Positively Queer

Word has gotten out and it’s grim: According to most media accounts, being young and queer is no fun. Going to school will be like running a gauntlet once you’ve come out. Your friends will shun you–if they don’t beat you up. Your folks may disown you. You’ll probably end up homeless, addicted to drugs, or contemplating suicide.

But wait. Are things really that bad?

Life for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth isn’t necessarily fraught with peril. In fact, for some kids, it’s downright uneventful. But since that doesn’t make good copy, the horror stories are the ones that get told.

As psychologists Glenda Russell and Janis Bohan point out in the queer quarterly In the Family (Spring 2001), the message that well-adjusted LGBT youth take home is that “positive stories are of little interest; it is the trauma of young queer life that captures attention and that qualifies as legitimate.”

The overwhelming focus on all the bad news has turned trauma into an expectation among queer youth. As one 17-year-old lesbian told Russell and Bohan during a research study, “Sometimes I don’t feel like a real lesbian because I haven’t committed suicide.”

It’s true that LGBT youth are overrepresented in the ranks of school dropouts and the homeless, and they are twice as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Drawing attention to the hardships some of these youth face makes sense: Rooting out bigotry and oppression requires shining a light on them. And the many horror stories that appear in funding appeals for LGBT organizations, as well as in the queer and the mainstream media, do help to rally dollars and attention on behalf of these teens.

But there is a potential downside, conclude Russell and Bohan: “If queer youth take our rhetoric about risk as a measure of the inevitable dangers of queer life, and our silence about joy as a measure of the likelihood of happiness, our discourse may contribute to, rather than ease, their pain.”

So spread the word: To be young and queer is no death sentence–and, actually, sometimes it kinda even rocks.

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