Gay Youth Coming Out In Middle School

For most kids, the social pressures of middle school are tough enough. But an increasing number of young teenagers, some as young 10 or 11, are coming out as gay or lesbian in middle school. Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who wrote about the trend in the New York Times Magazine, discusses what social factors could be leading young people to come out earlier.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Today in our parenting conversation, what does it mean to come out at 13 or even younger? Are people who come out as gay in their teens destined to face rejection, bullying and identity crisis? Or has the world changed enough so that figuring out sexual identity is just another challenge of adolescence?

Those are the questions writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis tried to answer in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story, "Coming Out in Middle School." Now this is a first of a two-part conversation. In a few minutes, we'll hear from two parents and a teen who are living this story now. But first, writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Welcome.

Mr. BENOIT DENIZET-LEWIS (Journalist): Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, how did you notice this trend of younger and younger children identifying themselves as gay? You mentioned in the piece that you are a gay man. You came out at 20 and you found yourself a little surprised.

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Yeah, I absolutely did. Well, I started working on the piece about four or five years ago. I read a lot about youth culture and I was talking to educators and, you know, leaders of gay youth groups and they were all saying the same thing. And they're saying, you know, something really -interesting is happening right now. We're used to seeing kids coming out in -well, originally it was college or after and then it was high school. And they're saying, you know, now we're having kids coming out at 12, 13, 14, and schools really didn't know what to do.

You know, and they had the same reaction that a lot of people do, a lot of adults do. And that is, well, isn't that too young to sort of be dealing with these issues? Of course, we tend not to say that to a 12-year-old boy who tells his mom or dad that he has a crush on Julie or, you know, that he's really liking girls now. You know, we tend not to say, well, you're so young, how do you know? It's probably just a phase.

So, there is a sort of a knee-jerk discomfort that a lot of us have with the idea that someone would know this at 12 or 13. When in reality, if you talk to a gay man, you know, many of them looking back will say, you know, I noticed my same sex attraction, you know, at 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 in that ballpark. But it was a different time and you just didn't come out until much later.

MARTIN: Is there any actual data on this point of whether kids are in fact self-identifying earlier or is this all anecdotal?

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Yeah. It's a combination. You know, recent studies are showing that kids are self-identifying as gay anywhere from 13 to 16. You know, there really - there are two realities going on here. One is, you know, kids are coming out younger, and some are able, miraculously, to have a normal adolescence. That means they're not made fun of at school, they have supportive parents. They're able to sort of be an awkward teenager, just like any awkward middle-schooler.

The other reality is that it's still very difficult for a lot of gay kids to be out in middle school.

MARTIN: Is this a glass half-full or half-empty story? On the one hand, you report some kids - and you did a lot of reporting in the Bible Belt, it has to be said - that even when some kids came out at ages that a lot of people would consider very young, they were stronger, more resilient, comfortable in their own skin, did not feel that they were necessarily set up to be victims or outcasts or anything of that sort.

On the other hand, you point out that there have been a number of horrific incidents of kids even being killed by other kids and that there are still kids who report in surveys being essentially terrorized at school, that it's just something to be endured.

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So glass half-full or glass half-empty from…?

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Well, I mean, it depends how you want to look at it. I mean, both realities are going on. It's a very nuanced story. I mean, one of the interesting things that we have to look at is this, is that much of the anti-gay bullying and anti-gay harassment that's going on in middle schools and high school is more about gender non-conformity than it really is about being gay or lesbian. And by that I mean the kids who often get it the worst are bullies who are perceived as feminine and girls who are not perceived as feminine. And they tend to be the ones who get the most harassment in schools, and I spoke to kids who were more gender typical in the way they manifested, and they had a lot easier time.

MARTIN: You talk about the dilemma that parents face, and teachers face, in addressing this issue. You say, look, on the one hand, 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 - that they try on for a while and then shed for another? If sexuality is so fluid, should he really box himself in with a gay identity?

