A Look At The Lives Of Gay Teens

With the recent group of suicides by gay teens, we a take a look at the lives of gay teenagers. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Ritch Savin Williams, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University. He specializes in gay, lesbian, and bisexual research, and his latest book is The New Gay Teenager.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Recent suicides by gay teenagers and teens bullied because they seemed gay have drawn national attention. Celebrities and politicians from Ellen DeGeneres to Hillary Clinton have recorded messages of encouragement to gay teens. And it's been widely noted, including on this program, that gay teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

But is all this attention to suicide and bullying actually helpful for teenagers struggling with their sexuality?

Well, Ritch Savin Williams says no. He's a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University and he studies the lives of gay teens. Welcome to the program.

Professor RITCH SAVIN WILLIAMS (Chairperson, Human Development Psychology, Cornell University): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And what, if anything, is harmful about all this attention?

Prof. WILLIAMS: For me, first off, scientifically it's not true. That is that, as a developmental psychologist, when we look at the wide population of youth who identify as gay or who have same-sex attractions, it appears to me when I look at the data that they're actually just as healthy, and just as resilient, and just positive about their life as are straight youth.

So from a scientific perspective, there is certainly no gay suicide epidemic. But the more problematic aspect for me is that I worry a great deal about the image that we are giving gay-identified youth.

SIEGEL: But apart from image here, as for the social science of it, we've reported on numbers on this program numbers from the Suicide Prevention Research Center and elsewhere, which suggest that gay teens are more likely to make a suicide attempt than straight teens. Not true, are you saying?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, there are a number of studies which certainly do indicate that. But there are also other studies where that is not true. So certainly, there's an ability to pick your study to support whatever position one wants to have.

The other issue is that, as we get a more representative sample of youth who identify as gay who have same-sex attractions, what we discovered is that difference begins to narrow considerably. So, do we emphasize this kind of difference, group difference? Or do we begin to say, well, actually it's not quite as bad as we have portrayed it to be, or at least how the medical sciences, the mental health providers and research, and the public policy people have said.

SIEGEL: But could somebody on the other side of this argument say that you are picking your studies, the ones that conform to your less than statistical sense of what's going on here?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Yes, certainly I do pick my studies. But on the other hand, I also look at the broad range of youth. And it appears to me, in the vast majority of life situations, that gay youth really are not that different from straight youth.

Indeed, if you look at the attitudes of this cohort of young people, there's never been a better time to grow up gay and young. And I feel like that's the message that we ought to give, rather than the image of, oh, gay youth are fragile. They are so delicate that they can't defend themselves.

Now, that's not to, in any sense, take away from the kids who were bullied. But I worry a little bit about sort of empowering bullies, if you will.

SIEGEL: But to what extent here is the conclusion of social scientists and people who study gay teenagers driven by the desire to - by one strategy or the other - diminish bullying? That is, those who feel that by chastising the bully and pointing out how cruel this is, might favor the studies which show that gay teens are more likely to be driven to a suicide attempt, because of bullying.

You're saying that just empowers the bully. More important to have studies which show that you should be confident and feel strong, and there'll be less bullying. You're still interested in the result. You're driven in part by the result.

Prof. WILLIAMS: I'm not saying that those people who do that kind of research don't have some great goals, and goals that I share. I do want to reduce bullying. I do want to make life much better for gay youth. It's just the strategy or the message that we are delivering. And I would much rather deliver the overall and the overwhelming majority opinion. That is most gay youth - you know, how many gay youth? I would say 90 percent are actually doing quite well.

They are not depressed. They are not anxious. They're not attempting suicide. They're really quite ordinary adolescents.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Ritch Savin Williams of Cornell University, thank you very much.

Prof. WILLIAMS: It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Professor Savin Williams teaches developmental psychology at Cornell and he's author of the book, "The New Gay Teenager."

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