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Posts for January, 2011

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.