February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Having recently returned to paid, full-time employment in the domestic and intimate partner violence prevention and intervention field, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss barriers to serving queer youth, especially when so many entities dictating the structure for provision of programming are still mired in homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism.
Any input from readers is much-appreciated.
I don’t often consider the reality that my children will be teenagers someday: probably because I still need to periodically remind myself that I’m not a teenager. 15, in particular, really stands out as a Me-seeming age. However, even my rudimentary math skills allow me to easily calculate that both of my kids are closer to 15 than I currently am — in terms of years, if not emotional maturity.
It’s a sobering, but not all together bleak, tale of finding one’s way in the dark.
Kornacki describes how, although he knew he was attracted to other guys as early as his sophomore year in high school (when he was probably around 15 years old), he quickly wrote off the idea of ever openly acknowledging his preferences. Because he didn’t believe he fit the stereotypical image of how a gay male is expected to behave (he is a rabid sports fan; others described him as “straitlaced”; he notes that his role models had always been wholesome [and presumably straight] “family men”), he was driven to,
[learn] how to compartmentalize. I didn’t have to spend all day fighting my urges; I could just ignore them in public and acknowledge them in private, fleeting moments. … Back then … the idea of being 35 or 40 seemed ridiculously far off – distant enough for me to tell myself that everything would take care of itself and I’d end up married to a woman.
Reading Kornacki’s story, I experienced an almost palpable Oh-God-I-Am-Definitely-A-Parent epiphany. I’m not 15. I’m a stodgy woman in her early thirties. And I have Concerns.
Back in July of 2011, I wrote about the glaring omission of — and ever-contentious debate over — LGBTQ representations in pre-literate children’s media. Parents, educators, and otherwise invested adults must step up our game, I reasoned, if we want to ensure that gender variance and a diversity of (nascent) sexualities will be considered par for the course by the time our current crop of preschoolers reaches adolescence.
But there is another major void that I was so inured to, I simply failed to notice. Until Kornacki’s article got me thinking.
Most people who are supportive of and wish to protect young, queer people understand that attitudes obfuscating LGBTQ identities, and corresponding policies like the infamous (and — as of today — erstwhile!) “neutrality” mandate in my region’s Anoka-Hennepin (Minnesota) School District, pose a danger to children. They (1) implicitly sanction violence against and abuse of LGBTQ youth; and (2) unapologetically marginalize these kids, isolating them from some of the most fundamental sources of encouragement (i.e. teachers, school personnel and other professionals tasked with advocating for young people) to which they should reasonably expect access. The climate resulting from the collision of these two factors has spawned a rash of widely-reported-on suicides and suicide attempts.
Unspeakably tragic though this is, we need to remember that LGBTQ experiences’ absence from very basic, “life skills”-oriented discussions also has an impact on those who make it through this stage visibly unscathed.
In an opinion piece on the Anoka-Hennepin neutrality policy, Jeremy Tedesco wrote, “… schools are places for education, not indoctrination”: a sentiment echoed by many supporters of maintaining the status quo.
If taken at face value, it’s hard to argue with Tedesco’s logic, especially when use of the term “indoctrination” conjures images of drone children, spouting political slogans. But I believe one of the purposes of school is priming kids to be functional, healthy, self-actualized grown-ups who can Play Nicely With Others. Yeah, parents “should” be the pace-setters with regard to all that stuff. Having to put these skills into practice at school, though, gives children and young adults the opportunity to navigate less insular waters that more closely replicate, in microcosm, the challenges they will face in the real world.
Okay, then: by exclusively acknowledging heterosexuality and gender binary conformity (the premise behind the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” in the Tennessee legislature, which applies to students in kindergarten through grade eight), kids won’t be tempted to ‘try out’ LGBTQ ‘lifestyles’. The truth of the argument, similar to the “If we don’t teach comprehensive sex ed in schools, teens will be less likely to have sex” line of reasoning that was prevalent during my high school years, simply isn’t borne out by anecdotal reality. With regard to Abstinence Only education: teenagers didn’t abstain from sex without mandatory, comprehensive sex ed curricula in public schools; they were simply sexually active in more precarious ways.
Ibid., what does happen with alarming frequency: LGBTQ youth are left floundering and are forced to either retreat into emotionally difficult — and socially stunting — self-denial, or forge their own path in the domain of dating and sex … without much of a safety net, and with unpredictable outcomes.
Assuming that Kornacki’s account is more thorough than not, he was a relatively “lucky” one. That luckiness, of course, still involves 17 years of hiding his sexuality from family, friends, and other important people in his life; a coercive sexual encounter with someone he met online; and a lot of fear and uncertainty.
For many others, even those who are out, by degrees, this represents the tip of the iceberg. They are the not-so-“lucky” ones.
