High five a gay kid today

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.

86 thoughts on “High five a gay kid today

  1. I consider myself fortunate that I didn’t grow up thinking that being gay was wrong. My church told me that it was, but I had doubts about Christianity from age 8 on, so that didn’t “take”. I’m fortunate enough to have a much older cousin who is openly gay and who always brought his boyfriends to family functions. When I was 5 or 6, I realized that he was DATING those guys, and then figured that it was normal, even when other people tried to tell me that it wasn’t.

    My SO and I always talk about eventually fostering gay teens whose parents have kicked them out or abused them. Hopefully, we’ll be in a position to do that in a few yearts.

  2. I remember the first time I heard the word bisexual, and it was at summer camp with a bunch of bitchy christian girls giggling and talking about how disgusting it was. Not entirely a positive experience.

    I now realize that since I hated all those girls anyway for being stupid and superficial I shouldn’t have cared what they thought of anyone’s sexuality at the time.

  3. *This* makes me tear up. I was a basically clueless and unhappy kid, who didn’t know any out gay people (or so I thought). I, too, had the super-intense friendship thing happening, except we were also all very super-intensely fundamentalist, and it was awful.
    My parents divorced, and my mom eventually came out, and it was a total WTF moment for me. (It should have been *totally obvious*, looking back – I mean, my mom was “roommates” with a beautiful liberal Jewish bookseller from New York who also did work with a women-only gym and had books like “Oranges aren’t the only fruit” and incense and artsy female nudes sitting around, and not to stereotype, but some of that might have given me a clue if I was the least bit clued into liberal/queer culture, but I was *very* insulated. And sort of dumb to those kinds of cues. And also, not prone to thinking about parents having a sex life.)

    I totally wish I had had out peers and role models, since I think it would have helped with my own identity, and to cope with my mom’s coming out. I could have handled it worse, but I was not nearly as gracious as Kera’s mom. I think my response was basically “Uh, really? Oh. OH. Oh . . .” Looking back, I really wish I’d been in a place to be more supportive, and I hope that begins to come forward along with the cultural shift – that it’s not such a weird experience when someone comes out to you, because you know other out people (even if it’s only TV people).

    And I really wish it had been accessible to my mom, who might have led a much much happier life if she’d had some cultural assistance.

    Happy gay kids. Wow. That rocks on so many levels.

  4. I came out as bi during my senior year of high school in the late 80s.

    Ten years later, as an older grad student, another friend of mine who was also an older grad student went to a queer leadership conference, she was stunned as she listened to all these 18 and 19 year olds talk about how well their communities had taken their coming out.

    She and I commiserated over beers, and shared the opinion that we were so grateful that things were getting easier most places, it still sucked that we’d had to go through the death threats, beatings, getting our cars keyed, etc… and were a touch jealous. Ok, more than a touch.

  5. I just came in here to *squee!!!* a bit. Love, love, love this post. Yay to Kera and her mom. And hello, “Have you ever thought about trying not to be thin?” Are you kidding me? That’s brilliant!

  6. I came out at 17, in high school, in 1994. This was pre-Ellen, and things were just different then. I noticed that when Ellen came out, it shifted something in our culture, and the people I know who came out even a few years after me had wildly different experiences. They talked about gay-straight alliances at their high schools, I talked about getting harassed at mine. Media does influence culture. I watched “Glee” last night, and was thrilled to see a coming out story. It makes a difference, it really does.

  7. I’m not gay, but I knew some gay kids when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Some of them waited until they were well into adulthood to admit, even to THEMSELVES, what they were. I compare that to my 23-year-old roommate, who knew when he was 4 or 5, and for whom being gay was not a big deal growing up — it was just another fact of life, like some kids have brown hair and others don’t.

  8. My high school experience, as a straight girl who had a lot of gay friends, both in and out of the closet:

    There was such a sea change even between my senior year in 2002 and the class after me. No one in my grade was openly out to anyone except other gay teens or their closest straight friends, and that was true of the grades who graduated before me as well. But when I went back to visit the summer after my first year of college, there had been a population explosion of out gay teens at the high school. I’m not surprised that younger and younger teens are finding the courage and the language to express their feelings – they have more role models both on TV and in their lives.

  9. In the late ’80s I was voted “most likely to join the Peace Corps” which in my high school was definitely code for “dyke”. It wasn’t a safe place to be queer and none of my classmates were out. 5 years later I went back to my high school to lead Project 10 programs after school for the queer kids (plural) that were coming out of the woodwork and all of their many straight allies and questioning kids. Since then, I’ve gone back once and on a bunch of classroom doors, teachers have put rainbow stickers from GLSEN that proclaim that classroom is a safe space. I love how much things have changed. What a world. And now, I go back to work on all the things that we haven’t quite figured out yet…

  10. Everytime I read articles like this, it reminds me that I need to be more out, so that kids who don’t have a mom like Kera’s have an adult that they know as out, and so that adults who do have a kid like Kera have a context for normalizing queer identity.

  11. Blub.

    Tangentially, I found myself wondering how the groups who campaigned for the Equal Access Act feel about it now that it’s keeping them from blocking G.S.A.s at their local schools. :D

  12. I knew I was bi by the same age, although I didn’t come out to my parents until more than a decade later (and they weren’t exactly supportive or understanding). But I love the fact that my 12yo is now seriously pondering the question of whether she’s queer or not, because in our family and social networks queer is just another variation on how folks are, and she’s mingled with a circle of families since she was born without anyone making a big deal about the fact that some of the pairings are same-gender. I also love that she’s so politicised about LGBT rights. I don’t think I had any political context for queerness when I was 12, I just knew that who I loved didn’t have boundaries based on their genital configurations, and I couldn’t see why other people thought that was a big deal. I just knew it was somehow icky, and a possibly dangerous thing to admit to. I’m glad that seems to be changing for many kids.

  13. This is a great thing indeed. I think as more kids (and parents) become more comfortable with the idea of bi/homosexuality as just another way to be and not something taboo, it’ll take a lot of additional taboo away from sex in general. I think regardless of orientation, there are a lot of kids who are made to feel extremely confused and ashamed of sexual thoughts they may be having, which is only compounded by certain other external factors (abstinence-only sex education and rape culture, I’m looking at you). I think many parents mean well, but it’s also bizarre for them to imagine their children as sexual beings in their own right, so they feel the need to shut out any inkling of sexual curiosity their children express. When all sexual matter is dealt with sensitively, and adults are able to come to terms with it such that the “wrongness” of certain things is eliminated, and children are shown that it truly is all right for them to be who they know they are, I think we’ll start to see a lot more collective happiness around all sexuality, and not so much use of it as a commodity or a means of violence.

    At least I hope.

  14. I am definitely late enough that when I came out in high school, at 16, most of the people I knew didn’t blink. We had a Gay-Straight Alliance at my school, and both my best friends seemed okay with it (one later stopped being my friend because I “hugged her too much”). But, to be fair, I was heavily in the musical/theater/choir sect of high school, so it’s not like homosexuality was unheard of there, even if it wasn’t usually about the women. Plus my high school was very liberal (Chapel Hill, NC), so we were probably a little ahead of the rest of the state.

    My parents were a different story. My mother, bless her, is one of the most accepting and loving people ever, although still unable in a lot of ways to overcome certain generational things. She took my coming out relatively well, saying that she wouldn’t wish it because she knew it would make my life harder, but that she loves me all the same. My father went on a tirade about how I was too young to know what I actually wanted and that I’d never even dated, so there was no way I could possibly understand what I was saying. Apparently, no one has sexual urges until they’ve gone on dates. ~.o

    I think the really eye opening, turning point for me was when I got into writing fanfiction. Anime was my first exposure to queerness in movies and books, and when I went to find fanfiction about those series, there was some pretty interesting stuff. Most of it was centered on men, of course, but even back then there were some stories about lesbians in anime, and not all of them written by men. I realized that half the reason I liked watching certain anime was because of the cute girls as much as the pretty boys.

