Friday Forum: A New Generation Of GLBT Teens On And Off-Screen
- September 25th, 2009
- 1 Comments
Once again, Anastasia (Gen X) and I (Gen Y) exchange letters and invite readers to join the dialogue in comments. This week with another relevant episode of “Glee” and a revealing look at GLBT and questioning middle schoolers in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (reg. required), we decided to continue our discussion on the topic. Here’s what happened…
So, last night’s “Glee” once again focused on Kurt coming to terms with his identity as a gay teen at home and at school. In the episode Kurt makes a heartfelt attempt to appease (and reassure) his rough-around-the-edges dad of his masculinity by landing a spot as kicker on the school’s football team. The twist? With his precise Glee-club honed kicking abilities and encouragement to loosen up the team through dance (leading to an amazing performance of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”) Kurt turns out to be the team’s secret weapon and ultimately leads them to victory.
It was all thoroughly entertaining and most definitely had the makings of a viral clip. But what really pulled it together for me was the scene similar to last week’s with Mercedes, where the lightheartedness of the show subsides when Kurt comes out to his father after the game. His dad (in a great guest appearance by Mike O’Malley) tells him he’s suspected as much since he was 3, and though he’s “not in love with the idea,” still supports and loves for his son regardless. It was a really tense scene, that demonstrated an incredible level of unblinking honesty.
The level of realism became even more clear (and more impressive) after I read that in-depth article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine on “Coming Out in Middle School” and recognized so many of those same issues in Kurt’s storyline: identifying a difference from a young age, the parental disbelief (after Kurt comes out, his dad asks “Are you sure?”) and the bullying (including Finn being called gay-by-association). And then there was the most interesting and poignant parallel that I felt also applied to Kurt (a 15 year old?) even though the Times’ mostly featured 11 to 14 year olds: the emphasis on identity vs. sexuality and recognizing that like heterosexuality, being gay, lesbian or bisexual doesn’t begin with a same-sex relationship. Kurt realizes that he is who is no matter what the context (in his case, Glee or football) and ultimately finds the self-confidence to be that person to his dad.
In pop culture terms, it’s a striking contrast to the “coming out” plotlines we saw on “My So-Called Life” with Ricky, or even on more recent shows like “Dawson’s Creek” with Jack or “Degrassi” with Marcus where parents’ (especially dads) immediate response was one of strong rejection and even disgust. I can only hope that Kurt’s self-assured pronouncement of self and his dad’s almost immediate (albeit tentative) acceptance reflects this new generation of gay tweens/teens and the relationship they have with their parents. My sense is while this probably isn’t the case across the board (especially in families with a more conservative background), as Gen Y’ers and their successors, continue to develop a closer bond with Mom and Dad these types of difficult conversations will become easier to breach. Either way, I think positive representations of that type of relationship like last night’s Glee could definitely serve as inspiration.
I agree that Kurt’s coming out to his father was probably a more accurate depiction of how many more parents are handling this revelation compared to previous generations. The Times Magazine article also pointed out that in addition to pop culture becoming more gay-friendly, the number of gay straight student alliances has continued to expand in both high schools and middle schools across the country. Social conservatives have tried but have been largely unsuccessful at shutting them down. The article reported that as a response to anti-gay bullying and harassment, at least 120 middle schools across the country have formed gay-straight alliance (G.S.A.) groups, and they are now in more than 4,000 high schools. Between these types of support groups or clubs and the endless resources now online, GLBT or questioning teens no longer have to suffer in silence.
The flipside of course is that the more teens who come out, especially at younger ages, the more potential for backlash there may be whether it’s from socially conservative teachers or administrators, other parents or other teens who can now bully not just in the parking lot but anonymously online. I remember the story I included in Totally Wired about a gay teen in the south who came out to his evangelical parents and was immediately sent to a acamp meant to “straighten him out.” It was heartbreaking. I think teens still need support and guidance about how, when and who it is safe to come out to.
While I understand the desire for tweens and younger teens to explore their identities—and that part of that process involves proclaiming who they are in the moment (I’m punk, straight edge, conservative, liberal, etc.), I also think about the risk of bisexual, gay or lesbian becoming just another label. Something they are exploring, but like all of these identities, something that may change or be more fluid over time. For my generation, we saw most of this experimentation happen in college, especially with bisexuality. Some people ultimately did come out as gay or lesbian but for many others it was merely an exploration.
Personally, I tend to lean towards the Kinsey Scale or a sexuality spectrum where some people are more gay or straight but where all people are seen as sexual beings who might have different urges or feelings or relationships at different points in their lives. Unfortunately I think that’s way too much gray area for most Americans to be comfortable with. We like our little boxes…
I also thought the Times article bringing up language, in light of the recent “That’s so gay” PSA campaign, and in the context of middle school where the word “gay” is used more often, was interesting. Especially the teachers and parents who were resistant to addressing it as a slur for fear of having to discuss sexual orientation with students they felt were too young…
It’s true that while GSAs and the wealth of online resources are a good start for these teens, there’s still progress to be made on the tolerance front. Both in terms of language and online/offline bullying. To me the article painted a bittersweet picture of teens discovering pockets of refuge vs. adopting a safe anywhere and everywhere mentality. What I did find encouraging, however, both in the Times piece and from what I’ve heard anecdotally is the number of teens and young adults who are not only seeking out those resources and joining those groups, but rather taking it upon themselves to create them.
I read another article a while back that asked whether Gay Rights was the civil rights movement for Gen Y and to me these actions speak to that. Yes, the fight may be an uphill battle with some discouraging setbacks (Prop. 8, anyone?) along the way but, I believe that the increasing number of young people who do subscribe to that vision of tolerance—whatever their own sexual orientation may be—will keep pursuing it with that same type of tenacity.