Despite the media's dangerous -- and false -- suggestion that a suicide epidemic is striking young gay men who have been bullied, a Cornell sexuality expert believes there has never been a better time to grow up as a sexual minority.
Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of developmental psychology in human development, director of Cornell's Sex and Gender Lab and author of "The New Gay Teenager," spoke with reporters Nov. 9 at an Inside Cornell media luncheon at the ILR Conference Center in Manhattan.
Savin-Williams studies the similarities among sexual-minority youth and all teens, as well as the ways in which sexual-minority adolescents vary among themselves and the sexual development of heterosexual youth.
"All of these young men dying in a short period of time led a lot of people to believe there was a suicide epidemic among gay youth. We don't know that all these youths were gay or that they died because of the bullying. What bothers me most is that these young lives were being portrayed as being extremely problematic, and almost as if all gay youth were about trying to kill themselves or were an unhappy, fragile group of kids."
Current research, Savin-Williams said, finds that only a small subset of gay youth finds their sexuality so problematic that they would end their own lives because of it. The widespread belief that being young and gay is inherently dangerous risks spawning even more tragedy ("suicide contagion").
Public health researchers have "a vested interest, financially as well as professionally, to present these youth as being quite disturbed," Savin-Williams said, noting that earlier research on gay youth often studied boys who were homeless, substance abusers or prostitutes. He said that the current research finds gay youth have as many friends and are as popular as straight kids.
"As far as we know, gay kids are probably just as strong and as ordinary as the straight kids," Savin-Williams said. "We pick up on the sexuality of these kids, when we don't know that's the real issue. Bullies readily pick up on differences, such as when a boy has the interests, activities and behavior of a girl -- not because he's gay. Gay boys who are masculine and young lesbians who are feminine are seldom bullied." (Lesbian youth and straight young women have no differences in rates of suicide and depression.)
He pointed out that straight youth also grapple with issues of sexuality and are subject to taunts for their weight or attractiveness, but when they kill themselves there are no rumblings of a "straight youth suicide epidemic" because they are not identified by their sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, Savin-Williams said, "In this generation of young people, things are great. In fact, it's never been better to be young and growing up gay than it is today. This generation honestly believes it is wrong to attack someone because of their sexuality. Young people favor same-sex marriage, gay adoption, gays in the military, gay teachers."
Savin-Williams credits positive cultural representations of gay youth as "common, visible, normal and healthy" with improving acceptance in American culture, but he has reservations about the YouTube "It Gets Better" campaign, in which people discuss how life gets better after high school. "I'm afraid the message -- that it's only better later on, that you have to put up with adolescence to get to adulthood -- is not true for many kids," he said. "I'd rather see a YouTube 'It's Better Right Now' campaign."