The Gay Kids Are All Right

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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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About Ritch Savin-Williams

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D., is Professor of Developmental Psychology and Director of the Sex & Gender Lab at Cornell University. He is currently investigating the spectrum of sexual development among straight-identified and sexually fluid young men.

Comments

  1. Adam Pendleton says:

    An attempt to generalize the experiences of any group in the US seems moot to me, as regional variations in culture are going to make findings for “the general populace” unpalatable to many readers who have more extreme experiences.

    For this particular issue, I would go so far as to say that even the presence of pocket communities of religious extremists in otherwise urbanized/liberal areas creates a very meaningful difference in individual experience.

    From a psychological perspective, I think it’s important for there to be positive messages out there for LGBT youth, adults, and elders, but I feel the methodology used in this article was not quite appropriate for that pursuit. Engaging the spectrum of the issue instead of presenting alternative messages to perceived memes would have created a more meaningful conversation, I think. Still, nice effort, keep up the good work.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      I wish we knew more about these regional, class, and sub-culture differences but they are often complicated by “unexpected” findings. For example, there was one report that ethnic-minority gay youth fared better in mental health than white youth and the explanation given was that they had an African-American family that supported them when they came home after a school day of harassment.

      Post-hoc, I now see that the “methodology” of my presentation interfered with my message, at least for some readers. I’ll work on it…

      • Adam Pendleton says:

        Another factor regarding African-American resilience is that, from what I recall, they have a very well defined sense of cultural identity. With such a strong sense of identity to back up what is, for some youth, a very shaky aspect of their lives, I can definitely see how they arrived at those findings.

        I look forward to reading more!

      • Did the family know that their son was being bullied for being gay and that their son was, in fact, gay? I’m telling you, it’s getting to be a bit much. My closest friend is a black woman. Her uncle’s son is gay. Her uncle refuses to speak with him. Her father will speak to him, but says that he wouldn’t if his own son were gay. This is the reality in black families. The black community is disgustingly homophobic. You need to get out more.

  2. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, I think people have given you a raw deal. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’ve got some serious flaws in your reasoning, but considering this is a blog post and not a peer reviewed article, I think you should be cut a lot of slack. And you provide a very valuable as well, even if I think you misidentify the real meaning of these studies.

    All the studies you’ve cited considered only people who knew they were gay. It did not include the people in denial, and those people would be far more likely to experience feelings of depression and suicidal tendencies. I believe that’s called selection bias, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. So, I think the conclusion that suicide is not a concern for gay teenagers is unfounded. What your article shows that they are as suicidal after coming out to themselves.

    Now, that can mean that coming out to one’s self leads to a better life, or it could mean that people who have their shit together are more likely to come out when they’re younger. Either way, it’s a fascinating idea.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      Very important points Josh that are well-worth discussing.
      First, you may be correct that the gay youth who are not out may be more depressed/suicidal than those who are out–or, given the perspective of the “bullying” literature, they may not be because by not being out they may be protecting themselves from the harassment of peers. The bullying folks can’t have it both ways: suicidal if you come out and suicidal if you don’t. There is very little evidence to support either perspective. Nevertheless, you have pointed out a real problem for all of us researchers: the gay youth who participate in research may or may not be representative of those who do not because they do not identify themselves or perhaps do not know for sure yet that they are gay.
      I am concerned about gay teenager suicides! I just want to identify those who are at risk without the global brush that as a group they are.
      We probably disagree on flows of my logic, although I would agree that 1,000 words or less is not enough space to lay out an argument.

  3. I think most of the negative reactions in the comments here must be coming from people who don’t know much about psychological research, or perhaps didn’t read the article very closely for those accusing the author of being homophobic. It’s obvious that the author is just taking a different perspective, and basing his argument on the extant studies as any good researcher should do. That said, I might be biased toward this idea because I’m a young gay man who didn’t experience much bullying in high school (though I did in middle school, when I first came out). It’s just hard to make generalizations about these things, particularly when the evidence is lacking.

    On the other hand, I’m a little skeptical about the “suicide contagion” idea, but it seems like that would be hard to investigate in any case. Anyway, it deserves further study. Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      I appreciate your perspective, John, and your questions.
      I can understand your skepticism regarding suicide contagion. The research supporting this view is sparse, to say the least. However, I have talked with many clinicians and other help-care professionals who tackle suicide issues and I have never encountered anyone who doubted this effect. So, yes, scientifically not proven (as far as I know) but for the people in the field, a very deep concern. Usually this is focused on particular contexts (such as a high school or community) but it also seems to apply to others. Indeed, some professionals have expressed some concern with the widespread publicity regarding military suicides. The focus is good in that it will hopefully provide assistance and resources; however, professionals are also concerned with the suicide contagion issue.

  4. I try to hope that the ‘It Gets Better’ project helps some gay youth. I really do.

    But, to be honest, it doesn’t get all that better in so many ways.

    I’m 42 and I graduated in 1986, and I do think that things have gotten better some. But the bad word for us is still in the language, and it’s still used. So, no progress there. Shoot, even the word ‘gay’ has taken on a non-sexual-orientation connotation meaning just ‘shitty’. That’s not progress — that’s worse than before.

    Now you’ve got all these gay guys trying to become straight men. Or to become celibate. That perverse project is much stronger than before. That’s not a sign of progress,. but the reverse.

