By Aimee Velle
But to the gay teenager, sexual preference is nothing to jest about. Because of society's misinformed and judgmental opinions about homosexuality, the gay teenager meets many trials. Those who come "out" about their sexual preference are mocked, ignored, or at the worst, abused. Those who remain secretive about their sexual preference encounter conflicting emotions and fear of being 'figured out'. Both situations can end tragically as the gay teenager refuses to accept him/herself, or is not accepted by others.
Being a gay teenager in today's society is difficult because of the conflicting messages the teen receives from what society dictates. Tragic circumstances often develop for the gay teen as a result of a misinformed society that ridicules, shuns, often ignores, or rejects them.
Much of the harsh judgement homosexuals receive is a result of a society that is ignorant, or misinformed. People aren't exactly certain just how many homosexuals are out there, or where to find them. To society, the gay male is the small, slim little artist or actor who trots around flapping his wrists and lisping 'sweetie' to everyone. And the lesbian is a big, butch female in a checkered shirt and work boots who could easily be mistaken for a man. People associate gay people almost exclusively with living in large metropolitan cities, such as New York or San Francisco, which has a rather large population of gay men. But in actual fact, there are gay people in all walks of life, in all professions, and live everywhere from little towns to the aforementioned metropolitans. Likewise, homosexual teenagers are found in all schools across the country, throughout the world.
But just how many teenagers are gay? Experts estimate that, on average, one in every seven adult males are gay, and one in every thirteen adult females are lesbian. This averages out to about one in ten people who are predominately homosexual. The statistic for teenagers is likely similar, but this is hard to decipher because there are many gay teenagers who refuse to accept their sexual orientation.
According to the !Out Proud! Internet Survey, a survey for gay teenagers conducted by Oasis Magazine with results published March 3rd, 1998, the typical respondent realized they were gay at the age of 12, but it took them three more years to accept this fact. The average homosexual teenager came "out" at the age of 16, and 75% of gay and lesbian teenagers have come out to at least one person, usually a close friend.
The typical respondent reported having their first gay sexual experience at the age of 14, and more than half of the respondents want to marry someone of the same gender and have children in the future.
With the odds being one in ten, being gay is not as rare as most people think. And for every person that is openly gay, there is probably about two or three people that are homosexual and are hiding out of fear or lack of confidence.
Because of society's lack of knowledge about homosexuality, the consensus attitude is if "queers" are good for nothing else, they are good for a laugh. We see mockery of gays all the time: daytime talk shows, comedy movies, sitcoms... all of these generically display their gay characters as they aforementioned stereotyped homosexuals. The male stereotype is particularly harsh. It can be argued that eventually, especially in this decade, gays and lesbians have been portrayed more sensitively on TV and in the movies. But this is the exception, when this is generally not the rule.
As much as we laugh at gays in the media, the reality of homosexuality really hits home for some families, friends, schools, and communities. And when the issue does come to light, people resort to harsh and tragic attitudes when dealing with the gay teenager. When a teenager is openly gay, he/she often receives abuse ranging from taunting to physical cruelty from their peers. The gay teenager is shunned by friends and especially their families, and are often considered an "embarrassment" to the family. The shunned gay teenager must find some way to cope with this rejection, and normally the results of this coping are unfortunately tragic.
An estimated 40% of homeless or "street" kids are lesbian or gay. Compare this to the approximated 10% of teenagers that are gay. This overwhelming number are gay youth that have either run away or been kicked out of their homes. Many of these teenagers get involved in prostitution or other abusive behaviors as a way of surviving. Studies show that gay and lesbian teens are two times more likely to drop out of school due to harassment, lack of self-esteem, or fear. Also, over 25% of gay and lesbian youth have severe drug or alcohol problems.
Emotional and physical abuse that the gay teenager receives at school is cruel and brutal evidence of our society's ignorance and lack of tolerance to our gay teenagers. A recent such case in Corvallis, Oregon consisted of three teenage boys beating up Paul Miller, an openly gay 17-year old who ran the Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school. The Columbian newspaper reports that Paul was walking home from school on Monday, February 2nd, 1998 when four boys began following him and yelling taunts. When Miller responded, a boy slugged him in the mouth, knocking out two of his teeth. Miller also reported that two adults walked by as the name-calling and assault was taking place and did nothing.
We often hear of tough guys bragging about "beating up the faggot" that "came on" to them at a bar or party on the weekend. But in truth, who is the real victim: the guy who was never touched, or the supposed "queer" who got his head bashed in?
Some effort is being made to support and help gay and lesbian kids. In larger cities, support groups and hotlines for homosexual teenagers are offered, and some groups are national, such as on called PFLAG, or Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays. Recently, in September 1998 at the University of Ottawa, a group called "Rainbow Friends" has been founded. "Rainbow Friends" is a support group for lesbians, gays, their friends and families, and meetings center around open discussion. Many schools are promoting "tolerance" to lesbian and gay teenagers, which is almost a step backwards, because tolerance isn't nearly as effective or comforting to the gay teenager as promoting or gaining "acceptance".
Many teenagers, gay and straight alike, testify that their religion is a major part of their life. Whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, religion helps shape and define moral values and ethics that might otherwise be eroded by a morally corrupt society. When the gay teenager comes out, he/she faces rejection from family, friends, peers, and society. But what about when they turn to their religion and find that it has rejected them, too?
Many religions condemn homosexuality as a sin. One of the most predominant religions that condemns homosexuality as a sin is Christianity. Recently, the Roman-Catholic church has been one of the strongest and most effective components of laws that extend civil-rights protection to homosexuals.
