Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth

Melinda S Miceli. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

As gay and lesbian subcultures and politics have become more mainstreamed in America and Western Europe, more visible gay and lesbian public figures, media images, and narratives have emerged (Vaid, 1995; Harris, 1997). In this more tolerant atmosphere, and with access to information and role models, small, but rapidly enlarging, groups of g/l/b teenagers have also emerged throughout the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia. They are making themselves visible and demanding to be treated equally. Individual acts of ‘coming out’ by g/l/b youth have solidified, in many ways, into an act of ‘coming-out’ for this population, which was once thought of as either non-existent or rightfully hidden.

This new visibility of g/l/b youth has caused cultural, social institutional, and political controversy that seems to be perpetuated by the inherent qualities of this population. As a group, g/l/b youth are a sexual minority and, because of age, they have no legal standing. Their sexuality has placed them at the center of controversy in their homes, schools, and communities. At home, g/l/b youth often find themselves submerged in struggles over morality, identity, and acceptance. In their schools, g/l/b students face battles for tolerance, inclusion, and their own safety. In their communities, and often in even larger public arenas, g/l/b youth frequently become symbols in political debates over the limits of inclusion and tolerance, over the extent of civil rights, over the separation of Church and State, and over their nation’s responsibility to protect and nurture all of its children.

In this chapter, I provide a summary of the research on contemporary g/l/b youth, give an account of the local and national political debates that surround them, and offer an analysis of the effect this population and their activities have on the academic fields of gay and lesbian studies and sociology, in general.

Research on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth

Despite the recent increase in visibility, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are still one of the most under-researched groups of children and adolescents. This stems, in part, from the historic ‘invisibility’ of this population. In reaction to the stigma and prejudice surrounding homosexuality, most of these young people have kept their sexual orientation secret. Therefore, locating a sizable population of gay youth for a large-scale research project is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Smaller-scale qualitative interview and field studies may be more feasible in terms of sampling, but contain their own set of difficulties. The first hurdle often encountered in these types of studies involves the ethics of researching minors. Academic researchers must struggle to get institutional approval to research gay youth because it generally involves interviewing minors without parental consent. The legality surrounding this issue makes many university Human Subjects Review Boards wary. Even when research is approved and funded, sampling remains an issue. The best starting points for a snowball sample of g/l/b youth is often a support group or youth drop-in center. This poses a serious question about how representative the samples used in these studies actually are. They tend to disproportionately consist of ‘out,’ urban, and male youth in need of and receiving support. Significantly missing from the research on g/l/b youth, then, are accounts of rural, ‘closeted,’ and female youth who are not seeking, or not receiving, support.

Because of these methodological difficulties, the statistics describing young gay, lesbian and bisexuals vary. In attempting to estimate the number of g/l/b teens and young adults, some researchers use comparative estimates of the percentage of gays and lesbians in the population as a whole. These estimates range from about 2 per cent to about 10 per cent of the total population. If we use these percentages to estimate the number of gay and lesbian youth between the ages of 14 and 17, we get a range of 267,000 to 1,333,500, based on 1990 census data (Durby, 1994).

Another issue that has complicated the research on gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth concerns the question of the ‘origins’ of homosexuality. Is it a biologically or genetically determined trait or a socially acquired trait? After over a hundred years of scientific research into this question, no conclusive evidence has been found to fully support either answer. Whatever the determining factors, most researchers do seem to agree that the questioning of, and uncertainty about, sexuality are common in early adolescence. This includes the emergence of same-sex attractions and affections. Given the social stigma surrounding homosexuality, this period of adolescence can be particularly trying for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.

With little support or accurate information available to them, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and ‘questioning’ adolescents may have great difficulty coping with their emerging feelings. Many g/l/b youth face the anxiety and fear of potentially being rejected by their family and peers, who may consider homosexuality a sin, or a form of deviance. As a result, many adolescents choose to hide, deny, repress, and keep silent about their sexual feelings (Cook and Herdt, 1991). This dynamic makes g/l/b youth a unique minority group in some significant ways. Most other minority groups can at least count on the emotional support of their families to help them learn how to cope with discrimination and oppression. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are often rejected rather than supported by their families. For the most part, even those fortunate enough to have supportive families still do not receive the empathy and coping lessons that other minority youth receive, unless other family members are gay. This type of isolation can have many effects on individuals, including: loneliness; high anxiety and nervousness; substance abuse; depression; and thoughts of, and attempts at, suicide (DeCrescenzo, 1994).

Much of the little research that has been done on gay and lesbian youth has been sparked by reports of exceptionally high suicide rates in this population. In 1989, the US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) published a report on youth suicide that concluded gay and lesbian youth are at a significantly higher risk of suicide than their heterosexual peers. The report states that approximately 30 per cent of youth suicides are committed by gays and lesbians (Gibson, 1989). If we take the high end estimate that 10 per cent of adolescents are gay or lesbian, than we could estimate that gay and lesbian youth are three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.