    Yes, certain churches have become ‘open and inclusive’. However, let’s not disregard all those which have gone out of their way to announce opposition to gay marriage. Let’s not forget that in those denominations where there’s been change, there have often been schisms.

    Schools still do not teach on gay sex in sex ed classes. Telling children that there are gay parents is now being successfully blocked by conservative/conservative-religious groups.

    You still can’t be a gay youth and be in the Boy Scouts. In fact, the most recent on that front is that a gay father was told he couldn’t be a Scout Master (or wahtefver) even though his troop had his own son in it!

    Our President didn’t stop DADT. Our President is against gay marriage. ENDA is still not passed, and it only covers federal jobs!

    POINT: I think that this topic has matured to the point that it becomes relevant to start to ask what the ‘It’ in “It Gets Better” actually refers to.

  5. Thanks for providing red meat for the RRRW who will now run around using this piece of garbage as an excuse to keep on doing what they’ve always been doing. LGBT youth will keep suffering and dying thanks to your wanton negligence.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      And thanks for your middle school bullying directed at someone you do not know. You obviously have the right to respond but this post feels like what our gay teens receive. Was this your intent? Perhaps there was a different way to express your disagreements?

      Ritch.

  6. Very disappointed by this article.

    I wrote a news story a while back about a few hundred people who gathered in my area to hold a vigil for the teens who committed suicide. It was predominantly gay people who attended. As I interviewed them, they all spoke of facing bigotry, bullying and contempt for years on end. A few of them attempted suicide unsuccessfully. And while all of their stories were different, the one constant was they were gay and they were tormented.

    To say the “It Gets Better” campaign promotes a “cynical, hopeless, and inaccurate message” is just ridiculous. And incorrect.

    All this initiative does is offer help for those gay teens who are drowning in a sea of hostility because of their sexual orientation. How can you possibly think that’s a bad thing? While I don’t think you’re homophobic and I know you don’t lack intelligence, it does seem you’re being very dismissive of the possibility that this recent trend of gay teens committing suicide is just what it seems to be.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      Dear Daddy Files,
      You had better re-read my post: I NEVER said that the It Gets Better promotes “cynical….” You have clearly misquoted me. Why? There are others who have bashed this campaign head-on, but it is not me. I see much good in it; I just want another message to go out there as well.
      I have never dismissed the recent gay suicides as anything but tragic. My goal is to prevent further such horrible acts. I believe we disagree on how best to do this. Is this so wrong?

      Ritch.

      • “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.”

        That’s what you wrote. The “It Gets Better” campaign certainly paints a portrait of gay teenagers suffering. And you clearly state that portrait is overgeneralized and not backed up by science. So what am I missing??

        • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

          Your wrote, “To say the “It Gets Better” campaign promotes a “cynical, hopeless, and inaccurate message” is just ridiculous. And incorrect.”
          What you’re missing is that I never said that the campaign promotes this perspective.
          I do understand, however, that you inferred that I said this, but please do not say that I am blaming the campaign. Again, I see some good in what the campaign is doing; it is not, however, my ideal.
          By the way, there are now some in the gay community who have spoken out quite strongly against the message of the campaign and see it as very destructive and counter productive. I have not been one of these. Ritch.

  7. Benjamin Doherty says:

    I want to thank Ritch Savin-Williams for introducing science to the discussion about gender, sexuality and teen suicide. If we really want to improve the mental health of youth, we must be inspired–not deterred–by evidence that defy our assumptions and our own individual experiences.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      You said it beautifully! I only wish that I had provided more of the science behind my assertions–that what I was saying had a scientific basis to it. Next time, I guess I’ll know… Ritch.

      • I whole-heartedly agree with Benjamin Doherty on this. Ritch, after reading a multitude of angry comments, I wanted to thank you for presenting me with an alternative perspective of the issue, which highlighted some important, and often overlooked, points. I think people need to realise that a researcher’s work is never done, and that articles like yours are crucial for stimulating the debate necessary to ensure adequate coverage of all angles of an issue.

        I think that your intentions and your work in the area are honourable.

        • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

          Thank you for this encouragement. At first I was extremely taken aback, got a bit defensive, but then realized that many people feel very passionate about this issue and for that I had to tell myself that this is good (though it might have not felt great).

          As long as we are trying to change the system so that all kids regardless of their sexuality and gender expression can lead good, healthy lives, then I have no complaints and only gratitude.

          Ritch.

  8. I think a lot of the readers here have confused an observation that sounds to me like “We shouldn’t be promoting the idea that all gay youth are miserable and suicidal.” with something more like “No gay youth are miserable and suicidal.”

    There is a very important logical difference between the two ideas.

    My childhood had issues, but my bisexuality was never a cause for concern or repercussion. I was pretty happy most of the time. My gay roommate had a hellish high school experience and we both ended up in tears when we compared experiences. She is one of the people who would have taken a lot of comfort out of the “It gets better.” campaign, while I never needed it because none of my sorrows were inflicted by homophobes. I count myself lucky.

    I also think it’s possible to point to a problem and say “This is a problem, and if it huts you then take comfort from knowing it won’t always be this bad.” without promoting the idea that it’s an inevitable problem. I’m not sure if the “It gets better.” campaign is doing that, but I’m sure it’s very well intentioned. Still, I give Ritch kudos for pointing out a potential problem.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      I appreciate (of course) your perspective. Let me also add that I personally know gay youth who have completed suicide. I am not naive as to the problems that they face and if It Gets Better helps (as I hope that will and that it can), then I am all for it. I believe our tent should be large enough for multiple perspective and I thank you for sharing yours. Ritch.

