“The New Gay Teenager”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Dr. Ritch C. Savin-Williams of Cornell University gave a talk yesterday addressing how society’s changing attitudes towards homosexuality are shaping the experiences of today’s queer youth. The subtitle of Savin-Williams’ lecture, “Not Invisible, Not Gay, Not Sick” foreshadowed his three main areas of inquiry. He also prefaced his talk by acknowledging the controversial nature of many of his claims. A large group of students gathered in the less-used location of the Quaker Meeting House, and though questions revealed much skepticism among the audience, the talk was generously received.

Savin-Williams began by highlighting the changes in youth culture that affect the queer adolescent experience. Though we are all familiar with how much more open society has become in the past decades, he points to the late nineties as a critical turning point: “For even your younger brothers and sisters, attitudes have changed.” Turning to popular media, Savin-Williams cited Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out. Though right wing groups attempted to create controversy and boycott the show’s sponsors, neither Ellen’s ratings nor her sponsors’ sales were negatively effected. The response from the general public was that this was not a big deal.

Savin-Williams sees this lack of reaction as indicative of a growing proof that queer adolescents go through the same experiences as everyone else. This perspective is not widely shared among adults. The queer press has a vested interest in emphasizing the problems that queer youth have, such as reported high rates of suicide and mental health problems. Conservative anti-gay groups also try to point out supposedly insurmountable problems of growing up gay. Savin-Williams noted, “At youth groups they like to present these statistics and say, ‘Don’t be gay; it’ll kill you!'”

Savin-Williams points to trends in polls asking if people consider themselves ‘accepting’ of gay people. Acceptance has increased every year, and a clear gradient exists across age groups. The Bible belt maps perfectly onto current differences across the nation. “I grew up in Missouri–right here with the 38%. I haven’t given this talk there, and nor do I plan on it,” he commented. Though regional differences currently exist, Savin-Williams suspects that the 80% acceptance rate found nationally between ages 14 and 18 exists evenly across the country. Youth culture has leveled national attitudes. He pointed to the conventional wisdom that gay men must move to the city to live openly, but believes this is no longer true.

The audience began taking him up on his offer to interrupt with questions and asked if these statistics reflect real changes in harassment. Savin-Williams pointed to the creation of Gay-Straight Alliances across the nation as indicating the presence of strong support networks for queer youth. His point is that nearly all kids are teased, queer or not. How you define harassment is vital to any comparison, and most objective definitions find no significant difference in sexual minority adolescents. Another question also clarified that all age groups, even adults above 80, show trends towards becoming more accepting.

Savin-Williams then continued with a profile of the characteristics of homophobic individuals. A picture of Ann Coulter gave him the opportunity to humorously apologize for her being a Cornell alumna. Savin-Williams splits the perpetrators of harassment into two groups: the thrill seekers, who look for the excitement and group solidarity of picking on a marginalized individual, and the dynamics, who are mostly men and take personal initiative often motivated by doubts about their own sexuality. Savin-Williams stated that harassment of the first sort is markedly decreasing. He then gave a decidedly non-reconciliatory description of a dynamic. Finally he described slight changes in attitudes from religious figures, saying that among the most conservative the current state is improving and therefore better than nothing.

Do these negative attitudes translate into today’s youth? Since 2001, various polls of middle and high school students have found high statistics indicating support and acceptance of homosexuality: 85% ‘support the acceptance of gay people by society’, 78% think gays should be in the military, 68% support adoption by same-sex couples, and 67% support same-sex marriages. Savin-Williams considers most promising the statistic that 72% know a queer person, as this is the most clear path to great acceptance. He also pointed how these statistics differ radically from adult Americans. It is today’s youth culture–MTV’s “The Real World” was mentioned–that has interrupted the transfer of these biases.

Savin-Williams says these new attitudes have radically affected who chooses to identify as gay. He says emphasis by the media and society on depression and problems with coming out have caused adolescents in accepting environments to identify less with the label of gay. In one study of students at the University of Michigan, a significant portion of students reported having some same-sex attraction despite identifying as straight. The question was raised whether this shows a lack of acceptance of gays, but Savin-Williams stated it showed a lack of acceptance towards people unsure of their sexual identity. Society pressures individuals to identify as a specifically gay or straight, or possibly bisexual. People are beginning to eschew gay, and to an even greater extent lesbian, due to problems identifying with the picture of a troubled and often suicidal gay teenager.

Tabling the point of bisexuality for later discussion in the face of questions, Savin-Williams moved on to reemphasize the point that gay youth are not more prone to suicide or other problems of mental health. The perceived problem is due to skewed data, which leads to such headlines as one typical example from The Advocate: “Gay Youths’ Deadly Despair”. What does this message translate into for youth choosing whether or not to call themselves gay? Accompanied by laughter, “Be prepared to die!” flashed across the projector screen. In addition to giving fuel to the religious right, this message diverts attention from risk factors in youth more important than being gay.

Examining the rates of attempted suicide among teens gives a clearer picture of the issue. When male teens are asked to circle their sexual identity on a five point scale, the 1s and 5s have an even reported rate of attempted suicide of 3%. The ‘mostly heterosexual’ group doesn’t differ significantly either. It is only among male teens identifying as ‘mostly gay’ or bisexual that show a higher rate of 13%. The same trend holds with higher rates among women. Few studies make a finer distinction than straight and gay. The previous tendencies in self-identification point to ‘gay’ being interpreted as anything not straight. It appears that only those identifying as bisexual were at greater risk. It then becomes necessary to examine this group to see what could be causing these problems.

It was at this point that Savin-Williams began to make controversial statements about bisexuality and society’s perception of bisexuality which the audience contended hotly. A study which followed the self-identification of male teenagers showed that, of those identifying as bisexual, 34% later identified as gay and 17% as straight. Calling this group “gays in waiting”, Savin-Williams said it is them who are having the most problems. Being uncomfortable calling themselves either gay or straight, it is bisexual men who increase the statistics of attempted suicide among gay teenagers. His research also identified possible indicators of these men based on sexual history and fantasies. Savin-Williams emphasized that not all bisexual men are about to change their identification, but this is still a significant trend.

Problems arise though when looking at bisexual women. They still show the increased rates of attempted suicide as opposed to both completely hetero- and homosexual women, but do not display the same trend of changing their sexual identification. “This is a really fascinating line of research, because I don’t know what’s going on with bisexual women,” he noted. Savin-Williams seemed to go against his original description of the new gay teenager by positing that some of these women are identifying as bisexual due to a sex-linked pathology like bipolar disorder. Recognizing that this is not a satisfactory explanation, he went on to say that he’s looking at individual case studies in search of new ideas. Savin-Williams also brought up studies demonstrating that women’s self-reported orientation of sexual arousal does not match up with direct measurement of physical arousal. How well are these 1 to 5 scales really categorizing the study group? Clearly something more is at work in defining bisexual women and causing the increased rates of attempted suicide than the theory developed by looking at men. Throwing the floor open to others’ input, the audience began to ask numerous questions before time ran out. In conclusion, Dr. Savin-Williams emphasized that the new climate queer youth grow up in has lead to interesting conclusions and continuing lines of research into what it means to be queer.

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