'Coming Out': Gay Teenagers, in Their Own Words

Published: May 20, 2011

The subsequent outpouring of concern from parents, educators and those who had survived bullying themselves inspired “It Gets Better,” a campaign led by the columnist and author Dan Savage in which thousands of lesbian and gay adults shared their stories to assure all teenagers that society has a place for them.

Popular culture has reinforced this message of acceptance. For example, the hit TV show “Glee” has had three storylines involving gay teenagers this season, including the matter-of-fact courtship, with rare onscreen same-sex kissing, of characters played by Chris Colfer and Darren Criss. Lady Gaga has countered the antigay rhetoric that many young people hear in their churches and communities with the song “Born This Way,” increasing her already large fan base among gay and lesbian teenagers.

“The amount of attention that has been given to debates over L.G.B.T. issues in the last year is another sign of how deeply American society remains divided over L.G.B.T. issues,” said George Chauncey, a Yale University professor of 20th-century United States history and lesbian and gay history, referring to lesbians, gay men and bisexual and transgender people. “And it has made it clear to young people just how much opposition remains.”

The New York Times embarked on the project “Coming Out” as an effort to better understand this generation’s realities and expectations, and to give teenagers their own voice in the conversation.

The Times spoke with or e-mailed nearly 100 gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teenagers from all of parts of the country — from rural areas to urban centers, from supportive environments to hostile ones. The newspaper contacted them through various advocacy groups, as well as through social networking sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

The Trevor Project, which provides counseling to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in crisis, among other services, posted a call for teenagers to tell their stories to The Times, resulting in nearly 250 responses. At times, young people led The Times to others.

The youths who participated were in different phases of coming out: some had come out only to themselves, some to people in certain realms of their lives, some to only one trusted friend or family member. Some had come out to their family or community, and then, realizing they lacked the support they needed, rescinded the declaration — and came out again a couple of years later. Others spoke of hating themselves in the process of accepting who they are.

Some flaunted their sexuality, while others adhered to traditional gender norms. In English, Ind., one boy said that when he first came out, he wore eyeliner and skinny jeans. “But then when I stopped it and decided to be myself, it was like I no longer fit the stereotypes,” he said.

In the face of competing messages, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths just want to be teenagers. While they envision a world where they can get married and have doors open to them, they do not want to be defined by their sexuality, regardless of how they are received by their community. It is just one part of their identity.

As Kailey Jeanne Cox, 15, said in her story: “I don’t want to have myself being seen by people as ‘Oh, she’s — she’s gay.’ I want them to see me as ‘Wow, she loves God, who cares what kind of people she likes? She is a Christian, she leads by example and she’s a wonderful person.’ That’s what I want people to think when they see me.”

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