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Gay kids, socially stigmatized or “not so different”?

An OpinionAn Opinion

Timothy Kincaid

January 3rd, 2011

I’m always a bit hesitant about the research of Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah. Her conclusions – frequently quoted (or misquoted) by proponents of change therapy – too often seem to be on the outer edge of conventional thinking and I am troubled that her methods of communication lend themselves too easily to misinterpretation. I really haven’t reached my own conclusion as to whether Diamond is a revolutionary genius or a nut. Or perhaps a bit of both.

But I have developed an opinion about Dr. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, director of Cornell’s Sex and Gender Lab. In much of his writing, I appears to me that he starts with his conclusions and finds whatever is available to support them. Savin-Williams is married to the post-gay notion that today’s youth (or perhaps tomorrow’s) have fully integrated into society and do not experience orientation identity but rather are attracted to whom they are attracted without any sense that such attraction is informative (my paraphrase). While this seems naive to my personal experiences, it does meld well with Diamond’s hypotheses on sexual fluidity.

In an article today in the New York Times health section, Diamond and Savin-Williams are the primary sources for the presentation of the idea that bullying and suicide of gay youth are over-blown fears and that most gay kids are just like straight kids. Some of their arguments have merit, others are just word games.

There is value in recognizing that times have changed and it is worth noting that many gay kids can be, and are, happy. Many – probably most – have supportive families and friends and a life that is no more difficult – or less difficult – that their heterosexual peers. And as we work towards a more-accepting culture, that will be increasing the norm.

But throwing out the attention currently given to bullying and suicide based on those kids who do have a life that is “not so different” seems to me to be a bit like saying that we don’t need to be concerned with unemployment in our current economy because most people are employed. The findings just don’t seem adequately related to the conclusions.

It’s nice to know, for example, that “young gays” in Diamond’s studies, “had as many friends and were just as popular and socially connected as other teenagers.” But this doesn’t seem to logically lead to “the effects of bullying and discrimination are often overplayed in the news media.”

One can have friends, especially friends who are also “stigmatized,” and still be bullied. That one can commiserate with a fellow victim, does not make the discrimination experienced any less hurtful. It would be equally valid to argue that there is no additional stress in being part of a tiny racial minority in one’s school – and that a daily diet of racial epithets are inconsequential – because one has a supportive family and are friends with the gay kid. In other words, nonsense generated by those who want to dismiss your pain.

Further, I find the arguments required to dismiss our concerns to be lacking in intellectual integrity, at best. Take, for example, Savin-Williams’ quibbling about the bullying and suicide issue:

These later studies find that straight youths are just as much at risk of being bullied if they exhibit atypical behavior, he said. Bullies react to nonconformity, and they pick up on people’s weaknesses.

“Bullying is less about sexuality than about gender nonconformity,” Dr. Savin-Williams said. “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.”

In other words, straight-acting closeted gay kids are not the victims of bullies, it’s the faggy kids, both gay and straight.

But Savin-Williams uses the term gender nonconformity in a deceptive way. He fails to disclose that gender non-conformity in children is the single greatest indicator of adult sexual identity; his distinction between gender non-conformity and sexuality in this context ignores the perspective of the bully; and finally, and most importantly, he fails to note the majority of victims of such acts.

When speaking of youth – even of post-adolescent youth – distinctions between gay and gender-nonconformist can be difficult. Strictly speaking, gay youth experience same-sex attraction either to the exclusion of opposite-sex attraction or disproportionately so, but self-identity or even self-recognition may not correlate. Cultural messages such as “I can’t be gay, I’m a Christian” or “I can’t be gay, I play soccer” or even “I can’t be gay because I had a sex dream about Miley Cyrus” can get mixed up with questions about self-worth, social acceptance, and one’s ability to identify with the outsider.

So while Savin-Williams is quite correct that straight youth who are gender-atypical are equally targets of bullying, his emphasis on implying that heterosexuals make up some sizable percentage of presumed-gay victims seems a bit premature. And really, beside the point. (And, considering that Savin-Williams argues that the “new gay teenager” rejects orientation labels, the use of such labels to argue against the seriousness of the situation offends me greatly.)