  9. I have been a long-time “big brother”/mentor for a gay kid who is now 19 years old. He came out at 13 and, despite going to a progressive public high school in Marin County, CA, he was harassed all through his junior year. No, he didn’t consider committing suicide but it was a very emotionally-difficult time for him. Fortunately, he had plenty of emotional support , and indeed his life has gotten much better since he has gone off to college.

    BTW: The school administration did not suspend or discipline his bullies since they were the stars of the school’s football team. Some things never change.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      One of our big tasks is to put pressure on schools to change these policies. Not an easy endeavor and in this we need many, many parents to help out. Ritch.

      • Ritch, you are right that we must make it better now…not wait for the future. Using Jason’s case, I lobbied the superintendent of the school district in Marin and they have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for bullying.

      • But how is your argument going to support change on the part of schools/parents/legislators/etc. when you are promoting that things are better now? You are negating the impact of these very policies in need of change by saying that gay kids are okay and unaffected by them. So schools/parents/legislators/etc. will use (actually, ARE USING right now) your words to say, “Look…here is proof that these kids are okay. There is no need for reform, or for change. Gay kids have it just as rough as straight kids.” Your “findings” are working against reform, and changing attitudes, and combating homophobia. This is what I have been saying all along here Ritch, and why I am up at 4:15 a.m. still trying to understand how and why an educated professor from Cornell University, who is gay himself, cannot (or is choosing no to) see this. How can you say, “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” and then turn around and say, “One of our big tasks is to put pressure on schools to change these (bullying-related) policies.” What? This is like the dean of a university publishing a study stating that there is no scientific evidence that supports that college education is of any value, and then using that study to go out and try recruit below average high school students who hate school and think college is completely unnecessary. Do you get what I am saying here? Do you understand that, regardless of your intent to help our youth, your words are working against that. Yes, the message to the kids should be that suicide is not an “answer,” and we are gaining much momentum in that message with various national initiatives/campaigns right now. However, there is another message for the adults, and that message is that things must change because, no, they are NOT better now.

        • And by saying “NOT better now,” I’m not saying it’s not better than it was years ago. I’m saying that it’s not better enough to be able to claim an all-is-well mentality. As long as we are losing children–regardless of how we statistically measure the numbers–in scenarios in which societal ignorance, bigotry, and oppression are a factor, we cannot say that things are okay. Period. We are not there yet, and saying we are is damaging our ability to make it the rest of the way.

          • P.S. As I know you had an issue with my anonymity, I wanted to let you know that my name is Gregory Bulfaro. I stand by everything I am saying, and if my name comes up in an Internet search tied to these comments, I am okay with that now. If a prospective employer chooses not to hire me because of this, so be it. If family members see this and choose to form opinions and judgments, that’s fine as well. I shouldn’t have had to remain anonymous. But my final question to you is, as a 33 year-old man in 2010, if it’s not “better” enough for me to have initially spoken freely, and openly, and without fear, how is it “Better, Right Now” for a 13 year old boy in 2010 to do the same?

          • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

            Thank you Intrigued for your comments. They are helpful in clarifying our points of agreement and disagreement.
            First, let me say that my assessment of the scientific literature (and here notable scholars disagree, as is usual), is that on many basic developmental domains there are no gay versus straight differences. Some of these domains are mental health. As a scientist, I must sort through the empirical evidence and reach what I consider to be the most accurate conclusions (and not all of us will reach the same conclusions). I also believe that a scholar should not let her/his political ideology influence those conclusions (though obviously many of us fail at this). I struggled for many years with this issue because as you may know, many of my early writing supported (though to a more cautious and more nuanced degree) some of the “gay youth suicidal script.” However, as more and better research emerged, as more representative samples of youth became available, and the current generation of youth came out, the picture began to change. That is, most gay youth (again, not all) seemed to be coping quite well with societal stigma, finding support from friends and families and others of their generation. Indeed, with graduate students we are now investigating that on some domains gay youth may exceed straight youth (cognitive flexibility, empathy, creativity); this is a bit dicey, also because of political considerations. I could not ignore the evidence because it did not fit my ideology.
            As to your fascinating point about best strategies to enhance the lives of gay youth, I have taken one approach (but have and will never say it is the only approach), which is to emphasize their strength and power. To detail how I would and am using this is complex but in brief let me give you several basic ways: (1) by giving a positive message to gay youth I hope that they will consider a different, good, image of being young and gay in the present (and their future as well) and will thus choose life over death, self-enhancement over self-mutilation. (2) by presenting this interpretation of the science, I want to counter the religious right’s message as to the horrible experience of being gay that is used to persuade youth not to identify as gay; yes, I know that they are using my words to support their “no special privileges to gay youth” mantra, but a very select portion of my words (which is their custom); they do not say that S-W says that life is good for gay youth so come out come out where ever you are! Also, neither do they use my research that shows that far more than 1-2% of the population is gay (my estimates are much higher, depending on how one defines “gay”); (3) by telling schools and communities that gay youth are strong contributing members, my message is that they deserve the same rights as all youth and if you do not support and protect them then we are losing a huge resource of talented young people. (4) by emphasizing that youth of all sexual orientations are harmed by homophobic and sexist language and harassment, then we damage many more (e.g., 10-20% of youth may have some degree of same-sex attractions and they are affected; as are all youth who dare to transgress gender boundaries).
            Again, I realize that good people disagree with me on this and I cannot “prove” that my message works or works better than another approach. I believe multiple approaches are good. On the other hand, as a professional I cannot lie when faced with what I consider to be the best scientific evidence.
            Thanks for staying with this discussion!
            Ritch.

