Teen Breakthroughs Around Gender and Sexuality

(noon – promoted by RiaD)

What follows is a pair of articles recently posted by an NYC public school social worker over at Fire on the Mountain, articles I hope will be of interest of interest to educators and parents and perhaps more broadly.

Teen Breakthrough, Part 1: “I’m Not Racist Against Gays”

Napolitana-Piemontese

In my workaday world in the NYC public school system, this year’s big news was the growing acceptance of and sympathy for gay guys. And because male homosexuality has been, in my experience, so deeply stigmatized among youth, I think this is a tremendous breakthrough. I still don’t hear many guys in high school saying flat out, “I am gay,” but there’s definitely less attempt to deny or repudiate or hide attributes that might brand a young man as gay.

Little things like young men casually mentioning, “My uncle is gay,” or an African-American senior who is into fashion design, tends toward the flaming in his manner and shows no romantic interest in girls being elected a class officer. Or a young man saying to a female classmate who called him “fa–ot”in an argument: “Well, I don’t appreciate that because you must not think too much of gay people, and my brother is gay.” In the past, the likely response would have been to hurl back an insult, and the main concern would have been to assert his own straightness in front of the peer audience. But now, he takes the offensive and critiques heterosexism!

Another example that impressed me occurred in the context of a school art project for which students chose the theme of taboos. There was a fair amount of art about gay/lesbian relationships, but one of the most intriguing paintings showed what looked like a man in his twenties and a man in his sixties embracing, The young Latino artist, who as far as I know is straight, definitely wanted to provoke reactions and sought out feedback. It really blew me away that he was challenging two stigmas by portraying, in a compassionate way, both gay male sexuality, and the need of older people to express their sexuality (which is often is often a big yuck factor for teens!). Let’s get it straight though, if you click here now for watch my gf you’ll notice it is teens and young adults, more mature people still have sex and embrace in intimacy, there is nothing “yuck” about it, without them having done that at some point in their lives, you wouldn’t be alive to say “yuck”.

At the same time, teens, like all of us, have contradictory consciousness and they still come up with some disturbing anti-gay practices. One glaring example is the custom of saying “That’s gay” when they think something is stupid or silly. I often will challenge this by asking, “How would you like it if when I thought something was stupid, I said ‘That’s so Dominican’ or ‘That’s so Black’?” Many students will reply, “It’s just a saying,” “It doesn’t mean anything” and vehemently assure me that they get along with gay classmates or friends or relatives, etc.

One young man listened thoughtfully and replied, “No, Miss, I’m not racist against gay people.” I really dig this phrasing, because it reflects the reality of racism as the primary form of oppression and put-down that he is experiences and sees in the world. And I’m encouraged that many teens are becoming less racist against gay people.

Teen Breakthrough, Part 2: “Resistance Bisexuality”

Napolitana-Piemontese

[This post addresses another positive development on the gender front among teens, not as recent as the erosion of male homophobia I reported on earlier this week, but among girls.]

About 3 years ago, I noticed that girls in the NYC high school where I work were starting to call themselves “bisexual.” Lots of them. Wearing rainbow logos on all kind of clothing articles. And it was becoming almost impossible for a guy to upset a girl, or pressure her into sex by calling her a “lesbian,” because the term was losing its stigma. (It’s still possible for guys to pressure a girl into sex, but one maneuver has been eliminated).

For teenagers, identifying as “bisexual” has often been a step toward acknowledging that they’re lesbian or gay, a milestone on the road to coming out. I knew this from the literature and had heard it anecdotally from friends whose teen kids went to more elite schools. But until that point I had seldom heard the term used as a self-identifier by the predominantly Black and Latino working class kids whom I counsel.

The new self-identification, which has also been observed by my friends in other cities who are either teachers or parents of teens, has many sources as well as multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings for the girls who use it. Some of my colleagues see it as a simply a ploy by girls who are basically heterosexual to attract more boys or have more leverage in a relationship (“I don’t need you, I can have romance and sex with girls”) or to titillate boys with the thought of two girls doing it (and the paradisiacal possibility of joining in). These colleagues say that this new trend, which I’ve seen affect maybe up to 25% of the girls in a school, doesn’t represent any erosion of or challenge to male supremacy.

I think that this view is a bit one-sided. Kids often try out several identities through the teen years; they’ll come back in September with a whole new look, self-label (“emo,” “ghetto,” etc.) and group of friends. So the fact that some girls may later go straight doesn’t mean that their bisexual self-classification was simply phony or a ploy. What I pick up is that they’re often turned off to men by seeing how women are put down and abused by men, and they’re grappling with how to live and have some agency in what is still a “man’s world.” That’s why I like to call this very mixed and contradictory phenomenon not a conscious political act or rebellion, but a kind of “resistance bisexuality.”

One girl, for example, said to me in discussing her bisexuality, “I guess I don’t like the way I see men treat women, ” She had a stepfather who had tried to cop a feel once or twice when he was drunk (and since that hadn’t occurred recently, she didn’t want to give her mother heartache by telling her about it). She’d seen her mother hit by an earlier boyfriend. She felt more connection and empathy with her female friends, and that led her to explore physical closeness with them. I heard similar statements from other girls who had experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse.

One encouraging by-product of the bisexual self-identification is that it cuts against the widespread “I don’t have no females for friends” attitude, which I used to hear all the time from girls: “They act nice, but then they talk about you behind your back and stab you in the back and steal your man.” While I’d be the last to minimize how mean girls can still be to each other, the bisexual girls do seem to value their female friendships more highly and are often very conscious about giving each other support.

On the down side, as someone who does conflict resolution, I have to note that this phenomenon creates endless new possibilities for drama. Two female friends find they’re attracted to each other but then often they’re also attracted to the same boys. So part of the girls’ relationship is comparing numbers of suitors and getting jealous if the other girl is getting more male attention, and confusing or toying with a lot of guys–who then get angry and into beefs with each other…

Still, I would hold that the option of claiming bisexuality represents an advance in the deep, ongoing cultural revolution (or, using Gramsci’s formulation, “war of position”) against male supremacy.

6 comments

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    • dennis on July 25, 2008 at 4:12 pm
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    while we wait for repairs to be made to the Iraq Moratorium website.

  1. Thanks so much for bringing it here.

    I saw this performance last week and was struck by the same thing.

    • pico on July 25, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    I think your downsides are a little exaggerated: issues of jealousy and intimacy transcend labels of sexual identification, and drama thrives anytime you’ve got a pack of teenagers trying to find their identity, both personal and social.  

    I really don’t see a drawback to a spike in acceptance of the bisexual label among teenage girls: if nothing else, it makes sexual labels more banal, which is a good thing (in my mind).  What is a little more disconcerting – although this may have as much to do with rate of maturity as with social stigma – is that it’s not really translating to male teenage culture.

    There are widespread cultural trends that have helped soften those lines among male teenagers: emo (terrible music notwithstanding), metrosexuality, queer-friendly pop culture, etc.  But I think we’re still a long way for young men to (openly) embrace sexual fluidity the way it seems to be among females of their age.  

    Then again, it’s been a while since I’ve been a teenager.  I might be wrong.

    Thanks for the interesting essay!

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