    I felt sort of fake when I told my coming out story in college, as the other people (some older, some my age but from more rural parts of NC) had much more dramatic and heart-breaking ones. Part of me actually regretted that I’d had it so easy, because I didn’t realize that it was a good thing at the time. Right then, it just seemed like something that made it harder for me to bond with the only other queer people at my college.

  15. HiddenTohru, I went to high school (or, part of high school) in Cary in the ’90s, and it was a different story: I was the only out kid that I knew of, and while some people were totally cool with it (although often in an exoticizing way), people regularly read Bibles at me, threw shit at me, and made fun of me. I’m so glad that you had a different experience in Chapel Hill.

  16. Lucy, totally. The less heteronormative our culture becomes, the more the traditional binary that equates women’s value to their sexual appeal to the male of the species will weaken, thus doing great things for gender equality, body acceptance and FA. Yay! I think that any time a society changes to fully accept a previously-marginalized group, it’s not just that group that benefits. Everyone gets greater dignity and freedom, irrespective of gender or sexuality.

    I hope and pray that my grandkids read about Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and respond with the same horror and disbelief that I did when I saw Cary Grant knock down Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story. Then I can gently explain that in Granny’s growing-up years, the idea of a televised competition in which women vied to marry an unknown man for his money was considered merely tacky, not unthinkable.

  17. This made me smile.

    I’m on the “very much hetero” end of the sexuality spectrum, but I remember my mom telling me as a teenager that she’d love me just the same if I were lesbian…but she’d be sad at how much harder it might make my life. There are three female cousins on my mom’s side and mom is the only one partnered with a man, so she saw what they went through as younger women.

    A few of my friends in high school were bisexual – one had no problem from her parents; the other barely spoke to her father for years. There were no major problems with anyone in school that I know of, though. Of course, I was in high school only 5-10 years ago.

  18. I had one of those”normativity” moments today around fatness — so thanks for tying this in, SM, as I was talking with someone about employee health. He was really concerned about “obesity” in employees, but also kind of knew that he needed to address it with sensitivity, and I encouraged thinking about improving health, not trying to get people to weigh less. I could see some gears turning. I could see he understood that some people are just going to be fatter than others, and that it wasn’t his job to make them thin, but he was troubled by the “tons [he realized the pun but wasn’t making it intentionally] of obese people” in his company.

  19. … as I probably would have called her when I was 12, Mrs Kera.

    I’d been embarrassed that I could never remember the names of our neighbors and so kept referring to them – in private – as Mr & Mrs Ruffles, after their basset hound. A few weeks ago Mr Ruffles called me Bertie’s Mom, though, so I reckon it’s cool.

    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.

    THIS.

  20. 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

    AAAAH THIS IS ME.

    Back to comment more usefully later.

  21. This article is awesome. Totally worth the length. I’m forwarding on to my friends, gay and straight (or, more likely, posting to Facebook and seeing who replies)

  22. Hee hee! What an awesome, open-minded Mom, and I agree that what makes her so awesome is that she can think outside of her own experiences.

    Wanted to add another facet to this discussion, sorry for the length – I find female adolescence really interesting, so over the years I’ve talked to a lot of peers about their younger years, including their sexuality. One thing I’ve found is that for many people, sexuality is so muddled up with a lot of other social issues that it can take many, many years to sort out the underlying desires. People who don’t fall into the regular heteronormative pattern are always, always mentally pressured to be straight (directly or indirectly). The much more benign opposite kinda happens, too, if you’re in a more sexually open environment…they did that study (don’t remember the name so I can’t look it up) that showed heterosexual women could get turned on by seeing sexual pictures/acts including men, women, and even animals, whereas heterosexual men were more drawn specifically to the sexual pictures/acts of women. I know quite a few girls growing up who thought they were gay because, well, they liked seeing sexual acts (in porn or whatever), and because of the Male Gaze, most of the available sexual media put focus on the body of the woman, so they thought, “I guess I’m attracted to girls?” But then they got older and were able to sort through the layers of media messages that spread “girls = sex,” and realized they were straight, they just liked watching heterosexual sex and never saw boys sexualized on TV the way girls were. My peers and I grew up in the 90s in a very open-minded, liberal town, so issues of sexuality were brought up when we were relatively young and framed in a neutral light, which is probably why these girls were comfortable enough to examine their sexuality that carefully in the first place.

    And this goes beyond just simple gender attraction, too – young girls who are turned on by rape, young girls who are turned on by violence, young girls who are turned on by family members. These can be twisted sexual desires that are shaped by something negative like abuse, or, in neutral cases, were shaped by particular experiences (walking in on your parents having sex) or are the manifestations of early kinks (dominance/power plays) that the young girl can’t recognize yet. Talking openly about sex at a relatively young age can, potentially, help these girls work these sexual issues out healthily, but it can also pressure them to “own” the sexuality they’re still working out, and if they think their sexuality tells them they should look for dangerous men since they like dominance in the bedroom…well, it’s hard for a teenage girl to be able to differentiate what she wants in the bedroom from what she wants in the rest of a sexual relationship.

    I think we need to walk a fine line when teaching our kids and teenagers about sexuality. I think talk is very good, and that includes covering the broader spectrum of sexuality than “husband puts penis in wife’s vagina and baby comes out 9 months later.” But I also think that we shouldn’t expect (or necessarily encourage) that teenagers “own” that sexuality yet, and I think we should also tell them that being confused is okay and normal. I know a lot of teenage girls who resented that their parents and grandparents were pressuring them into (heterosexual) relationships, even things as “innocent” as taking that nice boy down the street to the dance. That’s not just heteronormative pressure, that’s GENERAL sexual pressure, and many of these girls had decided to put off sexual relationships for the express reason that they didn’t know what they wanted yet.

    In summary, I really, really like that Kera’s mom waited until Kera herself had sorted out her feelings and gone to her mom about them, and THEN Kera’s mom had talked to her about how her being bisexual was possible, and that it wasn’t something she needed to be ashamed of. I think that’s one of the best possible routes for Kera to explore her true sexual feelings in a positive way. No one telling her what she is or isn’t, no one telling her one way is wrong and one way is right. I think ignoring teenage sexuality is naiive, but I think assuming teenage sexuality is fully formed is off the mark, too, so I’m behind education, an open mind, and open communication without judgments or assumptions. Kera’s mom is a great model for that.

  23. I remember one of the kids at a “Growing Up Queer in Fandom and Society” panel at a local science fiction & fantasy convention that my son participated in. She said, “We don’t understand why you adults make such a big deal out of it. It’s not a big deal to us.”

    For people of my generation, that statement may seem impossible, but spending time with my son’s friends has shown me that, yeah, here, it’s often not for these kids. They consider sexuality, as well as gender, to be a much more fluid concept than most adults that I’ve met could even understand. It’s amazing and beautiful.

  24. Wow. Stories like this make me teary. When I came out to my mom three years ago, her response was pretty much the “how can you know” rigamarole. Granted, she eventually came around, but it was rather painful in the meantime.

  25. Can I just say a very heartfelt thank you to all the people who have come before us, who have made even the IDEA of ‘happy queer kids’ possible? There’s such a long way to go, so huzzah for all of us fighting now, too, but it’s so good to acknowledge how far we’ve come.

  26. There’s a lot of good to be said about the article, but I do want to point out some of the bisexual stereotyping.

    From the article: ““Bisexual girls have it the easiest,” Austin told me in Oklahoma. “Most of the straight guys at school think that’s hot, so that can make the girl even more popular.”

    Because who’s the biggest expert on bisexual girls? Guys who aren’t bisexual.

    This is just so … so tiring in so many ways. The reasoning, if we can even call it that, most important thing about a woman is whether she turns a guy on, and since straight guys are turned on by the thought of women having sex, bisexual women’s lives are just great.

    Yep, nothing improves your quality of life like having guys relentlessly pant “DO YOU HAVE A GIRLFRIEND AND CAN I WATCH.”

    Plus the “bisexual girls are more popular” meme shades so nicely into the “bisexuals are just saying they’re bisexual to be popular” meme. (Because the people tossing the “just saying that” accusation have so much more insight into some other person’s sexual orientation than that person themselves does.)

