September 28, 2009

The Gay Youth of America

As a novelist who has written two books and more than a few screenplays with gay teen protagonists, I am often asked how realistic my portrayals of gay teens are and how many gay teens are really out in high school. Having done many school and library events in the last few years, I explain that there are plenty of out teens and that, if anything, my fictional characters are toned down versions of the gay teenagers in real life. Still, people always seem somewhat skeptical of my answers because I am a writer of a certain age.

This weekend, I read a thoughtful and remarkable article on the topic of gay teens by
Benoit Denizet-Lewis that was published in the TIMES magazine. The article, however, is not just about gay high schoolers.... it's about gay middle schoolers. Out gay middle schoolers.

As the average age at which people come out in high school keeps dropping, the tweeners have started getting in on the act, declaring their sexuality at even earlier ages. Kids as young as 11 are now self-identifying as gay. To research this phenomenon, Denizet-Lewis travels to Oklahoma and New England and North Carolina where he meets with tween students, some of whom are involved in Gay Straight Alliances groups. These GSA's, numbering more than 4,000 across the US, initially started forming in high schools but now are taking root in middle schools as kids figure out their orientation at younger and younger ages.

The intial slant of the article is that some people, parents in particular, find this shocking. Of course, if you ask any gay men when they truly knew they were gay, the age is usually even lower than 11. (There's a great book and subsequent HBO show called When I Knew which documents this fact.) There was one quote in the article that really stood out for me, from a mother reacting to her son Austin (pictured above), who has recently come out:
“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.”
I find this statement curious in that most 13 year old straight boys know pretty damn well they like girls by that age. So why not guys?

Actually, many of the parents in the article, including the one quoted above are quite supportive of their gay or bi or questioning kids. In fact, the article ends with the touching story of Austin's father taking him to the Chicago Gay Pride Parade. It almost makes me wonder if the real story here is how much parents and parenting has changed in the last 20 years in regards to dealing with sexual orientation. Probably due to the Internets, kids seem to have a more open dialogue with their folks about sex and sexuality.

Anyway, this article is really a must-read for anyone curious about how much times have changed for gay kids today. Granted things are still tough in terms of acceptance and there is still a long ways to go, but it's really stunning to see how far things have progressed in the couples decades since I was in high school. It actually gives one hope.

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