The New Gay Teen: Shunning Labels

Published in: November-December 2005 issue.

DERRICK, a twenty-year-old college student from rural Ohio, came to discuss his career. I just assumed he was being gender-sensitive when he referred to his “partner” because nothing about Derrick or his mannerisms set off my gaydar. During our second discussion I inadvertently referred to his partner as a “she.” Derrick looked bewildered. “Taylor is a he. We’ve been together for over a year.” It was his response to my clumsy apology (“Sorry, I didn’t realize you’re gay”) that became the inspiration for my book The New Gay Teenager (2005). Derrick, now bordering on annoyance, corrected me. “No, I’m not gay. I said Taylor is my partner.” Derrick is not self-hating, homophobic, or confused about who he is. He just doesn’t think he’s gay.

Derrick is not a lone exception. This I discovered through interviewing young women with physical or romantic attractions to women, talking to youths in gay/straight alliances, reading youth stories gathered by others, listening to young people at the annual True Colors conference over the past decade, and reading the scientific literature. As teenagers with same-sex attractions become increasingly visible to themselves and to others, the desire to name their same-sex sexuality is waning. They might use “the gay word” as a shorthand method for describing their attractions, but implicit in this usage is a rejection of gay as an identity, much less as the defining characteristic of their sense of self.

But according to many gay-liberated adults of my generation, gay youths should loyally follow a hard-won script and be visible, political activists who fight for gay rights and denounce heterosexism and homophobia. After all, youths of all generations have endured ridicule because of their gender expression, can’t openly date those they love most because same-sex romance in high school is still disparaged, and believe they must conceal their secret longings from parents and friends. Today’s youth should appreciate all that my generation has done for them! Now it’s their turn to assume the gay mantle, to take the lead in gay pride parades and to write the polemics denouncing integration into mainstream culture, conservative religious and political leaders, and materialism. To eschew these responsibilities is to betray generations of sexual and gender warriors.

Despite appearances, their increasing failure to embrace activism is less a harbinger of the end of gay rights than a sign that gay activism has succeeded so well. Young people with same-sex attractions are now freer than ever to be themselves, comfortable with their sexuality, because they live in a youth culture that is increasingly nonchalant about diverse sexualities. This cohort believes that same-sex partners should have the option to marry, can’t imagine that parents oppose gay teachers in their schools, and embraces media and marketing that explicitly portray same-sex lives and homoeroticism. In sum, they wish that their elders would just “get over it” and learn to treat all people with respect.

Two 21-year-old aspiring actors, Giovanni Andrade and Heather Matarazzo, are the beneficiaries of this new attitude. Andrade doesn’t like “the word gay because it’s very restrictive. … But it’s fair to say I’m gay because I have a boyfriend” (Out, December, 2001). Likewise, Matarazzo asserts that she doesn’t want to be known “as a lesbian that happens to be an actress; I wanted to be known as an actress that happens to be with a woman. Ok! Move on. Next subject” (The Advocate, 10/12/04).

They object to the gay label because they don’t want their sexuality to define them. Perhaps in a similar way, eighteen-year-old Scott Williams of San Jose hopes that one day he will be accepted simply for who he is, and not as a stereotype. He’s not one to run around “in a tight-fitting Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirt and designer sunglasses talking about last night’s episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. … It’s as if I’m not straight enough or gay enough for the world” (The Advocate, 12/14/04). Not meeting the criteria for either category, he eschews labels altogether.

This failure of “gay” to fit the lives of young people is also reflected in the experience of nineteen-year-old Simone Sneed of Albany, N.Y. Coming out as a full-fledged lesbian when she was thirteen, she’s now taking it back. Gay has become too vanilla, irrelevant to her politics—the radical denunciation of hetero-normative culture. “Over the years I have met an ever-expanding population of queers, polyamorous people, flexuals, gender queers, bois, boy-girl wonders, tranny fags, tranny chasers, hetero boys who used to be lesbians, and lesbians who used to be hetero bio boys. … The gay community has bought into consumerism, and ‘gay’ no longer appears to be an identity that my peers and I are comfortable with. … So please don’t call me a lesbian” (Advocate, 10/12/04).