  27. Proposed antonym for heteronormative:

    Accepting

    I hate latinate jargon, so I propose repurposing a less imposing word. My favorite jargon has to be particle physics with beauty and charm etc.

  28. TC, I agree with you about the bi stereotyping by the boy interviewed, but I have to say it irked me less than usual because of the sheer bi visibility in the article. For once, an article about coming out and queer identity that didn’t disappear bi people!

  29. Yay! This has really just cheered me right up!
    I was actually thinking about this the other night when I saw an episode of United States of Tara where the father character is sharing a bonding moment with his son about falling in love for the first time – with a boy. And I just thought… that is so beautiful, portraying not only a happy gay kid but accepting parents. Because even though we have far more representations of gay and bi people in pop culture these days, the old trope of the unhappy kid and the painful coming out is still dominant…and on the way out! Woo!

  30. “[Austin’s dad] doesn’t totally understand why Austin is gay, or how he can know for sure at his age, but he’s trying to be there for him. And he’s rarely seen Austin happier than at the parade. Austin warned his dad, ‘You can’t get mad at me when I scream at cute guys in Speedos!’ And boy, did Austin scream. He was in gay teenage heaven.”

    So happy for him, and yet, so jealous. I can’t even imagine having been that open about guys with my parents, much less GIRLS. (Bi girl here.) Hell, since I married a guy, they still pretend like the day I came out never happened.

  31. @Maggie – Yes yes yes. As a kid who grew up also on the open side of the spectrum with a father who was polyamorous and whose partners came in pretty much the rainbow of possible queer permutations, plus who had an incredibly important group of lesbian mentors and watchers in another part of my life, I felt like I had a whole lot of info to process from outside.

    I did react *sexually* to ideas that didn’t end up being true expressions for me. So, I thought I was gay for awhile, and then bi, in part because of that sexualized lens and in part because the patriarchal aspects of the dudes around me made me want the (seeming) freedom of the queer women around me.

    Only – and here’s where I totally resonate with what you were saying, where this is a specific flavor of that struggle – I felt like I’d HAVE to be ‘butch’. Or more truly, male. Why? Because I’m a straight woman with universal reaction to sexual images and therefore my view of women as sexy was dude-nation trained; I was, exactly, equating women with sex, and therefore adopting male gaze was the only way I could figure out how “to be gay” – because I’m straight, but find women sensually and aesthetically attractive, the only way to have that become sexual is through the erotic lens I had from men.

    That rather defeated the real urge, the wish to be like the lesbian women around me who were women I loved, felt safe around, and who I admired as being free of the lens of the dickhead. On the other side, with some of the “progressive” dudes, there was a bitter undercurrent (not aimed at me specifically, but aimed at my gender): “C’mon baby, don’t be uptight. If you were liberated you’d fuck me.” You know?

    Anyway. There aren’t a whole lot of people to talk to about the different process of growing up in diverse sexual dynamics, and it was work of a different sort. I just want to say you made my day, you said that so well; and that whole process was complicated. For me it really wasn’t clear.

    Of course, for my queer sis it WAS clear, and she was out and claiming her identity where I wasn’t.

    I know very well she had her own processing to do: we all do, regardless of where we come from and where we’re going. But she was confident right away of who turned her on, authentically.

    But I think it’s both “normal” to know, and “normal” not to know in a culture that trades in sexualization, and either way, it’s a process of learning how to express yourself. And what kids need is adults who don’t try to get in there and affix labels, gay or straight, before the kids claim their own, or hold a kid to something they’ve said before; but just to support where kids are in finding themselves and their centres.

  32. thanks so much for this post and for all the comments, I really enjoyed reading through. I tried coming out to my mom when I was around 12, and got the “how can you know?” speech (though “strangely” she didn’t give me the same reaction when I talked about guys……). And I haven’t talked about it with her since. Many of my friends here at school know I’m attracted to women… but I mean, I don’t know. I’ve really internalized the “how can you know?” meme, and I feel like a fake even typing “I’m attracted to women”. I know it’s true, but I’ve never been with a woman. So i still feel like, how can I know for sure? I’ve kissed girls, but usually drunkenly– which makes me look like the “bisexual only when drunk” stereotype :( I’m just so shy with women. I’m no good at the hetero hookup culture, either, but at least I feel confident in being sexual with a man – like if I can get him home with me, at least I’ll know what to do. But in the past when I’ve tried to “put the moves on” (haha) another chick it’s failed and so here I am… but I’ve also been in a hetero relationship for a while, so that’s gotten in the way as well :P. Yes. But anyway – I also feel really uncomfortable about claiming the labels “queer” or “bisexual” because I can easily “pass” as straight (because of being in a straight relationship and never having been sexual with a woman), and I have in fact done so my whole life… and so I feel like a big fake if I talk about being queer or something. I admire (and feel sort of jealous of) these younger girls that can own those identities so confidently.

  33. Just a few other thoughts: At my senior prom a guy (I apologize for not being more correct – he was born male, but I think identifies as neither male nor female now and I’m not sure what the proper term is) came with a female date. Halfway through, they switched outfits, so he spent the rest of prom in an evening gown, and she in a tux and top hat. It was pretty fabulous – and no one batted an eye.

    Just a few years later, the GSA hosted a To Be GLADay, which seemed pretty normal in my liberal Boston-suburb hometown. Except several parents took exception to the day and snuck into presentations to film without the school’s permission. They then set up a website saying that the school was trying to turn kids gay. *sigh* The whole thing actually ended up on Anderson Cooper 360 or some such.

  34. @Kate – You know, I think there are a number of women here who are in hetero relationships but are bi identified, so you’re in good company.

    As for not wishing to claim the label because you haven’t gotten busy: well, the assumption is that people are straight, even if they’ve not had any sex!! No one questions a young man who says “I really like that girl” with “Really, are you sure? Shouldn’t you have your face in her pants before you decide?”

    You’re allowed to not have experience and still have an identity. You’re also allowed to not be sure of where you fit.

    And should you ever become single and interested in exploring that aspect of yourself, there are lots of really great queer festivals and activities and as a straight girl I’ve never had any problem feeling like I’m with friends regardless. Just be honest, and expect honesty back.

    As for bi-when-drunk, the performance for men aspect of women kissing in bars while drunk I’ve heard derided, but it’s pretty clear that’s not what you’re talking about.

    Also, I note upthread I ended with a binary: kids being gay or straight. I meant queer of all sorts, gender expressions, sexualities. Losing the binary is Teh Awesome, and it doesn’t matter how you live or who you sleep with to enjoy that.

  35. Something I have encountered recently has more to do with my lack of sexual attraction to anyone. I am repeatedly told ‘how do you know?’ and ‘you’ll find someone’. Maybe I will but it won’t be a sexual attraction.

    I am so glad that young people of the LGBT orientation are finding it much easier and, more importantly, safer to come out about their sexuality – now people need to learn that some people have no sexual orientation at all. It’s very frustrating.

  36. “I looked it up on the internet”.

    Dear God, I wish I had thought about that growing up! I was 19 before I realised that being gay was even an option, and 20 before coming out. And I had a computer. Well, my family did. We were internetted up when I was 16. It just never hit me that there would be information of something like that, online.

    Also, within two months of coming out I was the only out gay kid I knew about. Besides my girlfriend, obviously.

    This article made me want to squee and cry and jump with joy. All at once.

  37. I’m with you to a point on pop culture’s role in this, but as parent, I’m wondering (hoping) that maybe there are just more of us “Mrs. Kera”s out there than there used to be? Could children possibly be learning acceptance of others – and thereby themselves – due to some kick-ass parenting? (please say yes!)

  38. 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

    Boy, does that resonate!

    When I was in a catholic, all girls high school (and yes, old enough to know) I was desperately in love with one of my peers. We were friends, but it wasn’t until that intense period was over that I realised that I was ALLOWED to love her. That that was a thing I could do. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know that gay people existed – heck, one of our teachers was gay! – but I knew I also liked boys and I didn’t know anyone our age who had even had complex thoughts about their sexuality.

