Everybody Hurts

In the classic 1990 film Pump up the Volume, Christian Slater plays soft-spoken “anonymous nerd” high school student Mark, who launches a pirate radio station out of his bedroom and consequently SPEAKS THE TRUTH about the LIES of LIFE, eventually incites pandemonium amongst the student body and some kind of car chase. Hard Harry’s number-one feeling — which understandably strikes a resonant chord amongst his destitute suburban angst-ridden peers — is this:

“Feeling screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place does not necessarily make you screwed up.”

And also this:

“You hear about some kid who did something stupid, something desperate; what possessed him? How could he do such a terrible thing? Well, it’s really quite simple, actually. Consider the life of a teenager – you have parents, teachers telling you what to do, you have movies, magazines and TV telling you what to do, but you know what you have to do. Your job, your purpose is to get accepted, get a cute girlfriend, think up something great to do with the rest of your life. What if you’re confused and can’t imagine a career? What if you’re funny looking and can’t get a girlfriend? You see, no-one wants to hear it. But the terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.”

I thought about Pump up the Volume and its we’re-all-depressed anarchist anti-establishment antiheroes while reading The New York Times article Gay or Straight, Teenagers Aren’t So Different, in which author Jane E. Brody points out new research showing that gay kids are indeed f*cked/f*cked up, but not THAT much more than straight kids are!

Most research, Brody explains, uses clinical populations (people who’ve come under professional supervision of some kind either from attempting suicide, expressing suicidal thoughts, seeking help or getting in trouble), which can “skew results,” suggesting “that gay teenagers on average are more prone to suicide and mental illness than they really are.”

Brody goes on to cite studies conducted by Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah (“My research focuses on two distinct but related areas — the nature and development of affectional bonds and the nature and development of same-sex sexuality.”). Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, found “young gays had as many friends and were just as popular and socially connected as other teenagers” but “the composition of their friendships is somewhat different” — for example, “gay teenagers tend to go out of their way to befriend youths of other races or those who are stigmatized for their looks.”

If Lisa Diamond’s name sounds familiar to you and you’re not just a total soc/psych research nerd like me, perhaps you are recalling a certain business meeting between these two ladies

… and Lisa Diamond!

Yup, this summer one of our most esteemed social research persons suddenly found herself on Showtime’s hit series The Real L Word, meeting with Jill & Nikki who want to turn her book into a TV show of some kind. Just a little trivia for ‘ya.

Anyhow! Ritch Savin-Williams (who has done SO MUCH research on bisexulity/homosexuality/sexual orientation and child/adolescent development that while reading this article I actually recognized his name as being that guy who’s done all that research), the director of Cornell’s Sex and Gender Lab and professor and chair of Human Development at Cornell University, said in a news briefing:

“I’m concerned about the message being given to gay youth by adults who say they are destined to be depressed, abuse drugs or perhaps commit suicide. I believe the message may create more suicides, more depression and more substance abuse. I worry about suicide contagion. About 10 to 15 percent are fragile gay kids, and they’re susceptible to messages of gay-youth suicide.”

Savin-Williams told The New York Times:

We hear only the negative aspects from research. We don’t hear about normal gay teens. It’s hard to get studies published when researchers don’t find differences. A large number of studies found no group differences between gay and straight youth, but these have not been published.”

Furthermore, Savin-Williams says that “bullying is less about sexuality than it is about gender non-conformity” and “a direct link between bullying and suicide among gay teens has not been shown.” Risk factors for suicide are the same for teenagers regardless of orientation — “prior mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, dysfunctional families, breakups in relationships, suicide in the family and access to means.”

Lisa Diamond points out that the gay teenagers who are most at risk are those whose families or parents have rejected them due to their homosexuality. Also, parents tend to think about sex when their gay kids come out to them, especially if it’s a boy. But boys don’t wanna bang bang bang, they’re just like heterosexual teens who want to be loved by a boyfriend who’ll watch videos with them and go to prom with them and fight on public transportation with them, etc.

Diamond recommends that parents not be such assholes, even if they do think homosexuality = hellfire. If your parents are being total assholes, this article recommends they sit their asshole-containing asses on the couch and watch Lead with Love, and also “take a deep breath and answer their questions,” “continue to express affection” and “watch movies together.”