Bible scholars often condemn homosexuality using verses from the Bible such as this one, Leviticus 20:13, which states "If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them." This commandment comes from a list of sins punishable by death from Leviticus. This list also includes disobedience to your parents.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-29) is another story brought up in condemnations of homosexuals. Bible scholars state that Sodom and Gomorrah were two paganist cities that were destroyed by God because of their active homosexual community. But the references to homosexual activity within this Bible passage points to rape, or homosexual violation that was unconsenting. And, straight and gay alike, rape is definitely a sin, but not necessary homosexuality.
The Mormon church also strongly opposes homosexuality, saying that it is something that is "curable" with sufficient aid and "self-will". Spencer W. Kimball, the leader of the Mormon church until his death, use this quote in his writings of homosexuality: "The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself in all things most shameful and vile."
Ironically, this quote comes from the Greek Philosopher Plato, who celebrated homosexual love as beautiful and fulfilling in his writings. Many religious leaders consider teenage homosexuality a "phase" that is curable with time. Mormon churches often send the gay teens of their congregation to Mormon social service agencies to be "cured".
In practice, this simply doesn't work. It is estimated that there are a half-dozen gay bars in Salt Lake City, U.S., which has a large Mormon community, that are dominated primarily by Mormon men whom are married and have children. These men have been forced to hide themselves because of something as natural and unchangeable as their sexual orientation. Although modern religious groups largely reject them, gays and lesbian remain religious. There are gay churches. The largest in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, begun in 1968. The Universal Fellowship has about two hundred churches throughout the world, and about 30,000 members. Also Dignity, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics and their supporters, has been active in opposing the Catholic churches' plight against homosexuality, which the Catholics regard as a "moral disorder".
Gay and lesbian teenagers, like all teenagers, search for identity during their teen years. Many teens, gay and straight alike, say that religion play a major part in their lives and helps shape their moral identity. By ex-communicating gays and lesbians from their church and condemning them, the church is sending an obvious message of unacceptance to gay and lesbian teenagers. Without the moral guidance and stability of religion in the teenage years, the gay teenager could possibly end up corrupted and more likely to live an adult lifestyle that is harmful to themselves. Gay teenagers should receive support and solace from their religion, but are instead being condemned and rejected, less to fend for themselves in an less-than-sympathetic world.
For the teenager, the pressures of simply obtaining an identity and "finding" oneself are sometimes overwhelming. Obviously, the particularly harsh circumstances that the teenager encounters can lead to deep depression and despair. This despair can lead the teenager to take fatal and tragic actions, namely, to take their own life. But recently, the fact has been brought to light pertaining to the alarming number of gay and lesbian teenagers who are attempting and committing suicide.
Experts estimate that gay and lesbian teenagers attempt suicide three times more often than their heterosexual peers. The Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth reported in 1991 that of their clients in New York City, which consists of 1000+ clients per year, 21% of them have attempted suicide before the age of 20. The incidence of suicide attempts among gay males is reported to be between 18% and 20%. Clearly, these estimates represent more than the occasional youth.
Reasons for the alarming suicide rate among gay and lesbian teens are many and difficult to decipher exactly. Ostracism from peers, friends, and family is often a factor in the gay teenager feeling unhappy and unaccepted. Because peculiarity breeds contempt, the gay teenager often suffers from verbal insults, threats. Gay teenagers often feel that they have no one to turn to that will help and accept them. In smaller, isolated communities, support and counseling for gay teens is difficult, if impossible, to obtain. Gay teens often feel rejection and despair, and often feel that there is no other way out.
Counseling is provided for depressed and suicidal gay teens, but only so many can be helped. Many more gay and lesbian teenagers will tragically take their lives in despair, as a result of a society that simply refuses to accept them. Gay and lesbian suicide will never be completely preventable as long as there are people in society and in the teens' lives that hurt, ridicule, or reject them.
Gay teenagers encounter many difficulties in confronting and dealing with their sexuality. They are ostracized, ridiculed by peers, rejected by their family, friends, and religion, and generally confused and disoriented about a world that refuses to accept them. Sexuality is just one factor of what makes a complete human being. When someone is known to be gay, almost immediately they are not thought of as an entire human being anymore, but are branded as a "lesbian" or a "homosexual".
Stereotyping ensues, and the gay teenager is rejected and left to fend for him/herself. Tragically, many gay teens will drop out of school, run away from home, attempt or commit suicide. Misinformed gay teens will end up leading adult lifestyles that are harmful, which could include being infected with STDs such as AIDS, which can kill them.
In all reality, being gay or lesbian should not make the teen feel "different" from their peers. Rather, their sexuality should be accepted and loved as a part of what makes the gay teen a diverse person, valuable to themselves, their family, friends, and society. Accepting and valuing the gay teenager is the first step to ensuring harmony and an end of rejection to the gay teen. Homophobia should no longer been an "acceptable prejudice". The gay teen should feel safe, secure, and a valuable part of their world, and feel safe to explore all the aspects of their teen years, including their sexuality. Accepting and including gay teenagers in our world will make our society all the more diverse and harmonious. But first we have to accept.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: I'm Aimee Velle and live in a small city in Chatham, ON, Canada. I am 16 years old and am in grade 11. I take voice and piano lessons, and enjoy reading and creative writing in my spare time. I hope to become a professional singer. I used to be uninformed about teenage homosexuality, until a few good friends opened my eyes. I want to thank my friends Pablo and Jeff for inspiring the above speech.