    Ten years later and I’ve just this year had my first sexual encounter with a girl (ha! woman). It was confusing, actually, because while I am absolutely attracted to women, and in a sexual way, I feel sure now that the ‘male gaze’ thing is clouding what that is and how it fits into my life. I am trying to sort out the threads.

    While I have no regrets about the way things turned out, for the sake of poor, tortured, 16 year old me, I wish wish WISH that this sort of thing had been around me then. There would have been far less bad poetry in the world, let me tell you!

  39. @Arwen–Some of what you said is really incredibly helpful for me vis-a-vis some sexual identity things a friend’s been working through. Thanks.

  40. I just want to say this is the coolest discussion ever. I’m far too old to have had anything but seriously twisted and tortured view of sexuality as a teen (70’s)… the Studio 54 set didn’t quite make it to my neighborhood, though just knowing they existed helped a little bit (though again, no actual womens in those stories).

    I do want to say that a lot of this “male gaze” stuff made a lightbulb click on in my head. I know a LOT of straight women who are absolutely gaga over gay men, especially gay porn. I’m in a business that puts me in contact with a lot of gay men (many are friends too, but most are just business acquaintances) and my straight married friends are always always wanting to meet them. I never ever understood why until reading this thread.

    Well… duh. They’re straight women. They like men. They like men’s bodies. They want to see through a lens that sexualizes those bodies and it’s just not available in most popular culture (perhaps some to the younger set, but when we were growing up men did not kiss on TV, they just didn’t. Certainly not in prime time). Gay porn does that. Sometimes just sitting in a bar with a gay man does that. He looks around and you get all the power our society bestows on the “male gaze” but you get to see men through that gaze. Years of confusion and not a little bit of ick-factor** explained in one or two wonderful posts (thanks Maggie and Arwen and all!). I’m sure all this is a big “duh” to those who study this stuff, but I was a science geek and would never have ventured near the women’s studies department, even if such had existed at my college in ’78.

    ** The “ick-factor” only because it always seemed a bit voyeuristic and creepy… now it seems voyeuristic, but way less creepy.

  41. I’m so glad to read stories like this. I am appalled when I think about how it was when I was growing up in the 80s, and how hard the gay kids in my school had it. A lot of it has come to my attention in more recent years, as I find out that people I knew then are gay, and I had no idea. At first I’m surprised, then realize of course I didn’t know. Where I lived? The way people were treated there? Nobody in their right mind would have let on even a smidge. Some of them were picked on badly enough for being not quite able to fit in entirely; anyone knowing they were gay would have probably caused actual beatings. I’m ashamed at the role I played in it. I was an uptight fundamentalist conceited prude, and only the fact that I was shy and not popular myself kept me limited to snubbing them and talking about them behind their backs rather than actively picking on them myself. All I can say is how glad I am that kids aren’t all being raised now the way I was, and that there are so many others around to school the ones who are in how to be a decent human.

  42. My time at high school was punctuated by the Matthew Shephard murder. All my closest friends were gay/straight members of our GSA (I was a straight ally), and I remember how it really shook us up. Just the year before us (the class ahead of us, that is) there was no GSA. Our class had started it. I think Matthew Shephard’s murder made it clear to us how important it was to claim our identities — both as non-heteros and non-hetero allies. Like hell we wanted to let something like that happen again, especially to someone close to us.

    That being said, my best friend when I was a kid didn’t come out until late high school — his dad was a drunken abusive bastard, and I believe he waited until he found a way to move in with his mom (they were divorced) several states away from his dad, to come out. When I told my mom about it — I was surprised — my mom shrugged in a no-big-deal kind of way, and said, “Honey, I’ve known he was gay since you both were little kids.” My mom was always, always kind and welcoming to him, and as supportive as she could be. My mom rocks! She was always like that, about everyone. Just a gem.

    I don’t currently know any children who could be gay, but I know that if/when I do I would be nothing but completely supportive, like my mom always was.

  43. @Cassie: The Male Gaze influences SO many things…and I didn’t realize that until I stepped out of our Western media a bit and soaked myself in Female Gaze (to see the difference!). Want some? Try yaoi (slightly NSFW): http://www.xtra.ca/public/Toronto/Queer_love_manga_style-4057.aspx

    Since our society loves dictating what we as women “want” or “need” (according to patriarchal bull 90% of the time), it’s hard for an individual woman to truly discover what she wants or needs until she can take herself out of her surrounding influences enough to truly examine herself – or, at the very least, until she can surround herself with varied opinions so she can see in which direction she “tends toward.” Just like how the fatosphere made me realize that fat isn’t something to be ashamed of, Japan made me realize that media specifically by and for girls is what ACTUALLY resonates with me, and that that media is wildly different from works made by and for boys. Sexuality, self-worth, truth to oneself, etc. is all tied up in those things. We need much, much more than our mainstream media can offer us to help us form an identity not twisted by what our society wants us to be (heteronormative, self-hating, buying into objectification of ourselves, etc.).

  44. Happy gay teens are wonderful.

    I think I came out at a very inbetweeny time in the mid-nineties, when I knew people who were happily out as teenagers (mostly in the nearest big city) and I knew people who were miserably closeted into their twenties, mostly at the horrifyingly conservative boarding school I was at. I came out at school, mostly because I was an idiot who never engaged her brain before opening her mouth, and it was an isolating experience. All at once, most of the people in my year just didn’t speak to me. The ones who did were brave and wonderful – it was not easy for them. An illustration: I went back to school four years after I’d left and bumped into someone in school uniform and asked them about the changes at the school (it had gone co-ed). She asked me what I was called and when I told her, laughed in my face for about three minutes. As I said, a horrible place.

    I mostly decided to comment on this because of the people who have said that their mothers were sad when they came out because hey thought that their lives would be harder. My mother said this, but outside that school the only person who has ever made me feel bad about being gay or like they treat me any differently because of it is her. I’ve always wondered whether that response is the acceptable face of homophobic parental reaction.

  45. This makes me so. happy.

    I can’t imagine being one of these awesome, out kids. I was “out” in high school in the sense that I wasn’t in. I’d switched schools and decided to never not be honest about my sexuality, even if I never announced it, either. This actually made telling my parents about my first girlfriend harder, because I didn’t know if they’d ever assumed I was straight, and my mom said two things: I love you a lot and I hope your life isn’t harder, and this doesn’t let you off the hook for grandchildren.

    This actually makes me 100% grateful for my mom: she never threw the “this is a phase” thing at me. She never said anything about the fact that I’d had intense crushes on/relationships with boys before, and unlike my best friend at the time (who has since grown up a lot, and wouldn’t even be able to stand the fact that she once did this), never said “But you know you’ll end up with a guy.” And my dad… well, the only thing he ever said was to ask me if a friend that was treating me shittily was “jealous of what you’ve got.” No questioning what I had, in fact, got, or that it was any different from any other high school relationship. Now I’m all teary and grateful for Mr. and Mrs. L’zhiu… I hope I succeed in being that cool with my kids’ identities, sexual and otherwise.

    In middle school, though, I made up crushes on boys to deal with the fact that I was in pretty intense like with my best (female) friend at the time. I got called a dyke by boys in my grade, and they didn’t get sent to detention, I got sent to counseling. I didn’t tell anyone when I went to BAGLY prom, even though I went at thirteen and made friends with awesome older gay girls who were as excited that I was showing up secretly to dances as I would be to meet an out twelve-year-old today. Looking back on it, I recognize their wistful encouragement in myself. They were happy for me, but damn if they didn’t wish that they’d had safe places when they were my age… just like I wish that my school and social circle had been safe places, too. I know I had it pretty easy, but hiding is just never fun.

    I will high-five the first gay kid I meet!

  46. Could children possibly be learning acceptance of others – and thereby themselves – due to some kick-ass parenting? (please say yes!)