          • Thanks for the feedback. Just a few final points:

            1. You stated, “I could not ignore the evidence because it did not fit my ideology.” However, you are doing just that. From my earlier commentary, “Regarding your ideas of gay well-adjustedness/happiness, you are blatantly ignoring the findings of such entities as the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/msmhealth/stigma-and-discrimination.htm), the APA (http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/discriminatory-legislation.aspx), the SPRC ( http://www.sprc.org/library/SPRC_LGBT_Youth.pdf), and various other legitimate public agencies. You admitted during your NPR interview to “selecting” the information you use, which is information that supports YOUR views…”. And these findings represent just a small population of recent information presented by credible agencies that oppose what you are saying. That is a lot of information to disregard.

            2. You stated, “To detail how I would and am using this is complex but in brief let me give you several basic ways: (1) by giving a positive message to gay youth I hope that they will consider a different, good, image of being young and gay in the present (and their future as well) and will thus choose life over death, self-enhancement over self-mutilation.” I don’t understand why this can’t be done without negating the struggles that are still present. Being young and gay is not a bad thing. Homophobia is. A 16 year-old was quoted as saying, “I know that being gay isn’t bad. That’s not what I struggle with. I struggle with the fact that people hate me for it.”

            3. You stated, “…by presenting this interpretation of the science, I want to counter the religious right’s message as to the horrible experience of being gay that is used to persuade youth not to identify as gay; yes, I know that they are using my words to support their “no special privileges to gay youth” mantra, but a very select portion of my words (which is their custom).” The religious right uses the argument of “horrible existence” as a supporting piece to their crusade. The real issue is their fundamental belief that being gay is wrong. Convincing them that it is a happy lifestyle will not cure this or prevent them from their efforts. What’s worse, you are releasing them from 1) ownership and accountability for their oppressive actions, and 2) any responsibility to change their CORE beliefs and opinions. Giving them ANY words to use to support “no special privileges to gay youth” (“special” meaning equal by the way–a concept they don’t seem to grasp) is a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

            4. You stated, “…by telling schools and communities that gay youth are strong contributing members, my message is that they deserve the same rights as all youth and if you do not support and protect them then we are losing a huge resource of talented young people.” I still fail to see how you can push for efforts to “support and protect” a group of individuals by arguing that the same group of individuals are fine, proud, enjoy life, and face no different struggles than their straight counterparts.

            5. You stated, “…by emphasizing that youth of all sexual orientations are harmed by homophobic and sexist language and harassment, then we damage many more (e.g., 10-20% of youth may have some degree of same-sex attractions and they are affected; as are all youth who dare to transgress gender boundaries).” If you live in a high crime area, and you cover up the bodies of those who were shot or stabbed with white sheets, does that make it any safer for kids to come outside, or want to come outside, or for parents to feel it’s okay for them to come outside? The focus needs to be on preventing the crime, not dismissing the victimization.

            No need to respond any further.

        • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

          Point 1: I can say that “scientific research simply does not support the picture of gay youth in psychological peril” because this is my read of the literature (which does not say no youth is at risk but that they are not more likely than straight youth to be so). Your references to particular governmental and professional websites I could critique but are beyond the interest of most readers here I would assume.

          Point 2: Yes, I believe some gay youth are at great peril and I believe we should do everything possible to help them cope. I believe we agree on this. We also likely agree on many ways in which to do this (e.g., stop bullying, support GSAs, do workshops for parents and teachers). I believe we are in basic agreement. I add one thing: the message that life can be and is great for many gay youth. I understand not all would agree with me on this.

          Point 3: I will never let the Religious Right dictate my research or my comments. They have shown a willingness to distort all research to fit their purposes. However, I will speak to them in whatever way I can to change their attitudes. Let me add that the younger generation in Religious Right organization are far less homophobic than the older ones. This gives me some hope.

          Point 4: I never meant to imply that their struggles are identical because indeed they are often unique. My message to various school teachers/administrators so far as been heard and I do not believe that it has lessened their commitment for change. However, this is a belief and not empirically demonstrated. I do fear that the primary motivation for doing good does rest with the “look how much gay youth are suicidal” message. I’m open on this point; perhaps some combination of both messages might be most effective.

          Point 5: I’m all for stopping the crime.

  10. I found the piece to be very intriguing on some notes, but I had one major problem with his premise. I find it hard to believe the author can justify lumping all of the vastly differing experiences of LGBT youth in America together under the over-generalizing header “The Gay Kids Are Alright”. “Many gay youth are proud, enjoy life, and, by most accounts, appear to be quite ordinary adolescents and young adults.” That may be true, in some places, but I really wish the author had taken the time to acknowledge that that is emphatically *NOT* the case in many parts of this country. The experience of LGBT youth in New York City or San Francisco is most certainly not the experience of youth in small-town Mississippi or Alabama

    To illustrate the point:
    I graduated from high school in a very religious area of Texas in 2005. No one in my high school was out, not a single soul in a high school of more than 5000 people (my graduating class alone was 1200) because people were terrified of the social ostracism that would follow any such attempt. I came out to an acquaintance once, and it nearly spelled my death socially, a fate which was only avoided via frantic denial. To this day, my parents have no idea that I’m a lesbian, or that I’m dating someone, and it will not go well when I eventually tell them.

