Friday, October 14, 2005

Teenage Angst

Social conservatives have responded to last week's Time magazine cover story on gay teenagers, "The Battle Over Gay Teens" (chronicled here just a few days ago).

The compilers of a collection of quotations and paraphrases from the Time article, Robert Knight and Benjamin Frichtl, use their platform to evoke the incendiary image of "recruitment" as the purpose of organizations like GLSEN, an organization of gay and gay-friendly teachers, and the Point Foundation, a charity that offers scholarships to high-achieving gay and lesbian college students. They end their "report" with this sentence, no doubt intended to bring out the torches and pitchforks:

Clearly, the homosexual movement's effort to recruit children has never been stronger than it is now.
They also mischaracterize what was reported in Time. For instance, Knight and Frichtl say (note the placement of quotation marks), attributed to the Time article:
The average age of kids “coming out” as homosexual has “dropped to 10 for gays and 12 for lesbians,” according to the chair of Cornell University’s human-development program.
This is what correspondent John Cloud actually wrote in Time magazine:
The average gay person now comes out just before or after graduating high school, according to The New Gay Teenager, a book Harvard University Press published this summer.
This is followed a few paragraphs later by:
In the 1960s, gay men recalled first desiring other males at an average age of 14; it was 17 for lesbians. By the '90s, the average had dropped to 10 for gays and 12 for lesbians, according to more than a dozen studies reviewed by the author of The New Gay Teenager, Ritch Savin-Williams, who chairs Cornell's human-development department.
There is a big, big difference with beginning to get an inkling that you might be gay and actually admitting it to yourself and to others, that is, "coming out." Knight and Frichtl either don't know the difference or are purposefully misrepresenting what was reported in Time in order to arouse prurient emotions in their readers. Anyone who goes through the process of coming out knows that it takes years from that first inkling coming to the surface and the moment that one has the courage to say to another person, "Yep, I'm gay."

Knight and Frichtl also note:
At a youth retreat, the Point Foundation gave out gift bags to students containing, among other things, “a DVD of the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which a teenage boy is masturbated by an adult” and “the Aug. 16 issue of the gay magazine The Advocate, whose cover featured a shirtless man and blared, SUMMER SEX ISSUE.”
Set aside for a moment that they exaggerate the explicitness of that scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (I've seen the play, but not the movie, and while the play is suggestive, it is not pornographic by any definition), or that The Advocate is no more provocative than People or Entertainment Weekly -- and mostly far milder and, pardon me, more boring. By using the phrase "youth retreat" in the context of talking about an article about gay teenagers, Knight and Frichtl may mislead their readers to believe that the DVD and magazine were given to high school students or younger teens. In fact, the "retreat" was for college students -- all legal adults -- who had received the prestigious and highly-competitive academic scholarships from the Point Foundation.

Knight and Frichtl go on, after mentioning how the Time report includes information about the discredited ex-gay movement:
But the overall impact of the article helps validate the idea of “gay kids,” and will undoubtedly induce some to act out their sexual curiosity since so many others appear to be doing so. The constant focus on homosexuality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as TIME’s frequent articles during the 1960s and 1970s about the “growing phenomenon” of illicit drug use helped spur some kids to try marijuana and LSD.
I would be curious to see the evidence that articles in a news magazine like Time contributed to the drug culture of the 1960s and '70s. I find it highly unlikely that such evidence exists.

Even if it did, the idea that Time could, with a single article, "induce" kids to become gay is laughable. It is as laughable as the idea that someone can be "recruited into homosexuality."

The teenagers described in Time are already gay; they were gay long before any reporter found them to interview; and whether they were born that way or not, being homosexual is an immutable characteristic. One cannot be persuaded to be gay or straight.

Social conservatives have a real fear that gay kids -- and gay adults, for that matter -- are being treated with the dignity and respect that all people deserve, rather than, as in years past, treated with derision and violence. They may vent about articles like that in Time last week, but they are just whistling past the graveyard.

Andrew Sullivan writes about "The End of Gay Culture" in the current issue of The New Republic, saying in part:
The new anti-gay fervor is a response to the growing probability that the world will one day treat gay and straight as interchangeable humans and citizens rather than as estranged others. It is the end of gay culture--not its endurance--that threatens the old order. It is the fact that, across the state of Massachusetts, "gay marriage" has just been abolished. The marriage licenses gay couples receive are indistinguishable from those given to straight couples. On paper, the difference is now history. In the real world, the consequences of that are still unfolding.
Since people like Knight and Frichtl are obsessed with sex, they fail to see the richness of the lives of individual gay men and lesbians, and of the communities they have built in the face of what was until recently unremitting hostility (coming from the likes of Knight and Frichtl, only they were far more numerous and vocal). Near the conclusion of his article, Sullivan writes:
Rick Sincere & Andrew Sullivan
And, when you see the internalized defensiveness of gays still living in the shadow of social hostility, any nostalgia one might feel for the loss of gay culture dissipates. Some still echo critic Philip Larkin's jest that he worried about the American civil rights movement because it was ruining jazz. But the flipness of that remark is the point, and the mood today is less genuine regret--let alone a desire to return to those days--than a kind of wistfulness for a past that was probably less glamorous or unified than it now appears. It is indeed hard not to feel some sadness at the end of a rich, distinct culture built by pioneers who braved greater ostracism than today's generation will ever fully understand. But, if there is a real choice between a culture built on oppression and a culture built on freedom, the decision is an easy one. Gay culture was once primarily about pain and tragedy, because that is what heterosexuals imposed on gay people, and that was, in part, what gay people experienced. Gay culture was once primarily about sex, because that was how heterosexuals defined gay lives. But gay life, like straight life, is now and always has been about happiness as well as pain; it is about triumph as well as tragedy; it is about love and family as well as sex. It took generations to find the self-worth to move toward achieving this reality in all its forms--and an epidemiological catastrophe to accelerate it. If the end of gay culture means that we have a new complexity to grapple with and a new, less cramped humanity to embrace, then regret seems almost a rebuke to those countless generations who could only dream of the liberty so many now enjoy.
John Cloud's article in Time illustrates the "end of gay culture" that matters so much to Sullivan. Cloud writes:
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.
The idea of "post-gay" may be what is most fearsome to social conservatives -- the idea that everyone be treated equally, with no substantial social significance to the terms "gay" or "straight." Instead, we'll all just be Americans. No more "other" -- just "us."

1 comment:

Tim said...

The emergence of "post-Gay" teens may fill social conservatives with dread, but identity-politics leftists find this prospect just as unappealing.