Young and Gay: Forget Bullies, Stigma and Self-Bullying Bad Enough

Got bullying on the mind.  Not because, coincidentally, it's National Bullying Prevention Month. Been thinking about the kids harassed because they're gay or perceived as gay.

As we're still debating Don't Ask Don't Tell and gay marriage, the media's dragged out the somber stats about gay youths facing high rates of anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, violence, depression and suicide. That these kids are 4 times more likely to be depressed.  That's a pretty solid stat but it's hard to put out reliable numbers on the rest of the lot. For one thing, researchers tend to cast the entire lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered (LGBT) crowd into one homogenous category - "gay".

Half the teens lumped into the LGBT pile by researchers, teachers, classmates, and journalists don't even consider themselves "gay". So we got kids bullied for being gay even though they may not consider themselves such.

Maybe they're effeminate or late-bloomers waiting for that growth spurt. Maybe they just don't like sports. Maybe they are questioning their sexual orientation. Maybe they aren't. Even if they might have some same sex fantasies or experience. That's right, somewhere around 6% of high-schoolers consider themselves heterosexuals even though they may fantasize or actually act on some same sex attractions (3% unsure, 3% gay). They're not even wondering about it.  Sure, they may eventually identify themselves as gay or bisexual. Or not. But that doesn't mean they can't still think of themselves as straight. 

Why quibble over whether a youngster perceives himself (or herself) as gay?

Because being gay opens up a young person to a whole lot of harm...

Teens who consider themselves gay or bisexual are more than twice as likely to think about and attempt suicide compared to heterosexuals teens (see 2009 study).

Those who consider themselves heterosexual even though they have same sex thoughts or experience are no more likely to think about or attempt suicide than heterosexuals without any same sex leanings.

It's not about thoughts or feelings or even behavior - but identity. Doesn't matter who we're attracted to or what we do but how we think of ourselves. It's the power of self-identity. And stigma of course.  We so often focus on bullies but danger comes not just from others, but from the kids themselves, their thoughts about themselves. Forget bullies, kids who believe themselves gay often beat themselves up  mercilessly.  Coming out to oneself costs dearly in this society, especially at a young age.  Yet it's un-American to discourage self-discovery.  High school of all times should be a time of self-exploration, self-experimentation, expression....blah blah blah. 

But what if it exposes some kids to harm?   I wish we could push past the discrimination and prejudice but we're not there yet.  In the meantime, what's a parent or teacher to do?  Is self-discovery over-rated? Supposedly college students are less empathetic than ever.  Maybe we should be focusing less on the ME parts anyhow. 

At the very least maybe teachers should scrap Oedipus Rex and the "Know Thyself" lesson.


Becoming Supermommy said...

While I recognize that you're expressing an opinion more than anything else, I would beg you to remember the incalculable damage that a lack of self awareness causes. It leads to even stronger bullying of other children that an unaware child might meet. In fact, the homophobic blindness of many gay children before coming out to themselves, if not to their friends and families, is some of the cruelest bullying out there. Just look at Ted Haggert. Who was crueler to gay children than him, and how long must he have struggled and still failed to come to accept the realities of his own sexuality?

I agree that many of the children who endure anti-gay bullying are too young to consider their sexuality seriously, but from the time that sex becomes a consuming issue in the life of a teenager, which it does for every teenager at some point (and often early), the question of defining one's own sexuality becomes unavoidable.

I say, with the support of one's family, a person is never too young to makes discoveries about themselves. So a parent is just as much to blame for their child's fear and self loathing as anyone. And a supportive parent can make all the difference in these kids' lives. Rather than encourage a child to ignore their own concerns, as a parent wouldn't it be better to put your own adult homophobia aside and protect the fragile psyche of your tormented teen?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Supermommy! Thanks for making some excellent points. Yes, parents seem to make a huge difference in children who question their sexuality or eventually come out. Negative parental attitudes are one of the strongest predictors for suicidal thoughts and attempts in gay youths. Absolutely, I totally agree.

And I'm with you on the Ted Haggerty? angle. Was he the preacher who denied using rentaboy or said the boy was just carrying his bags (while he was on a cocaine binge?). Or have I confused him with another homophobic, self-righteous closeted gay leader?

That said, there are plenty of bullies who aren't even remotely gay along with the Ted Haggerty types. And hopefully someday they'll be able to live openly to themselves and others.

And yes, when kids do know who they are and what they want at an early age (and some do) we need to do a better job of reaching them.
I get a little ticked that this country spends who knows how much on physical health issues, especially for adults, but yet we can't seem to come up with sufficient funds to study and help youths struggling with depression, suicide even. As if it's a mysterious, unknowable phenomenon. But then again experts didn't even think kids got seriously depressed until relatively recently...