The other night I was watching "Sixteen Candles" yet again (I can't help myself) on HBO. I was stunned to hear the word "faggot" spoken by characters at least once if not twice. Juxtaposed against the recent uproar conservative provacateur Ann Coulter caused recently by calling John Edwards the same word, you can see how far we've come in terms of our sensitivity to the reality that words can hurt. We've also come amazingly far when it comes to the visibility of gay and lesbian teens. Gay/straight alliances have proliferated in high schools across the country and popular teen dramas like "The O.C." and "South of Nowhere" (and others) have had gay or lesbian storylines. But as visibility has increased so has harrassment and bullying of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender youth at school.
At a recent bookstore event in Austin, two staff from Out Youth attended -- and I was so glad they did. In chapter two of Totally Wired, I talk about the risks involved in coming out online. The internet has provided a lifeline to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender/questioning teens whose parents may not be understanding. Many of these teens are depressed and can suffer in silence, especially if they live outside of large cities. Being able to connect with other youth going through a similar experience online can often be the only thing that keeps them going. At the same time, the anonymity and distance the internet can offer can create a false sense of security when teens decide to open up about their sexuality on a blog or MySpace. Even if they do it under an assumed name, they can still be discovered and "outed" in very cruel ways by their peers.
What I advised the Out Youth staffers and anyone working with young people who may be struggling with these issues is to warn teens of the dangers of revealing this type of information online before they have come out or discussed these issues with parents and friends. If they are not ready to come out to the offline world, they probably shouldn't come out online on a blog or profile that can be traced back to them. There are many organizations like Out Youth and Lyric where young people can reach out confidentially for support as well as places online where young people could chat anonymously -- this is different from speaking openly about these issues on a blog or profile.