AUSTIN DIDN'T KNOW what to wear to his first gay dance last spring. It was bad enough that the gangly 13-year-old from Sand Springs, Okla., had to go without his boyfriend at the time, a 14-year-old star athlete at another middle school, but there were also laundry issues. “I don’t have any clean clothes!” he complained to me by text message, his favored method of communication. He was still a nervous wreck an hour later when I met up with him. “Who am I going to talk to?” he said. “I wish my boyfriend could come.” But Austin’s boyfriend couldn’t find anyone to give him a ride, nor could he ask his father for one. “His dad would give him up for adoption if he knew he was gay,” Austin told me. “I’m serious. He has the strictest, scariest dad ever. He has to date girls and act all tough so that people won’t suspect.”
Austin doesn’t have to play “the pretend game,” as he calls it, anymore. At his own middle school, he has come out to his close friends, who have been supportive. A few of his female friends responded that they were bisexual. (“Half the girls I know are bisexual,” he says.) He hadn’t planned on coming out to his mom yet, but she found out a week before the dance. “I told my cousin, my cousin told this other girl, she told her mother, her mother told my mom, and then my mom told me,” Austin explained. “The only person who really has a problem with it is my older sister, who keeps saying: “It’s just a phase! It’s just a phase!”
A family friend had agreed to drive Austin to Tulsa for the weekly youth dance at Openarms Youth Project, and we arrived unfashionably on time. Austin initially tried to park himself on a couch in a corner, but was whisked away by Ben, a 16-year-old Openarms regular, who gave him an impromptu tour and introduced him to his mom, who works the concession area most weeks. (Openarms was practically overrun with supportive moms.) Ninety minutes later, Openarms was packed with about 130 teenagers who had come from all corners of the state. Some danced to a Lady Gaga song, others battled one another in foosball, and a handful of young couples held hands on the patio. In one corner, a short, perky eighth-grade girl kissed her ninth-grade girlfriend. I asked them where they met. “In church,” they told me.
Austin had practically forgotten about his boyfriend by then. Instead, he was confessing to me—mostly by text message, though we were standing next to each other—his crush on Laddie, a 16-year-old from Texas who had just moved to Tulsa. Like Austin, Laddie was attending the dance for the first time, but he came off as much more comfortable in his skin and had a handful of admirers on the patio. Laddie told them that he came out in eighth grade and that the announcement sent shock waves through his Texas school. “I definitely lost some friends,” he said, “but no one really made fun of me or called me names, probably because I was one of the most popular kids when I came out. I don’t think I would have come out if I wasn’t popular.”
“When I first realized I was gay,” Austin interjected, “I just assumed I would hide it and be miserable for the rest of my life. But then I said, ‘Okay, wait, I don’t want to hide this and be miserable my whole life.’” I asked him how old he was when he made that decision. “Eleven,” he said.
SIMILAR STORIES INCREASINGLY can be heard across the country. Though most adolescents who come out still do so in high school, sex researchers and counselors say that more and more middle-school students are coming out to friends or family, or to an adult in school. Just how they’re faring in a world that wasn’t expecting them—and that isn’t so sure a 12-year-old can know if he’s gay—is a complicated question. For many gay youth, middle school remains a survival test. In a 2007 survey of 626 gay, bisexual, and transgender middle schoolers from across the country, 81 percent reported being regularly harassed on campus because of their sexual orientation. The suicides last spring of a sixth-grader in Massachusetts and a fifth-grader in Georgia, both of whom were relentlessly bullied at school for appearing gay—reinforced sociologists’ long-standing recognition that gay teenagers are at a significantly higher risk for depression, substance abuse, and suicide than their heterosexual peers.
I was familiar with the dark stories. When I started working in 1998 for XY, a national magazine for young gay men, we received dozens of letters each week from teenagers in the depths of despair. Even within three years, though, the content of the letters we received began to change. A new kind of gay adolescent was appearing on the page—proud, resilient, sometimes even happy. What had changed? It wasn’t that gay teenagers didn’t still suffer harassment at school or rejection at home. But not only were there increasingly positive portrayals of gays and lesbians appearing in popular culture, most teenagers were by then regular Internet users. Going online broke through the isolation that had been a hallmark of being young and gay, and it allowed gay teenagers to find information to refute what their families or churches sometimes still told them—namely, that they would never find happiness and love.