As these young adults testify, several motives drive the decision to reject “gay” as an identity. Six of these are highlighted below. Our usual assumptions about youth who resist coming out as gay are that they can’t (but want to) or that their self-loathing spawns denial.

1. Safety. Some youth fear the negative consequences of identifying as gay, especially if they live in secluded, conservative regions of the country. They might personally accept their sexuality but realize that it is unwise or imprudent to come out—at least until they are living among peers who accept diverse sexualities.

2. Internalized homophobia. Other youth, even those who live in relatively safe environments, are alienated, even disgusted, by the “unnaturalness” of their sexual attractions and the assumed inevitable gay lifestyle they would have to lead should they come out. These individuals are likely to be among the most violent gay-bashers and might remain closeted, perhaps forever.

Although it is uncertain as to whether youth in the above two categories constitute a majority or minority of those who reject identity labels, many other teenagers are motivated by reasons that seem uniquely modern:

3. Fluidity. For some youth, current same-sex attractions or relationships are considered discrete and imply nothing permanent about them, their sexuality, or their identity. They view their attractions as fluid beyond that which is permitted by sexual identity labels. It is the individual that attracts them, and should the relationship falter, the gender of their next lover might have no better than a fifty-fifty chance of being a same-sex partner. It is highly likely that reduced societal prejudice toward same-sex sexuality has contributed to the probability that these young people pursue sexual and romantic partners relatively independent of gender. Although this plasticity often receives currency only among young women, I have met young men who are also sexually and romantically fluid.

4. Philosophy. Other young people fully embrace their same-sex orientation, but they philosophically oppose the relegation of their sexuality to an identity box. The mere creation of sexual categories reifies a label as an “it,” a trait with stereotypical depictions that do not fit their experience. Labels are considered overly reductionist and unable to capture the full extent of their sexuality. Identity terms box them in, constrain their options, and oversimplify a complex aspect of the self. Their strongest preference is not to call their sexuality anything at all, not to compartmentalize their sexual desire, and not to link desire immediately with politics. Sex is about pleasure and happiness.

5. Fit. Despite the proliferation of gay media portraits, stereotypes linger. Many young people buy into these characterizations about what gays should value and how they should present themselves—and conclude, “This isn’t me.” In many cases, they object to the exaggerated, often comical, cross-gender representations. Butch males and femme females with same-sex attractions situate themselves here, but so too might youth who are neither particularly masculine nor feminine. Such youth are likely to be the majority of individuals with same-sex attractions.

6. Politics. Some youths oppose the political implications that are tied to a gay label. Two sorts comprise this group. First are those who assert that gay has become so mainstreamed, so “sold out,” that they no longer wish to be associated with it. Their desire is to radically restructure modern sexuality discourse or to rebel for reasons other than their sexuality—perhaps to fight sexism, classism, or racism. Second are those who lament the equation of gay with “queer.” The former has been shoved so far to the periphery of mainstream culture that “normal” youths such as themselves are excluded. They’re not sexual or political outlaws, so they’re not gay—and don’t want to be. In either case, they do not attribute the caricature of gayness to themselves.

WHILE SEVERAL FACTORS can inspire young people to reject a gay identity—and these may well change over time for one individual or across cohorts—it is clear that a significant number of same-sex-attracted young people do identify as gay, also for a variety of reasons: to right the wrongs of societal heterocentrism, to proclaim one’s rebellion or political identity, to describe sexual preferences, to connect with like-minded others, to elicit help, or to solicit sex and/or love. Few of us object to their right to avow their gay status publicly; fewer still question whether this exhibitionism, as they see it, is ideal or necessary for all same-sex-attracted youth.