    On the other hand, my girlfriend graduated high school in 2004; she is from Maine. She was out all through high school and suffered little negative affects from that. Sure, there was some teasing, a little bullying, but she had a lively social life and many friends. She suffered (and still suffers) from depression, but it isn’t related to her sexuality. Her parents have known she is a lesbian since she was 14.

    On the other hand, I really respect the man (a well-respected academic!) for taking considerable time to answer all his critics and to engage in debate in this comment section, especially since a lot of people are being pretty rude. So kudos to you for that, Dr. Savin-Williams!

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      Very excellent major point and one I wish I had a ready answer for, but I do not. Unfortunately, the research has not done a great job of documenting regional, class, ethnic differences in treating gay youth. I would caution, however, against generalizing too much about particulars (e.g., life is worse for gay youth in rural areas or worse for African-American gay youth) because there is some limited evidence that this might not always be true. For example, some gay people feel incredible support and acceptance in small town communities because everyone knows your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and thus this personal connection can inhibit gay baiting. Some gay youth in right-wing religious families feel supported because in these families God tells them to love your family members, regardless. They might have preferred their girl to be straight rather than lesbian, but they are not going to throw that kid out or allow others to harm her (I know, Mormons might differ on this). Some gay youth in African-American families might not come out as early as white youth (this is well documented) but the family (including extended family members) “know” the youth is gay and won’t let him be bashed for this. That is, as one African-American minister told me today, we might not be as gay-friendly toward gay right issues but damn it, we’ll support our own child.

      All of this to say it is complicated (and, of course, I hear of gay youth being bashed/harassed in Ithaca High School, this the most liberal of towns).

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and views. Ritch.

  11. Ritch Savin-Williams says:

    Dear Readers,
    At the risk of further antagonizing you, but in the spirit of information and conversation, a reader back channeled me on a recent critique of the It Gets Better Project.

    By forwarding this I want to be clear that I am NOT endorsing these points, although if you have been hanging on this long you will recognize that some of the 13 points I find more compelling than others. Perhaps this magazine might sponsor an article on these points?

    http://tempcontretemps.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/why-i-dont-like-dan-savages-it-gets-better-project-as-a-response-to-bullying/

    Ritch.

    • Maybe what everyone can take away from all this is that generalizations of any kind can be damaging, and stigma of any extreme is bad (i.e. depressed/suicidal vs. happy/alright). There needs to be a balance. We have to highlight what is good about our gay population as a whole, as young individuals, sons and daughters, students and teachers, mothers and fathers. But we cannot understate, overlook, or dismiss the negatives that are a direct result of a society that is oppressive. Perhaps a better sentiment to get both points across (using this article’s title as an example) is saying, “Gay kids are strong” instead of “Gay kids are alright.” This allows for recognition of the good that Ritch speaks about while underscoring the fact that there are those who are able to be “alright” DESPITE the adversities out there, not in the absence of them. But it’s mandatory to understand and communicate that even our most courageous youth meet insurmountable challenges which take them from us in various ways, and these obstacles that result in the loss of human life (or quality of human life for many others) are rooted in societal bigotry and legalized oppression. This is why we cannot lose sight of this part of the equation.

      I don’t think there would be the amount of religious communities reflecting on how their churches and teachings have handled homosexuality if the recent news coverage was “Gay kids are just like straight kids” as opposed to stories of the tragedies that have occurred. Yes, the media can also be damaging, but counteracting this coverage with polar opposite theory can be too. Unfortunately sometimes it takes publicized tragedy to bring about reflection and reform, and we need to recognize our responsibility to hold oppressive forces accountable in order to get to the next level of understanding and acceptance. A quote from the above link (which is all over the place, but has a few decent points) regarding “It Gets Better”: “Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future.” I would add, “…and don’t insist that they aren’t.” Neither address the issues that are occurring now.

  12. Wow. I’ve never read so much bullshit all in one article. This is so ignorant I want to throw up. How can someone write about a topic when they don’t know shit about it. I’m nonviolent and this article makes me want to punch the writer in the face. To whoever wrote this or agrees with it: get you head out of your ass, open your eyes, and shut your god damn mouth.

  13. I want to thank you for being an advocate for gay youth Ritch, However, I have always disagreed with your perspective that things are better for gay youth BEFORE they come out. It is true that they negotiate the coming out process earlier and that they are better than those in my generation (I am 47). However, it is absolutely not true that before they come they are better. In my experience, it is exactly the same for gay and lesbian children today than it was when we were growing up. The cultural trauma of hiding one’s identity and being young gay and lesbian spies listening and witnessing the hate and bigotry (which is much more visible today then in the 1970’s) is a form of covert cultural sexual abuse. Coming out is still traumatic. Being out is much better these days and that is where I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    Respectfully,

    Joe Kort,

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      Thanks for the kind words Joe.

      However, I do not recall ever making the claim that gay kids are necessarily healthier BEFORE they come out (come out to self or come out to others? Two very different processes). Have I? I am not sure how I or anyone else would know because such kids are awfully difficult to get to in our research. Not even sure how one would identify them (except to ask out to self but not out to others).