    Well yeah, I hope so too. This is part of the cultural changes we’re talking about — both in terms of increased visibility (so parents expect that queer kids, you know, exist and that their kid might be one) and non-normativity.

  47. Two weekends ago, my daughter and I were visiting friends in Cary, NC. If you don’t know it, it’s the wealthiest city in NC – a bastion of upper and upper-middle class, politically-conservative whiteness. So I did a double-take when I saw a mixed-gender group of 13 – 14 year olds walking through a shopping center because the two boys in the lead were holding hands. I admit I was wide-eyed – not at their affection for one another, but the fact that they felt safe and secure enough to display it in a public place, in front of their peers. My friend’s son went on to describe the school-sanctioned gay & lesbian group at his high school, and how one of his good (male) friends was bi. I don’t have any witty or insightful closing observations on this, just how drastically it has changed since I was in school, when gay and lesbian teens were either deeply closeted or hounded mercilessly. The fact that it’s treated so offhand, so “no-big-deal” by this generation is a wonderful revelation to me.

  48. TULSA! WOO!

    I’m so happy that this article featured our awesome youth project. Tulsa is a lovely progressive dot in the reddest red state in the union, and I’m so so so so happy that the nation got a glimpse of what we’re doing here. For example, did you know that Tulsa has more transgendered persons than any other city? Not PER CAPITA, just amount, period. Our LGBTQ community center is super nice and super active and we are an awfully gay-friendly city. I taught high school for three years here, and nothing in this article really surprised me. The kids who made fun of gays were considered neanderthals. Hell, rejecting evolution was more accepted than being homophobic.

    But anyway. Hooray!

  49. IRT the male gaze, I was sort of aware in high school and middle school that women were more often sexualized and presented as sexual objects than men. I saw it as a way to explain that I wasn’t really gay, I was just attracted to girls because our culture presents women as more attractive and desirable than men. Or maybe because women actually are physically more attractive than men. It didn’t really explain the not being at all into men part, though.
    And the male gaze isn’t the only factor, there’s also the specter of heteronormativity telling girls that eventually they’ll marry a man. I interpreted some guy related feeling as a crush, because I knew girls my age had crushes but wasn’t sure what that felt like, and totally didn’t notice crushes on girls. When I did notice that I had crushes on girls, I figured I was bi. But I wasn’t.

    I think it’s really interesting how the queer experience is changing so rapidly. These kids are coming out so young that I imagine some of them would transition to different sexual orientations by the time they reach adulthood, and have to come out all over again, and I wonder what that will be like for them. I wonder, if I were a kid now, if I would have realized I was gay earlier, and if I would have dated before college.
    Also, I’m sure having kids like these around will be good for the shy or questioning queer kid. It makes me extra happy to know that these kids could make someone else’s life brighter and more hopeful just by being themselves.

  50. I thought that I would come back and give some idea of that fluidity that I discussed. At 14, my son identified as gay. Eventually, he changed that to bisexual. Now, at 16, he identifies as gender queer (not sure how far that goes at this point), bi-romantic, and asexual. As the article suggests, the internet has been incredibly helpful in giving him words and ideas to describe who he is and what he feels.

    Having taken until I was almost 30 to even be able to understand and accept that I was bisexual, this is the most amazing thing to me and makes me incredibly happy. I am glad to see that it’s not just limited to the usual places. It’s a whole new world out there.

  51. dreamingcow, that’s really interesting – not least that he is willing to adjust the words he uses to his changing feelings. When my lady was younger, she picked “gay” and fiercely constructed her identity around it, and it’s only pretty recently that she’s been considering that there may be more dimensions to her sexuality. It’s amazing and wonderful that your son is figuring that out so early, and feels safe enough to consider and explore his identity.

    When I was his age, I knew that my sexuality was not the standard one, but beyond the standard labels of gay, straight, and bisexual, I had no words to describe myself. Unlike my lady, I went for a lack of labels, which was both a good and a bad thing – it let me be honest but also let people make all sorts of assumptions about me. Even now, when I am comfortable saying that I am attracted to men and women, I still shy away from “bisexual” and if pressed go with “queer.”

    (Also, your son just sounds awesome, and I feel pretty warm and fuzzy that a 16-year-old kid is telling his parents about how he is bi-romantic.)

  52. I grew up going to a religious Jewish middle school, with fairly liberal and accepting parents in a liberal city. But, when I was in middle school, queerness just wasn’t something people at school talked about. So, even though I always had crushes on girls, I kind of ignored them. Like, oh, sure, I think this girl is cute, but I also think that boys are cute, and that’s who I’m supposed to date, so I must be straight. It wasn’t really until college that I realized, hey wait a minute. If I think girls are cute, I could also DATE girls. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also date boys! WHOA! Of course, by the time I really recognized this, I was a hop, skip, and a jump away from dating my husband, so dates with girls never really happened. But I wonder, if bisexuality had been on the table from the beginning, how my experiences would have changed. It’s totally possible that they wouldn’t have, and I still would have dated only boys and married one. But I still wonder.

  53. @ l’zhiu: I think that’s really a hallmark of the group that he hangs out with and his (very alternative) school at large. They don’t feel that they’re forever defined by how they define themselves now. I think it’s fantastic and hope to see more of that.

    (Also, your son just sounds awesome, and I feel pretty warm and fuzzy that a 16-year-old kid is telling his parents about how he is bi-romantic.)

    One point that has always been made to my sons is that they can talk to me about ANYTHING. I may feel uncomfortable with it, I may tell them that I need to think about it before we discuss it, but that I don’t want them to feel that they have to censor themselves with me. Amazingly, at 16 and almost 13, they still actually DO talk to me like that.

    The Boy is pretty darn awesome, if I do say so myself. I’m also not the only person who has said so. He’s been through way too much in his short life, including abuse-caused complex PTSD and four years of severe mental illness, but he’s survived and came out the other side as a pretty incredible human being.

    (As a side note: Yes, I have his permission to talk about him like this in public. Both of us are tired of watching mental illness, sexuality, etc. be treated as dirty secrets and make a point of not hiding any of it.)

  54. I came out in middle school, and all people did was call me “seahorse.” God am I lucky.

    Actually, my good friend (related, we dated for about a year in middle school) posted this on facebook. Even with strides being made, sexual repression still exists… especially in Catholic schools.

    “there’s also the specter of heteronormativity telling girls that eventually they’ll marry a man.”

    This this this. Also, the constant telling of females that they’ll have babies someday! Every girl wants to have a baby! Not quite, and I always get sick when I hear this from my mother. “You’ll want babies someday.” Don’t be so sure about what hasn’t happened yet.

  55. I came out in middle school, and all people did was call me “seahorse.” God am I lucky.

    Forgive the potential naïvete/ignorance- “seahorse”?

  56. Well, not to mention that if a gay or bi girl wants babies, there’s no reason that being gay or bi is a barrier to that. Wanting a baby has, as far as I know, nothing to do with who we’re attracted to; or what gender we are. My hubby knew he wanted babies from a young age, I only decided that I wanted them in my late twenties.

  57. As a former founding member of no less than three GSA (we moved a lot) this makes me happier than you can even imagine.

    Thanks for sharing, SweetMachine!

  58. I have to say I’m intensely jealous. Of course, I was a late bloomer in every way, so even if not for the confusing and negative environmental factors, I probably wouldn’t have realized I was bi until high school at the earliest. I had internalized the “gay is bad” message, and was horrified at the thought of what my family would think if I fell in love with a girl. I was so relieved when I was also attracted to boys that I figured I could just bury that other part of me and it would be okay. (Of course, being intensely awkward and not conventionally attractive delayed the dating boys thing as well). The middle and high school I went to was very homophobic, both boys and girls frequently joking about each other being gay as if that would be the weirdest and funniest thing in the world. I remember a year where there were multiple girl couples, openly making out, then later swearing it was just a phase. My friends made it clear that they wouldn’t feel safe sleeping or changing around a lesbian, so I didn’t dare voice any suspicions about myself to them. This was in the 90s to my HS graduation in 2002.