Certainly, these self-identified gay youths are not in the majority among those with same-sex attractions. For every high school student who identifies as gay, there are three, four, perhaps even ten others with same-sex attractions who do not, whether privately or publicly. Surveys of adolescents across several countries (Australia, Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the U.S.) find that only two to three percent of adolescents identify as gay or have engaged in same-sex activities. However, admissions of same-sex sexual or romantic attractions are far larger, up to fifteen to twenty percent. Some of these youths may eventually adopt a gay or bisexual label, while others who currently identify as gay may subsequently de-identify once they tire of the label or no longer find it useful to gain a community, a lover, a connection.

Whether young people identify as gay directly affects estimates of their numbers, and thus the argument for attention and resources. Although such assessments are surely valuable, as a developmental and clinical psychologist, I am less interested in prevalence rates per se than in meaningful distinctions between those who do and do not identify as gay. For example, nearly all mental health research on same-sex-attracted youth is generated from the reports of self-identified gay youth, convincingly demonstrating that youths who identify as gay or engage in same-sex behavior are more likely than straight youths to be suicidal, depressed, anxious, distressed, victimized, and substance abusing. The resulting portrait is that of the “suffering suicidal” gay adolescent. This script is well known to most same-sex-attracted youths, informing them of how their life is likely to play out.

But does the script reflect their social reality? Research would suggest that to some extent it does. There are several possible explanations: 1) Gay-identified youth who participate in research are not representative of the larger population of same-sex-attracted youth; rather, whatever causes them to identify as gay is significantly related to mental health disturbance. 2) Gay youths over-report psychopathology, either because they believe they’re supposed to fulfill the “suffering suicidal script” (that is, be a drama queen) or because they’re more in touch with their inner self and hence small perturbations of psychological stability are noticed. 3) Gay youths are mentally disturbed because of their biology: that which makes them gay also creates mental health volatility (in biologic terms: “developmental instability” or “fluctuating asymmetry”). 4) Gay youths are mentally disturbed because of minority stress: adolescent clinical symptomatology results from unrelenting family, peer, and societal victimization and stigmatization, often from early childhood and often because of their gender-atypical behavior and interests—not because of their sexual orientation as such.

The jury is still out on what explains the mental health differences between gay and straight youth. Regardless, some teens do not identify as gay because they’ve heard about the implied gay youth life trajectory and either fear its inevitability or fail to relate to it whatsoever. They are not experiencing meaningfully different life trajectories from those of their heterosexual peers, and it is this sense of sameness that drives them to want not to be different. This does not mean that they’re uncomfortable with their sexuality, want to change it, or withhold information about it from others. Indeed, the vast majority of modern teens with same-sex attractions actually feel quite good about themselves. Levels of self-esteem do not differ from heterosexual peers, and most are not sitting around lamenting that they’re gay. And, given a choice, most say they would not take a pill that would change their sexual orientation. Upwards of eighty percent reportedly feel “very good” or “okay” about their sexuality; only about five percent hate or would do anything to change their sexual orientation. Like their peers, they ruminate on love and romance, struggle to understand the conundrum known as parents, and wonder what they’ll be when they grow up. Far down on their agenda is attempting suicide, abusing substances—or identifying as gay. To understand their lives, the best approach is not through the psychology of homosexuality but through that of basic adolescent development.

What this means for those of us who have spent our professional lives studying the plight of gay-identified youth is that we must stop treating them as if they were a separate species; stop focusing solely on “gay versus straight” research; stop directing attention only toward the liabilities while neglecting the assets of same-sex attraction; and stop treating them as if they were a collective, as if “gay youth” were a meaningful entity. If we allow same-sex-attracted youth to teach us anything, the current cohort instructs us to acknowledge their non-gay existence. New gay teenagers revel neither in the singularity nor the banality of same-sex attractions. Their desire is to witness the elimination of sexuality per se as the defining characteristic of the person. If achieved, gay identification would be relegated to an archaic memory, its social construct forgotten except as a historic footnote.


Ritch C. Savin-Williams’ latest book is The New Gay Teenager (Adolescent Lives)(Harvard University Press, 2005). He teaches human development at Cornell.


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