My small-ish and decidedly Midwestern-ish circle of friends who identify as … something other than one hundred percent straight and cisgender … have an alarming number of stories, from their teens and early twenties, of sexual assaults, relationships mired in physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, survival sex that included instances of rape and battery, high-risk alcohol and drug use, and semi-anonymous sex that could have easily turned dangerous.
Somewhere along the line, this simply became part of the script: not good, certainly, or a mandatory rite of passage. Just common and unsurprising.
Why? Templates for young, queer Americans’ first forays into dating and sex aren’t stamped onto our collective unconscious: not the way straight kids’ experiences are, at least. Hetero coming-of-age narratives have been a national obsession for — what? 50 years? But LGBTQ correlatives are not exactly writ large for eager minds seeking a direction.
Say you’re a — coughcough — comfortably middle class, white, gay male high schooler living in moderately-sized community in the US Heartland. You have, frankly, quite a lot of privilege going for you, other than the whole liking guys thing. And, speaking of which, you want to find one with interests similar to yours, talk about and partake in said shared interests, and make out a bunch. Now, how to achieve this goal?
Genders of the main players notwithstanding, this is pretty much the woebegone thesis of every wretched teen romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. But our plucky protagonist has more hurdles to overcome than his straight counterpart pursuing … Selena Gomez or whoever.
1. Where do you meet someone your age?
The obvious answer is “at school,” which presents additional hurdles. How do you know who is safe to approach? If you express interest in a classmate who does not share your feelings, can you be sure that they’ll simply decline your advances instead of, y’know, murdering you? And if you’re fortunate enough to go to a school with an active Gay-Straight Alliance (or similar), do fellow participants really represent the entirety of your dating pool?
Outside of school, though, the rules are even more nebulous. The city where I grew up — with a population in the neighborhood of 65,000 — offered a LGBTQ support and social group, facilitated by volunteer human services professionals, for under-21s. Even in that environment, where one could assume a certain degree of security, you run into the difficulty of a small number of prospective “candidates” to work with, made even smaller by the reality that there is no promise of encountering anyone who has much in common with you beyond your shared non-heterosexuality.
Then, lest we forget, there’s the internet.
As I’ve written before, it’s a double-edged sword. The internet allows people to feel less isolated and forge self-defined community … while simultaneously providing a refuge for those inclined to prey on vulnerability. And if you’re a queer-identified young person in the United States, regardless of where you live, and through no fault of your own, you’re vulnerable.
2. What do you do on a date?
One of the most compelling parts of Kornacki’s article is a throwaway comment about a realization that occurred, for him, at age 24: “I found myself hoping [he and a man he was interested in] could get dinner or go to a movie. Dating, I think it’s called.”
It’s easy to write this off as naive, until you think about all the ways in which the stars must align for someone to date “normally” in high school. If you’re a kid who is, in any way, dependent on your parents for transportation, money, or a place to non-platonically watch TV and eat pizza, they have to be somewhat cooperative. Want to go anywhere in public? Hoping that no one you know sees you, suspects that you and your date aren’t “just friends,” and then relays this information to someone who could make your life miserable … well, that doesn’t exactly smack of equality.
And if you plan to attend some kind of Teen Milestone Event, like prom or a homecoming dance, it might be No Big Deal (in which case you also run the risk of well-intentioned people demonstrating just how progressive and open-minded they are by rubbing your face in the NBD-ness at every opportunity), or it might be a Very Big Deal — like the Constance McMillen case, which involved school district subterfuge, the ACLU, and a nationwide media circus. Whither the simple promise of spray tans and limo rides to the Red Lobster?
3. Who gets to know?
Okay, so I understand that “your parents” isn’t going to be an inevitable answer for any teenager. Flying slightly under the radar regarding the particulars of your dating life is a common tactic for young adults trying to assert an autonomous identity. I don’t look forward to being the nervous parent in this scenario. But I get it.
Are you comfortable with at least one friend knowing about the relationship, though? And, if so, is that friend someone whose opinion you value? Someone you trust to speak up if she or he notices any red flags? To know when it’s acceptable to keep your confidence, and when to call in reinforcements? Would the policies in place — either tacit or actual — allow a teacher or counselor at your school to respond to your direct requests for advice, or even act on their suspicions that something is amiss?
Herein lies the crux of my fear.
The fact is, intimate partner violence (and I use “violence” loosely to include myriad physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual behaviors) among teenagers, in general, is staggeringly common. Fortunately, this is finally getting more recognition; and programming to educate young people on how to strive for equanimity and mutual respect with their dating partners is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools. Students are given the opportunity to critically examine the components of a healthy relationship, define their personal values, and cultivate the skills necessary to communicate these to their partners. They also learn to identify features of an abusive relationship, and how to respond to threatening situations in a safe and productive manner.