    It’s interesting that you drew a parallel to FA, my personal one being that you can come to a point where you accept that difference in others, but still believe that it’s not okay in yourself. That’s the way I was with being queer for a good while. And Maggie made a good point about how different factors can warp sexuality. Another thing that gave me a hard time realizing and accepting that my attraction to women is legitimate is that I wondered if most of it wasn’t just the male gaze and being exposed to media that says womens’ bodies = sex. And it’s true that while I’m not normally visually attracted to people unless I actually know them, I am way more likely to look at a woman’s body and find it sexy than a man’s.

  59. This is a wonderful thread – I’m happy for kids these days who have an improving culture to exist in :)

    Also, the discussion about how the “male gaze” can impact a girl’s view of sexuality was fascinating, and resonates with my own experiences.

  60. Wow…this article and the whole comment thread makes me wanna cry! I was in high school in 94-98 (in a conservative southern city) and was coming out the whole damn time, it seemed. I apparently was a very naive 16 year old and thought that people would just assume that my girlfriend and I cuddling in the hall was “friendship” rather than what they did assume. But I was also very politically involved and tried to start a GSA (failed) (and Oh My God how I felt when I found out a few years later that some other kids tried and finally got it!) and became the only-gay-kid-around so every other gay kid ended up confessing their feelings to me in a tearful private conversation. And there were definite rough patches…when the faculty deputized the gym teacher to tell me and my girlfriend that if we kept acting like we were acting, we might get beaten up. Also the teacher who said “ew” when two women kissed on a movie that she showed us in class (can’t actually recall ANYTHING about the film except the “ew”). Also the intensely-closeted teachers who showed me that if you’re gay, your job is at risk and you have to lie for your whole life…that breaks my heart, kinda, because they were so afraid. They tried so much to support me, but I could so clearly see their fear. And when, in health class, our total education on gayness consisted of the statement that “Some kids think they’re gay but they’re not – it’s normal to have some thoughts like this but they will go away.” Ummm…go abstinence-only ed! (Wow, rereading this paragraph makes me think I am waaaay more bitter than I realized about high school!)

    But even though nothing terrible happened to me as a result of being an out gay teenager, I felt so isolated, so alone, so desperate most of the time. And the cultural shifts we’re talking about – wow. I just can’t imagine if I had access to the internet the whole time (eventually got it and that did help, even in the dial-up AOL era!) or if my parents knew that lots of kids were queer. People older than me see my coming out age (around 14-16) as SO impossibly young – even queer adults who were trying to support me said this. To people younger than me, 14 is nothing. That is SO AWESOME.

  61. I can really identify with the confusion experience and the male gaze, though I shook out as straight. My best friend since kindergarten Roger is gay, and he was deeply closeted in the late 70s/early 80s when we were teens growing up in Iowa. I knew he was gay very early on, I think when I was 7, because I had a meltdown about how he was my friend but would never really love me. I was very sure about this but it confused me. My mom tried to reassure me by saying things might change and we might get married someday, but I KNEW this wasn’t true right down in my bones. It confused me.

    In seventh grade I still had no words for it, but I realized that Roger got crushes on boys and men, just as I did, though we had different tastes. This simply didn’t bother me, and at the time I thought that Roger knew I was aware. I realized in high school when AIDS and a bisexual drama teacher that Roger didn’t think I knew he was gay. He was afraid to tell me, I think because it was dangerous to have ANYONE know in the homicidal environment we were in. He started dating very conservative girls at school as cover. Then he started saying he was dating girls at OTHER schools.

    Then he did something that hurt me deeply. He started jerking me around for my presumed naivete. He made up obviously false feminizations of his boyfriends’ names. I realized he thought I was just another homophobic hick, when in fact I’d always known and just felt like he had the right to be closeted if he chose, because frankly we lived in a Matthew Sheppard environment. I was so angry that he assumed I couldn’t handle knowing and was stupid besides, that I wronged him back. I regret more than I can say that I didn’t simply tell him, “Roger, I’ve known you were gay for years, so just stop being a jerk to me and come on out.” He didn’t come out to me until our senior year, a few weeks before he left Iowa forever in the middle my graduation party.

    I don’t think we would have drifted apart if I had possessed words, let alone cultural images, for what I knew in junior high. We suffered apart and in silence, he as a closeted gay boy, and I as a rejected fat girl. At least we could have suffered together as allies.

    I’m not writing this as a poor me story, but a testamonial of how homophobia hurts everyone, LBGT-Q folks most of all.

  62. Great story, but…

    I personally have issues with the term “bisexual.” Yes, it’s partly semantics, but it also represents a much larger conceptual problem. I think “bi” upholds the idea that there is a gender binary (male/female). I identity as queer- which means I am sexually/romantically attracted to people of ALL genders (trans, intersex, etc included). Yes, I’m advocating for Butler’s idea of a spectrum rather than a binary (even though Gender Trouble was one of the least accessible books I’ve ever read). People can be many genders over the course of their life; gender is a far more fluid concept than simply male/female. I don’t like sexuality being commodified in boxes that can be checked- even if I can check both male and female, what about everything inclusive and inbetween?

    And, at the end of the day, I’m simply tired of people referring to me as “bi” and having to resort to using “bisexual” to try to explain my queerness.

  63. lit fetish, I’m totally in the queer camp myself for much the same anti-binary reasons. Last time I wrote about it here we had a very interesting discussion, though some people accused me (and others) of being disingenuous about that. It’s a fraught issue for people, but I don’t expect middle schoolers (who are the subject of this article) to know anything about queer politics or Judith Butler, do you?

  64. and became the only-gay-kid-around so every other gay kid ended up confessing their feelings to me in a tearful private conversation.

    Ha! That happened to me all the time, too! In fact, I remember that years later, a casual friend of mine had gone to a class reunion of some sort and was filling me in on gossip, and he said, “And you won’t believe who’s gay!” It was all people I’d known about since I was 16. :-)

  65. I don’t know if I’d advocate for anyone to read Butler (given how elitist and privileged her language is), but I do think the concept of gray areas in gender can be broached in other ways to middle school kids.

    For example: I teach dance. I choreographed a swing piece and in addition to teaching my dancers (aged anywhere between 12 and 62) the steps to the Charleston, Lindy Hop, and Jitterbug, I also taught everyone to lead and follow (usually considered the parts of the “man” and “woman”). Then, for the performance, I had half the dancers dress as “men” (in suits) and half dress as “women” (in dresses), regardless of their gender. Everyone ended up switching partners (and leads) several times in the song, so there were “male-male” partners, “female-male” partners and “female-female” partners.

    When we discussed why I did this, I talked a bit about my thoughts on queer politics and asked them what they thought. It was a great discussion and the middle school kids were incredibly insightful. I was lucky to be able to teach in a very liberal community; I realize this kind of teaching might have gotten me fired, hurt, or worse in more conservative places.

  66. Oh wow. High school flashback time?

    I too was friends with someone who came out when we were 14 or 15. I helped him to start up a GSA in our school. There were a lot of kids, as it turns out, that were interested in getting involved in the organization. The problem was, we couldn’t do anything beyond meet once a week and chat. Whenever we tried to achieve any sort of actual function beyond chips and soda, the school would do everything in their power to set up obstacles:

    ~During the morning announcements, the principal would only refer to our group as the “GSA,” and since this was a new thing at our school, nobody knew what GSA meant. Most of the student body thought we were the Girl Scouts of America.
    ~We had no faculty advisor, and not for lack of asking various teachers, directly.
    ~Any posters or other advertisements of our meetings had to be pre-approved by the principal. Amazingly enough, he found fault in just about every poster that included the words, “Gay,” “Lesbian,” “Trans,” “Questioning,” “Sexual Orientation,” or anything more descriptive than “all students welcome!”
    ~No fundraising allowed. No assemblies allowed. No field trips allowed. And absolutely nothing AIDS-related.
    ~When we did manage to get a poster approved, we’d stay after school until around 6pm hanging them up. When we got to school the next day at 7am, without fail, they would already be torn down. Once we tried to duct-tape all four sides of the posters to the walls to make them really hard to tear down, and we got spoken to about it (I forget why we couldn’t do that. we just couldn’t).
    ~One of the younger GSA members one night peeked around a corner to see that it was actually a faculty member tearing them down every night with angry determination. When we approached the principal about this, he patted our heads (metaphorically) and said that Mr. Homophobe has a right to his beliefs, just like everyone else.
    ~The school librarian allowed us to set up a window display for one month, and we went to town as only teeny boppers can: giant rainbow flag backdrop, a stuffed tiger (school’s mascot) in a pride t-shirt, and a display of the only four books on homosexuality that our school had to offer: one was about matthew shepherd, one was about the ‘science’ of homosexuality, and two were about homosexual behavior in animals.
    ~The next day, rainbow flag was gone, and so were the gay animal books, with the best argument I’ve ever heard: “Animals eat their young! is that something you want to associate yourselves with?” And yes, that was the principal again. The rest of the display was left up for about a week or two before it was taken down by the librarian for not having enough content. It was, after all, just a gay tiger and two books.

