Be Yourself

by Ryan L. Sievers
April 1996

America is a fascinating place. It is a place in which there is an incredible conglomeration of differences and similarities. The assimilation of differences and the constant readjustment of social norms can be rapid and harsh at times. Homosexuals and bisexuals of this generation are coming out of the closet at a much younger age than previous generations. An average of eight years sooner. That means the average coming out age for today's gay adolescents is between 15 and 16 years old.

America's society -- and all other societies -- is not constant in its ever-shifting messages of socialization. Traditionally, a society changes more rapidly that does its laws. The L/G/B community is experiencing such a phenomenon today. Mainstream American society is beginning to view homosexuality and its adjoining issues in a more positive and tolerant light. Education and awareness of L/G/B issues are being actively promoted. Inversely, much of the information is being listened to and heeded. Conversely, American domestic policy and basic civil law is becoming increasingly dilatory.

Adolescents who are embarking upon the process through which they will begin to learn about themselves are at serious risk. They live in a world that is feeding them multiple messages -- that often conflict -- about who they should be and why. Certain institutions of American culture remain adamant and static regarding their position of maintaining anti-homosexual beliefs and policies. Unfortunately, these institutions tend to be the family, government, and religious organizations. It is time to allow the children of today and those that will follow the opportunity to analyze and begin to understand themselves. It is time to allow our children to be themselves.

An adolescent's body will be changing more during this part of their lives than any other. Their hormones are rapidly creating change not only within the body, but within the mind as well. They may feel wonderful one day and horrible the next, with no clear understanding of why. Social pressures to begin conforming to gender- and role-specific norms are being applied increasingly. They may be given slices of the adult world in the form of part-time work, being able to come home late, driving, and introduction to some of the competitiveness of the real world.

Relationships begin to change. Adolescents begin to become more independent from their parents. More emphasis is placed on non-kindred relationships. Peer pressures increase and parental validity begins to lose efficacy. Sex may begin to seem like the most important aspect of an adolescent's sociality. For the adolescent who is contemplating their sexual orientation as well as attempting to process the incredible and unrelenting massive amounts of social information, life has just become even more confusing. In no way does the socialization process of our culture prepare an adolescent for that.

Discriminatory assumptions are formed before children are even born. Parents are not taught to consider being non-gender specific in the rearing of their children. Children may be teased about liking girls if they are boys, or guys if they are girls. Parents may explain to the child, when you grow up and start dating, or when you fall in love and get married. Parents more than likely never discuss with their children the possibility of being in love with someone of the same sex.

Television, movies, magazines, and mass media all mostly show men with women. Lyrics to music describe falling in love with the opposite sex. Peers are more than likely discussing the opposite sex. Parents constantly elude to an opposite-sex marriage in their child's future. Such socialization leaves the questioning adolescent little room for exploration and curiosity about themselves. The rites of passage for adolescents become even harder simply because they are or think they may be gay. They cannot see anything in their environment that is related to what they may be feeling.

The children and adolescents of today would benefit a great deal if they were told that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is a normal and healthy way to be. Sexual orientation is one aspect of a person as a whole. Like a person's height, ethnicity, or eye color, sexual orientation is a piece of the puzzle. Adolescents need to know that it is acceptable to be confused about who they are. To be unsure whether they are gay or straight is part of a natural process through which a persons reality is established. Time is the key element; rushing is not necessary.

Adolescents must also know that they are not alone in their process of self-realization. There are tens of thousands of other teenagers attempting to process and deal with the masses of information and conflicting instructions on what roles they must fill, as well. Each wondering if they are gay, bisexual, lesbian, or straight. Each is trying to find someone who can relate to their issues and struggles. A great relief could be shared among adolescents if they were able to view their own generation as a reciprocating resource.

Hundreds of thousands of people have traveled the same road before today's adolescents. It is the adults in our society who have the ability to instigate change for the next generations. Young people have a need for validation and unconditional acceptance at this time in their lives more than any other. It is necessary for the confusion of adolescence to be minimized. Those who have preceded today's youth must take responsibility in understanding the complex aspects of their dizzying environment. To help them is to help ourselves and the well being of all those who will follow. When our adolescents ask questions we must answer and let them learn; we must tell them, be yourself!

Ryan L. Sievers, 18, is a freshman at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Sievers can be reached online at ryguy@iastate.edu.
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