Justin*, a teenager who self-identifies as gay, chatted with Child Space about his sexual orientation (see Part 1). Some readers may find his statements confusing and even conflictual. For most, coming to terms with one’s sexuality during adolescence, whether heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, is a confusing and conflictual process.
Estimates suggest that between 2 to 10% of the world’s population experiences sexual attraction to others of the same sex (homosexual) or both sexes (bisexual). Several factors are believed to determine one’s sexual orientation, with research increasingly suggesting it is due to an interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors.
Among professional health organizations, it is now accepted that homosexuality and bisexuality are not a choice, but rather, inherent. Where mental health is concerned, homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, having been reclassified by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. Thus, attempts to change a person’s orientation (e.g. via “conversion therapy” and “ex-gay ministry”) are decried by all professional health organizations.
Despite these strides, coming to terms with their sexual identity is particularly difficult for many GLBT teens. Societal and religious values remain largely intolerant of sexual minorities. So while a young man and young woman may exchange furtive glances that lead to them forming a relationship, the GLBT teen is more likely to hide similar attractions and relationships from others.
Adolescence is a time when acceptance by others is of utmost importance. But teens can be quite cruel to those different from them. In 2008, a U.S. survey of over 6,000 middle and high school students was published, which revealed:
- 86.2% of GLBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year
- 60.8% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation
- 32.7% skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe
- 73.6% heard derogatory remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school
Off the record, Justin relayed to CS several incidents of verbal abuse and discrimination from peers. This is disturbing, as such acts have led to the murders and suicides of GLBT youth. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are at increased risk for attempting suicide, with GLBT youth up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Those who come from a family that rejects their sexual orientation are suggested to be up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide.
“I always knew that I was gay. I also remember seeing heterosexual couples and knowing that I wasn’t like them. I would get very depressed about not being like other kids. Many times I would take a kitchen knife and press it against my chest, wondering if I should push it all the way in” – Alex, a 14-year-old gay youth.
Justin shared that he had “come out” to his friends, but not his family. Coming out, or the disclosure of one’s sexual orientation, is an important, intimate process in the lives of GLBT persons. It typically occurs over time and is theorized to take place in stages. Coming out is beneficial, with research showing that feeling positively about one’s sexual orientation and integrating it into one’s life fosters greater well-being and mental health. GLBT persons who feel they must conceal their sexual orientation report more frequent mental health concerns and physical problems than those who are more open and they are less likely to seek social and medical services. Many teens defer or limit coming out for fear of rejection from friends and family, as we see in Justin’s story.
Justin revealed to CS that he became sexually active this year. In the U.S, the current average age for first sexual intercourse is 17 (Justin’s age). Unfortunately, 1 in 4 of all sexually active teens contracts a sexually transmitted disease, often due to lack of knowledge about STDs and contraceptive use. GLBT youth have been reported to engage in sexual intercourse at an earlier age, have more sexual partners and use protection during sex less often than their heterosexual peers. This is an area that should be addressed but is typically ignored due to religious and societal beliefs about homosexuality and sexual activity.
Justin gave us a peek into the complexity of being a gay teen. It is incumbent upon us now to open our eyes to the issues facing these young people and move toward improving their lives. After all, as he agreed, isn’t it all about love anyway?
*Identifying information has been altered to maintain anonymity.
Read More: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Teens: Information for Teens and Parents
For Teens: Sexual Attraction and Orientation