Is there a battle over gay teens? If you can believe a recent Time Magazine cover story, a war is on between gay activists and social conservatives over adolescents who are declaring gay and lesbian identities at early ages. The number one cable news show, The O’Reilly Factor recently interviewed the author of the Time article, John Cloud, about the issue. Both men expressed differing views on the matter and as I explain below, I believe Mr. O’Reilly to be closer to the correct view.
Central to the dispute is the impact of self-labeling. Is the proper response to same-sex feelings experienced by youth to come out as gay or lesbian or is it to wait for more mature times to declare a sexual identity due to pliability of sexual feelings and general adolescent confusion? A related issue takes us into the consequences of adolescent choices for public policy. Is the increased emphasis on gay acceptance in schools creating pressure on confused teens to declare early and become militant about gay rights to meet adult expectations?
The Time article leaves no question that teens are experiencing same-sex attraction earlier now (boys,10; girls, 14) than in the 1960s (boys, 14; girls, 17). Whatever one thinks about the origins of homosexual attractions, there can be little debate that the rapid increase in school based clubs called gay-straight alliances has had an impact. Whereas in past years, young people might have been willing to take a wait and see attitude about same-sex attractions, now they are encouraged to find a label for themselves among an ever growing batch of terms. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, and questioning are identity designations that students as young as middle school are having modeled through gay-straight alliances and popular fiction books, such as the Misfits.
On his show, Mr. O’Reilly questioned whether such early labeling was a good idea. In a cordial exchange, Mr. Cloud and Mr. O’Reilly traded perspectives.
O’Reilly: But there’s a problem here. No. 1, I think almost every teenager gets confused about sexual identity at some time. OK? So, you know, rushing out to declare yourself one thing or another, I think, is foolish. And in my book, which is better for kids than a Simon and Schuster book, I say, don’t define yourself that way…Whose business is it if you’re 13, 14, 15?…Am I wrong?
Cloud: Well, I think, you know, kids face the assumption that they’re straight, basically. So if they’re gay and they want to do something about that assumption, the only choice is to tell people that they’re gay.
Is coming out the only choice? While it is one choice, it certainly is not the only choice. Unless of course, you want to feel a part of an adult social movement.
Although the ages of coming out are dropping, when to have sex and with whom are generally considered to be decisions requiring an adult level of maturity. Declaring a gay identity long before reaching the necessary level of maturation to engage in adult sexuality requires the teen to either experiment sexually or predict what his sexual attractions will be in the distant future or both. Instead of expanding their possibilities, teens can feel cast into a social role. A case can be made that teens are less likely to explore their options if such a role is adopted and lived out in an environment that encourages solidarity to a political cause.
In his recent Time article, Mr. Cloud provides evidence of just the kind of social influence I refer to. He describes pressure experienced by gay students to embellish their applications for college scholarships with tales of victimization for their gay identity. One such benefactor, the Point Foundation exclusively awards college funds to gay students who have demonstrated scholarship and gay activism during their high school years. Thus, students are competing via how much they have done to further adult political objectives during their formative years.
Perhaps reflecting his own homosexual proclivities and his sunny outlook on the status of gay teens, Mr. Cloud further opines, “a lot of these kids aren’t necessarily interested in gay politics or gay culture as gay activists that formed it.” I tend to agree and this is precisely why schools should not promote activist events such as Day of Silence, where students are expected to not speak for an entire day in sympathy with a gay rights program.
So in this case, Mr. O’Reilly really is looking out for teens who need time, not Time, to sort out their feelings without activists organizing among them.