Many researchers have studied gay and lesbian youth suicide. Some have argued that the figures are really much lower than the USDHHS’s report; and some have argued that they are higher (Durby, 1994). Once again, the difficulty in obtaining exact numbers stems largely from the difficulty of obtaining representative samples of the g/l/b youth population. Diane Raymond (1994) has argued that even when using a conservative estimate, approximately 1,500 gay and lesbian teenagers kill themselves every year. This makes suicide the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth in the USA.

Another danger that g/l/b youth may face is becoming homeless. The fear, anxiety, ignorance, misinformation, and prejudice that families may have about homosexuality, all too often, result in the child being kicked out of the home, or running away because of a physically or emotionally abusive home environment (Anderson, 1987; Savin-Williams, 1989). Becoming homeless presents many dangers for adolescents, including substance abuse, prostitution, and crime (DeCrescenzo, 1994).

Much of the sociological and psychological research on gay, lesbian and bisexual youth stresses the importance of understanding their experiences in relationship to that of other stigmatized groups. Social theorist Erving Goffman (1963) made the distinction between ‘discredited’ and ‘discreditable’ stigmatized groups. ‘Discredited’ groups are those whose stigma is readily obvious and incapable of being hidden, such as skin color or a physical deformity. Those in ‘discreditable’ groups have some stigmatizing characteristic that is not readily discernible and can be hidden. This is the category into which homosexuals fall. Members of discreditable groups who choose to hide, or fail to make obvious their stigmatized characteristic, are continually at risk of being found out or of having their otherwise ‘normal’ identity stigmatized.

According to Martin and Hetrick (1988), this ‘discreditable’ feature creates specific problems and issues for homosexual adolescents. Gay, lesbian or bisexual adolescents have to cope with a stigma that is not only discreditable to others’ perception of their identity, but is also discrediting to their own perception of their identity. This self-discrediting aspect of the stigma occurs because many g/l/b individuals do not become aware of their sexuality until adolescence or later in life. Dennis Anderson (1994) refers to this as a ‘crisis of self-concept,’ because these adolescents feel that they are suddenly, and involuntarily, joining a stigmatized group. As a consequence, g/l/b adolescents may go through a complex stage of negotiating their difference with themselves and with the larger culture. Erik Erickson (1968) described adolescence as a period in which there is a strong desire for sameness with one’s peers. The desire for sameness is ‘spoiled’ (to use Goffman’s term) for adolescents who are coming to realize that their affectional and sexual desires mark them as different.

According to Hetrick and Martin, ‘The primary task for homosexually oriented adolescents is adjusting to a socially stigmatized role’ (1987: 25). The social withdrawal, which can be a coping strategy for any stigmatized individual, can lead to extreme isolation for gay, lesbian or bisexual youth because they may not be able to find any support in their family.

The isolation experienced by gay youth has three compounding components: social, emotional, and cognitive. Martin and Hetrick cite cognitive isolation as being unique to those with a ‘discreditable’ stigma. They point out that many gay youth have no access to information about homosexuality and no exposure to real life models of gays, lesbians or bisexuals. They describe the effects of this cognitive isolation as follows: ‘There is little or no opportunity for the homosexually oriented adolescent to discover what it means to be homosexual. Therefore, they cannot plan or sometimes even conceive of a future for themselves’ (1988: 167).

Along with this cognitive isolation from others, Martin and Hetrick (1988) state that there may also be cognitive dissonance within the individual. In attempting to cope, the gay youth may try to deny their sexuality or separate themselves from it. In trying to deny it to themselves, they act out, for others and for themselves, heterosexual norms. This causes a great deal of internal anxiety, because it leads to an almost constant state of self-monitoring—making sure not to give any signs that they may be homosexual. At this crucial time when young people are learning that sexual desire is part of their developing selves, sexuality, for the g/l/b youth, becomes a threat to the social integration that socialization entails.

Although it is still far from easy for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth to find their place in a society that, generally, sees them as abnormal, the situation can be improved. While past research focused on the problems and negative impacts of homosexuality, recent research has begun to investigate programs that can help g/l/b youth develop healthy and positive lives (Herdt and Boxer, 1993; Martin and Hetrick, 1988; Sears, 1992). One key factor in accomplishing this is to provide opportunities for these youth to meet and socialize with one another. Other critical needs revealed by the research include: educating family and peers about homosexual issues; having accurate information about homosexuality available in the schools; and providing positive adult gay and lesbian role models.

The conclusions of this empirical social science research have been reflected in an even larger and more journalistic body of literature on g/l/b youth (e.g. Due, 1995; Owens, 1998; Chandler, 1995). These books promise to offer the reader a window into the ‘real-lives’ of g/l/b youth. Generally, these books tell the stories of g/l/b youth that have been abstracted through interviews with journalists. They are written in tones that seek to give rise to sympathy from heterosexual audiences, and recognition and hope for g/l/b audiences. In these books, g/l/b youth tend to be portrayed as either victims or young, brave, cultural warriors. Although this body of literature has done a good job of exposing this population and giving them a human face, none of the books have offered an analysis of the experience and lives of g/l/b youth, and none have offered any concrete suggestions for social change. The combination of academic literature (the little that exists) and these narrative accounts of the experiences of a select few g/l/b youth creates an image and understanding of them as either victims who should be pitied or survivors who should be admired. Little else is added to fill in this image.

