Every high school Grace wants to have her Will.
And this most definitely bugs Ali Rudel.
"Even if you aren't interested in profiling me, I would like to ask that at the very least you don't choose a girl who loves gay guys for being gay and [for] having a guy friend who doesn't expect a relationship. That's not what friendships should be about. . ." she e-mails a reporter. "I'm so sick of the way gay people are portrayed in the media, especially as having girl friends that seem to only be there for the shopping."
Now it's a Tuesday evening, the week before the start of her senior year at George C. Marshall High School in Fairfax County, and Ali sits in a wooden booth at the Lost Dog Cafe in Arlington, picking at her chicken and mozzarella pita.
Across from her is her longtime friend and fellow senior Andy Tonken, his expression a mixture of shared indignation and fond amusement.
"It bothers me. It means, like, Andy or any gay guy is not being treated like a human being. He's being treated like a 'gay guy.'" Ali says. "It's really obnoxious that there are these people who think it's, like, trendy" to have a gay friend.
Trendy is one way to describe it. Another way: just plain common. Nearly nine in 10 local 11th- or 12th-grade girls polled in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey reported having a friend who is openly gay or lesbian, the highest percentage of any group in the survey. This is a big, big difference from their parents. Only two in 10 mothers or fathers knew someone who was out when they were in high school.
In fact, most of Andy's friends are straight girls: 68 of the 90 people (yes, 90) whose numbers are programmed into Andy's cell phone, to be exact. It's just that sometimes their preconceptions rub him the wrong way.
"I was doing a community theater show," Andy recalls, "and at one of the early rehearsals a girl approached me and asked whether I was gay. I told her that, indeed, I was, and her response was something to the effect of, 'That's so cool. We should go shopping sometime.'
"Well, yeah, I enjoy shopping. I wear clothes. But yet I've never met you and you want to go shopping with me? Gay and, like, personal shopper are not synonymous."
Okay, but didn't he and Ali just spend an afternoon dragging a reporter around Tysons Corner Center? (Total stores entered: four -- Nordstrom, the Body Shop, Bath & Body Works, the Gap. Total purchases: one, by Ali -- True Blue Spa's "Tahiti, Sweetie" body lotion. Total food consumed: one foot-long chili cheese dog from DQ, by Ali; one small Oreo Blizzard, by Andy.)
Confronted with the question, they laugh and talk over each other.
"Ali and I talked about it. We were like, do we want to go shopping?" he says.
"We definitely just trashed it, but . . . [shopping] was fun," she says.
So how is their friendship different from the stereotype that irritates them so much?
"I don't know. It's hard to explain," he says.
"Somehow it's not the same thing," she says.
"Exactly," he says.
"Because beyond it, Andy and I have a relationship," she says.
Which, indeed, they do.
Five-foot-nine, slender and halter-topped, wearing a nose stud and a long beaded necklace, Ali, 17, looks a bit like a flower-power version of the actress Katie Holmes.
In some ways, she is a contrast with Andy, who is 18 but whose age is less clear, being markedly shorter and having dark eyes, lots of dark hair, and clear, fair skin that sports just a scattering of razor stubble.
Andy, who lives in Falls Church with his mother, a lawyer, is into acting, and started doing community and professional theater at 9. His e-mails arrive with a tag at the bottom familiar in the world of working adults: "Andy Tonken, Actor, Voice Talent." He is applying to colleges with strong theater programs.
Ali is good at French, into painting and collage. Like Andy, she is a (mostly) A and B student, and she hopes to get a scholarship to art school. She has weathered some serious family problems, and now lives with a former employer who has become her legal guardian.
The two teenagers, who attend different high schools, met at George Mason Middle School in sixth grade when Andy first moved from D.C. They became friends in eighth grade; Andy came out later that same year.
Ali says she had sensed Andy was gay even before his announcement.
"When I first heard . . . I remember the exact day," Ali says. "We were sitting in French class. I was talking to one of my good friends, we were in mid-conversation, and Andy came up and said, 'I'm out.' It wasn't that blunt, but it was pretty blunt. And my reaction was: 'Oh, Andy, that's great. I'm so proud of you, blah, blah.' And the girl I was talking to said, 'Yeah, Andy, I know.' And we continued our conversation."
"We were in eighth grade, so everybody knew in like an hour," Andy says. "At first I was like: This is awful, everyone knows, how will I do this. But really it wasn't that bad.
"When everyone discovers that the kid they were saying is gay actually is gay, and he knows he's gay, then people don't want to talk about it anymore. It's old news. It's not interesting gossip," he adds.
When he and Ali started hanging out earlier that year, "it was almost a spontaneous click, and we became friends. And sort of understood each other in a way. We had some inside jokes about having divorced parents. We sort of connected on that level," Andy says.
Ali is emphatic that his "differentness" isn't what she was drawn to.
"Andy's being gay isn't what makes me love him . . ." she says in an e-mail. "He isn't someone I call up just to go shopping with, he's someone I call up when I know nobody else in the whole world will understand."
