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by Ritch C. Savin-Williams
Harvard University Press, 2005
Review by Elizabeth O'Connor, Ph.D. on Sep 20th 2005

The New Gay Teenager

"To Middle America, gay teens are arrogant aliens from another culture, at the margins of society with multiple body piercings, purple hair, and pointedly non-Abercrombie and Fitch clothing; to gay adults, they are supposed to be the next generation of political activists who will fight for gay rights and against heterosexism, racism, sexism, and classism." (p. 219)

In his latest book Ritch Savin-Williams explores what it is like to be a "gay" adolescent today.  As the quote above suggests, it is not much like what either straight or gay adults fear or hope it is; as the quotation mark around "gay" in the preceding sentence suggests, it is not much like what any of us thought it was.

Savin-Williams' background as a developmental psychologist informs his approach to this work, which includes (allow me to speak as a developmental psych person myself) as lucid and thoughtful a treatise on many developmental issues as you are likely to find.  Take, for example, the seemingly simple prospect of estimating the number of adolescents who are gay.  The traditional approach of asking someone how he or she identifies (e.g., check one of the following boxes:  heterosexual; gay/lesbian; bisexual; don't know) is, by any reasonable account, inadequate, in particular for adolescents.  Not only will adolescents often not tell the truth, they may not know the truth, and their definition may be different than the researchers.  Would an adolescent who has fantasies about same-sex people but has never acted on them check the gay/lesbian box?  What box might an adolescent who has had sexual experiences with both genders but romantic relationships with only one check?  Savin-Williams explores the domains of sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and sexual identity as overlapping but not identical components of sexuality, and concludes that "estimating the number of gay adolescents depends on what counts as gay." (p. 39)  He also discusses the inherent difficulties and limitations in operationally defining homosexuality in adolescence.

He goes on with a brief review of the invention of the gay adolescent, a phenomenon first recognized in the literature in the 1970's.  The early studies described a grim population:  troubled, if not destitute and suicidal young men (the adolescent lesbian had yet to be discovered) who were at high risk for physical and psychological problems.  Researchers at the time did not make much of the fact that subjects in these studies had been recruited from mental health facilities and were quite likely to be runaways, delinquents, or prostitutes.  The focus on the psychological fragility of gay adolescents continued into the 1980's and 1990's, as did the reliance on mental health facilities for subject recruitment, but change was coming.  Some researchers began expanding their subject pool by, for example, administering surveys to school-based populations.  Others began interviewing adult gays on their adolescent experiences.  Lesbians were officially discovered around this time, though they still did not receive as much attention as male homosexuals.  (The only area in which lesbians receive more attention than gay men is in research on gay parents, which is overwhelmingly more likely to mean lesbian mothers than gay fathers). There was even a glimmer of a paradigm shift:  perhaps young people with same-sex attractions might not all be screwed up and miserable. Perhaps, some of them might even be healthy (Savin-Williams downplays his role in ushering in that position).  Currently, researchers tend to focus on resilience, or gay adolescents' reserves of strength, fortitude, and self-confidence that enable so many of them to emerge from adolescence in a homophobic culture relatively unscathed. 

Savin-Williams also spends a good deal of time discussing evidence for various theories of the development of homosexuality.  In general, support for the notion that sex atypicality in childhood (tomboyishness in girls and effeminate behavior in boys) is a precursor to adult homosexuality is fairly weak.  Childhood feelings of being different from other children are similarly poor predictors of future sexual status.  Even the presence of childhood same-sex attraction is not as reliable an indicator of adult same-sex attraction as we might think.  While some gay individuals report a history of some or all of these characteristics, so do many heterosexuals.  With more cultural openness and acceptance of non-heterosexual identities, the picture is only likely to grow murkier.

Certainly, adolescents today are growing up in a different world from the one we middle-aged gay and lesbian folks knew.  Mainstream movies and television shows routinely have gay characters; thousands of high schools have Gay-Straight Alliances, whose aim is to provide a safe space for gay, gay-friendly, and questioning students; gay proms, or gay students openly attending proms with their same-sex dates, are not uncommon; and gay marriage, while not uncontroversial, is a reality in some areas of the country.  Many of the young people Savin-Williams quotes espouse a "post-gay" philosophy, maintaining that their sexuality is only one component, not the primary component, of their identity.  They view activism as an anachronism, something that may have been necessary in the deep dark past (say, ten or twenty years ago) but no longer.  They are more likely to define themselves by their professional goals, personality traits, or political viewpoints than they are by their sexual identities.  While some of us may have an initial knee-jerk, middle-aged response to such seeming obliviousness, upon further thought I believe that this is as it should be.  Viewing gay people as ordinary people rather than as a category so unique as to warrant its own niche in the psychological universe may be the wave of the future. In the future, Savin-Williams suggests, research may well focus on how utterly ordinary the lives of gay adolescents are.

In the meantime, this book contributes immensely to our understanding of the next wave of gay youth.  It is a valuable resource for anyone who cares about or works with adolescents, or has any interest in looking at a snapshot of a generation coming of age in these most remarkable times.


© 2005 Elizabeth O'Connor




Elizabeth O'Connor, Ph.D. is co-author with Suzanne Johnson of For Lesbian Parents (Guilford, 2001) and The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood (NYU Press, 2002).