11 Years Old And Out Of The Closet: The Trouble With Gay Middle Schoolers

We’re not just the first generation to elect a black president—some say we’re also the first generation in which gay teenagers feel safe coming out to their parents and classmates. In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine cover story, writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis chronicled how adolescents are so much more confident telling their friends, families and parents that they’re gay at younger ages than ever before. Just how young? The author spent time with middle schoolers across the country who’ve come out of the closet at 13, 12, and even 11 years old. It’s no surprise the reaction on the tip of everyone’s tongue is, Wow, kids must be getting pretty damn mature these days to know they’re gay in 7th grade … are they really gay? But Eileen Ross, director of the Outlet Program, a support service for gay youth in California, put it best when she told the Times that type of reaction just underscores the double standard our society has for gays and straights. She pointed out to the magazine, rightly so, “No one says to [straight teens]: ‘Are you sure? You’re too young to know if you like girls. It’s probably just a phase.’ “But that’s what we say too often to gay youth. We deny them their feelings and truth in a way we would never do with a heterosexual young person.” However, I didn’t read Denizet-Lewis’ article and wonder if these teens aren’t actually gay. I wondered if it might sometimes be better for gay teens to stay in the closet.

Regardless of their age, I believe people incur psychic damages by denying their true selves. But it is also an undeniable fact that being gay, or even being perceived as being gay, is downright dangerous for kids in a heartbreaking number of homes and schools across the country. In the best case scenario, kids get bullied at school; in the worst case, they get beat up or killed, or their parents throw them out of the house. The 120 Gay-Straight Alliances that have sprung up at middle schools across the nation can be an oasis of support, but they can’t protect a 12-year-old from six years of abuse from classmates (as opposed to, say, zero years, when they graduate and move out on their own). And not for nothing are there people who do so-called “gay conversion therapies” for teens. If I were a gay teenager and thought my parents might seriously ship me off to some terrifying “gay conversation therapy” place, you’d bet I’d stay in the closet, too.

I’m not saying I think the closet is better for anyone; I’m merely afraid of what will happen for some kids who do come out, since they are minors and they’re at the mercy of their parents’ will. (Although, being at the mercy of your parents doesn’t necessarily change with adulthood: My best friend, at age 25, is still in the closet with one of her parents. That parent is footing the bill for college and grad school and she doesn’t want to risk losing that financial support.) It’s impossible to know what’s best for individual kids in each situation: staying in the closet until they can move out on their own or just being themselves, consequences be damned. [New York Times Magazine]