The Developmental Experience of Gay/Lesbian Youth

Don Johnson, PhD

I propose that everyone in our society is homophobic. In addition, it is my strong belief that gay and lesbian individuals, prior to coming out, are among the most homophobic people in our society. Most of us do not think of ourselves as homophobic, however, and many people will disagree with this concept of universal homophobia, especially as applied to them. My intent in opening this article with such a potentially inflammatory statement is to focus immediately on a central dimension of the struggle homosexual youth face: that of owning an identity they have been taught to hide and developing with that identity to a socially responsible adulthood.

Having spent over 20 years studying and teaching in the field of human sexuality, I believe that it is impossible to grow up in America and not absorb some level of homophobia. The question is not "am I or am I not homophobic?" The real question is "how homophobic am I?" Long before the label of "gay" or "lesbian" is attached to them, young homosexuals are acutely aware of how our culture (including their families in most cases) feels about homosexuality. And the messages are usually negative. So as the homosexual teenager develops an awareness of his or her same-sex sexual attraction and becomes conscious of the associated pejorative labels the societally engendered negative feelings toward homosexuality (homophobia) and toward self (internalized homophobia) are already in place.

Sex is one of the few, if not the only, physical experiences of our lives where we know how we feel about it (it is good, bad, right, wrong) before we experience it. Parents, family, society, school, church, media and others constantly barrage us with messages about cultural attitudes toward sex and gender. The overwhelmingly negative messages about homosexuality set the stage for a range of social dysfunction for the homosexual teenager including the higher than average rate of suicide among gay and lesbian teens. For those who survive, even more frustrations await.

As typical American teens enter their high school years they undertake a range of sexual and social changes and adjustments which are difficult at best. Teenagers must learn all of the survival rules around love and relationships: how to identify an appropriate potential partner; how to initiate and develop a loving and sexual relationship; how to appropriately turn down unwanted attention; how to deal with non-reciprocated attraction; how to heal from rejection; how to be interested in other people and attracted to them because of personality traits and not just because they are physically desirable; and more. While these are extraordinarily complex tasks filled with many pitfalls, failures and wounds, society offers a variety support systems for young heterosexuals during this period. Parents, family, church, popular culture and a variety of other sources encourage struggling youths with the message that the process is survivable and a host of successful role models is available. Even so the route is painful and bumpy.

There are no such positive support systems for young homosexuals. Any cultural messages that are provided are usually negative. Our society associates the adolescent feelings experienced by teenage homosexuals with images of unhappy, lonely people, rejected by family and society, afflicted with disease and with death. There are generally no positive role models available and visible for gay and lesbian teens. Two classic patterns of dysfunctional behavior tend to arise for young homosexuals in response to this failure of society to provide a positive environment for their development. The first is attempting to become the best little boys or girls in the world. Homosexual youths who take this path usually become ideal students, active in school and community. Externally they are model teenagers; internally they are torn with fear, selfdoubt and self-hatred over their developing feelings and attractions. The second is one of withdrawal from society and peers. In this case homosexual youths often involve themselves with dropouts, drug-users and other social misfits. Both patterns reflect deep internal isolation and both result in the unhealthy denial of one's identity.

Thus, while heterosexual youths are acquiring the teenage developmental skills of learning how to fall in and out of love, survive broken hearts, and fine-tune their social dating skills, gay and lesbian youth are investing their energy in denial and pretending to be something they are not. A major consequence of this is that gay and lesbian youth miss the acquisition of appropriate same-sex social/sexual/dating skills during their formative years. When gay and lesbian individuals finally do "come out," no matter what the age, they essentially have to go back to adolescence and experience the developmental social/sexual tasks that were denied them by society. They must learn how, as homosexuals, to fall in and out of love, to have their hearts broken and recover, etc. In sum, they must "go through" adolescence as a gay or lesbian person.

If this development process was difficult for heterosexual teenagers post-teen homosexuals have an even more difficult time. They have acquired the cognitive awareness and judgements of adulthood which they apply in self-evaluation to the adolescent skills acquisition tasks with which they are now involved. It is very difficult to be in one's thirties or forties (or beyond) and act out a teenage developmental task. The behavior is adolescent; the judgements about the behavior are adult. It is painful and confusing to go through this process for both the individuals and those close to them. It is an unfortunate irony that the culture that makes it impossible for gay and lesbian individuals to integrate fully functioning relationship skills during the formative teen-age years is the very one that condemns them for not having done so. Gay men are portrayed as sexual libertines when essentially all they are doing is acting out an adolescent agenda with no parental/cultural supervision or support. Fortunately, for a majority of gays and lesbians once the delayed tasks of adolescence are accomplished they stabilize into committed meaningful relationships very much like their heterosexual peers.

In a healthy non-homophobic culture this natural evolution would have occurred for homosexuals at the same time their heterosexual counterparts were experiencing it. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals would have reached sexual-social maturity at the same time and both could have become productive, contributing members of society with stable relationships and positive social impact. Instead, a significant minority of the population reaches adulthood without having learned major relationship skills. Their productivity and ability to contribute to a stable social structure are compromised until they develop these skills and they are disadvantaged, both personally and socially, by having to experience this development as adults, all because everyone in our society, to some extent, is homophobic.

Reprinted from BROTHER, Winter 2000