After the passage in 2008 of California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that banned recognition of same-sex marriage there, the nation’s LGBT community experienced a reawakening. For the first time in years — at least since the time of ACT UP — massive numbers of LGBT people took to the streets in big cities and small-town hamlets alike, pounding the pavement for equal rights and justice. That renewed sense of energy gave rise to all sorts of new grassroots activists and leaders, many of them young people.
Youth today — those still in high school or in college — have grown up in a world with nearly unlimited access to information on LGBT life, people, culture and politics — the realities of the world and themselves inextricably linked with their own self-identity at younger and younger ages.
In 2005, researchers Caitlin Ryan and Rafael M. Diaz documented emerging trends in LGBT youth self-identity. Their study charted the average age of first same-sex attraction at 10 years old and an average age of 13.4, they said, marks when youth are self-identifying as LGBT. Shockingly, or perhaps not so much, some of the youth reported LGBT self-identities as young as five or seven.
Compared to studies from the 1970s through early 1990s — in which average self-identity ages ranged from 19-23 and 14-16, respectively — Diaz’s and Ryan’s findings show remarkable growth and a promising future for the LGBT community.
Chelsea Adams, 19, a rising sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, says young people today are living in a larger, more identifiable community than ever before.
“The community of out LGBT youth is the largest there’s ever been,” says Adams, secretary of UNC-Charlotte PRIDE, the campus LGBT student organization. “People are learning what it means to be gay younger, and it strengthens our community and everyone’s understanding of what it means to be LGBT.”
LGBT youth, their identities — in terms of both sexual orientation and gender — and how they relate to the world are becoming more fluid.
Loan Tran, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Phillip O. Berry High School, says ze came out in the sixth grade. Fortunately, Tran says ze didn’t experience much harassment or discrimination. [Ed. Note — Please see our special note on gender-neutral pronoun usage.]
“I didn’t get much of that,” Tran recalls. “I got the occasional discriminatory remark from people who were unaware of the community but that’s it.”
Tran, who identifies as queer and when asked about hir gender identity said, “I don’t have a preference,” says ze didn’t see sexual or gender identities as any more or less a part of hirself than anything else.
“At the time I came out, I didn’t try to focus on my sexual orientation that much,” ze says. “It hadn’t evolved into a big part of my life yet.”
As for why ze identifies as queer, Tran explains: “I feel like the word ‘queer’ is more of an umbrella term and, personally, I’m not a big fan of binaries. I think it is less restricting on my self-identification. We all know personal identity is always evolving.”
Zack Rosen, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based TheNewGay.net, an alternative queer news, commentary and culture website (their tag line once read, “For everyone over the rainbow”), says LGBT young people are coming out earlier because of the more accepting culture and society in which they are being raised.
“A lot of them come out earlier, exposed to many more images of queer people and queer culture,” he says. “They watched ‘Will & Grace,’ and any number of other fairly mainstream or not-so-underground popular entertainment with a balance of gay characters.”
Eighteen-year-old Michael Turner, a rising UNC-Charlotte sophomore and PRIDE vice president, echoes Rosen’s thoughts.
“Now the community is in the news, it’s all over the place,” he says. “It is easier for you to know what those feelings are when you are younger and you can grow up in an atmosphere where you already have that self-declaration and you can be stronger.”
Youth who identity as straight, Rosen, 27, says, have also been impacted by the changing culture. “Many straight youth are more nonchalant, being around peers coming out. It’s less of a big deal.”
And, just as the culture shapes LGBT young people today in such a remarkable way, Rosen believes queer youth will grow up to leave their own unique stamp on the world.
“I hope they’ll blow it wide open,” he says. “I can’t wait. If you aren’t fighting for simple existence, growing up in a world where many older people have worked so hard to make it easier to be an out gay person, it paves the way for kids to do some really awesome stuff.”
Even in places where acceptance isn’t a given, it is becoming easier for youth to take a stand and fight for equality. Rosen points to examples like Mississippi’s Constance McMillen or Georgia’s Derrick Martin.
“Things are really bad still in a lot of places in this country,” he says, “but even when things aren’t good, people are more aware of the injustices, are able to see them and get involved a little younger.”
That’s what 16-year-old Omar Ramirez, a rising senior at Southern Guilford High School, hopes to do. Like other youth in rural areas, Ramirez looks out at the immediate world around him and sees little progress on LGBT equality.
Despite living in an LGBT-friendly school district, and in a state that recently passed LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying legislation, Ramirez feels his rural school isn’t as accepting or as safe as it should be. Five years ago, he says, students attempted to start a gay-straight alliance and were turned away. Southern Guilford remains one of few high schools in the district without such a group for LGBT, queer and straight ally students. He’ll take the initiative up himself and work to create a club as part of his senior project next school year.
Ramirez thinks it is necessary for people to stand up on equality issues.
Being active, speaking out and taking chances, he says, will make a true difference: “If people continue to be proactive and work for change, then equality could possibly come by the time I grow up, but to just sit around or sit back and let people harass or discriminate against other people is not going to change anything. Change has to start with me if bigger change is to occur.”
Jacob Tobia, an 18-year-old, gay Raleigh Charter High grad heading to Duke University in the fall, thinks one of the youth community’s biggest challenges will come in convincing people to get involved.
“To younger LGBT people there seems to be an inevitability factor in everything,” he says. “In a way, it feels to some as if equal rights for all people are going to be a given. With our generation, it’s like we are waiting for our parents to leave these positions of power so it will just happen.”
Ivel Posada, also 18 and heading to Harvard College next month, agrees: “A lot of people think, ‘By the time I grow up it will be fixed.’”
On issues like marriage, Posada says many in his peer circle say “I can’t think about this. I’m too young to be thinking about this right now.”
Gonzalo Agudelo, 19, is a rising junior at UNC-Charlotte and PRIDE president. He also thinks complacency is a concern. “Because we are in a better place, we can forget that we are lacking basic human rights,” he says. “It is easy to feel more comfortable where we are right now, but it is really important to remember that we are still playing for an ultimate goal — flat out equality, nothing left out at all.”
The comfort that comes from acceptance, Tobia says, can have put a damper on youth’s ability to organize. While attending North Carolina Governor’s School last summer, Tobia said he found it extremely difficult to raise awareness on LGBT issues.
“It was such an accepting environment people immediately became complacent,” he says.
While there, some students tried to organize a silent lunch, in recognition of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. “A lot of my gay friends at Governor’s School thought we were silly for doing this activism while we were there,” he says.
Posada feels many of his peers’ perceptions on the state of LGBT affairs are wrong. “I think we’re still getting started,” Posada says of the movement for LGBT equality. “I don’t think we’re even at the halfway point yet. There’s still a long way to go and it is frustrating because we see progress happening in some states like California and then it is backtracked.”
Despite the political and social challenges of our current reality, all of the young people qnotes interviewed held optimism for better days ahead — a time in which our community can focus not on how we are treated by government or society, but instead on how we treat and identify with ourselves.
Tobia sums it up: “My hope for the future is that our challenges will continue to get smaller. I think most of the activism that has been done has been met positively. My hope is that challenges will diminish, and maybe the real challenge going forward will be understanding who we are as a community that has attained equal legal and civil rights. We’ve been defined by fighting these battles for so long, so who will we be when the battles are won? Once we are in that world, what is the LGBT community then? Who will we be? How will we treat each other and interact with each other?” : :
— Cover images/graphics courtesy Chris Spooner (Blog.SpoonGraphics) and Make Well Graphic (graphicpoint.co.cc).