After 30 years working as a psychotherapist and leader of youth programs I have come to believe that even though the gay/lesbian/bi/transgender movement has made enormous strides politically, many teenagers are still tormented by virulent homophobia and sexism in secondary schools. Perhaps the most insidious and prevalent expression of this social oppression comes in the form of gender expectations. Young males and females who deviate from prescribed gender roles or behavioral mannerisms encounter swift, consistent, and cruel social hazing from many of their peers.
I know young men who identify as heterosexual and have what are considered “effeminate” mannerisms who have literally dropped out of school because they were mercilessly teased and bullied. I know young men currently who know that they are attracted to young men, yet they stage “girlfriends” to prevent teasing and even physical violence.
There are young women who have “come out” and then feel like must dress like “guys” to be accepted as a lesbian. I have talked to other young women who have confessed that they like girls and guys, and they internally have a fluid sexuality, yet their attractions don’t seem legitimate to a culture that wants to categorize people as either “straight” or “gay.”
Most sadly, I have heard numerous reports from students who are in classrooms wherein teachers routinely allow words like “faggot,” “gay,” and “dyke” to be used in derogatory and vicious ways, and as gender-stereotype enforcers. This last semester, a young woman came in crying because she also heard her teacher make overtly homophobic and sexist comments.
Two queer-identified teens I know were hospitalized due to extreme anxiety and despair last winter and confessed to having internalized the hatred that had been aimed at them every day in school.
We are a long way from seeing this current, liberating political tide shift into a safe personal landscape for youth who, regardless of their sexual preferences or desires, do not fit dominant-paradigm images of female and male. There is no good reason on Earth for the budding psyche to have to battle routine hate.
It Will Get Better, A Video by S.B. Teens
Music by Tina Schlieske
Jennifer Freed, PhD, is the cofounder and director of AHA!, which is a nonprofit program that works with all young people in public schools throughout the South Coast.