      What I have done is to “question” the assumption that gay kids who are not out are necessarily more depressed, anxious, suicidal, etc. In my clinical work I am always very careful in talking with same-sex attracted youth about public disclosure. Some youth believe it will solve all their problems, the “Answer,” and I will caution them about what might be on the other side, to make sure that they are prepared (sometimes families are capable of rejecting them).

      What I will say is that several decades ago youth who were out were those most likely to transgress gender boundaries (likely pushed or pulled out rather than to come out on their own). Of course because of their cross-gender behavior they were likely to be bullied, and that can do great harm to life satisfaction scores. One of the most powerful predictors of mental health problems among gay youth has been “gender atypicality,” which is not restricted to gay youth.

      My goal is to question unexamined assumptions. For some youth their life blossoms when they come out; for others, it becomes immeasurably worse.

      Ritch.

      • I am glad for the clarification Ritch. I don’t think I have read anything from you or anyone else in terms of before the coming out process. Seems like a new concept for people to consider. As a clinician who treats gay teens before, during and after the coming out process they all say exactly what was said by gays and lesbians from past generations in that before coming out they were as frightened and traumatized about what would happen to them. I do agree that after they come out, even here in the midwest, things are better for most than any other generation. That said, being the only out–or only a few of the out–gays in a school still feels isolating and alone and is hard.

        I also really apprecaite your speaking out about suicide contagion as I am also concerned about that and we all should be. I did not know there was not enough research on that until you mentioned that.

        I think the fact that suicides of gay teens has not gone down in numbers let’s us know things are not much better. I have never heard reports that gay teens attempting or committing suicide are going down in numbers. I know they are not rising however–just receiving more media attention.

        • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

          Just to be clear, in terms of your statement, “I think the fact that suicides of gay teens has not gone down in numbers let’s us know things are not much better. I have never heard reports that gay teens attempting or committing suicide are going down in numbers” I want to re-state my position.

          First, we have no data on gay teen suicides, so whether it has gone up, down, or stayed the same, we don’t know.

          Second, we do know that the reported suicide attempt has decreased dramatically over the past generation. Whether this is because of an actual decline or because our research is better (that is, perhaps it was never as high as reported by early studies), we do not know.

          Third, to state what you say in your second post, the gay teens we see in clinical practice are not likely “representative” of gay teens in general.

          Again, data do show that many gay teens really like being gay and their gay life. Bravo!

          • Ritch stated, “First, we have no data on gay teen suicides, so whether it has gone up, down, or stayed the same, we don’t know.” So then how can it be asserted that gay kids are alright? Those who say that gay youth are in pain and prone to suicide cannot–in Ritch’s estimation–say this because there is not enough evidence (in his opinion) to support it. But if lack of evidence is used to negate that, how can that same lack of evidence support “Gay youth are fine”?

      • The answers lie in the clinical practices of the therapists treating these kids. And you are right it would have to be the kids who are out to themselves but not to others–which are the kids I tend to treat along with those who are simply out and dealing with a normative gay youth life which is so wonderful to see.

        • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

          To Question:
          Gay teen suicides = death. We have no data on suicides by sexual orientation.

          As to being in pain and prone to suicide, that is another matter (though I maintain that we do not have adequate data and that there are data that dispute this, on a group level).

          By “fine” and “all right” I have always said in these posts that I mean no group difference with straight youth on developmental and psychological health.

          If I were to maintain that gay youth are healthier than straight youth (no data to support this view), then that would be a different matter.

          I hope this clarifies. Ritch.

  14. You make some good points here and SOMEBODY needs to hold social scientists, journalists, and activists accountable for making over-arching claims in the absence of sufficient evidence. Those claiming that we’re in a sudden LGBT suicide crisis deserve tough scrutiny.

    However, you didn’t stop there. You make a claim, which is also your title, that “The Gay Kids Are All Right.” Where’s your proof? Every good scientist knows that the burden of proving something lies on whomever makes the claim. Now it’s on you.

    Furthermore, the more a claim deviates from conventional views, the more evidence is required from a claimant. This quote is worth committing to memory: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    I could go on and on about how insulting your claim is, how it trivializes/dismisses the amount of trauma LGBT kids go through, but the only thing that matters here is how extraordinary is. Even those who think homosexuality is a moral abomination would agree that you can’t be psychologically sound when you fraternize with Satan!

    The angry comments you have received for writing this are, if not justified, certainly predictable. Yes, things are comparatively better for LGBT youths now than 30 years ago. No, LGBT youths should not be fed a victimhood narrative from the media. But there’s a world of difference between these claims, and saying that things are hunky dory.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      All excellent points.

      I agree that “Every good scientist knows that the burden of proving something lies on whomever makes the claim. Now it’s on you.” One could argue, however, that the basic premise in social science is one of “no difference” between groups and that it is up to those who assert a group difference to prove it. Part of my critique of previous studies is that they do not demonstrate the group difference. That analysis seems a bit picky within the present context, so I’ll drop it.

      My dilemma is not knowing how to show to you the reader the no sexual orientation difference (which might be a bit different than showing everything is “hunky dory” for gay kids) within this magazine context. My task was to write an essay for the “general reader” and so this is what I did. Usually I have scientific research citations at the conclusion of my writings.

      The supporting evidence is provided, of course, in my professional writing. I don’t want to be accused of hocking my book, The New Gay Teenager, but there I do review these issues. However, since that book came out 5 years ago there are more studies that show no group difference between gay and straight kids on a number of developmental and psychological health issues.