Kids who are bullied for gender-nonconformity are bullied because “he’s a fag” or “she’s a dyke” regardless of what orientation they claim. And the message is given to those who see it: “Don’t ‘be gay’ or you’ll be next.” Just as hate crimes target communities rather than individuals, anti-gay bullying sends a clear message to gay kids and to kids who haven’t figured out just where they fit on the orientation grid. Distinguishing between them seems arbitrary; if the bully doesn’t care that the victim isn’t really gay, why should that be a mitigating consideration in our anti-bullying efforts?

I am happy that the world is moving towards more inclusion of gay kids. But I don’t wear rose-colored glasses and I have no need to defend some post-gay ideology. I’m delighted that there are many kids who simply find their orientation as a matter of fact or discovery, but I am not going to ignore those who find their identity through the medium of a fist or a slur and I have little respect for those who have to split hairs in order to do so.

To my way of thinking, gay kids, gender-nonconforming kids, and kids who are bullied because someone thinks they may be gay are all part of my community. They all deserve to be protected. And, if kept safe, they can at some point in the future figure out their orientation.

Comments

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Mana
January 3rd, 2011 | LINK

Bullying on the basis of gender conformity should be stopped, regardless if the victims are LGBTQI. The fact that someone doesn’t have to actually be gay in order to become the target of this socially endorsed cruelty does not mitigate the fact that such behavior is absolutely unacceptable. That’s the cognitive disconnect I see in such research – even if what the media has labled a “suicide epidemic” is simplified or exagerrated, and even if it does not apply exclusively to gay youth, that does not mean the bullying climate is tolerable.

Edwin
January 3rd, 2011 | LINK

No child should be bullied and threatened. Just because they don’t conform to what the bullies prefer. Some of those that are bullirs are hiding who they really are. But they don’t want anyone to find out that they
to might be gay.
I substitute teach and when I see kids picking on others I tell them that is a form of bulling and ask them if they would like someone picking on them too. After they think about their ideas change. But bullies aren’t always a gang of people.
I was bullied by one person when I was in junior high in the 50′s.

jpeckjr
January 4th, 2011 | LINK

Although these studies look at LGBTQ youth, it seems they tell us some important things about bullies. That bullies are motivated in some way by wanting to enforce conventionality and conformity, at least as they perceive it, is important. Perhaps that should be the focus of someone’s research, the role of conventionality and conformity in the incidence of bullying. How different can a teenager be before attracting the attention of a bully?

Pressure to be conventional and to conform may vary from setting to setting and from community to community.

From living over a decade in Minnesota, to choose one pertinent example, I observed a rather strong pressure to “not stand out too much” — conform — as part of the general culture, even directed at me as a 40-something adult from somewhere else.

Now living in northern California (not the Bay Area), the general culture has almost no expectation that someone will “not stand out too much.” Actually, sometimes, I think around here “fitting in” is considered unusual.

I also think this factor might vary from urban to suburban to rural settings. A sociologist should do this kind of study, not a psychologist, or maybe jointly. Maybe it’s been done and we don’t know about it yet.

Matt
January 4th, 2011 | LINK

While I agree that Savin-Williams is a little too in love with his look-at-me-I’m-an-academic “post-gay” thesis, I think that what he has to say in the linked New York Times article is fair. He’s making a point about gay teenagers as a whole, and I’m not so sure he’s wrong.

I don’t see where he says that we should “ignore the unemployed because most people are working.” He’s just pointing out that most gay teenagers are working. Honestly, I think it could be helpful to lonely/just-coming-out gay teenagers to hear that.

Priya Lynn
January 4th, 2011 | LINK

Excellent analysis Timothy and Mana. I agree completely.

Jpeckjr said “Although these studies look at LGBTQ youth, it seems they tell us some important things about bullies. That bullies are motivated in some way by wanting to enforce conventionality and conformity…”.

That may be the case, but I think it could also be that bullies don’t care so much about conformity, they are just looking for an excuse to bully someone and being like everyone else doesn’t provide that excuse. There’s strength in numbers and the bully sees the large group of people who are the same as too intimidating to bully and so seeks out the individual(s) who are not part of the largest tribe.