"This past year in high school I was the only out gay student at Mason," Andy says of his junior year at George Mason in Falls Church, a relatively small public school with a strong academic reputation and a student body that would have given last year's election to John Kerry over George Bush by a ratio of 2 to 1. "It's bizarre. But it's definitely fine. I don't feel all alone or anything."
Andy says he fits in "sort of nowhere but sort of everywhere. I'm a theater kid, so I sort of fit into the theater crowd . . . I sort of fit in with the arts kids, the photography kids, Ali's friends, people into independent music . . ." The list goes on.
"If you go to an accepting school," says Ali, "being gay can make you more popular."
When Andy does talk about the negative aspects of being out, he talks about them parenthetically. He has to be pressed to give a direct example.
"Okay, there's this one hallway in my school, it's the only way to the cafeteria," he says. "There was a period of time where I would avoid walking to the cafeteria alone because of things that senior boys would say to me."
"Just kind of, like, the jock types," Ali interrupts.
"Right, exactly. Which . . . we shouldn't generalize . . ." he says.
"We shouldn't generalize," she repeats, laughing.
"But you stereotype about me, I'm going to stereotype about you," he says. "It got to a point where it was just so much easier to walk down the hallway with someone else, talking to them, because I wouldn't hear what they said."
"It's the looks, the little looks," she says.
"Like: Euww, you're the scum of the planet," he says.
Do these bouts of bad high school mojo rub off on Ali's social status?
"I have to admit that sometimes someone will be like, 'You're friends with Andy Tonken?' And I'll be like, 'Yeah, I am.' And I don't say, 'Why are you saying that?' I don't get all [worked up] about it. Sometimes I will . . . if they are saying it in a really rude way. But generally I'm, like, 'Yeah, I am.'"
Andy has been active in Mason's Gay Straight Alliance club since he was a freshman, and this year he is its president. He has derived a lot of support from the group.
"The GSA last year at Mason was me, a bunch of straight girls and their boyfriends. It's pretty funny, actually. It's like a girls' group or something," he says.
Ali agrees. "Most guys don't go. There will be the guys whose girlfriends drag them along."
The Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey illustrates that gender divide: Local boys in 11th and 12th grades were 27 percentage points less likely than their female counterparts to say that they had a gay friend. Ever since a reporter asked him about that statistic, Andy says, he's been trying to figure it out.
"Because they're intimidated by the idea that you could be attracted to them. Don't you see that?" Ali says.
He thinks of an example. "I was in choir. . . We were all getting dressed. And I hear this kid say, 'Oh my god, that's Andy. I don't want him to, like, look at me,' or something. And I pulled my choir gown on, zipped it up, and I said, 'Look, you're not my type.' And he was like, 'What? I wasn't . . .' and didn't know what to say to me. And it was the first time I had ever been like: 'Look, I'm not looking at you. I'm not interested.'"
"Maybe they're intimidated by the idea that you won't be attracted to them," Ali says.
"Put that in," Andy says to the reporter.
Andy has two or three straight male friends about his age, and more who are older. At least one of his high-school friends "gets crap about being friends with me," Andy says.
Still, he senses that this year, his senior year, things might be a bit different, at least if the first three weeks of school are any indication. "It's really subtle, people talking to me who didn't used to," he says. "And part of it comes from me, I think . . . I don't assume that people are going to hate me, or assume I'm going to make them uncomfortable as much as I used to."
Though he doesn't want to generalize, it seems clear that, as has been true from high school time immemorial, the jock crowd is the main obstacle to acceptance. But even here, Andy sees a more hopeful future. "I find that crowd's girlfriends are reforming them at an amazingly speedy rate. I'll be stopped by a cheerleader holding the hand of a football player. And he'll be uncomfortable. But by the second or third time it happens, it's not a big deal."
Andy's friendship with Ali, on the other hand, is a big deal. During a recent week, they are together every day. They go to Marshalls and to Costco. They eat late-night ice cream cones at the Creamery. Ali brings her guardian's truck over to help Andy's grandparents move. And, yes, they go to the mall.
Their talk, riding down Broad Street in Ali's old Honda, is standard-issue high school talk. Who came into Starbucks that day. Who they love. Who they feel bad for. Who gained weight in her face. How they need to bring their SAT scores up. How their senior pictures went that week. Whether Andy should consider his planned trip to the movies the next night as a date or not. ("It's a date! He asked you to go to a movie! And you both like boys," Ali says.)
But when they talk about each other, their tone is reflective and even tender.
"Sometimes I put off calling him because I want to mope around a little longer, and I know that if I call him he'll make me feel better," Ali says in an e-mail. "He's one of the strongest people I know, and I'm so proud of him every day."
"She's been a constant in my life, which is sort of amazing to maintain," Andy says. "There's no doubt in my mind that I will always be in touch with her, because I can't imagine not being in touch with her."
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57% of local teens have had a friend who is gay or lesbian
Q: Have you ever. . . had a friend who was openly gay or lesbian, or not?
86% ... 11th-12th-grade girls
62% ... 7th-10th-grade girls
59% ... 11th-12th-grade boys
32% ... 7th-10th-grade boys
Claudia Deane is The Post's assistant polling director.