      What to do? I recognize that when statements are made that we believe to be true (gay youth suicide epidemic) because we have been led to believe them or they just “feel” to be true, no evidence is necessary. It is when assertions go against conventional truth that evidence is needed. I accept that, but not sure how to do it here with boring everyone or going beyond the intended purpose of this magazine…

      Ritch.

      • Yeah, arguing for no evidence of a difference in sexual orientation is different from saying things are hunky dory. That may be your personal experience, but it’s not scientifically justified.

        The scientific consensus is that homosexuality is linked to suicide, depression, substance abuse, and many other mental illnesses. This is debatable, and I’m curious to learn more from reading your book, but even if you can dismantle that view, it doesn’t warrant making overly rosy statements about LGBT youths.

        Non-scientific statements based on your own personal experience may reasonably hold a more positive perspective, but be careful how you phrase things. Somebody who has been abused/abandoned by their family/peers on account of their perceived/actual sexual orientation, or even a friend of such person, might read your title and find it as dismissive as “let them eat cake!”

        • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

          I said that there is no difference in mental health between gay and straight youth and I believe that the scientific evidence backs me up on this. The “scientific consensus” you speak of does not exist; it is very debatable within the scientific literature. Not so sure I made “overly rosy statements,” but perhaps that is a matter of personal interpretation.

          BTW, the religious right is extremely likely to use the “suicidal literature” to buttress their view that gay teens should undergo conversion therapy. It is like “magic” for them–select what you want and throw away the rest.

          Ritch.

          • A scientific consensus implies general agreement, not necessarily unanimity (e.g., global warming, evolution, etc.).

            If you take a look at Wikipedia’s article on suicide among LGBT youth, you’ll see that it doesn’t even include a dissenting opinion! Maybe you could be the very first to write one for this article (and others), as thus far nobody has questioned their LGBT/mental health link:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_among_LGBT_youth

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_topics_in_medicine

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and_psychology

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_sexual_orientation_and_medicine

            To be fair, I don’t think any progressives are arguing that being LGBT by itself causes mental health problems, but rather it’s homophobia and heterosexism that are to blame. Can we at least agree that social rejection can cause mental illness? Is there not a scientific consensus on that?

          • “Select what you want and throw away the rest.” Funny, that is exactly what you do.

          • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

            Cute, but not true.

            Would you also say the same for those who say gay youth are more suicidal, depressed, etc. than straight youth?

            Is it that difficult to believe that our gay youth are normal?

          • Nope, I would not say the same for those who state that about gay youth. I say this because I have spent significant time researching this issue and have found an equally significant and overwhelming base of studies and research that support that finding. I can’t seem to find any research supporting yours that does not have your name printed on it.

            Also, big difference between “normal” and “suicidal, depressed, etc.” Gay youth are inherently normal. The other descriptors (“suicidal, depressed, etc.”) are the results of a homophobic society. Stop confusing the two.

            • I know this is almost a year old but if you had really spent any time researching this topic, you’d actually find lots of research about how homosexuals are as “fine” as their heterosexual peers, most of it without the Savin-Williams name on it. There’s also a fair amount of research attempting to do away with the “gay crisis” stigma as well as really interesting research showing that certain aspects of homosexual life cause homosexuals to happier and more satisfied with their lives than their heterosexual peers. And by research, let me clarify that I mean actual legislative academic research, not browsing wikipedia for hours. Lack of preparation to debate a topic on your part doesn’t mean your opponent is wrong or somehow a mastermind in lqbqt research.

            • *legislative was supposed to be legitimate

  15. houstonative says:

    The teenage years are difficult for most people and the bullying that gay people experience only serves to exacerbate the pain in the maturation process. I think its important to teach all teenagers, gay or straight, that it gets better. I look back now at the really popular people in high school and find it quite funny and pitiful that they are all still partying and drinking together. Its important to show teenagers that high school is really only four years and you never have to speak or see those people ever again when its over. And not to mention the majority of those “popular” kids become complete losers right after high school.

  16. Ritch Savin-Williams says:

    Much to the relief of many of you, this will be my last post. I am covering again and again the same territory, so it’s time for me to move onto other projects. It has been quite a ride, and a learning experience. I wish all of you the best, and to keep an open mind and to listen to our youth.

    Ritch.

  17. Well I’m using all of my power right now to avoid profanity. I remember quite well being a gay teen. When your not out your forced to repress emotions and can become depressed because you can’t express yourself. When you do come out not only are you made fun of to your face but the more meaningful blows are when you hear a glimpse of people talking about you behind your back and you know they don’t just make fun of you for their own pleasure but because they actually do despise you. As for the suicide and depression I must say you are quite wrong. I contemplated suicide every other if not every day. I even went as far as putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger. I’m only here today because I forgot to turn the safety off and changed my mind. Also after you graduate it doesn’t get immediately better, you still have bigots at work and all through college. Now I’m going to assume the author is straight and I would like to point out to you that your most embarrassing day of school whatever it was that happened, being gay forces you to feel that way every day. Being a teenager is already hard enough but not even being able to blend in or be “normal” only makes it so much worse. Has someone ever thrown a brick though your parents house window just because your different? I still get made fun of for it and I’m one of the slightly more normal type. Probably about two weeks ago actually I was walking off of a train and a man knocked the papers out of my hand just like back in high school, and muttered something about being queer. They don’t allow gay marriage to protect the sanctity of marriage when they allow drunk people in Vegas and gold diggers to marry but not couples that have been together for ten years and are still madly in love. I’m sorry Rich but no matter how many studies you do the only way you’ll know how homosexual feel and are treated would be to become one yourself.

