These days, young LGBTs are coming out much earlier. So how is our changing world impacting the nature of identity, coming out to family, and fitting into school environments?
Below, youth support network Twenty10’s Senior Counsellor Ross Jacobs explores the world of the modern young queer.
There’s an interesting trend happening when it comes to people understanding their own sexual orientation and gender identity. While there have always been pioneers, outliers and particular reasons each of us get around to coming out at one time in our lives or another, the amount of young people coming out in their early teens is becoming an avalanche.
According to the US-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the average age for people to come out in the 90’s was between 19-23, and in 2003 the typical bracket was 16-21. And that data was collected over a decade ago.
As someone who works at a service that works with people aged 12-25, it’s amazing amazing AMAZING that from time to time even our lower age boundaries are being pushed. But it does raise some really important issues.
I think the most important change to consider is the profound impact that social media and new technologies are having on the lives of young people. I know in my own life, things like Facebook and Reddit play an increasingly important role in the ways I interact with people and gather information. But to grow up within such an ever-changing landscape of interconnectivity is different again. I’m often schooled by young people in the ways of global communities and I’m always stunned by the sheer amount of peer-support and information sharing that goes on from one part of the globe to another in an almost continual stream in young people’s lives.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Coming to terms with your difference is no longer something you discover about yourself in a void of information – it’s rare, now, to encounter a young client who says that they thought they were the ‘only gay in the village’. Today it’s a global village, and being something other than hetero is now just another trait to be shared, celebrated, picked on, laughed at or empathized with. Not that it is easy – it’s still often a cause of incredible turmoil – but sexuality or gender diversity is just not as SHOCKING as it once was. A 13-year-old is now just as likely to say ‘meh’ as make a fag joke when a peer discloses their own sexuality or gender. The realms in which coming out is possible is just not as demarcated as it was for me when I was a teenager. Many of us can relate to delaying our sexual exploration until we were out of high school or until we’d developed a level of financial independence from family – but this is becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Clearly, support and understanding is profoundly life impacting for people still understanding themselves through the lens of adolescence or even childhood, and sometimes we established members of the community are the best placed to give this support. If you’re a member of the queer community, and have been asked about sexuality online or in RL (‘Real Life’) it’s important that you don’t freak out and leap to the assumption that this young person is too young to be talking about identity!
Paradoxically, the worst thing that you can do with a young person is treat them like a child – in fact, young people can have very sophisticated ideas of identity. Be very careful with assumptions and labels – ‘you’re either gay or you’re straight’ is potentially outdated. It’s emerging that younger people are far more open to the idea of a fluid sexuality than we in the community are used to.
But at the same time remember that open identities does not mean a free-wheeling approach to sex – teens are not yet equipped with adult concepts like privacy protection and discretion (mind you, many of we so called ‘adults’ are not yet, either). And given the sexual nature of many queer-focused social networking sites, this discretion is critical to more than control of conversation, it’s also about control of pictures of the young people’s own bodies.
One thing I learned early as a gay man working in the gay community was to keep my interactions – particularly online – as discreet as possible for fear of messy messy boundaries leaping out at me when I least expected. It’s adult learning that some young people just don’t have an ability to predict. Remember this when interacting with young people in an online environment – what it is to be young has been forever changed by new technologies.
It’s true that some of our stories will be similar and some will be vastly different from young people we encounter. But don’t forget that there is still a certain amount of overlap in which you can help no matter how much common experience. Talk about trusting your own feelings, how self-discovery can be really hard for some and really easy for others, and find them someone professional to talk to if it feels like the young ’un could use some more assistance. Perhaps somewhere like Twenty10? :-)