Owen Benjamin, Philip’s father, the dean of admissions at the Harte School, a private school for rich boys. At the outset, Owen faces two crises. First, he and his wife, Rose, must either purchase or vacate the rent-controlled apartment in which they have lived for many years. Second, Owen is no longer content with anonymous encounters in a pornographic movie theater or with hiding his homosexuality from his wife. When Philip “comes out” to his parents, Owen questions his son, hoping to find a model for an openly gay lifestyle. Owen invites to dinner Winston Penn, a coach at Harte whom he incorrectly believes is gay. Owen tells Philip that he is inviting Penn for his son’s benefit, but Owen is himself infatuated with his colleague. After watching Owen flirt with Penn at dinner, Rose asks her husband to leave. Owen takes refuge at Philip’s apartment, uncertain whether his separation from his wife will be permanent.
Rose Benjamin, Philip’s mother, a copy editor for a literary publishing house. She edited Derek Moulthorpe’s novels and introduced them to her son. Although she has had affairs with other men, she accepts her polite but uncommunicative relationship with Owen. When their building goes co-op, Rose is profoundly distressed by having to choose between leaving the apartment that has been home for many years or using their life savings on a down payment. When she learns that both her son and husband are gay, Rose, overburdened already, rejects them both.
Eliot Abrams, an independently wealthy young man who dabbles in freelance graphic design. When his parents were killed in an automobile accident, Eliot was adopted by Derek Moulthorp and his lover, Geoffrey. Accepting his foster parents’ homosexuality as the norm, Eliot suffers none of Philip’s sexual confusion. He is increasingly burdened by Philip’s dependency and eagerness to please. When Philip questions Geoffrey about Eliot’s parents, Eliot stops returning Philip’s calls. Eliot goes to Europe and begins an affair with a young Frenchman.
Jerene Parks, a six-foot-tall black woman who is Eliot’s roommate. Jerene is the adopted daughter of a black couple who have achieved a lonely affluence and impress upon their daughter the importance of preserving appearances. When Jerene tells them that she is a lesbian, they cease communicating with her. During research for her doctoral dissertation on lost languages, Jerene discovers “the crane child,” a neglected boy who created a private language to communicate with the cranes at a nearby construction project. This story becomes for her a metaphor for the way people model their identities on a chosen love object. Having found a measure of self-acceptance, Jerene leaves graduate school. She begins a relationship with Laura, a neurotically fearful but devoted young woman. Jerene volunteers for the Gay Hotline and talks anonymously to Owen when he calls, distraught, to discuss his own and his son’s homosexuality.
Derek Moulthorpe, a writer of children’s fantasies and Eliot’s foster father. When Eliot and Philip come to dinner, Moulthorpe cooks a meal with all blue foods. Afterward, at Philip’s suggestion, Derek and Geoffrey, his partner of many years, accompany the young men to their favorite gay bar. Feeling old, they leave quickly.
Brad Robinson, a college friend of Philip who fantasizes about glamorous actors but has had few actual relationships. Brad’s analysis of Eliot’s selfish behavior helps the grieving Philip to put his lover’s rejection in perspective. Brad and Philip’s long friendship culminates in an honest, mutually supportive love relationship.
Winston Penn, a handsome lacrosse coach at the Harte School. During dinner at the Benjamins’ apartment, Winston takes the family turmoil in stride. Penn plans eventually to return to Austin to get a Ph.D. and marry his fiancée, Nancy.