Adolescent and Gay

A very small percentage of males discover themselves to be homosexual or bisexual as they grow up. For them, sexual maturation is a particularly demanding, sometimes hazardous, process; as many as a third are physically assaulted by gay bashers inside or outside their families before they complete adolescence.

Adults often exhibit a degree of amnesia about their sexual awakenings. For both heterosexual and homosexual boys, the experience of this awakening is something shared mostly with each other. Adults say very little about the experience itself. Every boy finds it mysterious, exciting, confusing, and frustrating. Many boys who will eventually have well-established heterosexual orientations have at least one homosexual experience as an adolescent, either with another boy or with a gay adult testing their orientation. As many as half of the males who eventually establish a homosexual orientation have experienced heterosexual sex, either during the period when they were uncertain of their inclinations, or as an attempt to adopt the predominant orientation, only to have it prove unsatisfactory to them.

Both heterosexual and homosexual males like to think of their orientations as destinies foreordained at birth, but it isn't quite that simple. Some adolescent boys, either because of the strong cultural preference for heterosexuality or because they were somehow sexually different then, establish heterosexual orientations in adolescence lasting into early or middle adulthood, and then change orientation and identify themselves as gay.

A sense of being "different" assails many homosexual males while they are still in elementary school. In some instances, this sense of differentness is mainly an internal perception, but in other instances a boy may be perceived by others to be different and singled out for teasing or taunting at school or at home, or both-as lacking masculinity.

Researchers are very much divided on the origins of homosexual orientation. Perhaps tolerance of homosexuality would become a less divisive issue in our society if indisputable evidence could be found linking sexual orientation to genetic inheritance. No such evidence, no gay gene or heterosexual gene, has yet been clearly identified. There is some evidence that male homosexual orientation is more closely related to maternal than to paternal lineage, but even that evidence settles very little. The fact that identical male twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than are fraternal twins also suggests a biological component.

For every geneticist looking for a biological link, there is a behavioral expert offering an explanation involving the childhood experiences and environment of the boy. When I was growing up, homosexual orientation was often blamed on overprotective mothers who didn't encourage their sons to develop heterosexual relationships with their peers. More recently, cold and distant fathers have received much of the blame once heaped on too protective mothers: the homosexual boy, in this formulation, seeks the acceptance and love from other males that his father never offered him. As with the biological explanations, there is something plausible about the various behavioral explanations, but none has won acceptance as a comprehensive and solidly confirmed hypothesis.

For every biological or social scientist who has addressed the etiology of homosexuality, there are several moralists lamenting what they believe is the perversity of homosexual practice. Many of them base their intolerance of homosexuality on their reading of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, but there is no more scholarly consensus about how to interpret the few biblical references to homosexuality than there is consensus among scientists about genetic or interpersonal factors. Such attitudes, however, are influential. The Boy Scouts of America, citing the organization's private rather than quasi-public standing, does not now permit acknowledged homosexuals to take positions of leadership or accept known homosexual boys as scouts.

A homosexual youth lives in a glass-house environment in which sexual orientation is exaggerated far out of its proper perspective in his life. A heterosexual boy is deeply affected by his sexuality, thinks about it, dreams about it, talks about it—especially with his peers—and expresses it in personal or interpersonal action. Yet his sexuality, central as it is to his identity and life, doesn't stimulate the same constant sense of vulnerability. He isn't teased in a hostile way about being heterosexual. Everyone makes so much of homosexuality that it's difficult for a gay adolescent to get his sexuality in proper perspective. Difficult, too, to anticipate where rejection will lie. Sometimes adolescent classmates are relatively tolerant and parents are completely intolerant.

There is enough uncertainty about parental response, linked to the need most adolescents have for continuing financial and emotional support from them, that parents are not generally the first recipients of male homosexual disclosure. Siblings or other peers are usually the first to hear. A large proportion—half or more—of gay adolescents do not disclose their orientation to parents until they have left home for college or other pursuits. Even so, most males anticipate a higher level of acceptance of the disclosure to parents than they receive. In one recent study, half of both mothers and fathers reacted to their college-age sons' disclosures of homosexuality with disbelief, denial, negative comments, or silence. Eighteen percent responded with acts of rejection including attempts to convert the son to heterosexuality or to cut him off financially and emotionally. Parents often feel guilty: What did I do wrong? It is indicative of the differences in relationships that mothers are usually informed face-to-face while fathers are as often informed in writing as in conversation.