Critique of the Literature on Gay Youth

Most of the previous research on g/l/b youth, because it is primarily concerned with developmental issues, concentrates on the developmental problems of g/l/b youth (Hunter, 1987; Hetrick and Martin, 1987; and Schaecher Goggin, 1993; Durby, 1994). This body of literature, which began to emerge in the late 1980s, is heavily informed by the literature on ‘the homosexual identity formation process’ that began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s (e.g. Plummer, 1975; Cass, 1979, 1984; Troiden, 1979, 1988, 1989). These models seem somewhat simplistic by today’s understandings of social construction of identity and in relation to the contemporary work of postmodern, queer, and gay and lesbian theorists. However, at the time they were written, the research on homosexual identity formation models was a progressive move in the scientific understanding of homosexuality. The important significance of these models is that they offered a scientific perspective on homosexuality that assumed it to be a normal, rather than deviant, sexual identity. This did much to shift the focus of research in many disciplines away from finding the cause of the abnormality of homosexuality and its cure. The literature on developmental models, instead, calls for focusing attention on determining ways to assist the homosexual person successfully through the stages of self-acceptance in a hostile social climate.

The literature on gay youth has made some similarly progressive, if limited, steps. Prior to the late 1980s, gay youth were considered either nonexistent or invisible. One major importance of the early work on gay youth by Herdt (1989a), Herdt and Boxer (1993), Martin and Hetrick (1988), James Sears (1992), and others is that it has authenticated the population by documenting the existence of self-identified gay youth, and it has persuasively asserted that these youth should be assisted in coming to terms with their identity rather than cured. Although this may seem rather minor in terms of gay and lesbian or queer studies, personally and politically it has had an important impact of the lives of g/l/b youth. The body of literature has impacted the way many families, counselors, and teachers come to understand g/l/b youth, and has caught the attention and sympathy of some political figures in positions to improve the experiences of g/l/b youth as a minority group.

A major drawback of this same perspective presented in the majority of the literature is that it largely focuses on the negative aspects of growing up gay, lesbian, or bisexual, giving the impression that homosexuality invariably leads to suffering and unhappiness. Although this might win public sympathy for the population, it is not a full account of g/l/b youth. What is missed by such a perspective is an understanding of g/l/b youth who have successfully avoided such negative experiences and outcomes, and the variables that contributed to such success. Some of the more journalistic accounts (Chandler, 1995; Due, 1995) do present some positive ‘success stories’ of g/l/b youth. However, these accounts do not provide a social analysis of the factors that contribute to a happy rather than a tragic story.

The increasing prevalence of politically active gay youth suggests that many g/l/b teens, while still coping with a socially stigmatized identity, are adopting proactive strategies for dealing with this identity. These strategies seem to be distinctively and fundamentally different from the intrapsychic defensive coping strategies suggested in previous research (e.g. Martin, 1982; Hetrick and Martin, 1987; Robertson, 1987; Savin-Williams, 1989; Cook and Herdt, 1991). These young adults are seeking to fight the stigma and the social institutions that enforce it on them rather than accept or adapt to the stigma. In communities across the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia there is evidence that g/l/b youth are organizing local grassroots movement to challenge the social stigma that has been assigned to them, and to change the institutions that affect their lives.

In the United States, g/l/b students have rallied to bring attention to and make gains for their cause across the country. In Massachusetts g/l/b youth fought to get a statewide safe schools act passed. This state law protects g/l/b students from discrimination and harassment, and establishes efforts to educate students about g/l/b issues. In Utah, students fought a long and heated battle for the right to have a g/l/b student group. In Wisconsin, Jamie Nabozny successfully sued his school and was awarded approximately $1 million dollars in compensation for the severe abuse he suffered at school because he is gay. These more visible cases have sparked what could be called a grassroots social movement of g/l/b student groups in schools across America. Seven hundred such groups have been established since 1985.

In the United Kingdom, there has been a national battle over ‘Section 28,’ which is the section of the local government act passed in 1988 that bans local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Here too, g/l/b students have lent their voices and stories to the movement to repeal this ban. Their actions played a part in the repeal of the measure in Scotland. In Canada, g/l/b students have led struggles to lift book bans and to establish support for g/l/b student groups in Canadian schools. In Australia, a lawsuit filed by a single gay male student seeking compensation for the abuse he suffered at school resulted in a windfall of accusations of abuse by other g/l/b students. Fifty g/l/b students and faculty have banded together in a lawsuit against Australia’s public schools.

These large and small movements of g/l/b youth offer a social, cultural, and institutional critique that is largely missing from the body of literature seeking to understand their lives. The existing body of literature offers a simplistic analysis of the experiences of g/l/b youth as merely personal struggles to accept their ‘spoiled’ identity. It does not examine the cultural and institutional forces that impose the normative standard of heterosexuality on developing adolescents. Some of the previous research does acknowledge the heterosexism in the culture and within social institutions, but the discussion is generally limited to the fact that g/l/b youth must struggle to adapt to it. There is little analysis of the purposeful social construction of these heterocentric institutions that have both means and ends. Left unchallenged, these institutionalized structures of sexual hierarchy are assumed to be organizational reflections of natural laws of human sexual behavior. Also left unexamined are the ways that both these institutionalized and naturalized qualities of ‘the stigma’ affect the experiences and identity development of g/l/b youth. Documenting and publicizing the problems of g/l/b youth are important to developing and instituting programs and policies to assist them. However, if we only view this population as a group struggling with a stigmatized identity, then we are missing crucial aspects of sociological knowledge.

