuring prominent members of our community, in Vitagliano's words, "to help inspire today's gay youth to strive for their own greatness." The book has some flaws, but nothing to crush its honorable intent. There are no page numbers, so referring to openly gay U.S. Congressman Barney Frank on page 8, or celebrity blogger Perez Hilton on page 92, helps little without reference-markers. Also, notation identifying who these little boys and girls actually are would make the book connect more to its audience. Without knowing what Erasure's Andy Bell looked like at five, or how Village Voice columnist Michael Musto dressed at 9, readers have no clue who many of the personalities are.
But perhaps that's precisely the point. Famous name or not, we're all the same on the inside. We all started somewhere, and as gays and lesbians, possibly our future selves were already foretold in the photographs and early stories of our youth, etched into embarrassing family scrapbooks that we'd prefer stay in the attic. Names and distinctions as adults matter little when it comes to sharing delicate aspects of ourselves as children.
These pictures, as incriminating, hilarious, and touching as they are, offer a wonderful glimpse into the carefree ways of children; nothing blankets our effeminate gestures, our overtly masculine proclivities, or our silent knowingness that we are different. Because we are so young, we have the singular freedom not to care about it. As little kids, we don't have any need to hide how we feel inside. Vitagliano's assembled photographs demonstrate this in spades.
By way of silly costumes and precarious placements, these kids are frozen in time, memorialized as heroes in their own right. Popular drag performer Miss Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp) is captured in a photo taken right after his Uncle Adam mistook him for a "lovely young lady" dressed in a matching blue terry-cloth tank top and shorts; multi-award-winning songwriter Marc Shaiman's picture of himself in the same girlish pose as his mother is cute and silly, yet unrevealing of the talent bubbling just beneath the surface; and LA drag personas Jackie Beat and Raja Gemini demonstrate style and attitude all their own, even at ages eight and seven.
With photographs that offer slices of life from a very different era and anecdotal commentary that is often as telling, Vitagliano's scrapbook project offers the kind of entertainment that sneaks up on the reader and tugs at that place in the heart where our inner kid still lives. He writes, "We must share our stories and pay it forward for future generations."