Several years ago, I took a book out of my neighborhood library titled The New Gay Teenager, written by Cornell University researcher Ritch Savin-Williams. I read it quickly (I didn’t want to pay another library fine) and didn’t give it the level of thought it really deserved. The professional reviews of the book rated it as groundbreaking, well-researched, thought-provoking. Now, eight years after its original publication, I purchased the book and read it slowly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly. And this time around, I found the book to be totally disturbing.
Disturbing. I know – it’s a strong word.
Maybe it’s because some time has passed since the book first came out. Maybe it’s because, this time, I actually read the book in a slow-thoughtful-thorough way. Whatever the reason, I think Savin-Williams completely missed the boat.
Let me give you a brief synopsis. Savin-Williams, who is a developmental psychologist specializing in LGB (but not transgender, really) issues, argues that, for most teenagers today, sexual orientation just isn’t an issue anymore. It’s no big deal. “The new gay teenager,” Savin-Williams writes in the first chapter of the book, “is in many respects the non-gay teenager. Perhaps she considers herself to be ‘postgay,’ or he says that he’s ‘gayish.’ For these young people, being labeled as gay or even being gay matters little. They have same-sex desires and attractions but, unlike earlier generations, new gay teens have much less interest in naming these feelings or behaviors as gay” (p. 1).
If being gay is no big deal, then coming out, labeling yourself, having your first same-sex sexual encounter – these “milestones” (or what were once considered to be milestones) are really no big deal either. What teens really want, argues Savin-Williams, is to be just like everyone else, and for the focus on their sexual identity to fade completely into the background.
Now, Savin-Williams is no small-time researcher. He’s been at Cornell for twenty years, and he’s won numerous prestigious awards for his work. IN fact, The New Gay Teenager was awarded the American Psychological Association Division 44 Distinguished Book Award. And Savin-Williams’ academic pedigree comes through in his writing. Throughout the book, he painstakingly describes (and unpacks) studies of coming out, identity development, sexual behavior, and mental health. He delves into research focusing on bisexuality, and accurately notes that the term “bisexual” is an umbrella that can mean a range of different things. And he’s clearly well-versed in the LGB developmental psychology research, citing veteran researcher Anthony D’Augelli most frequently. He knows his stuff, that’s for sure. And all of this focus on research in the book is in the service of proving that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or whatever – well, it just doesn’t matter that much to teens. It’s almost irrelevant, really. And that, to Savin-Williams, is a very good thing.
Okay. So compared to Savin-Williams, I’m way over here playing minor league ball. I teach at a community college, not within the hallowed walls of the Ivy League, and I don’t do research – at least, I don’t think he would consider what I do to be “research.” But I’m stepping up to the plate anyway, because I’ve got some serious reactions to his commentary and conclusions that I’m going to throw out there.
There are lots of things I could focus on, but I’ll save them for later blog posts. What fueled my ire more than any other part of the book was the last chapter, titled “Refusing and Resisting Sexual Identity Labels.” Why? Because the chapter isn’t just about refusing-and-resisting-sexual-identity-labels – in fact, “resistance” is the furthest thing from his point. In this chapter, Savin-Williams makes clear his belief that gay teens are assimilating into mainstream society, and that assimilation – “banality” is the term he uses at the end of the book – is a good thing. A really good thing.
I totally disagree with that. In fact, I think that viewpoint is very dangerous. And here’s why.
Savin-Williams steps out of objective-scientist mode in this chapter and challenges the group we’ll call the “anti-assimilationists.” These include people – activists, really – like writer Sarah Schulman, (one of the founders of the Lesbian Avengers), Michelangelo Signorile (involved in ACT-UP and co-founder of the offshoot group Queer Nation), and Larry Kramer (one of the original founders of ACT-UP), who, according to Savin-Williams, “rants against accommodating gays who he says are losing themselves in the massive, vanilla-heterosexual culture” (p. 196). Lumping these individuals together, Savin- Williams says, “The potential of leading a normal life is not what they want. Their romantic ideal is being transgressive, being the rebel” (p. 195). This, however, is not what LGB teens want, according to Savin-Williams. They want to be normal, boring – just like everyone else.
I think it’s important to offer some perspective. These three individuals – and others – are grassroots, guerrilla activists. They put their lives on the line in the service of LGBTQ rights (and, in many cases, other human rights issues). The night ACT-UP was formed at the LGBT Center in New York City, Larry Kramer gave a speech and ended with this statement: “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?” This call to action resonated for a lot of people – not long after this speech was given, Michelangelo Signorile was arrested at the infamous “Stop the Church” protest staged by ACT-UP at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sarah Schulman was also arrested during an early ACT-UP demonstration, and she organized the Dyke Marches that now often take place the night before Pride celebrations. These truly were acts of resistance and liberation, orchestrated by people who were keenly aware of the power of oppression. But Savin-Williams cuts these radical acts down to size in one fell swoop by saying, “Nothing could be more foreign to young people today than these senior perspectives” (p. 197).
What if it’s not foreign? What if, instead, we’re witnessing a rising third wave of LGBTQ activism, not unlike the third wave of feminism that followed the 1970s women’s liberation movement? What if LGBTQ youth are realizing that the work is not done, that our history is being buried and ignored, and that the movement is not over? What if LGBTQ youth are reinventing the movement, creating space for trans voices, intersex voices, poly voices, kinky voices, bi voices, people of color voices, interlocking voices and in-between voices? This is what I see.
This weekend, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is hosting the 2014 Creating Change conference. It’s billed as “the nation’s pre-eminent political, leadership and skills-building conference for the LGBT social justice movement.” Over 3,000 people are attending, many of them younger than me, and all of whom, I presume, think that LGBTQ issues are a very big deal.