In order to analyse all the factors and issues that are missing from the previous studies of g/l/b youth, we must move beyond a solely social-psychological developmental approach. We need to undertake an analysis of changes in the broader social, cultural, and political climate, as well as the social movements that have emerged around the issue of g/l/b youth rights. These movements are largely centered on changing public schools, because gay youth spend a large amount of time within these social institutions. Considering this, research on g/l/b youth must analyse public education as a social institution that enforces the norm of heterosexuality and the stigma of homosexuality. Such an analysis will also provide insight into the potentially powerful effect that changes in public schools’ culture and organization of normative heterosexuality might have on the larger society.

To develop such a social analysis, social scientists need to shift the focus away from individuals’ management of stigmatized identities. We need to conduct research that seeks to empirically examine the social function of this stigma, the various ways in which it is institutionalized, and the ways in which youth challenge this socially structured process. Focusing primarily on the obstacles and risks gay youth face will only lead to temporary solutions at an individual level, and leave the obstacles firmly in place. Many contemporary gay youth clearly understand this point. For example, when I asked 16-year-old Vincent what he thought about the impact of efforts made to help gay students like himself, he replied: ‘In my opinion they have failed. They have done nothing to help young gay people—other than having a support group. They tried, but they don’t know how to. They ignore the big circle of how things work and just make little holes here and there’ (Miceli, 1998: 53). To reach this broader understanding, social scientists must work past the limitations of developmental models, and past the simplistic sociological and cultural understandings of g/l/b youth that have been informed by them. We need to work on building strong, empirically grounded, social structural analyses.

Developing such an analysis can begin with a re-examination of the concept of stigma. The terms ‘stigma’ and ‘stigmatization’ are so commonly used in social science literature and in popular culture that we often take their actual meaning for granted. Erving Goffman (1963) was the first, and perhaps the only, sociologist to seriously attempt to define stigma. Social scientists have since used the term widely, but largely failed to further explore and document the structural qualities of stigma and stigmatization as a social process. Ainlay et al. (1986) assert, ‘In some ways social scientists may have legitimized stigma by suggesting that it is only human, if not “natural”, to perceive and rank differences between ourselves and others. Such understanding suggests that people cannot change and may excuse them from feeling they should try.’ In other words, the concept of stigma is too often used to rationalize the control and oppression of those defined as socially abnormal.

The term stigma has become one that is often troubling to a sociological analysis. It has been widely misunderstood and misused as being a natural quality or attribute of individuals. This misuse of the term has done much to squash its powerful potential to direct social and institutional analysis of oppressed groups. This phenomenon is reflected in the literature on g/l/b youth. ‘Stigma,’ if the term is to be properly and effectively applied, must be understood as a systematic process of social control through socially constructed and institutionally enforced devaluations of purposely chosen individual characteristics. It is the power, social functions, and institutionalization of this process that should be the primary focus of social scientific investigations of ‘stigmatized’ populations such as g/l/b youth.

Gay Youth as Social Subjects and Actors: Institutionalized Power and Resistance

As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of attention that has been paid to gay youth since the late 1980s has been prompted by clashes occurring within local public schools across the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia. Examining these localized conflicts, and both the local and national responses to them, provides a critical inroad into the real lives and experiences of g/l/b youth that serves as an excellent basis for a social structural analysis. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students’ school experiences also, when examined critically, illuminate many of the more abstracted theoretical analyses offered by queer, and gay and lesbian studies across various disciplines. Therefore, researching this population is critically important to the empirical grounding of gay and lesbian studies.

The debates over g/l/b inclusions into public education are situated within the context of the power/knowledge dynamics of sexual identity first documented by Michel Foucault (1976, 1980). Foucault insightfully argued that people in positions to claim authority over knowledge—scientists, religious leaders, educators, etc.—are also in the position to use that knowledge to claim power over individuals by defining them, categorizing them, and placing meaning on them. The positions, opinions, and motivations of all the participants in the debates over g/l/b inclusions in schools—g/l/b youth, teachers, school administrators, parents, community members, politicians, etc.—are shaped by their understanding of the meanings of homosexuality and sexual identity that they derived from scientifically, religiously, and culturally produced knowledges. Gay students develop their sexual identity within these meanings, but also within the environment of hostility, abuse, controversy, and support, or lack of support, that surrounds them. In all of these situations, as well as in many others, they are labeled and defined by others, or forced to define themselves to others, within the limiting normative discourse of sexual identity.

