When I went to college in the early ‘90s, freshman and sophomore year was a coming-out fest. I had a few gay friends in high school, but almost none of them dared to come out in our conservative school. So I was pretty shocked – and very proud – when my younger brother’s best friend, a punk rock Czech girl made up like Siouxsie Sioux came out at 14 while attending the same middle school I had five years before. Fifteen years later, this generation of gay and bisexual kids are becoming more comfortable with coming out earlier and earlier, according to a cover story by Benoit Denizet-Lewis in this weekend’s New York Times magazine (the story is available online and has already become the most e-mailed story of the day).
How early? Most of the kids interviewed by Denizet-Lewis are still in middle-school. According to recent studies, most kids don’t self-identify as gay or bisexual until 14, 15, or 16, but the mean age at which they become aware of their orientation is 10 (boys tend, on average, to know a year earlier than girls). And some of these kids are coming out to their families and friends and living lives that “would have been nearly incomprehensible to earlier generations of gay youth,” according to Ritch Savin-Williams, the author of “The New Gay Teenager.”
Many of the scenes in the article are frankly astonishing in their sunny depiction of gay youth: Denizet-Lewis attends a gay dance for middle-schoolers located next to a Baptist church in a small town in Oklahoma, where the place is “practically over run by supportive moms”; he interviews a pair of eighth and ninth grade girls who are dating each other and tell him they met “in church”; and attends a meeting of the Gay Straight Alliance at Daniel Webster Middle School in Los Angeles, where dozens of students and teachers in the mostly Hispanic and African-American school mill around in what seems to be gay-straight heaven. “I feel like I’m in a parallel gay universe,” says Denizet-Lewis.
This certainly disrupts the “long-time narrative of gay youth in crisis,” and suggests that the higher rates of depression, suicide and substance abuse recorded among gay teens of earlier generations have – no duh – more to do with the difficulties of dealing with homophobia than anything else. And it suggests that gay and straight adults of the previous generation – by pushing for civil rights, gay marriage and the right to parent children – have succeeded in convincing teens and their parents that gay and bisexual teens have just as much a shot at living happy adult lives as their straight peers.
Parents who feared for their children’s safety were a staple of earlier coming out narratives. “The biggest difference I’ve seen in the last 10 years isn’t with gay kids – it’s with their families,” says Dan Woog, an openly gay varsity soccer coach in Connecticut. “Many parents just don’t assume anymore that their kids will have a sad, difficult life just because they are gay.”
But we could still do much better: Only 12 states have laws that explicitly protect students from bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and teens are still being bullied and harassed for their orientation. Denizet-Lewis writes:
In a 2007 survey of 626 gay, bisexual and transgender middle-schoolers from across the country by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (Glsen), 81 percent reported being regularly harassed on campus because of their sexual orientation. Another 39 percent reported physical assaults. Of the students who told teachers or administrators about the bullying, only 29 percent said it resulted in effective intervention.
More visibly gay teens can, unfortunately, translate into more visible homophobia. One parent describes her child’s school as a “war zone”; Austin, a 15-year-old living in Michigan was taunted with epithets like “gay freak” and forced off the bleachers by students who told him it wasn’t “the queer section.” When his mother, Nadia, complained to the principal, she was asked what her son had done to “provoke” the attacks. “So I took a job as the lunch lady at school,” she says, “because I felt I had needed to be his bodyguard.”
While I want to hug this mother, the solution is obviously not to have every parent of a gay teen physically present to protect their kid. Some administrators worry that just talking about gay and bisexual teens means they have to talk about, well, sex. But knowing one’s orientation isn’t the same as being sexually active, any more than it is for any other teen: Most of the teens interviewed in this piece had little sexual experience; some hadn’t even kissed yet. So how do they know their orientation? Didn’t most of us know by middle school who we had crushes on, and with whom we wanted to go steady and slow dance? “My parents said, ‘How do you know what your sexuality is if you haven’t had any sexual experiences?’”, says one 15-year-old boy. “I was like, ‘Should I go and have one and then report back?’”
Even some staff members at Daniel Wallace, the school with the thriving Gay Straight Alliance that looks like utopia for a gay middle schooler, were “livid” when the principal, Kendra Wallace, first suggested forming the alliance. “They thought it would be about sex, or us endorsing a lifestyle,” she says. “And the most amazing thing has happened since the GSA started. Bullying of all kinds is way down. The GSA created this pervasive anti-bullying culture on campus that affects everyone.”
In other words, protecting GLBT students from harassment helped to make middle-school safer, kinder and more pleasant for all students. Isn’t that the kind of change we can all get behind?