It’s tempting to view this research and this type of thesis as doing more to harm the cause then help it — we tend to agree that everyone needs to know how special/important/unique our troubles are, otherwise we’ll never get the attention we need from educators, health service providers and other students. It’s also important that people understand the trickle-down effects of government-endorsed discrimination.

Other “outsider” groups are at increased risk as well, however — the odds of being bullied are 63 percent higher for an obese child, for example. Furthermore as Rachel pointed out in November, when it comes to being bullied in high school, “the funny thing about the world we live in is that even being straight doesn’t protect you from the dangers of being gay.” Some studies have shown that 77% of all students report being bullied, regardless of extraneous factors.

Savin-Williams suggests that we spend more time talking about things already being good:

“The negative message that gay teens get — just survive your adolescence and life will get better — is a disservice,” Dr. Savin-Williams said. “The message should be that your life can be good right now.

“Many gay youth have excellent, productive, happy lives. When asked, gay youth can come up with a very long list of positive attributes — they’re more artistic, creative, resilient and sensitive to the needs of others. They say they don’t have to be the most popular.”

We do this a lot within the movement — those of us who had pleasant coming-outs and accepting parents or who thrived/are thriving in high school tend to stay silent in these discussions out of respect for the horrors endured by their less-lucky peers. But if we’ve learned anything from running this website, it’s that even abstract awareness of far-away homo-humans living pleasant lives can be enough to encourage a gay teen or any kind of outsider to hang in there.

Hard Harry from Pump Up the Volume sees it this way:

We’re all worried, we’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and having ears. But just remember one thing – it can’t get any worse, it can only get better. High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2842 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. Wow, this is really well written.
    I find Savin-Williams’ point on “suicide contagion” especially intriguing. Shows the importance of making sure what we show in the media doesn’t do more harm than good.
    Thanks Riese!

  2. “The negative message that gay teens get — just survive your adolescence and life will get better — is a disservice,” Dr. Savin-Williams said. “The message should be that your life can be good right now.

    this.

  3. I thought I wouldn’t like this article judging from the title but yeah, it made my evening. Also, you guys make it better now, by fueling the interwebs with gayness and support and “same-ness”.

    “We do this a lot within the movement — those of us who had pleasant coming-outs and accepting parents or who thrived/are thriving in high school tend to stay silent in these discussions out of respect for the horrors endured by their less-lucky peers.”
    I often think that this deters some teens from coming out sometimes, because they think they won’t get accepted. I know I hesitated a long time out of fear and my parents didn’t make a big deal out of it, despite all my apprehension.

    I have lots of other thoughts but it would basically just repeat what you wrote so just: thanks.

  4. !!! ok – if i have learned anything about the world/myself studying gender, sex, feminism, queer theory, etc., it’s that “sexual orientation” is a socially constructed category. and an easy way to back that up is to look at ancient/different societies and how they understand gender/sexuality in their cultures. what i’m least schooled in are the biological differences betwixt men and women. what i tend to hear is that many men who identify as gay or queer feel that they were born that way, per se, or at least were aware of same-sex attraction at a very young age… in stark contrast w/ a lot of queer women i know – myself included – who were pretty societally hetero until something changed / there was some kind of (external) catalyst (ex: reading Adrienne Rich’s Lesbian Existence essay in a women’s studies class in college, sitting down and watching the L Word for like days, etc.). interesting stuff.

    but anyway!… what i’m trying to say is, this world is bullshit! and society wants us to have sexual identities so that all the non-baby-having, traditional family ruiners can be neatly case aside as GAY / different / deviant / other. accepted? maybe. kinda. but DIFFERENT and you better effing know it!!!

    to this, i say, whateverrr – what makes me different is in my brain, not my bed. i love queer theory, specifically these two foundational aspects of it: 1) an acknowledgement that we live in a totally heteronormative society! 2) the idea of decentering sexuality as your main identifier in society. in other words, yes, i have romantic relationships w/ girls and that’s an awesome & important part of my life, but it’s only a big deal because there are specific institutions denying me rights and shit (and a whole lot of ignorance, hate & oppression by others to go with it).

