Gay kids are coming out earlier — sometimes in middle school — and many are finding acceptance. But some parents and teachers wonder if these kids are too young to really know their sexual orientation.
In a long and affecting new New York Times Magazine cover story, Benoit Denizet-Lewis looks at what it's like to come out at 14, 13, even 12 years old. Encouragingly, being young and openly gay seems to be getting easier. Denizet-Lewis writes that when he started working for the gay men's magazine XY in 1998, "we received dozens of letters each week from teenagers in the depths of despair." Three years later, he says, "a new kind of gay adolescent was appearing on the page - proud, resilient, sometimes even happy." He explains,
That's not to say that gay teenagers didn't still suffer harassment at school or rejection at home, but many seemed less burdened with shame and self-loathing than their older gay peers. What had changed? Not only were there increasingly accurate and positive portrayals of gays and lesbians in popular culture, but most teenagers were by then regular Internet users. Going online broke through the isolation that had been a hallmark of being young and gay, and it allowed gay teenagers to find information to refute what their families or churches sometimes still told them - namely, that they would never find happiness and love.
Thanks to the Internet and to increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality (an increase marred, we should note, by measures like Proposition 8), kids who might once have waited until high school or even college to come out are now doing so earlier. At least 120 middle schools in the country have gay-straight alliance groups, and others let students observe the national Day of Silence in protest against anti-gay harassment. Denizet-Lewis visited LA's Daniel Webster Middle School on that day, and found 50 kids, many of them wearing pink shirts, filling out cards with slogans like "You Are What You Are - Embrace It." They were not, however, silent: "Good luck getting middle-schoolers not to talk," the school counselor said.
The youth of the Webster kids and other gay middle-schoolers is a sign of how far gay rights have come — but it's also these kids' biggest obstacle to acceptance. A telling anecdote comes from Nadia, the mom of a gay 15-year-old named Austin. She says, "We just couldn't wrap our heads around the idea that Austin would know what he was at 13, and that he would want to tell other people." But she had actually asked Austin if he was gay when she found out he had called a gay chat line. The irony of a parent suspecting her kid is gay and then refusing to believe he could know his own orientation highlights how much more difficulty some parents have with burgeoning gay sexuality than they would with a straight kid's desires.
Part of this may have to do with the misconception that you have to have gay intercourse to be gay, or that homosexuality is somehow a more "sexual" orientation than heterosexuality. But Austin tells Denizet-Lewis,
I knew I was different in second grade - I just didn't really put a name to it until I was 11. My parents said, ‘How do you know what your sexuality is if you haven't had any sexual experiences?' I was like, ‘Should I go and have one and then report back?'
Eileen Ross, director of a Mountain View, CA program for gay youth, says that when a 12-year-old boy says he likes girls, "No one says to them: 'Are you sure? You're too young to know if you like girls. It's probably just a phase.'" We are totally accepting of people who "just know" that they're heterosexual from an early age, and we recognize that heterosexuality encompasses not just intercourse but also crushes, flirting, dating, behaviors many parents of middle-schoolers not only allowed but find charming. A "schoolboy crush" is usually considered cute — as long as it's on a girl.
A lawyer in Florida argued that gay-straight alliances promote the "premature sexualization of the students," and when Austin started a gay-straight alliance, his Michigan school made him call it something "less controversial" (he chose "Peace Alliance"). But now that kids are able to come out younger, perhaps more adults will understand that liking and dating boys should be as uncontroversial for other boys as it is for girls. Denizet-Lewis reports the hopeful words of developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams: "This is the first generation of gay kids who have the great joy of being able to argue with their parents about dating, just like their straight peers do."
A friend of mine came out to me the summer after our ninth grade year, when he was 14. He came out to the rest of our friends the following year, and to his parents the year after that. While his mom was trying to keep him from dating boys, my mom was telling me to date more boys. Although I wasn't a big fan of our "he's-cute-why-don't-you-go-out-with-him" conversations (nothing screams "nerd" like a mom who thinks you need to get out more), they did reflect a basic acceptance of my sexuality, even though I hadn't had sex yet — and Mom definitely didn't want me to. My friend deserved the same acceptance. And maybe today's gay kids are slowly starting to receive it.
Image via New York Times Magazine.
Coming Out In Middle School [NYT Magazine]