It is particularly challenging for g/l/b youth to try to find and assert a positive identity, of which homosexuality or bisexuality is only one aspect, within social institutions such as public schools. As Warner states, ‘the sexual order overlaps with a wide range of institutions and social ideologies. To challenge the sexual order is sooner or later to encounter those institutions as problems’ (1991: 5). The institutionalization of norms and knowledges about sexuality and sexual identity is in some ways an interesting paradox. On the one hand, institutions serve to define, enforce, and regulate norms of society (in this case sexuality) in a way that naturalizes them and makes them a routine, transparent, and unquestioned part of everyday life; on the other hand, this seemingly innate uniformity can be quickly exposed as a purposeful social construction when challenged by those who do not conform to its order.

There is a sizable body of literature within the social sciences that theorizes and documents public education as a social institution that functions not only to provide students with cognitive skills but also to instill cultural norms, beliefs, and values in students. Although the role of public education in the socialization of children is well established in the literature, the social purpose and consequence of this role is debatable. Those who take what is often termed a functionalist perspective assert that schools should socialize students into the dominant and accepted cultural norms of the larger society. Doing this is necessary and helps to assure the equal smooth functioning of society (Durkheim, 1956, 1961; Parsons, 1959). Critical theorists acknowledge that the socialization that takes place in schools reflects the dominant norms and values of the larger society; however, they disagree with the assumption that these are ‘accepted’ norms (Apple, 1995; Arnot and Weiner, 1987; Bourdieu and Passerson, 1990; Giroux, 1988). Critical theorists argue that they are the norms and values of the dominant class, race and gender, but they are not ‘accepted’ freely. They are imposed. The result of this process, then, is the upholding of social injustice, not the assurance of equality.

Critical theorists have effectively critiqued the claim of education’s neutrality. For example, Bourdieu and Passerson (1990) used the concept of ‘symbolic violence’ to signify the process by which the knowledge and beliefs consistent with the interests of the dominant order are portrayed as both natural and necessary. In Bourdieu’s view, schools have considerable power because they appear to be neutral transmitters of the best and most valuable knowledge. This enables schools to promote the unequal aspects of society, while seeming to be objective and fair. Bourdieu and others (e.g. Sears, 1992; Giroux and McLaren, 1989) argue that schools promote a hegemonic curriculum, which is a curriculum that simultaneously legitimizes the dominant culture and marginalizes or rejects other cultures and knowledge forms (Stanley, 1992).

The concepts of hegemonic curriculum, and the related concept of hidden curriculum have been the subject of much theoretical contemplation, and have informed many investigations into educational practices. These previous studies have examined the ways in which upper and middle class, white and male culture, history, morals, behaviors, norms, and values are taught and enforced in schools through the power of a hegemonic process in which they are also naturalized, neutralized, and made invisible. Heterosexuality has largely been ignored as a significant part of this hegemonic process within public schooling (with the exception of Sears, 1992 and Unks, 1995). A critical perspective on the heterosexual norms of the schooling process is significantly missing from the literature on g/l/b youth and on education generally.

The concept of ‘hegemonic heterosexuality,’ or ‘heteronormativity,’ although not investigated in relation to the schooling process, has been established in feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer academic literature. The emphasis of poststructuralist, postmodern, and queer theory is on analysing the production of ‘heterosexual hegemony’ and the effect that this has on the lives of individuals and on society. Much like feminist theories’ application of the concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (Rich, 1983; Ingraham, 1996), these theories address heteronormativity as an important and powerful social force used to coerce, oppress, and control the lives of individuals. I argue that it is important to use this theoretical approach to analyse the power and social force of heteronormativity at work in the lives and experiences of g/l/b youth. I have applied this approach to an analysis of institutions of public education and my findings suggest that this force significantly shapes the lives and identities of g/l/b youth (Miceli, 1998).

Normative heterosexuality is enforced rather explicitly in the environment, or ‘culture,’ of public schools. In overt ways, it is enforced by the immense visibility of heterosexuality within the school environment—in the halls, in the cafeteria, at after school activities and functions, etc. The ways in which high school students, as well as administrators and teachers, incorporate heterosexual activities, behaviors, and language into the social aspects of the school establish and enforce a culture and ideology in which heterosexuality is exclusively the norm of acceptable behavior, discussion, and even feeling. In some ways, it seems that the explicitness of heterosexuality within the environment and culture of high schools would be almost immediately obvious to anyone who spends even a few hours in any school. However, as with many things, this observation, to a large degree, depends on one’s perspective. In this case, heterosexual behavior and language are integrated and normalized to such a degree within school culture that they have become the ‘natural,’ often translated into ‘neutral,’ high school environment. Because of this, things like male-female displays of affection, discussions about same-sex relationships, school dances, proms, anti-gay jokes and insults, and harassment of g/l/b students are not viewed as ‘explicitly heterosexual.’ Instead they are generally perceived as part of the normal high school environment and a culture of teenage behavior. This is often how administrators, school board members, teachers, parents, and students interpret the environment of public schools.

Gay youth find themselves, therefore, defined as outside of the norm. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students speak of public high schools as a ‘straight world’ with a normative order and culture of heterosexual feelings, meaning, ideologies, and behaviors that they know they are both outside of and surrounded by everyday. In ways that are very real and tangible to them, g/l/b students feel this environment as a social force shaping their lives. These students experience the environment of schools as not only explicitly heterosexual, but also explicitly intolerant of homosexuality. The evidence that there is an actual structure and force of heteronormativity in public schools can be found in g/l/b students’ reports of the behaviors, ideas, and emotions they feel they are forced to repress while at school, and the punishment they face when they fail to adhere.