Today, as Ritch Savin-Williams writes in his book The New Gay Teenager, more young people with same-sex attractions are coming out and are living lives that would be “nearly incomprehensible to earlier generations of gay youth.” In particular, openly gay youth who are perceived as conforming to adolescent gender norms are often fully integrated into their peer social circles. Girls who come out as bisexual but are still considered “feminine” are often immune from harassment, as are some gay boys, like Laddie, who come out, but are still considered “masculine.” “Bisexual girls have it the easiest,” Austin told me. “Most of the straight guys at school think that’s hot, so that can make the girl even more popular.”
Still, the younger they are when they come out, the more that youth with same-sex attractions face an obstacle that would be unimaginable to their straight peers. When a 12-year-old boy matter-of-factly tells his parents—or a school counselor—that he likes girls, their reaction tends not to be one of disbelief. “No one says to them: ‘Are you sure? You’re too young to know if you like girls,’” says Eileen Ross, the director of a support service for gay youth in Mountain View, Calif. “But that’s what we say too often to gay youth. We deny them their feelings and truth in a way we would never do with a heterosexual young person.”
A few years ago, when I first heard from educators that young adolescents were coming out of the closet, I visited a middle school in Northern California where three eighth-graders (a gay boy named Justin and two heterosexual girls, Alison and Amelia) took me on a tour of the school. They wanted to show me how many students were gay, bisexual, or “confused,” but they wanted to do it discreetly—or as discreetly as middle schoolers can. Alison, who was a member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a club that promotes tolerance, suggested that the three friends “come up with some code words on the down low so we can tell you what’s up without anyone knowing what we’re saying.” They settled on “paw” for gay and “woof” for bisexual.
As we walked past the gym, a group of boys came rushing out. Justin pointed to a short, muscular eighth-grader in a baseball cap. “Paw!” he said. Alison looked surprised. “Isn’t he a woof?” “No, he just thinks he’s a woof,” Justin said. Amelia looked confused. “What does woof mean again?”
I soon was confused trying to keep track of it all, but Alison told me not to worry. “We can’t even keep up with who’s gay or bi and who’s into who, and we go to school here!” she said.
All of this fluidity can, of course, be disorienting for parents and educators. Is an eighth-grader who says he’s gay just experimenting? Could he change his mind in a week, as 13-year-olds routinely do with other identities—skater, prep, goth, jock? And if sexuality is so fluid, should he really box himself in with a gay identity? Many parents told me they especially struggled with that last question. Some of those parents heard the words “gay” or “bisexual” from their children and immediately thought “sex.” In reality, many of their kids hadn’t had any yet. Some hadn’t even kissed anyone.
I was guilty of doubting the “truth” of two middle schoolers I met with last spring in a city in New England. Justin was 13 and had braces. Kera was still in seventh grade. Yet there they were at a coffee shop, talking nonchalantly about their sexual identities. Kera said she was bisexual. Justin said he was gay. I blurted out, “But you’re so young!”
My reaction surprised me. After all, I’d known on some level that I was gay when I was their age. I’d also spent the morning reading a handful of studies about when gay and lesbian youth first report an awareness of same-sex attraction. Though most didn’t self-identify as gay or lesbian until they were 14, 15, or 16, the mean age at which they first became aware of that attraction was 10.
Kera says it was at age 10 that she realized she was interested in both sexes. “It was confusing for a while, because for some reason I thought that you had to be straight or gay, and that you couldn’t be both,” she told me at the coffee shop. “So I thought about it a lot, like I do about everything, and I went online and looked up bisexuality to read more about it. I realized that was me.”
She told her mom soon after, and then came out to her close friends at school. Last year, the entire school found out when she briefly dated a female classmate. “It was a whole big drama at school,” she said. “Some guys made fun of us, others hit on us. Most middle school guys are total, complete morons.”
From The New York Times Magazine. ©2009 by The New York Times Co.