Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Young, Gay, and OK: Cultural Shifts and Supportive Parents Are Leading Gay Youths to Come out Earlier, Some before Their Teens

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Young, Gay, and OK: Cultural Shifts and Supportive Parents Are Leading Gay Youths to Come out Earlier, Some before Their Teens

Article excerpt

In 2003, Sayre Chavez stood before his fifth-grade class and read the following poem:

   I am a child, a boy
   A boy who loves to play.
   I am a boy, a child
   A kid who is not afraid.
   I am a child, a boy
   A kid who is not afraid to say
   I'm gay.
   Do not laugh, I am the same kid as
   yesterday.

Even in liberal Berkeley, Calif., such clarity and openness from a 10-year-old seems shocking. But not to Sayre, who says he just wanted to be clear--about his identity. "I wanted people to know me better. I really didn't want people to go up to me [and say] 'Hey, do you like that girl?' or something. I wanted them to understand that I wasn't like that."

Researchers who study gay youths are seeing a sharp drop in the average age at which kids are coming out. The trend is presenting unprecedented challenges to how they study sexual development, because for years researchers believed people began coming out between ages 19 and 23, says Caitlin Ryan, director of adolescent health initiatives at San Francisco State University, who is conducting a long-term study of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths and their families. Today, she says, the average is more like 14 to 16, according to some studies.

Ryan says these developments upset society's most cherished assumptions about the nature of childhood. "In our culture we don't see children as sexual beings. We see it as something that's totally separate--like you wake up at age 21 and you're a sexual being," she says. "We don't have any room for adolescent sexuality or childhood sexuality."

Experts aren't sure exactly why the age is dropping. Most believe it's due to the increased visibility--both positive and negative--of homosexuality in U.S. culture. The lack of scientific data isn't surprising: Few formal studies of gay youths have been done, in part because tracking and reporting on the sexuality of minors is extremely difficult. Even today, for example, The Advocate cannot report by name on any gay or lesbian youth under age 18 without obtaining parental permission or other legal clearance.

The first study of gay kids was not done until 1972, and it focused on hustlers and homeless teens, says Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell University and author of the forthcoming book The New Gay Teenager, to be published by Harvard University Press. Researchers began gathering dam using more representative samples of gay youths in the 1990s, but studies remain few and limited in scope.

Instead, many youth advocates draw their conclusions from the personal stories of the kids they encounter, such as Sayre. Now 12, he remembers having feelings for boys from his earliest years. He says his first crash on another boy was in the first or second grade. "I kind of always knew, actually," he says. "I kind of had the feeling I was different. I just kind of had feelings for guys, not really girls."

Many gays and lesbians can recall having feelings of "difference" since their earliest years, but unlike them, Sayre had a name for those feelings. His mother, Maria Chavez, identifies as queer and was involved with a woman when Sayre told her he was gay. He was 7 at the time. "He said, 'What's that word that people call you?'" Maria recalls. "We went through all these terms--'Lesbian? Bisexual? Queer?' Finally I said, 'Gay?' and he said, 'That's it. That's what I think I am.'"

Even without the example of gay and lesbian parents, younger kids are finding their way to youth programs around the country, such as those at Chicago's Howard Brown Health Center and New York City's LGBT Community Center. "I recently found that 34% of the 350 youth who were coming were under 16, which was pretty shocking to me," says Joe Hollendoner, youth program director at Howard Brown. "A majority of folks were [previously] 17, 18, 19. Probably about 80% fell in that category, with the other 20% to 30% being in the 20-plus group. …

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