    SOOO… what am i saying here?… no shit, teenagers aren’t so different! and maybe we need to ease up on the gay and straight talk. i’m not any, any, anything at all. :) <3

    • “!!! ok – if i have learned anything about the world/myself studying gender, sex, feminism, queer theory, etc., it’s that ‘sexual orientation’ is a socially constructed category.”

      When you’re trying to use the bathroom and somebody in there decides to physically attack you because you look gay, sexuality quickly moves from the “socially constructed” category to the “reality” category.

      Having said that, I do hear what you are saying. We have this hyperfocus on a characteristic that isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. And sexualities do tend to get flattened into a homogeneous blah.

      As far as teens go, a problem is that we force them to live meaningless lives. From the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep, they are told what to do. When they are in school, everything from when they speak to when they use the bathroom to when they eat or drink is tightly controlled. Experiencing this for years on end leads to the formation of a mentally dependent person. People become happy, independent people, by taking risks, striking out on their own, etc. If you don’t have any opportunity to take on real responsibilities or make meaningful decisions, you’re going to end up unhappy.

      Teens are mentally and physically capable of contributing to their families and their communities, yet we force them to live as parasites by telling them they have absolutely nothing to contribute for the first eighteen years of their lives.

      I get the impression that the concept of “adolescence” is somewhat of a recent thing, historically. It seems like in the past, as soon as children gained some degree of facility with a few skills (communication, certain physical tasks, etc), they were considered part of the adult world. They had real responsibilities in terms of the survival of their families. We lock teens away in the world of schooling and commercial entertainment, and since they are not out mingling in the real world, accomplishing real things, they become unhappy. Homophobia is obviously a factor, but there are other, bigger problems.

    • “what i tend to hear is that many men who identify as gay or queer feel that they were born that way, per se, or at least were aware of same-sex attraction at a very young age… in stark contrast w/ a lot of queer women i know – myself included – who were pretty societally hetero until something changed / there was some kind of (external) catalyst”

      I think it’s just that straight adolescent boys don’t look at a lot of pictures of dudes. If a 12 year old boy had posters of men on his bedroom wall, he’d be called a fag. The behavioral difference between straight boys and gay boys is perhaps more striking.

      When I was 12 my bedroom wall was covered with posters of female pop starts and actresses and no one thought that was out of the ordinary. Girls look at other girls, gay or straight.

      I often feel as though my experience as a teenager is more similar to gay men than lesbians. I was never societally hetero. What I struggled with, and what ultimately made me realize I was a gay girl, was my sexual disinterest in boys.

      The “boy crazy phase” that everyone said would happen, didn’t. This was a noticeable difference to myself and my peers. My Aunts and other adult women would just say I was a late bloomer. My Mom thought I had been sexually molested. There are a variety of ways society can tell a girl she’s dysfunctional if she lacks an attraction to the male sex. And “gay” doesn’t seem to be the first thing that pops into people’s minds.

      Bisexual, sexually fluid and homosexual teenage girls may all be able to repress or ignore their attraction to women for a time. But the girls who experience little to no attraction to boys–who can’t make something out of nothing–may just end up feeling damaged for what they don’t feel rather than what they do feel.

      • THIS.

        It didn’t occur to me that I could be gay when I didn’t have boy crushes growing up; I just started wondering what was wrong with me. I feel like this is a really important statement that I can’t even comment on any further, because I can’t wrap my brain around it yet.

        • i just had a conversation with a friend about this earlier today. I was telling her that when I was in high school, i didn’t even realize i was gay, but instead thought there was something wrong with me because of my disinterest in boys. I dated a lot of guys, but it had more to do with validation than anything else. It was as if dating cute boys, especially the ones that all the other girls were swooning over, somehow made me feel like I was wanted, and “good enough”. It’s really pretty sad when I think about it now; the idea that I based my self worth on whether a boy thought I was attractive. The feminist in me now is completely disgusted by it. Anyway, I had all of these boyfriends, but never once did I want to have sex with any of them. While all of my straight girl friends were talking about boys they were sleeping with, I was more interested in playing my guitar, or drawing. I really just thought there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t until college, when I met the first girl I was attracted to, that it all stared to make sense. And thank god for that!

