One of the things sociologists often remark upon as unique about gay people is that, unlike members of other minority groups, we mostly grow up alone, the solo homo in families that rarely share our sexual identities. So, frequently, we germinate like hothouse plants with specific areas of our identities developing in private, sequestered away from natural sources of light. Consequently, we grow up fast in some ways, and more slowly in others. Exotic blooms erupting out of season are our specialty.
As a result of the quicksilver changes that are now occurring in how our culture thinks about and relates to queer people and issues, many young sprouts are enjoying the advantages of fresh sunlight. Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) in high schools across the country, gay faces in the media, and the national debate concerning civil marriage are just some of the ways in which the message is getting to young gay people—you are not alone. You are not—more than is normal for most teenagers—a big weirdo.
While this is a wonderful and fertilizing thing, it shouldn’t, of course, blind anyone to the fact that queer young people still face widespread hostility and greater risk for difficulties than other youth. It has also, oddly enough, created more distance between young gay people and their elders, namely many of you and also me.
A new report from Amherst, Massachusetts’ Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies examines this so-called gay generation gap, noting that the experiences of these youngsters are radically different than those of anyone who was raised and came out before the millennium approached.
For example, while the idea of going to the prom with your sweetie was inconceivable for most of us oldsters, a fair and growing number of young people today take it as their right that they should be allowed, nay encouraged to bring their same-sex date to the big bash. And while many of us elders carry the painful scars of homophobic skirmishes in the past—not to mention what in many cases are still-fresh wounds of the AIDS epidemic—the lucky young among us blessedly can’t conceive of the world that was, with its raids, sodomy laws, and daily humiliations.
Consequently, say the report’s authors, we need to find new ways of communicating inter-generationally if we want to rise as a community to the challenges and opportunities of this brave new world we’re living in. But the problem is this—we don’t really even talk to each other.
As the study points out, the young gays can’t—or at least aren’t supposed to—come into the bars where much of gay culture nationwide still operates. In turn, the adult gay community isn’t particularly suited to roaming the high school corridors leading to the GSA meetings. If they did, eyebrows would most certainly be raised.
And this is exactly where the report, in my opinion, loses its nerve. Many over the years have lamented the lack of positive mentoring relationships for gay youth. It seems to make so much sense. Mom and Dad just don’t, just can’t really understand the gay thing—how perfect then to have an older person around who could lead the way. Right? Right?
Or did we just cross a line?
The stereotype of homosexuals, particularly men, as sexual predators is so entrenched in both straight and gay consciousness as to go almost unquestioned. The report barely mentions the specter of older gay people seducing or otherwise engaging in sexual behaviors with youth and its impact on intergenerational contact. This issue is so loaded, so dangerous, that a code of silence concerning it is largely maintained by those who care about our community. Our enemies talk about it all the time. In church they talk about it. Oy.
Studies vary but about one in six or at the very least one in 10 boys encounters unwanted sexual contact from an adult. The rate is horrifyingly one in three for girls. Childhood sexual abuse is rampant in our culture.
According to a report conducted by Hofstra University last year, however, research does not exist to support any clear connection between homosexual identity and child sexual abuse. No smoking gun. In fact, children are most at risk, sadly, from a parent.
But it remains true that perception is more powerful than reality in the perpetuation of this myth. Speaking as a gay man, though, I remember that I was worried as a kid that older gay men I knew wanted to have sex with me. And now as an adult, I worry that the younger gay guys I know want reassurances from me that I don’t want to get into their pants. This sexual tension and anxiety is probably exacerbated by the fact that so many of us have been exploited somewhere along the way. But it definitely blows a big hole in the plans for bridging the gay generation gap.
In order for us to learn to talk with each other, we clearly need to feel safe with each other. That’s why well-designed, well-run programs like Youth Enrichment Services (YES) at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center or The Ali Forney Center for homeless queer youth are so important. Interestingly, one of the places that a great deal of successful inter-generational contact occurs in our community is in Twelve Step programs. It seems that the common bond of facing a compulsive behavior helps create the conditions for strong friendships between the older and the younger gay people in recovery. Of course, mentorship, in the form of sponsors, is built into the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous and the other fellowships.
At the end of the day, completely closing the generation gap probably isn’t fully possible in our community or any other. I just don’t care enough about Britney or skateboarding or Marco coming out at TV’s fictional DeGrassi High and I never will. And I doubt many young queers really care about the minutia of buying a condo or fighting middle age spread.
That makes those institutions that help young queer people all the more important. They do as organizations what we as individuals often struggle with. And they have solid boundaries and guidelines for how they do it that create safety and security. Until some more time goes by and the myth of the gay predator goes away and our own anxiety about each other lessens, we should keep making that end-of-the-year donation to such groups. They make our gardens grow.
The full report from the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies discussed above can we found at the group’s Web site at iglss.org.