As someone who has actually worked with students on these issues, in a classroom setting, I can’t place enough emphasis on how important such curricula are, or how much potential good they can do. Nonetheless, we are doing a huge disservice to many young people if we stand (solely) by a heteronormative model when hawking our message — even if that is more politically expedient and palatable.
We must start actively welcoming LGBTQ kids to the table, being unafraid of their sexuality, and divesting ourselves of the idea that they are not a sizable enough population to matter.
Doing so might register as more radical in practice than it initially seems in theory, though: owing largely to the above-mentioned complications.
Simply leaning on ambiguous pronouns and leaving it up to kids to infer the rest isn’t going to cut it. If we do not directly signal to LGBTQ youth, who have spent so much time in obscurity, that we are speaking to them, they will assume that we are not.
Moreover, we need to acknowledge that their experiences — if not their fundamental feelings — are different due to the ever-present specters of homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and a whole lot of other compounding oppressions. It is hard to reconcile this with an impulse to will everything into fairness by pretending the disparity doesn’t exist. Yes, LGBTQ youth should be afforded the same rites of passage, on the same timeline, as straight, cisgender youth; but, in order to help them now, we also have to let their current realities steer our outreach efforts.
Although I don’t have a proven formula for making this happen, it is something I have been discussing with other personal and professional stakeholders, including young people themselves. And a handful of key points seem to be raised, time and time again:
- Tell kids it’s okay to be queer. Like, really: just fine. Value-neutral. Period. If you find yourself harboring a kernel of doubt about this — but still have a child in your life who you love and think deserves health and happiness — keep on repeating that mantra until you do truly believe it. But tell kids they’re okay anyway, without adding any disclaimers or provisos. Because introducing your “personal belief” boilerplate into the conversation isn’t going to result in anything positive for anyone involved. Trust.
- Assure young people that it’s also fine to accept or reject (or take an a la carte approach to) the trappings of “regular” adolescent social patterns. Personally, I feel that this could stand to be applied to all young adults. I was pretty firmly situated in the REJECT camp during my youth. Then again, my gender and sexual orientation lined up well with the implicit defaults; so I had greater license to be a sullen malcontent (wink).
Queer kids may take some extra convincing that, no, they don’t have to capitulate to (frankly, fantasy-based) archetypal high school experiences in order to be accepted for who they are; and, by the same token, they don’t have to shun these in order to legitimize their queerness.
- Meet them where they are. Some life lessons have the greatest impact if learned through trial and error. When adults acknowledge this, we also accept that our children are entitled to try and fail, and, thereby, achieve personal growth. Shifting into harm reduction (that is, providing people with tools and resources to make their choices — however subjectively “unhealthy” — less permanently or fatally detrimental) mode with your beloved kiddos is no small task. But I feel vesting LGBTQ youth with this level of trust is especially important in order to underscore the point that their sexuality and gender aren’t “risky behaviors” in and of themselves: a fallacy that these kids are all-too-susceptible to internalizing.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district suicides I mentioned earlier? In a widely-quoted blog post by Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council, the author wrote, “[Y]outh who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [for suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle.”
Let that sink in for a second. If Prichard — and others whose opinions his statement represents — is blaming young people’s sexuality and gender identities for directly precipitating their deaths, it stands to reason that similar attitudes exist about what they should expect from their involvement in relationships. It’s a vicious cycle that goes something like this: sanction willful disregard for promotion of safety in LGBTQ young adults’ relationships -> lacking the resources to properly navigate the proverbial minefield of love/dating/sex, LGBTQ youth end up in situations that compromise their safety -> “See, I told you ‘homosexuality’ was inherently dangerous!”
My point, then, is this: we, as adults, need to counterintuitively resist using an aggregate of scary information to put the kibosh on LGBTQ young people experimenting with dating and sex altogether. This only functions to (1) reinforce the message that being queer is dangerous, (2) ensure that they are, developmentally, behind the curve established by their straight/cis peers when they reach an ill-defined “magical age” at which relationships are suddenly deemed “safer”, and (3) in effect, dare them to defy this edict and retreat even further from our watchful eyes.
Remember that the “particular vulnerability” I keep mentioning is entirely predicated on environmental conditions. So educate, inform, equip, and support away. Just don’t ensconce them in bubble wrap and sequester them from the world. There are threats, sure. But there are a lot of great, formative experiences to be had, too.
Where do we go from here, on a larger scale?
I am developing both inclusive and LGBTQ-specific curricula and teaching tools — following on the path forged by a handful of pioneering individuals who have also observed this need in their own schools and communities — for use in my work with interpersonal violence initiatives.
If you have any suggestions or insights to contribute to this effort, I welcome your comments.