A new survey says less than half of all US teens identify as exclusively heterosexual. Here's why that statistic fills me with optimism.
When I was 16 years old, one of my closest friends came out to me.
Actually, it would be a few more years before he officially "came out." What he told me then was that he'd just had his first homosexual encounter, in a hotel room on a choir trip to San Antonio.
It was the other boy who had initiated things, with hands roaming tentatively beneath the comforter of a shared bed until they were met with warm reciprocity. They moved in silence, so as not to awaken the other boys sleeping in the same room
Afterward, my friend felt both electrified and conflicted. He knew this was something he wanted more of, but he was raised to believe that homosexuality was one of the worst sins a person could commit.
I felt honored that he had chosen to confide in me. Like the encounter itself, reaching out with a secret like this took vulnerability. We lived in a conservative Texas town; the kind of place where you could never predict how a peer might react to the admission that you had been up all night trading hand jobs with the first chair baritone. They might laugh, or punch you, or tell everyone you know. They might lecture you about how the God of the universe is a sadist obsessed with administering eternal punishment to gay people, and the worst part is that you might believe them.
What could I say? I assured my friend that I believed God is nothing more or less than our capacity for love and empathy, something I still believe. Then I shared some steamy details of my own homosexual awakening: the girl who had given me multiple orgasms while The Doors biopic whirred in my VCR, and how excited I had been when she called me the next day even though all she wanted was to make sure I didn't tell her boyfriend.
For kids growing up in small towns in the late 90s, being queer was something you cultivated in secrecy until you found a real-world community to be queer in. These were the days before LiveJournal or Tumblr allowed teenagers around the world to connect in virtual solidarity. Being yourself could mean complete social isolation, or worse.
When my friend finally came out as a gay man, he was disowned by the church that had been his social and spiritual home since childhood and asked to step down from his role as a music director. It was devastating, causing a crisis of identity that was heartbreaking to witness.
Things were a bit easier for me both socially, as a straight-passing white girl, and psychologically, as the child of liberals who didn't belong to a church that was quite so fixated on homosexuality. Not long after the aforementioned encounter, I told my mom I was a lesbian. "No you're not," she assured me. "I've seen you in action. You're probably bisexual, you just don't know any guys worth your time." (I wouldn't typically advocate parents imposing their perspective on their children's burgeoning sexual identities, but in my case, Mom nailed it.)
Even so, it was years before I figured out how to integrate my queerness into my identity or lifestyle. I didn't have any role models who conducted relationships with both men and women, let alone at the same time. In my early 20s, I remember Googling "feminism and sexual freedom" while my then-boyfriend slept in the next room, feeling torn between my desire for domestic intimacy and my seemingly bottomless hunger for something else entirely. I knew there was a conversation I yearned to join, but couldn't find the door.
Thanks to massive strides in the development of the Internet, that conversation is considerably easier to find these days. I won't pretend the stigma has disappeared -- LGBTQ youth still face a disproportionate amount of harassment, violence and isolation, and political measures like North Carolina's new anti-anti-discrimination law demonstrate that the days of institutional bullying are not yet behind us. But it's also easier for young people to find queer conversations and sexually diverse role models than at any previous point in human history, and that access to information matters.
How much of the trauma our society continually inflicts on itself is rooted in our collective sexual repression? How much of our reactionary conservatism can be traced to the time someone desperately wanted to reach under the covers and feel a reciprocal connection, but couldn't? The implications of a generation of kids who feel empowered to explore their own identities and desires with openness and self-acceptance rather than repression and self-loathing are nothing short of revolutionary, and there is evidence that this revolution is already underway. A recent survey of of 13 to 20 year olds indicates that less than half of today's American teenagers identify as exclusively heterosexual, with nearly a third identifying as somewhere on the bisexual spectrum. What's even more fascinating is that more than half of these kids know someone who prefers "they" and "them" to traditional gendered pronouns.
If you've never been a queer teen, these numbers might seem inflated, but as someone who's watching the culture I wish I'd grown up in emerging among the young with admiration and even a pang of envy, I would suggest that they indicate a loosening of rigidly defined gender and sexual orientation categories that has been a long time coming. What more kids declaring themselves "queer" really means is that more young people are feeling unafraid to be themselves; to take a chance on the vulnerability that comes with becoming a conscious agent of your own desires and wearing your own identity with acceptance and pride.
For generations, Americans have fretted that the breakdown of traditional gender roles will undermine the fabric of society, and there may actually be some truth to that. A world where marriage and family are a choice but not a given creates space for people to develop identities independent of the assumption that getting a high-paying job to support a family is something providers do out of obligation. A world where heterosexuality is not a given lessens the power of the heteropatriarchal gaze, allowing us to more readily perceive women and feminine people as active subjects in their own lives. And a world where transgender individuals have increased visibility is a world where they are less susceptible to social and political bullying, depression, and suicide.
So yes, queer teens are probably going to undermine the fabric of society somewhat, but please don't mourn these tired rags. The truth is that the fabric of our society was designed to cover and protect some of us at the expense of others. It was cut to drape a form it never really fit, and our culture has outgrown it. This is cause for celebration, not mourning, and a charge to get to work weaving something new.
It is my sincere hope that the political and social paradigms that take form in the next few decades are characterized by a leveling up of empathy, honesty, self-awareness, and acceptance of difference. It won't be easy, but I have all the faith in the world that our future queer overlords are up to the challenge.
At the very least, I am confident that many of tomorrow's leaders already know the virtue of vulnerability, because of what so many of them have already had to go through in order to accept themselves for who they are.