sunshine factory

Since When Did Too Many Gay Kids Start Having Wonderful Childhoods We Could Ignore Kids Taught To Hate Themselves?

I’ve been trying all day long to avoid Cornell professor Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams arguing on The Good Men Project that, hey, lots of gay kids don’t have it so bad these days, and that’s why the message of “It Gets Better” might be misguided. Savin-Williams means well. That’s why he should denounce his own position.

Citing a lack of evidence (or rather, old and bad evidence) to show that gay tweens and teens are not any worse off than straights, Savin-Williams attempts in “The Gay Kids Are All Right” to dismantle the message of telling gay youth that it gets better as adults, because many of these gay kids are actually having a lovely upbringing, and never realized they were supposed to hate themselves and get picked on.

This myth is embraced by both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives, gay activists, and helping professionals (clinicians, medical providers, public health officials) believe that such dire messages will raise awareness of gay-rights issues and garner needed services for gay youth. In addition, government funding for research often depends more on investigations that explore what goes wrong than what goes right in human development.

Conservative religious and political advocates use the gay suicide myth to give warning to youth who are “considering” being gay or who have crossed the line and might be a candidate for conversion therapy that a gay life is hazardous to their health. Their banner is “Be Healthy, Be Straight”—as if it were a choice, and an easy one.

From these early research studies to the present day, the proportion of at-risk gay youth has significantly decreased. The major difference now is that when we ask gay youth about their mental health, we can tap into more representative samples of youth. As more young people come out as gay, they are looking healthier. Another interpretation is that life is better for gay youth now than it was for those growing up 30 years ago.

But does a lack of research disprove a reality? That many gay youth are, in fact, tormented every day? Or, if not bullied to the point of wanting to take their own lives, at least socially conditioned — by parents, friends, administrators, the media — to think their differentness is different enough they cannot live openly and wonderfully?

When research reports gay versus straight differences in depression, anxiety, and suicidality, they evaporate when one does one or all of the following.

1) Separate lesbians from bisexual women. In previous research, the two groups were combined because of small numbers. Once separated, lesbian youth often report equal or even greater mental health than heterosexual women.

2) Control for gender expression. It is not sexual orientation per se that is the most accurate predictor of at-risk status. Rather, many youth (regardless of their sexuality) are at-risk if they do not act like someone of their sex is “supposed” to act. That is, bullies select their victims based less on their same-sex sexual attractions than on their gender non-conformity. Gay quarterbacks and track stars in high school are not bullied to the same degree as are gay theater and drama club members.

3) Consider that gay youth are more likely than straight youth to give “false positive” statements. Some gay youth report that they attempted suicide, but further questioning reveals that they actually did not. Perhaps they had a suicidal thought, but that’s not the same thing as a suicide attempt. Why gay youth are more likely than straight youth to falsely report their mental health status is not known.

All well and good, but his argument is steeped in the same “insight” being pushed by hate leaders like Focus On The Family’s Candi Cushman, who says effective anti-bullying techniques must focus on students bullied for any reason, not specifically for being gay.

“Based on my read of the scientific literature,” writes Savin-Williams, “the conclusion I reach is that gay youth are rather ordinary adolescents and young adults. Yes, some are at-risk, but these clinically fragile youth exist in the same proportion and to the same degree among heterosexual youth. Why this is important is that as a clinician, I’m worried about the ‘message’ we’re giving to gay youth. I’m worried about suicide contagion (publicizing gay youth suicide may provoke similar behavior among vulnerable youth). I’m worried about our inability to understand their lives. And, I’m worried about adult tendencies to insert our life experiences onto those of youth. Just because we had a difficult gay adolescence does not mean that today’s gay youth experience the same pain.”

Savin-Williams and those who like him have fine reason to be worried, but direct messaging aimed at gay youth isn’t why.

No, not all gay kids are bullied or think about suicide. But there are those who think the better way out of hell is running in front of a tractor trailer to put an end to it all. (Yes, that’s Brandon Bitner in the photo up there.) And there are those who think it’s perfectly okay to torment queer kids in class, or kids who come off as queer, because that’s a normal part of growing up, and daddy didn’t raise nobody to act queer.

It shouldn’t be. It needn’t be. And a campaign that attempts to tell LGBT children not to hate themselves — and that killing themselves will eliminate any opportunity to experience the wonderful things that being gay will bring — is an idea we should all support. Fine tune, revise, and update? Of course.

But there is nothing political or partisan about wanting to make young people in this country who are told from the time they are born they are somehow less than — by elected officials and police officers and corporations and living monsters — that they are nothing of the sort.