Every g/l/b student I spoke with gave at least one (most reported several) instance of verbal and/or physical harassment they or someone they knew experienced because they were gay, or suspected of being gay. Gay students describe their high school environments in a variety of ways, ranging from isolating and uncomfortable, to openly hostile to anyone who is openly gay, or perceived to be gay. To whatever degree they feel their school enforces heteronormativity, g/l/b students continuously monitor and modify their behavior to adjust to it. The following are examples of g/l/b students’ experiences with, and perception of, the institutionalized heteronormativity of their schools. ‘I knew that I could never walk down the halls holding my girlfriend’s hand, you know, like straight people could, without getting harassed or beat up … So, like, my girlfriend and I were really careful and restricted our contact at school’ (Ani) (Miceli, 1998: 136). This statement illustrates that g/l/b students like Ani learn that heterosexual signs of affection are valued at her school and homosexual signs of affection are punished.

The following statement shows that a specific ‘subversive action,’ like two girls holding hands in the hall, is not required to prompt efforts to ensure heteronormativity.

School sucks, I mean, it just sucks. But you all know that. It seems like it gets worse every day. The more visible I become the more people throw cookies at me … The worse thing that ever happened was a guy throwing me up against a locker yelling all sorts of things that I can’t remember, but they were just the usual things, in my face … It’s annoying, it’s something everyday. (Rick) (ibid.: 137)

Rick’s experience illustrates that just his mere presence as a ‘visible’ gay male is perceived by some students as a threat to the heteronormative school culture and, therefore, must be punished.

For Mary and her friends, such punishment came when they tried to establish a space for g/l/b students at their school.

I had never been attacked at school until after I started the group [a g/l/b support group at her high school]. And then, I was verbally approached, I was cornered by like four guys, but that was just because of the activism I had been doing at school, and I just walked away from them. But, I mean, they threatened to kick my ass or whatever … But, things that had happened to other people had just been horrid, I mean absolutely horrid. I mean, this one kid had rocks, these huge rocks, thrown at his head because he dared to speak up and he dared to say that he wanted this group. (Mary) (ibid.: 1998: 137)

Experiences like these are common to gay, lesbian and bisexual youth who attend public schools. The prevalence of harassment reported by g/l/b students provides empirical evidence to support the assertion that heteronormativity is a prominent social force in the culture of these public schools. Most students have been taught socially constructed meanings of sexual identity. They understand hetero/homosexuality to be a natural binary that proves heterosexuality to be normal, natural, and desirable, and proves homosexuality to be abnormal, deviant, and punishable. These students also get the message that the stigmatization of homosexuality is a natural and valued part of school culture. This power/knowledge of sexuality serves as a social force in the lives of all students. Most students respond to this force by repressing any thoughts or behaviors, in themselves or in others, that are outside of these norms. Those students who fail to do this suffer the consequences.

One of the simplest conclusions to make from any examination of public schools is that homosexuality, and the existence of gay and lesbian people are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the curriculum. This lack of information on, or complete exclusion of, gay issues from classroom instruction and discussion is readily apparent to g/l/b youth. They express concern that this lack of information serves to reinforce heteronormativity and stereotypical understandings about g/l/b people. They believe that this lack of information is causally related to the harassment faced by g/l/b students. Some students also make a causal link between the lack of information and the struggles some g/l/b youth have dealing with their sexual identity in a positive way. Without access to accurate information about g/l/b people, these students are more likely to internalize the negative messages and ‘accept’ their ‘stigma’ and the limitations it places on them.

On the few occasions when students remember a teacher broaching a g/l/b related topic, they generally report that it was not handled well.

Once in American History class our teacher was talking about how the slaves were treated walking down the street when they first became free and he tried to compare it … to like gays and lesbians. He tried to like make an analogy to show the inequality … and one of these big macho sports guys in the class repeated like ‘gay men,’ and this girl Janine, who I’d always been friends with said, ‘Ewe, I don’t want to hear about that!’ … And [the teacher] goes ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring it up we’ll just change the subject.’ You know, he should have been able to handle it better than that. (Becca) (ibid.: 144)

From Becca’s account of this incident, we can see that there is opportunity in the general curriculum of public schools to discuss g/l/b issues. It is also evident from this example that teachers have to be knowledgeable and skilled to effectively teach about these issues within this heteronormative environment. Becca’s statement also illustrates that teachers, too, are subject to the power of the school culture of heteronormativity. In this case, the teacher’s small step outside the bounds of this collective conscience was announced by a student, and this alone was enough to coerce the teacher back in line.

