The Battle Over Gay Teens

What happens when you come out as a kid? How gay youths are challenging the right--and the left

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KATJA HEINEMANN / AURORA FOR TIME

HELPING HAND: A trust-building exercise at the Point Foundation retreat for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students

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Such statements have puzzled other researchers. "Ritch has never really acknowledged the fact that the average kid who is gay is facing enormous problems," says Dr. Gary Remafedi, director of the Youth and AIDS Projects at the University of Minnesota. "Most of his subjects have been Cornell students, who are among the highest-functioning students of all." Savin-Williams, who has included many low-income and non-Cornell kids in his work, responds that Remafedi and other clinicians have a warped view because they based early research on gay teens from crisis centers. "Are you only listening to hustlers?" he asks.

Savin-Williams opposes programs designed to change sexuality, but he has won admiration from some ex-gay proponents by writing that "sexuality develops gradually over the course of childhood." Gay identities also develop slowly. Even kids who publicly reveal same-sex attractions can be uncomfortable calling themselves gay; instead they say they are "polysexual" or "just attracted to the right person." Those vague labels sound like adolescent peregrinations that will eventually come around to "Yep, I'm gay." But Savin-Williams says many of the tomboys and flouncy guys we assume to be gay are in reality bisexual, incipiently transsexual or just experimenting.

Because he routinely sees young gays on MTV or even at school, a 14-year-old may now feel comfortable telling friends that he likes other boys, but that doesn't mean he is ready to enfold himself in a gay identity. "Today so many kids who are gay, they don't like Cher. They aren't part of the whole subculture," says Michael Glatze, 30, editor in chief of YGA Magazine. "They feel like they belong in their faith, in their families."

"Increasingly, these kids are like straight kids," says Savin-Williams. "Straight kids don't define themselves by sexuality, even though sexuality is a huge part of who they are. Of course they want to have sex, but they don't say, 'It is what I am.'" He believes young gays are moving toward a "postgay" identity. "Just because they're gay, they don't have to march in a parade. Part of it is political. Part is personal, developmental."

The political part is what worries Glatze. "I don't think the gay movement understands the extent to which the next generation just wants to be normal kids. The people who are getting that are the Christian right," he says. Indeed, several of those I met at the Exodus event had come not because they thought it would make them straight or even because they are particularly fervent Christians. Instead, they were there because they find something empty about gay culture--a feeling that Exodus exploits with frequent declamations about gays' supposed promiscuity and intemperance. "I'm just not attracted to the gay lifestyle, toward gay people--I've never felt a kinship with them," says Manuel Lopez, a lapsed Catholic and University of Chicago grad student who went to the Exodus meeting. "There's a certain superficiality in gay attachments--musicals, fashion ... I do think it's a happier life being straight."

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