  67. My friend ended up leaving the school during his junior year and doing duel enrollment at a local university instead of bothering with public school any longer. Without him, enthusiasm for the GSA waned, and nobody really had the energy to fight with the principal or the teachers anymore, so we just got our chips and soda and hung out and talked, and tried not to get in anyone’s way. Once my class graduated, I figured the GSA would die without us, and it made me sad.

    The good news: I was totally wrong! My sister is 8 years younger than I am, and she’s just recently started going to my old high school. When I asked “Is the GSA even still around?” She looked at me like I had two heads and said, “Uh… yeah. There’s dozens of students and teachers in it. All of the cool kids are in GSA.
    Me: “Are you in the GSA?”
    Her: “Pssh. I wish.”
    Me: “You know, my friend and I started that in like 2000 or 2001.”
    Her: “Yeah, okay.” *eyeroll*

    (Here I should note that my uber-trendy 16-year-old sister thinks I’m the biggest dork in the world, and could not possibly have pioneered such an awesome club. *sigh*)

  68. Seeing the whole process of coming out be so much easier for kids now than it was when I was their age makes me so happy. I mean my family still don’t know I’m bi – I saw how they treated my cousin when he came out and decided it just wasn’t worth it. Instead I just don’t talk to them much at all.

    RE Figuring out what actually turns you on as a bi woman, particularly what Arwen said…yeah, it’s confusing. I mean in my case what I’m attracted to in women is pretty Dude- Approved, and sometimes I feel wierd about that – am I attracted to women who look that way because I’ve been conditioned to find those women most attractive? That seems logical, but then why am I most attracted to men who honestly look kind of similar, other than having broad shoulders? I’m pretty much exclusively attracted to kind of femmey pretty boys, in terms of men, and I’m not at all attracted to butch women. So did the patriarchy train me that way and somehow it spilled over into the way I look at men (albeit the patriarchy certainly didn’t intend that to happen), or am I just wired to be attracted to people at the femmier end of the spectrum regardless of what kind of plumbing they have? I mean my favorite male celebrity crush (he’s in a band) has recently taken to wearing a skirt on stage, after not having done so in years, because he “missed” wearing one. How does societal conditioning factor into all this? Is it even possible to know for sure?

    RE Maggie’s point about yaoi – I wonder how much of young women’s current comfort in terms of coming out is down to early exposure to that? I mean it’s a pretty radical thing for a girl, actually seeing products created for their gaze and catering to their perspective. I sometimes wonder how much influence that’s had on a generation of girls who grew up with it being easily accessible, as well as Western media’s becoming more open in terms of showing gay characters.

  69. Sweet Machine, we would have had SUCH TIMES.

    Like Sarah TX, I have definitely noticed a huge difference in a few short years. When I was in school I didn’t know of anyone who was out. No one in my school, none of my teachers, no adults I knew of, no one except a few gay male celebrities. But in my sister’s year in the same school (six years younger) there were some kids who were openly gay. That’s amazing. It really is amazing. (Still a huge paucity of older queer female role models, but that’s what I’m here for. :D)

    When I was still at school I tentatively approached the idea that I might be bi with my closest friends, who were all okay with it, but we were a self-selected group of the liberal/goth/agnostic/atheist/already socially ostracised in my Northern Irish Catholic School, so their attitude was not exactly reflective of the society we were living in. I still remember the day in 6th year the whole school found out. By that stage I didn’t really give a fuck because I was out of there in 6 months, but I did get “dyke” yelled down a corridor at me and things thrown at me once. Really, really mild stuff comparatively, but honestly, they didn’t need to bother ’cause by then the harm was done and I was repressing myself enough for all of us. I didn’t even date a girl til I was 22.

    I actually can’t imagine how it would have been to have spent my teen years being open about who I was crushing on (even TO MYSELF, for fuck’s sake), dating who I wanted, taking who I wanted to our formal, just having a semi-normal teenage romantic/sex life. I actually cannot imagine.

    It was pretty awesome in one way, though. I was so ridiculously in love with my best friend I can’t even tell you (see: the relationships SM was talking about) and while, yeah, it totally fucked me up, it was also a defining part of me that nothing and no one could make go away (no matter how hard I tried). When you’re a teenage girl and so much of your life and your self is being constantly shaped and pressued and determined by forces outside yourself, it is pretty amazing to have one thing you know comes from just you. Some one expressed that better on the AfterEllen boards once, but yeah.

    When I was in a catholic, all girls high school (and yes, old enough to know) I was desperately in love with one of my peers. We were friends, but it wasn’t until that intense period was over that I realised that I was ALLOWED to love her. That that was a thing I could do.

    Yes yes that yes yes that!

    While I have no regrets about the way things turned out, for the sake of poor, tortured, 16 year old me, I wish wish WISH that this sort of thing had been around me then. There would have been far less bad poetry in the world, let me tell you!

    Ahahaha, yes. Also fewer eating disordered Caitlins, since I’m pretty sure that’s what sparked mine off. Though my teenage diaries would have been way less entetaining to read back. (Just KISS HER YOU FOOL!)

  70. When my daughter was about three years old, I remember telling her very matter of factly that sometimes men fall in love with women, and sometimes men fall in love with men, and sometimes women fall in love with women, and sometimes women fall in love with men. (of course, you could say I was normalizing the notion of ‘falling in love’ as being identical to partnering/marrying/etc., which it isn’t, necessarily, but it was the most straightforward way I could think to say it that I knew she would understand). I remember, in that moment (this was circa 1995) wishing that everyone, back and forth through history, could have the facts presented to them in that way.

    I think I got in there early enough with that message. I think it was just always a core part of my daughter’s reality, but I also know that other ‘realities’ get layered over it. For example, in early high school, my daughter and her friends were very accepting of gay boys… they all wanted to be friends with them… there might have been an element of exoticizing in that, actually, but at some level they did genuinely ‘love’ gay boys. Gay girls? Not so much. Not nearly so much. There was a surfacey lip service paid to acceptance, yes… but underneath that, gossip and… social segregation, I would say. Maybe less so with bi girls… and definitely less so as they got older. But to be a 14 year old lesbian trying to fit in with the popular girls at my daughter’s school… oh, not so easy.

    I myself went to catholic school and was clueless. I had those ‘intense friendships’, yes. I had boyfriends too, but they were less important, less intense, less real to me than my female friendships. I thought that was because I was in an all girls school. I was somewhat attracted to boys, and I thought that solved the problem of identifying my orientation. More important, probably, boys were attracted to me. I say ‘more important’ without irony. Unfortunately.

    Some guardian angel of queer led me to a copy of The Kinsey Report when I was 18, and I read about the Kinsey scale, and went “ahh hahhhhh!”, and thought I understood.. and I did, in a sense… but I was deep into my thirties before it dawned on me that I was anything other than a rather unenthusiastic straight girl.

    Seriously. That’s how it always felt, and what I always thought. I was oriented toward the hetero norm, yes. Just… less than enthusiastically.

    Oh good grief.

