Members of the LGBT community usually get a pass when they discuss the problems associated with coming out. For example, when Scott Thompson talked about how tough high school can be for gay teens, he encouraged them to “grow a pair”. Few in the LGBT media batted an eye.
Straight people, however, don’t get that luxury. Take, for example, Kathleen McKinley’s recent article in the Houston Chronicle, which chastises parents and friends of LGBT teens for not warning them of the dangers of coming out.
Admittedly, I’m offended by McKinley’s assertion that high school clubs like GLSEN are about “flaunting” sexuality. And her claim that exploring sexual identity has no place in teens’ lives is ludicrous: the teenage years are EXACTLY the time that people are focused on their sexuality, largely because their bodies are changing to accommodate sexual activity.
But the gist of the two pieces aren’t too far off: at heart, both Thompson and McKinley acknowledge that coming out is more complicated than shows like Glee would have viewers believe, and they encourage a bit of caution.
For starters, there are parents and other family members to consider when coming out. McKinkley says that if any of her kids were gay, she would love them just the same. But we know that many parents aren’t so open-minded. Nor are brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or grandparents.
But most of all, Thompson and McKinley point out the one fact that many people seem to overlook: teenagers are terrible people, and they always will be. Bullying is a problem in high school because that’s when people really begin defining themselves — and in order to do so, they take the simple, binary route. They think in terms of “self” versus “other”, “us” versus “them”. That will never, ever change.
Thompson and McKinley offer different approaches to the problem of coming out. McKinley, like many conservatives, wants to shelter kids from any mention of sexuality — straight or gay. She wants parents to accept their children’s budding sexuality, but she doesn’t want teenagers to make that sexuality known just yet.
Thompson, on the other hand, basically says, “Sure, parents should love their kids, but if they encourage those kids to come out, they should teach ’em a little judo, too.”
Neither denies that gay kids exist, and neither suggests that parents do anything but love their kids, gay or straight. The difference is mostly in how they encourage parents to respond to their kids coming out.
Meanwhile, Thompson gets a pass from the gay press, but McKinley gets raked over the coals. What the hell?
My take? The problem may boil down to a lack of nuance in the “It Gets Better” campaign. Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s a great effort — but people seem confused about what it’s meant to do.
From where I sit, “It Gets Better” is meant to reassure LGBT kids that although their lives may suck now, they will improve over time. Some of the campaign’s videos encourage kids to come out loudly and proudly; others advise teens to bide their time and come out when it feels right; others say nothing at all about what to do in the here and now. The one thing the videos all have in common is that they aim to stem today’s tide of teen suicides by offering glimpses of a better tomorrow.
Bottom line: the core message of “It Gets Better” is all in the title. While many LGBT adults — myself included — appreciate the importance of coming out to friends, family, and co-workers, teenagers may not have the emotional (or financial) wherewithal to stand on their own. The videos should offer reassurance, but teens are ultimately responsible for the time and manner of their own coming out.
Adults don’t get this. Many seem to think that the campaign is meant to encourage every LGBT teen to come out. That would be ridiculous — almost as ridiculous as believing that adults can protect every LGBT kid from bullying.
My own “It Gets Better” message? Yes, it gets better — absolutely — and as more people come out, the world’s opinions gradually change. But that’s at a macro level. On a micro level, teens need to take responsibility for coming out in a way that doesn’t put them at risk. They should have no delusions about the world being a happy, rainbow-filled place after they make their announcement to friends, family, and teachers. Some of those folks will be happy and embrace newly out kids with open arms. Others, not so much.
Personally, I came out when I was 14 to a couple of friends, then went back in the closet (after they moved away) and didn’t come out again until I was 20. Was that ideal? No, but I’m not an idealist, I’m a pragmatist. Would I do it differently today? Maybe, but judging from the teens I know, I wouldn’t count on it.