Many issues young homosexual males confront are embedded in the life of Dan, a sixteen-year-old. He remembers feeling attracted to men as early as age five. When he was in fourth grade in California, he watched a gay actor on a talk show recount that getting turned on by Calvin Klein male underwear ads made him realize he was gay. "And I said, 'That's me, too,'" Dan recalled. "But I kept thinking, of course I'm straight. I'm going to grow up and have girlfriends and have kids. I began dating girls in fifth grade. In seventh grade, I dated a beautiful girl who kept pressuring me to have sex—she wanted to know what made me horny. What I realized was that there's a big difference between finding someone attractive and being attracted to them sexually and emotionally. That was when I knew that I was at least bisexual.

"The summer after seventh grade I came out to most of my friends that I was bisexual, and they were cool about it. There were other guys out at the high school, and some in the middle school, too. I was afraid of what everyone would think, and I didn't tell my parents. To deal with my anxiety I started using drugs—a lot of painkillers, some codeine.

"Just before eighth grade started, my parents moved separately to Connecticut." That year was Dan's worst year so far: "absolute hell"

"Immediately I was labeled a faggot, and I had never been called that before I moved. I would get punched and spat on by people passing in the hall. There were gay teachers who would get made fun of, and wouldn't respond. So I really didn't feel comfortable. If gay adults weren't safe from taunting, I certainly wasn't going to be safe."

I asked Dan how he explained the abuse by other students. "They're just not sure of themselves," he said. "A lot of them have grown up with a hatred of gays. I find that many guys are threatened by how comfortable I am with my sexuality. That's not to say they're gay, but they're questioning their own sexual confidence."

In ninth grade, Dan began sexual activity with men, some in their twenties, others in their thirties or older. He meets many of them in gay clubs. He also feels confident initiating contact with strangers in public, in stores, for example. He is diligent about safe sex and careful not to make himself vulnerable to sexual exploitation by drinking too much, but he has a considerable number of sexual contacts during a year. His sexual experience and self-confidence are beyond the reach of his gay, and also many of his heterosexual, schoolmates. Dan has had only two brief relationships with schoolmates. His insistence that boyfriends be as open as he about sexual orientation is too public for their comfort. Lacking heterosexual friends, he has no schoolmates he spends time with outside of school.

His family circumstances and his homosexuality have pushed Dan into a kind of premature adulthood. "I think of my father as my roommate;' he said.

"Isn't that a lonely way to live?" I asked.

"I really enjoy my independence;' he replied, "and there's no way I could go back to having a curfew."

The pronounced—but not as rare as one might think—detachment of Dan's parents from his life accentuates but doesn't define the consequences of Dan's homosexuality. The depression, the loneliness, and, indeed, the danger attendant to his sexual relationships is in part a consequence of homophobia, but his perception of his parents' preoccupations with their careers, his hypersexuality, and his self-destructiveness are themes in many boys' lives, whether or not they are gay.

There aren't many self-acknowledged male homosexuals in any high school class, and if their sexual orientation is considered socially unacceptable or even contagious by heterosexual age-mates, they will not have a very large pool of potential friends. Homophobia is exhibited by some women, but by and large it is a sentiment perpetuated by males in our society. It incites crude and cruel behavior in middle schools, and even more frequently in high schools.

©2007 Eli Newberger

Eli Newberger, M.D., a leading figure in the movement to improve the protection and care of children, is renowned for his ability to bring together good sense and science on the main issues of family life. A pediatrician and author of many influential works on child abuse, he teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the Child Protection Team and the Family Development Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. From his research and practice he has derived a philosophy that focuses on the strength and resilience of parent-child relationships, and a practice oriented to compassion and understanding, rather than blame and punishment. He is the author of The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Charaacter and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Carolyn, a developmental and clinical child psychologist." www.elinewberger.com or E-Mail.

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