Republished here with permission from the Kids and Sex Blog.
I was recently reminded of the sweeping cultural changes occurring regarding sexual identification when a friend told me that her son had come out twice—first at 17, proudly announcing he was gay and second, four years later, awkwardly confessing he was . . . well . . . maybe straight or something in between, since he’d begun having feelings for women. In both cases, my friend smiled at her son, hugged him fondly, and declared, “Whatever!”
Boy, have things changed in a short period of time.
A generation ago, it was practically unheard of for kids to share openly with their parents their sexual preferences and desires, particularly those that were non-traditional, for fear of being ridiculed, shamed, and rejected, if not outright banished from the family. Today, by contrast, with attractive gay role models evident on TV, in the movies, and elsewhere, kids are more open than ever to same-sex experimentation—if for no other reason than to make sure they’re not missing out on something cool. Call it “gay chic.” No kid wants to be left behind.
Two generations ago, anyone waking from a same-sex dream would have been gravely disturbed by the possibility of being queer. Having same-sex daydreams was even worse because they couldn’t be blamed on the mysterious subconscious. And since, back then, the world was black or white—hetero or homo—being attracted to someone of the same sex despite attractions to carloads of persons of the opposite sex, meant a person was queer. There was no other choice. A little bit queer was queer. Discovering you were felt like a death sentence.
Men who determined they were gay and no longer felt welcome at home knew of only one place that provided safe haven: the gay community. Akin to freaks running away to join the circus, gays flocked to San Francisco and other gay-friendly outposts to live among “their kind” in hopes of finding some longed-for measure of acceptance. That, they generally found, along with reinforced stereotypical behavior and affectation that only intensified the division between themselves and their back-home non-queer family and friends.
Finally in the 1980s, the term “bi-sexuality” entered the mainstream vernacular. For the first time, sexual preference had gradations. One could be 10 percent queer and 90 percent straight. Or 30 percent queer and 70 percent straight. Or 50-50. Real gays—those who were 100-percent queer—took issue with the new category, believing that queer was queer and that bi-sexuals were persons who simply hadn’t figured out what they were yet. But for those attracted to both sexes, the wide-spread dissemination of the term exploded the black-and-white, either-or world. Young men with same-sex attractions were suddenly faced with choice and no longer felt compelled to escape to the gay community for safety. They could remain in the culture at large and visit gay playgrounds whenever it pleased them.
A gay-identified man in a long-term relationship with another man recently told me that if he’d known as a kid that the world wasn’t strictly gay or straight, he might have enjoyed relationships with women and been just as happy with one as he is with his current partner. “It’s not that I don’t love him, because of course I do. It’s that I accepted a falsehood and built my life around it. Kids today have real choices.”
Since the 1980s, there’s been another leap forward with the emerging rejection of labels: gay, straight, and bisexual, in favor of no labels at all—where individuals simply love whomever they want—all men, or all women, or a man today, a woman tomorrow. Free of labels, kids feel even less pressure to make life-long choices, painting themselves into corners by either hiding from, or proclaiming membership in, static arbitrary categories.
Kids are figuring all this out for themselves. When they say, “I’m gay,” they can mean lots of things. They might be saying they’re envious of others at school who, when they announced they were gay, got lots of attention, and that trying on the label might be exciting for a while. They might be saying that they’ve discovered an attraction to someone of the same sex, that they’re considering experimenting with a friend, that they’ve done a little experimenting already and liked it and want to do a little bit more, or that deep down, they know they’re attracted only to those whose genitals mirror their own. Only when we learn what our kids really mean can we offer meaningful support and guidance as they journey toward sexual fulfillment.
The days of trying to shame kids into adopting “approved” sexual preferences are gone forever. Kids aren’t buying it. They want adults to get with the program and understand that all preferences are approved—especially the ones they choose. Our job is to encourage kids to explore all their (legal and healthy) sexual desires, guide them by providing safe-sex information and reminders to respect the boundaries of others, and celebrate their emerging sexuality.
I spoke with a couple a few weeks ago whose 15-year-old son had come out to them . . . in a text! Instead of sitting down and talking with him to explore what he meant by being gay, they sought counseling to help them “cope with the difficult news.” I advised them that “gay” can mean a lot of things and that they need to talk with and listen to their son to find out what it means to him. “If indeed he is gay,” I said, “you’ll know soon enough, at which time you’ll want to celebrate.” They reiterated that they were working on coping, not celebrating, but said they’d keep that in mind.
Get ready, parents. When your kids tell you what excites them, be prepared to celebrate their joyful discoveries . . . whatever they happen to be.
Craig Bennett Hallenstein is a psychologist, sex-educator, and father of five. His weekly column, KidsAndSexBlog.com, is a sex-positive advice column for parents. His work had been published in periodicals as diverse as The Journal of Professional Psychology and the National Enquirer.