Few of us are surprised if we hear young people freak out at the thought -- and all the more at the certainty -- that they might be bisexual, lesbian or gay. To hear a teenager say that if they were to be queer, it would be the most terrible, horrible thing that could possibly happen to them is, sadly, not a shocker. After all, those feelings and fears are nothing new, and there remains a very ugly history and plenty in the world still to support the idea that not being heterosexual is a tragedy of epic proportions.
What is shocking is how little those fears seem to have changed over the last 10, 20, 50 or 100 years, despite so much of our world changing positively (albeit far too slowly) for those of us who are queer. There are young Westerners today who don't know that there was a time when nowhere in the U.S. could LGB* people kiss in public without risking violence or loss of a job, that less than 150 years ago in the U.K. was there a death penalty for men having sex with men, or that having a beard ever meant anything other than electing not to shave.
The bad news is real. Reporting on the bad news, studying the bad news, is certainly important, because we need people without an awareness of and sense of accountability for the bad news to gain both. However, that news is really for people who aren't queer. After all, we already got the memo: we've lived the bad news and may still be living the bad news.
Are we in a perfect place now? Not even close. A better place? Absolutely. And what we also need to hear, more than our straight allies, frenemies or stingy-squishers-of-our-rights do, is some good news. LGB youth really, really need to hear about the good stuff. Because while it's not awesome to be queer in most places of the world yet, it's less and less scary and sucky than it used to be. Young people don't need extra help being scared of who they are and the negative ways their lives may differ from those of their straight peers. Their world is scary enough, and I've yet to meet the young LGB person who wasn't already aware of the bad stuff they might face or are already grappling with.
So, what's some of the good news? I work with as many queer youth as straight youth at Scarleteen every day, and often notice some differences between our queer users and our straight users. This stuff doesn't make me feel glad for straight youth; I want all young people to have these bonuses. However, I'm incredibly glad about it for queer youth.
Queer youth often appear to be having emotionally healthier and more mutually satisfying sexual relationships. I hear less from young, sexually active queer people who aren't enjoying their sexual lives with partners, and less from them with reports of abuse or assault within their sexual relationships than I do from straight teens and 20-somethings having those experiences. That isn't to suggest that neither of those things is an issue for queer people; we know they are. But they appear to more common problems among heterosexual youth right now.
Better body image is often another biggie, particularly for young women. Young lesbians are not the women writing to me losing sleep over whether the amount of pubic hair they have is the "right" amount, thinking they should slice and dice their labia just to fit a sexual beauty ideal, worrying that their breasts or bottoms aren't big enough, their stomachs or legs tiny enough.
One of the coolest parts of being queer is that we aren't given as many scripts for our sexuality, sex lives and love lives as straight people. As a colleague of mine recently said to me, the person who draws the map is the person who holds the power. Straight people have a lot of maps, but most were written by someone else long before they were even born, and most are also highly inflexible and about as currently useful as a map of Chicago made before the fire. And while we're not without some of our own scripts by now, they tend to be much less rigid, much less retro, and are also a lot more often self-authored. I hear hetero youth regularly voice very real confusion and conflict about the finger-waggy messages about how they are supposed live, love, lust, conceptualize and present their gender and sexuality; what I hear from queer youth is often more about how to write your own script when there doesn't seem to be one, a far more ideal conundrum, if you ask me. While not having those scripts or having them be more flexible can still be confusing, there's a lot more freedom in improv.
The amount of emotional support available to queer youth is ever-increasing, even though it remains deeply underfunded. Feeling like you aren't alone no longer has to mean wearing out the grooves on your Meg Christian or Morrissey LPs (unless that's something you really want to do). Many Western queer youth don't wait for years now to find even one person who isn't straight to talk to, or feel like the only way they can find another queer person to have some kind of community with is by sleeping with them.
A young person with an Internet connection or a phone can now access safe and supportive sites and services like Scarleteen, GLSEN, YouthResource, the Queer Youth Network in the U.K., the LGBT Youthline, It Gets Better, Give a Damn or the Trevor Project. Nearly every major city in the US currently has some kind of space or programming for queer youth. Fewer schools have GSAs than they should, and it's typically the schools that need them the most that are without them, but there are GSAs, something that didn't exist at all as recently as 15 years ago. There's real discussion about LGB harassment in schools, as well as policies that are already formed or in the process of being formed to prevent harassment and violence or, at the very least, hold those who harass or attack queer youth accountable, a major sea change from just 20 years ago, when we didn't even have legal terms for this kind of harassment and violence.
Queer youth can see far more queer people than any generation before, including a view of the wide range of our identities and relationships. It doesn't take more than a few links to give a positive clue to a young queer person terrified that being queer means less access to whatever kind of family or relationships they've envisioned than hetero people; they have access to numerous examples to the contrary. Even though we could still use much more expansiveness in queer media representation, it doesn't take more than running a TV for a few hours for a young person to know that no, it isn't just them, and no, being queer doesn't have to mean living in the closet with the acrid smell of moth balls forever, entering sham marriages to hide who you are, assimilating if you don't want to, or not assimilating if you do.
Queer people who came of age during this time may well later talk about what a watershed time they were able to come of age in, potentially as revolutionary a time as it was for many women to come of age in the 70s, many African Americans to grow up in the 60s, or for young men who've been able to live in a time when they could envision a transition into adulthood that didn't include automatic military enlistment. During times like those, everything was (and is) hardly finished or made magically better. But those were and are times of beginnings, not endings or social stagnation. Feeling and seeing those beginnings as you're in your own beginning, becoming who you will be in times of positive change for you, is a power-full, self-affirming thing.
Queer youth can also imagine -- and ideally, keep witnessing -- how having good things like these and increasing civil rights could result in lives that are not miserable, barely tolerable or even just OK, but earnestly great, perhaps in some ways even greater than those of some of their straight counterparts. Hmm. It kind of makes you wonder if that's not something the gatekeepers of our rights have some clue about, and if it might perhaps be some of their motivation to keep such a tight grip on rights that we all deserve but that might make some of our lives better than they feel they're supposed to be, better than they want them to be to serve their own ends, or better than their own lives are.
If so, here's a tip for queer youth out there: it may well be that some straight folks are more aware of what's good in your life than you are, and that's even part of why they're trying so hard to hold on to inequality and their own privilege. But the good stuff you have, just like they good stuff they have that you still don't? It doesn't have to be just for you, just like theirs doesn't have to only be for them. Maybe someday soon, another positive turning of the tides will be that instead of hearing queer people say thanks to straight people (for, you know, giving us the things they shouldn't have ever had the right to keep from us or had a monopoly on in the first place), you'll get to hear straight people thank you for good things you helped them see and seek out for themselves; for helping them see how much more awesome equality can be than they ever thought.
*Where's the T? I'm talking about sexual orientation here, not gender identity. More importantly, we have a much, much longer way to go for transgender and other gender-nonconforming people of all ages than for LGB folks. Most of these good news bits for LGB youth aren't good news bits that T youth have yet, even when they're also LGB. Want to help with that? You can start here.