    • Ritch Savin-Williams says:

      Dear Daniel,
      The bullying and the resulting pain you’ve received in your life are horrific and inexcusable in this supposedly “progressive” society. I hope that you have the strength and support to move beyond the idiots. Second, I have been gay since the day I was born (if not before) and I have dedicated my life to change the world in a way that will reduce the kind of experiences that you had. I realize that not all of us agree on how best to do this and I can understand that you believe my emphasis on emphasizing the strengths and abilities and positive attitude of today’s young gays (and straights) might not be your approach. That is okay; I hope that you too are working toward the same goals to end the hate and prejudice and discrimination. Ritch.

  18. Just because you are unaware of it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The last thing a gay teen who is terrified about coming out of the closet, or is terrified of hurting or disappointing their parents, is “i’m suicidal” and they are very unlikely to mention their sexuality to anyone but maybe a friend or two before they kill themselves. So you are absolutely right, there is no accurate straight vs gay suicide rate, but there are two things that lead me to believe that there is still a problem but I’ll get to that in a second. . The statistics that you provide are vague at best. The “it gets better” campaign isn’t a regional thing. Taking a random sample and testing them is going to show drastic results from place to place depending on many different factors. Why you think it’s anymore valid than those 1970s and 80s I do not know but in some places not a lot has changed. about half of the homeless youth in Salt lake, Utah are GLBT. . The first is that you can never be sure those “Straight” kids were straight, especially if religion was involved. The second Is that states like Utah (my state) that are more religious and less tolerant, often have a very high rate of MALE teen suicide, many who are gay or were made fun of for “Acting gay’ The thing about that is, Girls as a whole attempt and complete suicide more frequently than boys most of the time. Two “it’ gets better” contributors are dead now. I have no doubt there are areas where people are more tolerant and the realities are not tossed into your face on a daily basis- but there are just as many places, like utah, which are not that way. You can be fired from your job, kicked out of your apartment, and if you go anywhere with someone of the same sex acting like any other couple, the stares, and the yelling, the constant discussion in the LDS church about it being a “mental disease”, all of those things pile up on one another and the cumulative effect is people thinking “No matter how much I try to make people happy, a bunch of people write me off, just cuz of this one thing.” . I do not know where you live, and if it is like this or if you are aware of it, But be careful before posting articles meant to persuade people- when you do not have enough information to do so. Talk to people who have gone to reparative therapy, get in gay chat rooms and talk to teens, to twenty somethings, and ask them. Talk to return missionaries who have since come out of the closet. I’ve seen it time and time again, and it’s always the same, the things that they say. From the 17 year old Who hasn’t answered my messages in 3 days- to Jamie Hubley of canada. Thousands of miles seperate these two, amongst several different variables, but I’ve heard that 17 year old say the same things that Jamie did before kill himself. I’ve seen the scars, the pain in peoples eyes here. All they need is validation, is someone to step in and say “It’s awful you’ve been treated this way, But I”ll always be here” and mean it. Many of the kids who have killed themselves were this person for their friends, just as I have been. at the waterfall where I had my suicide planned out at, The place I found most peaceful- a 28 year old named todd ransom killed himself- and his suicide note should speak loudly enough to the fact that at least in certain areas- it’s a very large problem. It read “When will faith wake up to love and not hate? sunrise- accept this final offering- sunrise.”. The reality of it is though, is if the “it gets better” campaign saves one life, why does it matter? There’s gonna be that one gay kid that’s in a religious family or whatever and if he sees people from other places talk about their lives now, the acceptance, that kid may rethink that- he may find a third option that isn’t suicide, self injury, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. I’ve been that kid before, and that’s why I felt the need to post. Because those little things are the only reason I’m still alive, and just like straight kids that get bulled often take their lives- so do gay kids, but almost all gay kids get bullied in some areas, so this alone shows its an incredibly ignorant opinion that there is not a problem, and contradicts the very principles of psychology. We get trapped in these little bubbles of our own experiences, and we falsely apply those experiences to others when the truth is- We don’t know. Thats absolutely what you have done here and though I’m sure you have no ill intent- I hope you realize that. I hope that instead of hastily assuming one thing, or discussing statistics, you will actually make an effort to understand if there is a problem or not. Talk to your local pride center, talk to gay kids online that are still in the closet, Go out to a gay event in a religious area and look for self inflicted wounds. It’s before your eyes, you are just choosing not to see it. If it’s not a position you have been in or observed, you have no right to speak on it. I have been, and The first time I tried to kill myself was when I was ten, one of many attempts and a lot of other issues. It was because I was different, and got bullied for it. I had no support, my family was dysfunctional, but my straight peers in the same situation didn’t struggle nearly as much… Because they were being bullied cuz they were fat, or short, or whatever but you don’t hear people at your church- in your home takling negatively of the fat, the short, etc. But you will hear them talk negatively of the GLBT community. Its not just the “gay kids” it’s the ones who “act gay” are made fun of- even if they aren’t gay. This is not just a “gay” isssue, the larger issue is bullying, but just like anyone else that is different, gays are going to be bullied very frequently for things their straight peers wont. I apologize if my response seems fragmented. My anti depressant causes some brain fog.

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