      • I agree with this, too. I actually said the words “boys don’t make me nervous the way that girls do” to my mom and she was shocked when I came out to her ten years later. She had NO IDEA. But she worried my brother might be gay when he wasn’t dating girls (at like 15 years old) until she found a porno magazine in his bedroom. I feel like there’s a different level of denial surrounding female homosexuality.

    • another point is, boys are socially encouraged to explore their sexuality from an early age, so they have a chance to define it earlier. Girls on the other hand are not, and they are sort of only allowed to define their sexuality when they meet the right person, so that female sexuality ends up being defined in relation to a specific person, not a gender (ie, one man, not many men, because then you’re a whore). This is the same mechanism being triggered later in life, when they “change” their orientation because they have met a person they want to be with, who is a woman.

    • good points all around! diver, “adolescence” is def. a recent, modern thing. i think the most evidence is in colleges now where no one knows how to do anything, be responsible & independent, etc… and where do parents fit into the equation?

      grrrl, that’s interesting. did you never have crushes on boys? i did when i was younger but when my many of my friends started dating all of them in musical chairs fashion in middle & high school, i became less interested for a lot of reasons. i mostly hated to see my friends compromising themselves for dumb & obnoxious dudes – and they weren’t interested in me then, so it was easy for me to observe from the sidelines.

      babs – that makes sense. did anybody else feel silly for Jill on the Real L Word (before you stopped watching) when she would super uncomfortably state that she was NAHT a lesbian, just in love w/ a woman?

      • No…no crushes on boys. I hung out with boys. And also girls that weren’t that interested in dating. Play dating seemed to be a pastime for a different crowd. My circle of friends in junior high and high school was more interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons, making comic books, writing short stories, and playing music.

        The freaks and geeks crowd is often characterized as a bunch of social rejects that can’t find a date. But closer to the truth is they’re not as interested in dating because they’re pursuing other interests.

        I had a hard time in high school, but so did my straight friends. We were given a hard time from other cliques that thought we were weird. Being gay just added another layer when I felt isolated because I was going through something they weren’t. I mean, when other kids would call me dyke or whatever it would happen when my friends weren’t around. But after school and on the weekends, it was nothing but good times doing geeky things.

  5. in some ways i consider my insular private all girls school upbringing a hidden blessing because people were bullies behind other people’s backs–so tactfully that if i was ever bullied i sure as hell didn’t know. same went for most other people. you might have had a feeling that something was going down but, ultimately, the ones doing the shit-talking would get drunk on the weekends and obsess over a new episode of whatever was popular and move on to the next thing/person. what i’m saying is i wasn’t shoved into lockers.

    i think where i deviate with savin-williams’ point is that i don’t think that the focus should be on ‘all good.’ of course, that is not to say that it should be on the ‘all bad.’ nor should there be some kind of equal opportunity binary on bullying reporting. simply, different stories help different people. whether a message is as vague as ‘hope’ or as specific as joel burns’ story, different strokes for different folks. so i get savin-williams’ idea that maybe focusing on the bad can lead to a slippery slope (and for a while there in october when it seemed like there was news of a suicide every other day i was inclined to agree), but i can say personally that when it comes to the attention on bullying, a topic that has empirically really gone unnoticed in the national media, and even more specifically gay bullying, you’ve got to start somewhere. if that means ‘it will get better’ then that’s something.

    i think we live in such an immediate gratification society that people believe it’s not enough to say ‘it will get better’ when, truthfully, that’s what the message really is for a majority of people. we can’t all grow up with liberal-minded families and friends, nor do we all have the gusto to be singled out–especially in high school.

    so, while i think it is extremely important to report the good–not just important but uplifting–it is equally important to keep it honest.

  6. >>> “Bullying is less about sexuality than about gender nonconformity,” Dr. Savin-Williams said. “There are straight youth who are gender-atypical and they suffer as much as gay kids. But whether there’s a direct link between bullying and suicide among gay teens has not been shown.”

    ————–

    Pointing out the missing link of intersectionality. When a gender-nonconforming gay kid is bullied, there is no distinction between if it’s because of their sexuality or their gender presentation. It’s compounded.

  7. I really agree with this article. I had no idea I was gay when I was younger and neither did anyone else so I was never bullied for that. I was bullied for being atheist and overweight, though, so. There you go.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!