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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While the phrase "That's so gay" seems to have permanently entered the (straight) teen vernacular, at many schools it is now profoundly uncool to be seen as anti-gay. Straight kids meet and gossip and find hookups on websites like facebook.com where a routine question is whether they like guys or girls or both. When Savin-Williams surveyed 180 young men ages 14 to 25 for an earlier book, "... And Then I Became Gay," he found that nearly all had received positive, sometimes enthusiastic, responses when they first came out. (Many others are received with neutrality, even boredom: University of Washington senior Aaron Schwitters, who was not interviewed by Savin-Williams, says when he came out to his fellow College Republicans at a club meeting last year, "there was five seconds of awkward silence, someone said 'O.K.,' and we moved on.") That doesn't mean young lesbians and gays will never get shoved in the hallway, and multiple studies have shown that gay kids are at higher risk for suicide than their straight peers are. But the preponderance of Savin-Williams' 20 years of research indicates that most gay kids today face an environment that's more uncertain than unwelcoming. In a 2002 study he quotes in the new book, gay adolescents at a Berkeley, Calif., school said just 5% of their classmates had responded negatively to their sexuality.

O.K., that's Berkeley, but the trend is clear: according to Kevin Jennings, who in 1990 founded a gay-teacher group that later morphed into GLSEN, many of the kids who start GSAs identify themselves as straight. Some will later come out, of course, but Jennings believes a majority of GSA members are heterosexuals who find anti-gay rhetoric as offensive as racism. "We're gonna win," says Jennings, speaking expansively of the gay movement, "because of what's happening in high schools right now ... This is the generation that gets it."

Jennings is a spruce, fit, deeply ideological 42-year-old who wants government to spend money to combat anti-gay bias in schools. He often asserts that "4 out of 5" students have been harassed because of their sexual orientation. (He doesn't mention that GLSEN's last big survey, in 2003, found "a significant decline" since 2001 in the use of epithets like fag. Or that about the same proportion of kids--three-quarters--hears fag as hears sexist remarks.) Regardless, the pro-gay government programs he favors seem highly unlikely in this political environment. That's in part because of the growing influence on the right of another gay force: gays who don't want to be gay, who are sometimes called, contentiously, "ex-gays." On talk radio, on the Internet and in churches, social conservatives' canniest strategy for combatting the emergence of gay youth is to highlight the existence of people who battle--and, some claim, overcome-- their homosexual attractions. Because kids often see their sexuality as riverine and murky--multiple studies have found most teens with same-sex attractions have had sex with both boys and girls--conservatives hope their "ex-gay" message will keep some of those kids from embracing a gay identity. And they aren't aiming the message just at teens. On one of its websites, the Christian group Focus on the Family has warned that boys as young as 5 may show signs of "gender confusion" and require "professional help."

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