Mihangel apYrs
January 4th, 2011 | LINK

the issue isn’t exclusively anti-gay bullying, it’s power structures that exist in schools that marginalise, exclude and stigmatise “the other”.

I will be happy when sexuality and identity are seen and accepted as a continua (though I don’t expect it in my life time), but all societies as currently structured are intrinsically heteronormative: and children are very alive to identifying those perceived as outsiders

jpeckjr
January 5th, 2011 | LINK

@Priya Lynn: A thoughtful observation from a psychological perspective. I’m suggesting a sociological approach that looks at the role of the bully in the wider social network. Psychological knowledge helps us understand the bully and how to work with him/her. Sociological knowledge helps us understand the system/community in which bullying does or does not arise, does or does not flourish.

Donny D.
January 5th, 2011 | LINK

Wow, there is so much in that New York Times article that’s objectionable. Ritch Savin-Williams sounds like his mission is to provide cover for the anti-gay movement’s opposition to school policies that specifically address anti-LGBT bullying. It’s as though he’s trying to do work that the anti-gay movement can cite in their bogus studies and “news” articles.

Mike
January 6th, 2011 | LINK

Just one of MANY examples of how this guy is damaging efforts to assist in protecting our youth. Just when schools, after all this time, get an open ear as a result of the recent press on youth suicides, this loser has to discount the attention to promote his theories and sell books. It’s seriously disgusting.

http://www.traditionalvalues.org/urban/five.php

Donny D.
January 7th, 2011 | LINK

I just picked up Savin-Williams’ The New Gay Teenager from the library today, and I find myself disagreeing with multiple things on every page I’ve read so far.

He seems to be creating a straw man claim that the social sciences, mostly pro-gay social scientists who are pushing particular agendas in regard to gay youth, have put out skewed studies which have showed gay youth as worse off than they really are, to the point that gay youth are now viewed as universally bullied, mentally tormented and suicidal. He puts forward the idea of a Baby Boomer gay establishment that vehemently attacks the idea that it might be okay for some homosexual people not to adopt a conventional gay identity, and a social science community that to some degree buys into this. And there’s much more wrong with the book, including its central thesis (today’s young people not choosing to call themselves gay anymore).

He seems to be making a case that he’s not admitting to, one with many different parts to it but a lot of them easily useful to anti-LGBT ideologues. With the lack of qualifiers in his writing, and many broadbrush statements, I’m surprised Harvard University Press chose to publish his book. I’m also surprised I hadn’t heard of Savin-Williams as someone gay social scientists and bloggers have discredited by now. (The New Gay Teenager was published in 2005.)

Chris
January 7th, 2011 | LINK

I think there is a real issue with people making assertions about the overall state of affairs in this country based upon their own personal coming out experiences or stories of selected others’ experiences as having been much easier. Parents of many teenagers today are in their 50′s. These parents are not byproducts of this new generation of supposed “acceptance.” School boards consist of the same age group, as do CEO’s, bosses, teachers. My point is that, maybe when the more narrow-minded generation passes on and is replaced by those who grew up in a more tolerant era, then maybe then it will be safe to say all is good. But until then, we CANNOT for the safety of our youth continue to make claims that all is good because IT IS NOT GOOD FOR EVERYONE YET. This psychologist should lose any license to practice for such blatant irresponsibility.

b
October 28th, 2011 | LINK

When Savin Williams says that it is gender nonconformity that is targeted, not gay sexuality, and that that means that the gay kids are ok, he is being obtuse and kind of irresponsible, because the stigma of gender nonconformity is all mixed up with homophobia in our culture (as others have said!). I would recommend C.J. Pascoe’s ethnography, Dude, You’re a Fag, on how the f-word is sometimes about sexuality, sometimes about gender performance, and sometimes both. So I actually felt that the writer of THIS piece was too keen to claim all bullying as being directed at gay kids and “about” sexual orientation. I have recently read work that says that most children who are gender non-conforming will grow up to be straight. The key point, I think, is that we have to fight both homophobia AND the pressure on boys to be “manly,” because that combined bullshit hurts all kids.

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