Developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams argues that most gay teens are not in peril, and that the well-intentioned It Gets Better campaign nonetheless promotes a false “suffering suicidal script.”
The recent tragic deaths of several teens who were gay, or were believed to be gay, have received national attention and reminded us of the unrelenting pain and desperation that we believe characterize the lives of gay youth. But this portrait is an overgeneralization that communicates a cynical, hopeless, and inaccurate message that to be young and gay is to suffer.
Despite its apparent public appeal, scientific research simply does not support the picture of gay youth in psychological peril. Rather, many gay youth are proud, enjoy life, and, by most accounts, appear to be quite ordinary adolescents and young adults. In fact, there has never been a better time to be young and gay.
For most gay youth, the truth is not “It Gets Better.” The truth is, “It’s Better, Right Now!”
In response to the popular view that there is a gay youth suicide epidemic, it’s important to realize that there is no scientific evidence to support it. There is no scientific data that compares gay and straight youth on completed suicide rates.
Why do we believe the suicide epidemic myth to be true? Likely because early research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s—based on small, biased samples of homeless youth, prostitutes, substance abusers, and military rejects—reported a horrific existence. From these lives the myth of the suicidal gay youth grew. It is still with us.
This myth is embraced by both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives, gay activists, and helping professionals (clinicians, medical providers, public health officials) believe that such dire messages will raise awareness of gay-rights issues and garner needed services for gay youth. In addition, government funding for research often depends more on investigations that explore what goes wrong than what goes right in human development.
Conservative religious and political advocates use the gay suicide myth to give warning to youth who are “considering” being gay or who have crossed the line and might be a candidate for conversion therapy that a gay life is hazardous to their health. Their banner is “Be Healthy, Be Straight”—as if it were a choice, and an easy one.
From these early research studies to the present day, the proportion of at-risk gay youth has significantly decreased. The major difference now is that when we ask gay youth about their mental health, we can tap into more representative samples of youth. As more young people come out as gay, they are looking healthier. Another interpretation is that life is better for gay youth now than it was for those growing up 30 years ago.
When research reports gay versus straight differences in depression, anxiety, and suicidality, they evaporate when one does one or all of the following.
1) Separate lesbians from bisexual women. In previous research, the two groups were combined because of small numbers. Once separated, lesbian youth often report equal or even greater mental health than heterosexual women.
2) Control for gender expression. It is not sexual orientation per se that is the most accurate predictor of at-risk status. Rather, many youth (regardless of their sexuality) are at-risk if they do not act like someone of their sex is “supposed” to act. That is, bullies select their victims based less on their same-sex sexual attractions than on their gender non-conformity. Gay quarterbacks and track stars in high school are not bullied to the same degree as are gay theater and drama club members.
3) Consider that gay youth are more likely than straight youth to give “false positive” statements. Some gay youth report that they attempted suicide, but further questioning reveals that they actually did not. Perhaps they had a suicidal thought, but that’s not the same thing as a suicide attempt. Why gay youth are more likely than straight youth to falsely report their mental health status is not known.
Given these doubts about a real gay-versus-straight difference in mental health, from a developmental psychological perspective, the larger picture is more compelling for a positive view of gay youth. Research has shown no gay-versus-straight difference in the number and quality of adolescent friendships, peer popularity, closeness and connectedness to parents, personality characteristics, and positive mental health.
When we ask not about mental-health problems such as depression but about positive characteristics such as psychological wellbeing, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, gay youth appear as “healthy” as straight youth.
Based on my read of the scientific literature, the conclusion I reach is that gay youth are rather ordinary adolescents and young adults. Yes, some are at-risk, but these clinically fragile youth exist in the same proportion and to the same degree among heterosexual youth.
Why this is important is that as a clinician, I’m worried about the “message” we’re giving to gay youth. I’m worried about suicide contagion (publicizing gay youth suicide may provoke similar behavior among vulnerable youth). I’m worried about our inability to understand their lives. And, I’m worried about adult tendencies to insert our life experiences onto those of youth. Just because we had a difficult gay adolescence does not mean that today’s gay youth experience the same pain.
Maybe we should listen to youth about their actual lives. If we did, we would learn that, for the most part, the “suffering suicidal script” is not an accurate one. In reality, the gay kids are all right.
This article has been updated with links to the cited studies.
For other Good Men Project Magazine articles on gay youth and bullying, check out…
Battling the Bullies, by Jared Stearns
On Bullies, by Dave Ford