For Gay and Transgender Teens, Will It Get Better?

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Animation by Jessica Tang. Emoji: Apple.

It’s easy to assume that now must be a better time than ever to be a lesbian, gay or bisexual teenager. We recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Our culture has grown more accepting, too; one of the most anticipated albums of the year, Frank Ocean’s, embraces his desire for men. These factors work together to create the illusion that as a society we are barreling toward a world of complete liberation, where everyone is truly free to be whoever they are.

A major study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed that, for high schoolers, that narrative simply isn’t true. In August, the C.D.C. released the results of a national survey of about 15,600 students, grades nine through 12, to better understand high-risk behaviors among that demographic. It is one of the most comprehensive studies of gay and lesbian teenagers’ well-being to date. (The survey does not yet include an option to identify as transgender or nonbinary.) It confirmed what had long been suspected but was perhaps lost in all the excitement over the gains being made: that sexual-minority youth still face challenges their straight peers do not. Teenagers who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual — they make up about 8 percent of the high-school population, or roughly 1.3 million students — suffer from substantially higher levels of harassment and physical and sexual abuse than those who identify as straight.

Statistics From the C.D.C. Report on High-School Students

  • HETEROSEXUAL STUDENTS

  • GAY, LESBIAN, AND BISEXUAL STUDENTS


  • Skipped school because of safety concerns in the last 30 days


  • Bullied on school property in the last 12 months


  • Forced to have unwanted sexual intercourse


  • Experienced sexual violence while dating in the last 12 months


  • Considered suicide in the last 12 months


  • Attempted suicide in the last 12 months

The numbers are heartbreaking: Lesbian, gay and bisexual teenagers were more likely to have been in a fight; they were nearly three times as likely to skip school out of fear for their safety. About a third were bullied, both at school and online; nearly half said they had seriously contemplated suicide in the last year. Almost a third had tried it at least once in the same time frame. High school is already an academic and social pressure cooker, and the forces that make it stressful are amplified for queer students. Difference is prized, but only up to a point, and the social order determines your quality of life. Your placement within this cruel, arbitrary system can be a source of tremendous angst. Kids who don’t fit in are prime targets for all sorts of inventive ridicule and torture, made all the more easy by social media.

To get a sense of the everyday high-school experience for gay and queer teenagers today, I reached out to several organizations and project leaders who work with L.G.B.T. youth, and they put me in touch with a handful of kids who were willing to talk. Zeam, a sweet-faced 18-year-old trans man with a curly undercut, is a recent high-school graduate from Minnesota. Zeam, who prefers the pronouns they and them, says their days were defined by “accidental” body checks in the hallway, crying fits in the guidance counselor’s office and self-harm habits like cutting and eating disorders. There were only a few classmates who could really relate to what Zeam was going through. Many of Zeam’s friends had experienced homelessness, kicked out by their families. One of Zeam’s friends committed suicide. Even at a school that was nominally welcoming, and where Zeam’s teachers and fellow students made efforts to be accepting, Zeam still felt alienated. “I had this rage,” Zeam said. “My issues are a lot deeper and more systematic than pronouns.”

For all teenagers, the internet offers a periscope to the outside world, but it’s particularly important for students who are unable to find themselves represented and understood in their immediate surroundings. For Laurel, a 17-year-old living in Minneapolis, this self-discovery happened on Tumblr. Laurel had felt alienated and had been hospitalized for anxiety and depression. Laurel, who prefers the pronouns they and them, told me that Tumblr helped them understand genderfluidity and learn how to talk about it. “Our health classes don’t even talk about homosexuality, let alone gender, so it’s a very hard thing to talk to people who have no concept that you don’t have to be the gender you are assigned,” Laurel said. “I would look for terms I felt like I connected with,” like “pansexual” and “nonbinary,” which Laurel uses today. Laurel also posts on Instagram to update friends and peers about their preferred terms, and what is respectful and appropriate and what is not. In this way, social media doubles as a means for students to find solidarity outside their schools and to communicate what they’re experiencing back to their peers.

Gabrielle Gladu attempted suicide before she started high school, when she was in the eighth grade. Before she came out as transgender, she despised her male body and found it disorienting, given how feminine she felt inside. Watching YouTube videos about gender helped her realize that she wasn’t gay but trans. During her freshman year, she came out as trans. She asked everyone to call her Belle, a shortened version of Gabrielle, and to use female pronouns. She also began documenting her transition online in a series of popular YouTube videos. Support flowed in, giving her the courage to continue, and she began her medical transition the next year. Even though she was an anomaly at her school, the internet reassured her that she was not alone. And eventually her online popularity changed what her classmates thought of her. It made her, well, cool. Best of all, her videos offered her the perfect comeback to those with probing or invasive questions: “If you want to know everything,” she recalls saying, “you can go on YouTube and follow my story.”

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