  71. About the conversation between SM and litfetish, I just wanted to add something. For me, the strength of ‘queer’ lies in its fluidity. It can help us to think of sexuality as something that shifts and changes, and that is something that certainly resonates with my experience (which is why I find the kind of phrases like ‘finding out what they really are attracted to’, or ‘who they really are, sexually,’ or other ‘solidifying’ phrases really pretty alienating). It seems to me, actually, that lots of the teens and young adults described above get this sense of fluidity more accurately than lots and lots of more grown-up people. And this makes me think that some of the referring to this fluidity as ‘just’ the result of being young and figuring stuff out is a bit problematic. First of all, even if their desires change, that doesn’t mean that a kid’s desires at 14 were ever inaccurate, or wrong, or only existing because they were ‘confused’. I tend to think that when we focus defining one set of sexual urges (as described for us by terms like ‘heterosexual’ etc) as a ‘true sexuality’, we also risk making some sexual urges ‘false’, or the result of confusion, when we could treat them as just as real, if transient, as any other. For at least some people (like me!), that fluidity hangs around: desires shift and change, and what constitutes attractive can differ a lot over time. Yeah, some people would call me ‘bi’, but as litfetish points out, this is an attempt to pin down a sexuality that isn’t actually shaped by the sex binary, and an attempt to ‘fix’ a sexuality that, at least so far, has shifted a lot over time.

    And to be honest, I do think that that point can—and should!—be made accessible to teens, and without reference to Butler, partly because the pressure to ‘pick’ or ‘find’ a sexuality and stick to it can be pretty damn damaging (as a number of commenters have kind of alluded to, in relation to issues that could come up because of people ‘picking’ too early). I think it’s pretty clear from dreamingcrow’s awesome story about her son that kids can grok this stuff, and often (if they’re given the space and encouragement, and wow I love Mrs. Kera!) in ways that make more space for themselves than the fixed-sexuality-premised-on-a-binary idea might imagine exists. I guess my real point is that I’m so impressed with teens who manage to do this in a world that wants them to fix their sexuality, and I don’t want that to get lost as just ‘confusion’.

    But oh! this post made me so happy. I’m so glad that there are kids out there growing up unafraid of the diversity of their own desires, and with communities which glory in and honour them! And yeah, I’m with the other commenters who kinda do wish wish wish this had been their high school experience! There’s a ways to go, but it’s so encouraging that we are going!

  72. WildlyParenthetical, I think you make a great point about making fluidity a concept that is accessible to teens and not worrying about fixing their “real” desires by labels. I just think, even in the mildly utopian social structures described by the article, it’s not realistic to expect teens to *already* know that stuff to that point that they would find terms like “bisexual” problematic rather than liberating.

  73. Yeah, I don’t entirely disagree, SM. I think my point was more that there were some commenters who seemed to be edging towards marking fluidity as teenage confusion, when I think there’s something a bit more sophisticated going on, something which (grown-up) others have tried to grok with the term ‘queer’. That is, some of the above, and stuff I’ve heard from other teens makes me think that amongst these kids, we have a kind of queering of terms like homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbian, partly because they are treated less as defining who they are forever and ever, and more a way of naming their own desires, if that makes sense, testifying to their current reality, knowing that it might be temporary, but that it still matters. I just didn’t want that to be erased as ‘confused kids’ when it’s a key part of what’s making me go ‘whoa! awesome!’ about this up-and-coming generation. :-) And I suspect that the less utopic the social structures, the more important it is to make that sense of contingency and partial identification possible. Which, of course, isn’t only done through the emphasis on fluidity, but through an emphasis on the OK-ness of non-straight-ness. Queer, even if not the complex, sometimes-theory-laden conceptual apparatus of the word, can be a part of both of those projects in interesting ways, methinks.

  74. I loved the NYT article… am also quite jealous… even as I am dismayed…

    Jealous… in that they don’t have to hide their sexuality from their peers anymore…

    Dismayed… in that kids these days can’t seem to interact without hiding behind texting on their cell phones…

    It feels like a double edged sword, life is out there and can be accessed freely. Yet so many kids are unable to have normal conversations with people who are more than two weeks older or younger than they are…. freedom in some parts of life opens, even as it splinters into smaller and smaller subsets of humans being able to interact…

    I attended junior high between 1975 and 1977 in the deepest part of the bible belt of Virginia. I had a pretty decent time of it all, but my gay side lay deeply hidden. By that age my sexual interactions were mostly with much older men. Society would label them predators today, while I still consider them saviours…

    I don’t think anything has changed much in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia since I left in 1984.

    Personally, I recollect no possibility of having sex with the many young men I found attractive in junior and senior high. I knew the story of a kid at a neighboring school being killed after making a pass at a classmate. Our teachers were also openly hostile whenever subject matter inadvertently brought homosexuality into discussion… I still recollect an otherwise favorite teacher getting irate when boys snickered at the use of the word gay…

    Not because we should be sensitive to gay people… but “because the word has been stolen and appropriated by sickness and evil depravity”

    I was deathly afraid of being discovered by the wrong sort of classmates. Even though I had been sexually active with many of the same classmates in elementary school, by junior high they all had girlfriends. We no longer even dared share glances in the hallways. Every once in a while one of them would find me… when they were between girlfriends, or wanted something their girlfriends might have grossed out about…

    I always obliged… reveling in the brief moment we’d have to enjoy each others company… but never in a million years could I have imagined talking about “our special relationship” … much less dating any of them openly… as far as I know, they are all married with children now…

    I am happy things are changing… I also love Kera’s mom… how I wish mine had been remotely like her… mine was positively evil…

  75. Wow — late to this conversation, but how cool. In sexual terms, I suppose I’m fairly conventional (though, I still find myself rediscovering my own sexuality and attempting to remove “male gaze” from the equation). Where your post jumped up and grabbed me was this:

    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.

    This applies to me where religion is concerned. I started to question the existence of a god(s) in 2005, and by 2006 finally admitted to myself that I simply didn’t believe. The binary scale has been SO prevalent with religion in most of my experience — you’re Christian, or non-Christian. So, as an atheist, it’s easy for people I know (especially contacts via my uber-conservative family) to oversimplify atheism as anti-God. Nope, not against god…just don’t think it applies.

    Anyway, I try to expose my children (5 and 18 months) to ideas as often as possible. It seems highly unlikely that my all-things-pink-and-princess daughter would ever turn out to be anything except straight, but if she is, I want her to understand that her mom will celebrate WHO SHE IS, no matter what.

  76. Okay, so I’m several months late on this, but I’ve been lurking and reading for those months, just got to this thread, and felt compelled to represent for femmes of every age: all-things-pink-and-princess is not mutually exclusive with queerness in a female-bodied person. Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity is an excellent place to begin exploring that, but there are a ton of other books and sites on the topic, too. I hope this doesn’t seem didactic; I just feel strongly about this issue ‘cuz I spent years feeling like I couldn’t be both feminine and strong or both feminine and queer {thankyouverymuch, gender essentialism}, and my sanity was saved by the femme-tastic writings of Joan Nestle, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Leslea Newman, Jewelle Gomez, Amber Hollibaugh, Dorothy Allison, and so many more including the contributors to the Brazen Femme anthology.

    As to the OP, I, too, am an older queer ecstatic that younger folks have so much more to work with as they explore their sexualities and identities!

  77. Okay, also belated and feeling a bit of a doof about it, but I absolutely want to say THANK YOU! THANK YOU! and ya know, THANK YOU! to the wondermous contributors/moderators and fantabulous commentariat here at Shapely Prose! After stumbling across a link to a piece here a few months back, I’ve become an avid reader {though mostly by copying pieces into Word and reading them in fits and starts due to limited online reading time}. Ya’ll are just – I’m at a loss and wish I could come up with praise eloquent enough for the praise page, but I’ll settle for AWESOME and try not to get too severe a case of 80s flashbacks . . .

    oh, and ps I love my monster! While reading, I’ve often wondered what my monster would look like if I ever actually posted, and it’s perfect – all purple and dragony!

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