When I was a teenager back in the 1990s the cultural pressure was to keep quiet about any feelings of same-sex attraction. So, I did and built my identity around a slightly nerdy interest in British politics and medieval history, combined with my growing Christian faith and ability to organise people. Looking back, there were some unhealthy consequences of my silence about my sexuality, but I’m still grateful that it allowed me to explore, and become known for, plenty of other things. I wasn’t the ‘gay guy’ in my year at school – I was the guy that wore a Conservative party rosette to our leavers’ ball, who was a member of the Richard III Society, part of the Christian Union, and became head of my boarding house. I enjoyed myself, became myself, in slightly alternative ways.
Nowadays the cultural pressure would be to share my feelings of same-sex attraction – in both word and deed – as soon as I had first felt them; to come out as gay, and build an identity around my developing sexual feelings and the stereotypes that are often foisted on young gay people; to see myself as a part of a minority group not because of my obscure interests, but because of my sexual attraction to some of the guys I was growing up with; to find out which of them might be up for a sexual relationship with me. All of which begins to sound like a lot of pressure on a teenager who is also trying to work out what to do with their life in a western school system in which the pressures both to achieve academically and to fit in socially grow and grow.
Don’t hide your same-sex attractions in shame but also don’t feel that there’s a need to identify yourself as gay.
As a result, my advice to teenagers trying to work out whether or not they might be gay is this: don’t hide your same-sex attractions in shame but also don’t feel that there’s a need to identify yourself as gay. You need both to get to know yourself and to be open to the possibility that who you are will develop and change. I no longer support the Conservative party or pay my subscription to the Richard III Society, but I am still a Christian and have spent much of my life organising people. I have also come to realise that I am exclusively same-sex attracted – but it was helpful for that realisation to settle over time, rather than be forced out of me aged fifteen.
I was interested to come across similar advice from a secular source in Ritch Savin-Williams’ The New Gay Teenager. Writing as a developmental psychologist he talks of the good sense in teenagers waiting a while before they build an identity around their sexuality:
...despite the speculations of some clinicians, the idea that it is healthy for an adolescent to identify with a sexuality has not been proved. Clinicians are fond of assuming that not adopting a label is unhealthy, that it may be an indication of possible psychological problems. An individual's reluctance to embrace a sexual identity, they say, suggests that the person is in denial, afraid to confront his or her sexual reality. Yet how do we square this view with the overwhelming evidence – produced by these same clinicians – of alarmingly high levels of depression, substance abuse, dangerous sexual activities, and suicidality among these young people who self-identify as gay? Is it possible that self-identifying gay youth are more unhealthy than nonidentified same-sex attracted young adults?
I believe this is entirely possible. Some gay teens come out "loud and proud" as an act of self-affirmation, and some nonidentified same-sex attracted young people, are in hiding for self-destructive reasons. But it is also true that some declare their sexuality as a cry for help from horrific circumstances and that others are psychologically healthy because they have bases for self-definition other than sexuality that are more developmentally appropriate.
Is it possible that our advice to same-sex attracted young people has been wrong, and that perhaps we should be encouraging not to identify as gay?1
- Ritch C Savin-Williams, The New Gay Teenager (Harvard University Press, 2006), p.204.