On the one hand, I take your point. You're saying listen, if a kid came home, as my six-year-old did, my six-year-old soon recently did, and say, oh, I'm going to marry Kendell(ph) when I grow up. And I said well, how do you know? And he says, well, she told me. You know, I wouldn't say how do you know you really like girls? I'd say oh, that's nice, dear. But you say that when it comes to kids who say that they are gay, it's almost like we want to talk them out of it. Is it that being gay or lesbian is still enough of a pariah identity that parents want to take it off the table as long as they can, or is it just that parents really feel that all kids are sexualized too early these days, and they don't want their kids at this age thinking about, you know, hooking up?

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Right. I think both those points are valid. You know, I think that as adults, we tend to sort of have a little bit of amnesia around this, around the idea of kids at 10 or 11 or 12 being sexual beings.

You know, there's two different things. A lot of these kids that I spent time with hadn't had any sex. You know, a few of the boys that I'd spoken to hadn't kissed another boy. So it was really - and a lot of parents, when they heard their kid, their 12-, 13-, 14-year-old say, you know, I'm gay, or I'm bisexual, or I'm lesbian, they automatically went to oh my god, that means he's having sex, when in reality it wasn't about that at all.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Benoit Denizet-Lewis. He's a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and we're talking about his article, "Coming Out in Middle School." It appeared in the magazine this weekend.

You don't directly address this in the piece, but I do want to ask your take on this. There are those who will say, perhaps for religious reasons or other reasons, that more kids are coming out just because it's more in their face, and this is a matter of modeling. Which is why, for some people, having role models is a good thing, and for other people, it's not - having visible out role models is not a good thing.

And I just wondered if, in your reporting, any of the young people you talked to talked about the effect of having visible out role models in the media, for example, in the public eye, may have played in a decision to come out.

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: I think that there's no doubt that sort of as you have more positive portrayals and, I would say, accurate portrayals of gay and lesbian life in the media, and kids can go online and find all kinds of resources, that there's no doubt that that's going to have an effect on kids, and that they're going to possibly come out earlier because of that.

Now, I don't think that those positive portrayals of gay life is going to sort of make a kid who's not attracted to the same sex suddenly say, you know, hey, this seems really cool. You know, I'm going to try being gay for a little while.

I mean, that's still not happening. What I think that these more positive portrayals in popular culture has done is it's made it a little bit safer for kids who do feel that they're gay or lesbian to be able to come to their parents or school counselor and talk about these issues, which I think is a real step forward because for many years, kids who had same-sex attraction or were confused, they couldn't talk to anyone about it.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask? You mentioned in the piece that you came out at 20, but you didn't talk about what that was like for you. Do you mind if I ask?

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: No, no.

MARTIN: What was it like when you came out?

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Well, I'm 34 and noticed same-sex attraction pretty early, right about when the studies sort of show, 10, 11, 12, but you know, this was an entirely different time. This is pre-Internet. You know, granted I lived in San Francisco, but none of my friends were gay, or none of the kids my age were gay. There were still not a lot of positive portrayals of gay and lesbian life in television.

I didn't feel like I could talk to my parents. So, you know, consequently I sort of went in denial mode, which is what a lot of gay kids have done for many years, and then in my early 20s and mid-20s and late 20s, as many gay men do who don't come out until late, we sort of try to relive our gay adolescence that we weren't allowed to live.

I mean, it's really true. And so what's remarkable, now, is I think we're going to see, as more and more kids come out younger and are sort of able to have a normal adolescence in the sense that, you know, I talked to kids who were having arguments with their parents about going on dates when they're 15 or 16 or 17 or going to the prom or sort of, you know, having their normal adolescence, I think it's going to create an entirely different kind of gay and lesbian adult in the next 10, 20, 30 years.

MARTIN: Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. His article, "Coming Out in Middle School," was published in the magazine this weekend. You can find a link to his piece if you want to read it in its entirety by going to the new npr.org and clicking on TELL ME MORE. Benoit Denizet-Lewis joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you so much.

Mr. DENIZET-LEWIS: Thanks, take care.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Next in our parenting conversation, when you've got a typical teen, hormones raging, attitude rising, oh, and he's decided to come out of the closet.

Unidentified Woman: I've been trained to talk to my sons about opening the door for a woman and paying for the bill. So you have to realize that it's still the same thing. He's still going to be in a relationship someday, and those core values still matter.

MARTIN: The unique and not-so-unique challenges of raising a gay teen. That's our parenting conversation, and it's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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