There’s a really wonderful article in the NYT magazine this week about queer teenagers and how cultural changes have made it safer (in many but not all areas of the US) to come out in middle school. The gist of the article is that the increased visibility of queer people in the culture at large has made it easier for kids to identify and articulate their own sexual identities, and it makes their peers more likely to accept them. Overall, despite the fact that anti-gay bullying is still widespread, many middle schools have become less like sex-and-gender torture systems and more like safe spaces. I cannot even tell you how delighted I am to hear this.
The angle I want to discuss here is not just about happy gay kids (though it cannot be repeated enough: happy gay kids! omg!), but about a word that never appears in the article but which underlies the whole thing: normativity. In this article specifically, the main cultural shift appears to be a weaking of heteronormativity. Kids these days know there are people who are not straight, and that those people aren’t doomed to lovelessness or criminality. Part of how they know this is because of pop culture, and part is this here series of tubes we’re all on. Take the case of a 12-year-old bi girl named Kera:
Kera says she was 10 when she realized she was interested in both sexes. “It was confusing for a while, because for some reason I thought that you had to be straight or gay, and that you couldn’t be both,” she told me at the coffee shop. “So I thought about it a lot, like I do about everything, and I went online and looked up bisexuality to read more about it. I realized that was me.”
This story, in its very simplicity, just about kills me, because I was Kera as a teen. My diaries from elementary school are filled with “I love so-and-so” hearts with both boys’ and girls’ names in them; my middle school days were spent furtively staring at both the widening shoulders of boys and the widening hips of girls. But I had no word for it back then, and I didn’t have Professor Google, so I just felt… well, weird. The first time I heard the word “bisexual” used in a casual way (as in, not as an insult or in a tone of disgust), it was electrifying. It was like something woke up inside of me; something in myself stood in recognition. I was 15, and a lot of my friends were dating, but I wasn’t — I was too busy having super-intense friendships with sexual tension that couldn’t be talked about because I was too busy trying to wish it away. I literally cannot imagine how different my adolescence would have been if I, like Kera, could have just looked it up and found other people like me.
The adults featured in this article are not, generally, as quick to accept this less heteronormative world as their kids are. Many of them doubt their queer children, wondering how they can possibly “know” when they’re so young, or before they’re sexually active. As the author points out, straight kids are not doubted when they have sexual or romantic feelings at the same age; many of them, in fact, are encouraged. Kera is lucky to have a mom who sees right through the fog of heteronormativity to accept what her daughter tells her:
“My first reaction to the poem [in which Kera came out], which she slipped under my bedroom door before going to hide in her room, was that she seemed really worked up about this,” her mother recalled. “But I knew I was interested in boys when I was her age, so it didn’t strike me as unusual that Kera might know she’s interested in boys and girls, put two and two together and call herself bisexual. Kids just know what those words mean a lot earlier than when I was growing up.”
You rock, Kera’s mom! Kera’s mom has passed Empathy and Cultural Diversity 101: she thinks of herself and her own experiences, compares them to her daughter’s, and acknowledges that while different, they are just variations in standard human behavior. Kera’s mom had crushes and sexual fantasies as a teenager, so she gets that Kera does, too — and she knows that if she definitely liked boys, it makes sense that her daughter would be definite about who she likes too, even if it’s different from her own desires.
Kera’s mom,* could you please adopt every queer kid in the country? Kthx!
I know this is my week for tortured analogies here, but I think that there’s something to be said for FA here, too. When we depathologize states of being that are considered abnormal, we can reveal the normative structures that propped up our pathologizing in the first place. When we accept that the categories we’re accustomed to are not best described as X and not-X (straight and not straight, thin and not-thin, etc.) but as X and Y and probably Z too, we see that X was only considered “normal” because it was important to people who are X to view it that way. When we look from a standpoint of celebrating human diversity, it seems bizarre to think of Z as abnormal or the “opposite” of X: Z is its own way of being. Thin people and straight people aren’t required to explain away their bodies and desires; they’re not asked “How do you know you’re straight?” or “Have you ever thought about trying not to be thin?” Social justice movements aren’t simply trying to flip things around and make it so that those questions do get asked of “normal” people, too; they’re trying to get rid of these demeaning, eliminationist questions in the first place.
And for some lucky kids and their cool friends and understanding teachers and awesome moms, that seems to be working.
*Or, as I probably would have called her when I was 12, Mrs Kera.