Out Early

A couple of years ago, David Mariner was invited to a coming-out party. But this celebration wasn’t your typical society event. For one thing, it was held at a middle school in Falls Church, Virginia. And David Grossman, the 13-year-old guest of honor, wasn’t just coming out in the traditional sense of the word–he was also proudly identifying himself to friends and family as a gay teen.

“I remember walking into David’s school and thinking, ‘This sure is different,’ ” recalls Mariner, who runs youthresource.com, a sexuality awareness Web site operated by a group called Advocates for Youth. “I knew he was awful young to be making such a public statement about his life, but I respected David’s feelings about his sexual orientation. I knew it was im-portant for me to support that.”

While Grossman’s party was a unique event, the fact that he chose to announce his sexual orientation at such a young age is not. There’s more than anecdotal evidence to indicate that kids are coming out earlier than ever. One study, conducted by Ritch Savin-Williams, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University, found that in 1980 young men, on average, first publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation in their 20s; by 1998, that average age had dropped to 16. And that number keeps getting lower.

In Nerve (Aug./Sept. 2000), Stacy D’Erasmo talked to kids as young as 13 who say that they have already come out to their parents and friends. Chris-tina, 14, says she told her parents she was a lesbian when she was 11. Since then, she’s become part of the local gay community, attending dances for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth at a queer-friendly church, and even selecting a “gay mother” and “gay father”: older, more experienced queerfolk who help guide Christina through the ins and outs of gay life.

Other kids may not have as much support as Christina, but there are a growing number of organizations they can turn to. More and more schools are establishing chapters of Gay-Straight Alliance, a group that works to build connections between homosexual and heterosexual youth, and the Web offers a network for kids interested in exploring their sexual identity.

Mariner’s site, for instance, provides resource links, peer-based telephone support, and online discussion groups for GLBT teens. “Think back to what it was like being 13 and first discovering your body and your sexuality: It is an exciting and beautiful time,” Mariner says. “Why should it be any less exciting and beautiful just because you’re gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender?”

Call it a beautiful and stressful time. Back when James Bradach, now 17, was in eighth grade, he told one of his best friends that he was gay. That friend told another friend, and word quickly got around Bradach’s Little Rock, Arkansas, school, bringing threats and harassment from his peers, and even unwanted advice from teachers and other adults. “It was a horrible situation,” he recalls.

But overall, coming out may not be as traumatic these days, thanks in part to–gasp!–television, movies, and other forms of popular culture. Cornell’s Savin-Williams notes that the increasing visibility of gay men and lesbians in the mainstream media provides examples of positive queer lifestyles for the first time. This makes coming out less of a big deal than it used to be. “Now you have a whole host of positive role models like Ellen Degeneris and Melissa Etheridge and Greg Louganis,” he says. “Kids are learning that they can be gay and be happy, too.”

They’re also learning that sexual identity can be fluid. “To many young people, if a person says she’s a lesbian and then later decides she wants to see men, too, that’s OK,” explains Mariner. “It’s not so absolute. On college campuses we’re starting to hear the terms queer or genderqueer. This means rejecting the labels of male and female. If you erase those lines, then the whole thing changes.”

If we’re on the cusp of a new sexual revolution, then it’s only logical that the movement’s leaders may all be younger than the kid who bagged your groceries last weekend. Remember David Grossman, the 13-year-old who threw himself a coming-out party? A couple of years later, he’s now, along with James Bradach, one of the wise elders of youthresource.com. They occasionally volunteer on the site, providing support for younger kids struggling to define their sexual identity. “These kids,” Bradach explains, “need to talk to somebody who’s been there.

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