The absence of information on the issue of homosexuality, which is often stated to be a neutral position, is, in fact, part of the practice of heterosexual hegemony. Speaking only of heterosexuality in schools within cultures and societies where meanings and knowledge about sexual identity are entrenched in a heterosexual/homosexual binary that privileges and naturalizes heterosexuality and oppresses and dehumanizes homosexuality, reinforces the power of this binary. The culture, curriculum, and formal structure of the public schools attended by most g/l/b youth are infused with messages about sexual identity. These social institutions are organized forces of heteronormativity that shape the experiences and identities of g/l/b students in significant ways.

Gay Youth as Agents of Social Change

Gay youth generally experience their public high schools as isolating, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Many g/l/b students endure the effects of this heteronormative institution alone and in silence; others are fortunate enough to find friends and some support outside of school walls to help them cope with the hours they must spend within them; and a few attempt to change their schools by claiming a voice and a space for g/l/b students. Many g/l/b youth demonstrate a rather sophisticated sociological understanding and analysis of the ways in which schools as a social institution affect their lives. This understanding goes beyond a feeling that they are uncomfortable at school, that they do not like school because they do not fit in there, or that being g/l/b, in-and-of itself, makes them feel uncomfortable. Many gay youth have an acute understanding of the ways in which sexual identity is socially defined and the ‘stigma’ of homosexuality is socially enforced. They see it in the cultural stereotypes, media images, ignorance, and institutionalized structures and practices such as those that take place at their schools. For some, having such an analysis of the situation is frustrating because they feel powerless against the strength of these institutionalized forces. Others feel a sense of personal contentment in knowing that these meanings were socially constructed. Some even feel empowered by the knowledge of a tangible force that can be resisted and changed.

Although it can be documented that the process of normative heterosexuality is institutionalized and, therefore, produces a systematic negative impact on g/l/b youth’s experiences and identities, the political activity of some g/l/b students in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and Australia provides evidence that this hegemonic process has not been fully successful. The most complete form of hegemony, in theory, works as an invisible exercise of power of the dominant group over the subordinate group—causing those who are oppressed to be blind or passively resigned to the power being exercised against them. Some gay youth are demonstrating that they are both aware of, and actively resistant to, the institutionalized forces of normative heterosexuality and stigmatized homosexuality. These students are transcending the socially and culturally conventional perspective of sexual identity as a solely personal and individual experience, and are testifying to the institutional and social causes of the problems of g/l/b youth. Such testimonies have not gone unnoticed.

At the local level, the efforts of some g/l/b students to change some of the heteronormative elements of their school generally result in considerable school and community debate. Their attempts to establish places for support for, and information about, g/l/b issues in their schools are generally (at least initially) perceived as a threat to the order and function of the school.

Foucault’s (1976; 1980) power/knowledge dynamics of sexuality are crucial to both local and national debates over g/l/b student inclusions into public schools. The positions, opinions, and motivation of all of the actors in these debates reveal that they have all been informed, to a large degree, by their understandings of sexual identity, which they derived from scientifically and culturally produced knowledges of homosexuality. To justify and give power to their adamant resistance, individuals and social movement organizations opposing these inclusions generally draw from socially constructed and religious based knowledges of g/l/b sexual identities. They see homosexuality as abnormal, deviant, and immoral, and, therefore, believe it has no place in the public education of children. The following example of this type of opposition comes from the leader of a US organization called Citizens for Excellence in Education.

Today, the secular world tells us to learn tolerance. Our schools tell our children ‘you must learn to be tolerant of all people and all behaviors.’ … The current use of ‘tolerance’ in our schools was concocted by the homosexual/ lesbian lobby to interject into all our children’s classrooms, and their tender accepting minds, that homosexuality is just another normal lifestyle … Christians are to be held responsible to God for not opposing the evils of our time. Parents must protect their children from the homosexual teaching and recruitment going on right now in our classrooms, through homosexual courses like ‘Project 10.’ Our children’s minds are being openly polluted by homosexual ‘tolerance’ teaching. (Simonds, 1997: 1)

This typical statement of opposition to g/l/b students’ efforts to improve their schools illustrates that the rejection largely rests in the person’s or group’s belief in the knowledge that homosexuality is an immoral behavior. Therefore, they assert that gay youth do not constitute a valid minority group and are unworthy of the rights they are seeking.

According to many who oppose the efforts of g/l/b youth, the real problem that needs to be addressed in schools is not the detrimental effect that heteronormativity has on g/l/b students, but rather, is the cultural climate that prompts even the consideration of granting such rights to a group of social deviants. The above statement points to the validity of this fear by drawing on the belief that homosexuals are ‘deviants’ and ‘recruiters’ who don’t really want civil rights as much as they want to ‘convert’ young minds to their ‘evil lifestyle.’ Without reliance on religiously and socially produced stereotypical meanings of homosexuality, this assertion of the social problem of g/l/b youth has no basis.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, and the individuals and groups who support them are making attempts to counter the power of these socially constructed and institutionalized knowledges by framing the problem in different terms. Statements of justification and support for the changes g/l/b students seek are defined not in terms of sexual morality or deviance, but rather in terms of fundamental democratic rights. The following is a typical example of this type of argument from a US organization called People for Education Regarding Sexual Orientation Nationally (PERSON).

