Last year's tragic suicides and the It Gets Better Project have spawned a sort of backlash, with some experts saying life for many gay kids is already better. But the truth may be that we just don't know.
Jane Brody of the Times writes that "recent research finds more similarities than differences among gay and straight adolescents." She cites a study showing "that young gays had as many friends and were just as popular and socially connected as other teenagers." She also quotes Dr. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, author of The New Gay Teenager, who says,
Bullying is less about sexuality than about gender nonconformity. There are straight youth who are gender-atypical and they suffer as much as gay kids. But whether there's a direct link between bullying and suicide among gay teens has not been shown.
Obviously the bullying of gender-nonconforming kids is a problem, regardless of those kids' sexual orientation. But the real answer to the question of whether gay kids suffer more mental distress than their straight peers is elusive — largely because people aren't asking it in the right way. Writes Brody,
[Gay teens' suicide] risk is hard to measure, in part because so much research has focused on clinical populations - people who sought help or acted out because they were troubled, had attempted suicide or professed suicidal tendencies. That tends to skew the results, suggesting that gay teenagers on average are more prone to suicide and mental illness than they really are.
This suggests that while it's vital to help kids who are suffering, researchers also need to pay attention to all gay youth. Doing so may help those who are in distress but not coming forward, but it could also provide hopeful examples of kids — and families — who are doing well. Brody writes that "gay teenagers most at risk for serious emotional distress are those whose families have rejected them" — maybe more stories of happy and healthy gay teens could help teach less accepting parents how beneficial understanding and respect can be to their children's lives.
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