By Rodney Allen Bell
Growing up gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered for a teenager in the Midwest can be as lonely as being surrounded by a forest with no way to see out of the trees. Imagine you are young and questioning who you are. You are a stranger in your own family, your own church, your own school and at times in your own mind. You don't know who you can trust. You feel isolated, confused, depressed and at times suicidal. Times, it's true, are changing. How far have we come and how far do we have to go to effectively prevent teenage suicide among gay/lesbian/bi/trans teens? What is needed? What is it like growing up as a teenager who is questioning their sexual identity?
Jack, (not his real name), began questioning whether or not he was gay at 14 when he had a sexual encounter with his stepfather's brother. He wasn't sure what that experience was, but he knew he was different. He eventually heard some local people talk about where the queers went to meet at some local parks. Jack was labeled a queer in his family because he had some early experiences with his cousins. Jack began to explore his sexuality through the cruising of parks and eventually figured it all out fully when he began college in Nebraska.
Sue, (pseudonym), came from a small community in a small state to a large university. There she found a support group for gay/lesbian people and began to get involved. She had known that she was lesbian for a few years and had experienced some parental acceptance along the way. Sue became very involved in the local campus group and even posted some posters in her dorm windows about "Being Gay is OK". She became identified as a "dyke" by some of the other members of the dormitory. Sue gradually became more and more involved in the campus group. She helped hand out condoms during an AIDS Awareness Day, did some graphic design for the group and along the way she seemed to be happy. Sue was one of the lucky ones who grew to feel good about herself, her talents and her sexuality. Sue has gone on now to become a Graphic Designer in Minnesota and has had at least one very successful lesbian love relationship.
John, (another fake name), grew up in an alcoholic family and in a small town. His father was physically abusive towards him and his mother couldn't handle his behavior. He went from foster home to foster home and institution to institution. John had some sexual experiences with his other brothers along the way and also with other men. John often visited the cruise areas of the local parks. As John became more involved in drugs and crime, his life became more problematic. He discussed his sexuality one day with his older brother who was openly gay and finally admitted that he was at least "bisexual". Some time after that, John just couldn't deal with the pressures of not fitting in in this world with an abusive stepfather, possibly his sexuality and being misunderstood, so he hung himself in a city jail. His family was very shocked.
Jerry, (pseudonym), came from a regular city to go to the major university. He eventually developed the courage to go to a campus gay/lesbian group and became a regular member. According to Jerry, he had never had a sexual experience, but he always has known that he has been gay. On a special outing for the gay/lesbian student group to a lake, Jerry and Roger (Pseudonym) develop a strong attachment and develop a relationship that carries them into love and far away from the local university to San Francisco. Jerry became comfortable with his sexuality unlike many gay teens.
Jude, (fake name), came to a local gay group and identified with a gay couple that he got to know. He was attempting to feel comfortable with himself, but was having a very hard time. He eventually got a gay roommate and seemed to be doing all right. The gay couple assumed he was O.K. Then one day, the couple were notified that Jude had left a suicide note about not handling being gay and had asphyxiated himself with a car in the garage. Jude never came to acceptance of who he was. He's now with the angels.
The scenarios that I've just written are based upon facts and encounters in my life as a gay teenager and as a gay activist helping youth through my work in a University organization, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Gay/Lesbian Student Association. None of the dynamics have changed much today from many years ago to now. I have seen successes and I have seen some tragedies along the way.
There will be successes and there will be tragedies no matter what we do, but the solution is to do something to be proactive. Gay/lesbian/bi/trans youth need many things including: 1) an understanding of the coming out process (homosexual identity formation), 2) support groups of peers [at the high school and at the college levels], 3) good role models who are gay/lesbian, 4) access to publications for information, 5) access to the Internet to keep in contact when feeling isolated and 6) acceptance by their parents, peers and significant others of their sexuality.
Teens get so many mixed messages from their peer group, society, parents, religion, school and the media. On the one hand, they are not supposed to be sexual and on the other hand, they are physiologically and hormonally at their peak. Boys are especially at their peak. We have made some great strides in some schools where sexual education is in the curriculum and in other schools this is not the case. Can you imagine going to the library and finding that the books that you wanted to look at about homosexuality are kept by the librarian locked up and you have to ask for them? This was what happened to me as a teenager. Talk about a discouragement.
As a society, we need to be more concerned about our youth. They are our future. They deserve and need the loving and encouragement that we, as adults, can give them. Whether we are accused of "recruiting them into the homosexual lifestyle" or not is irrelevant. They still need adults to tell them that it's O.K. to be "queer". Professionals who do not counsel youth with nonjudgmentalness should be removed from their positions. Parents should be required by law to attend parenting classes before becoming parents or in the process or becoming parents. [This is one of my radical ideas] Moralists who condemn "queer people" ought to take a look at what they're doing. It is immoral to judge what you don't understand, it's immoral for a young person who is questioning their sexual identity to feel hated, disgraced and denigrated to the point of killing themselves and it's immoral that those who are calling gays sinners are sinners themselves who are no better ( We are all the same in God's eyes).
The end result of a healthy gay identity is what some psychologists call "identity synthesis" or "acceptance of being gay". This means that the gay/lesbian person is comfortable being who they are no matter where they are and comfortable within themselves. This should be the goal of every developing "queer person". It can be achieved. Just think about this as a final thought: "What if there was more love in this world and we could all feel accepted?"
Note: This editorial is strictly my opinion. The scenarios described are based upon fact, are real people and the names have been changed to protect their identities.