Is it not precisely the role of education, and schools, to prevent ignorance? Yet, schools continue, through their own ignorance and fears, to censor all fair and accurate information about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered] people. And what is the result? Obviously, LGBT young people grow up isolated, afraid, lacking self-esteem or role models, disliking themselves … LGBT young people, denied their right to the truth about themselves through appropriate schooling, experience a host of societally-imposed problems: harassment, hate violence, parental abuse, job discrimination, medical mistreatment, etc. Schools are failing in their responsibilities to these young people. (Miceli, 1998: 254)

Statements like these attempt to effectively articulate the negative experiences of g/l/b youth as a social problem with social causes and consequences. In these statements, the causality for the well documented problems of this population is named as the lack of information and environment of intolerance in public schools. They implicate a major social institution as a causal agent for the sufferings of g/l/b youth and they call for a social remedy.

Although the controversies and conflicts that surround their sexual identity often complicate the lives of g/l/b students, many of them are able to clearly articulate the core issues and the rational solutions to this social problem. The problem, according to many outspoken g/l/b youth is the preponderance of falsities, or one dimensional perspectives, about homosexuality that have been institutionalized by schools, religions, the state, and the media to create ignorance and fear about g/l/b people. The problems this causes for g/l/b students, they argue, can be alleviated by giving students the ‘other side of the story’ and giving them the skills to decide for themselves what they believe to be true.

These seemingly simple and rational answers proposed by g/l/b youth, too often, become buried, or disregarded, in the reality of power struggles and identity politics at the national level. However, increasing numbers of g/l/b youth are speaking up and making their opinions heard on this issue. The addition of this young cohort to the arena of identity politics and public debate offers the potential of significantly impacting these arenas. Gay students’ participation in these discussions often simplifies debates by getting past the discursive rhetorics of politically charged and divisive identity politics, and by exposing knowledge claims as socially constructed strategies for power and control over identities, institutions, and culture.

G/l/b students’ assertions and redefinitions of sexual identity are forcing institutions of public education to adapt their heteronormative structure and culture, and, therefore, are causing a shift in power. These students are naming their schools as institutions that are causing them harm through a process and structure of hegemonic heterosexuality. Some of them are demanding that schools take steps to rectify this damage.


The dynamics of power and knowledge are palpable in the lives of g/l/b students. The defining and oppressive power of institutionalized knowledges of sexual identity that are entrenched in the structural heteronormativity of public schools is evident in gay youth’s accounts of the physical and psychological trauma they experience in school. For them school is a place where they are continually reminded they are not accepted and where they are denied access to knowledge that might allow them to fight back. These young adults spend much time and energy struggling against socially constructed and enforced knowledges and sexual identity categories that seek to define and control them, with or without their acquiescence.

However, the empowering and liberating properties of knowledge are also evident in the political activities of some gay youth. As they gain access to alternative information about g/l/b people and sexual identity, many g/l/b youth are able to use this new knowledge to empower themselves to resist the social forces of ‘stigmatization.’ Some deploy this power in an effort to transform the institutions that produce and enforce this social force. These g/l/b students understand that heteronormativity is an institutionalized aspect of their school, and the larger society in which they live, but they do not accept it as natural or necessary. They believe that, in democratic societies based on the principles of free speech and equality for all, knowledge about g/l/b people who are ‘normal,’ productive, contributing citizens, and other understandings that are contradictory to the negative daily messages they receive at school should, rightfully, be made available to all students.

The emerging debates over g/l/b student groups and inclusions in public schools can push our thinking about the power and knowledge of the social construction of sexual identity, the institutionalization of heteronormativity, the purpose and goals of public education, and the rights of citizenship. On the one hand, because this issue is positioned beyond definitional boundaries, it is easily made invisible and can be summarily dismissed from consideration. On the other hand, when students themselves declare that there is a problem, then schools are forced to at least consider the issue. The topic of ‘homosexuality’ becomes visibly and immediately embodied in the lives of these students rather than in images, stereotypes, and abstract moral rhetoric.

The actions currently being taken by g/l/b students and their supporters in public schools throughout the world signal an important moment in the ‘history of sexuality.’ As Foucault (1976), and many others after him, have documented, the meanings, understandings, and socially produced knowledges of sexuality have varied historically and culturally. These transformations in the inscribed meanings of sexuality have varied along with other social, cultural, economic, and political changes. Historically, sexuality—as an identity, as a behavior, as a moral compass—has been a popular and effective weapon, used to define, regulate, and subvert in battles over power and control in all realms of society. Through the discursive strategies utilized by all parties, these struggles, regardless of the victor, generate some degree of new understanding of sexuality and identity. Contemporary g/l/b students may be propelling us towards a significant shift in the knowledge and power of sexual identity. These young people are asserting sexual identities that transcend the current socially defined boundaries. By doing this, they are sparking discussion, debate, and conflict that could potentially play an important part in changing meanings of sexuality and sexual identity, and altering our understanding of how these factors fit in with culture, politics, and the institutions of society.

The exact path and extent of this change, of course, cannot be accurately determined at this point in time. There is a need for much more research in this area from a wide range of academic disciplines if we are to fully understand the lives and potential social impact of this population of contemporary g/l/b youth. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth have only begun their fight. There is much left to be done.