Monday, November 12, 2012

Toward a More Functional Gay Youth Culture

Now granted... There's long been a youth culture in America based on sex and drugs and rock-n-roll.

But there's also always been the youth culture I grew up in and embraced as a Mormon teenager -- a youth culture that celebrated the joy of life, but also embraced preparation not just for adulthood, but for eternity.  The Mormon youth culture I grew up in trusted the proposition that faith and values laid the only real foundation for long-term happiness, in this life and in the life to come.

Now, granted, that Mormon youth culture didn't work for everyone.  Mormon youth, like adults, can wrestle with doubt, and often don't find support for their wrestling.  I remember, as a teenager, the hushed and embarrassed way in which members of my ward acknowledged the teen pregnancy of a young woman in our ward just a few years older than myself.  She faced Church discipline.  No one knew whether the young man involved faced similar discipline or was even a Church member.  And then there was the Mormon youth culture's utter failure of its gay and lesbian youth, with its attendant toll of depression, homelessness, and suicide.

Still, as a mature gay adult in a twenty-year same-sex marriage who has parented a gay teen, I'm aware of the many ways in which that youth culture was functional, in which it taught me values that have laid the groundwork for happiness and success in my life generally, and in my relationship with my husband in particular.

When faced with the prospect of raising a gay teen, I recognized the profound wisdom in the kinds of values I was raised with, and I realized that the greatest gift we could give our gay son was to help him learn and apply those values.  What we most deeply yearned for was to give him the kind of "normal" teenage experience that we as gay youth never had, since the youth cultures we grew up in demonized homosexuality.

Our Values

In relation to sexuality, the values we envisioned passing on to him included:
  • Sex is good.  It's integral to who we are as human beings.  And in the framework of a fully realized, committed relationship, it unites with emotional and spiritual components of that relationship to help us achieve a kind of fullness of joy.
  • Sex is best when it is not treated casually; when it is not engaged in promiscuously or addictively; when it is given and received in a context of trust and fidelity.
  • Readiness for sex requires spiritual and emotional maturity.  The purpose of dating is to explore the spiritual and emotional components of relationships, to learn about ourselves and others non-sexually first, until we're ready for the kind of commitment that provides the best framework for sex.
Please note, we also felt it was important to avoid messaging about sex that was judgmental and shameful.  Our sexual values represent an ideal.  Like all ideals, we recognize the possibility of falling short or making mistakes.  Our focus was on staying safe, learning to make good choices, and -- when we occasionally fail -- picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and getting back on track.  We fiercely rejected the damaging notion that a person who loses his or her virginity outside the bonds of marriage is permanently tainted or damaged.  (I now utterly reject those awful Mormon Sunday school lessons about chewed gum, or nailed boards, or the preferability of coming home in caskets.) One final caveat: we've pretty much jettisoned the 19th-century legacy of anti-masturbation hysteria that still plagues certain subsets of our culture, both in and out of the Church.

I was raised by Mormon parents who embraced Joseph Smith's dictum: "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."  We saw our role as parents to provide guard rails and training wheels, recognizing that our son had to graduate to ever increasing levels of trust and freedom if we were to prepare him adequately for independence and adulthood.

The Challenges

So this all sounds great in theory.  But one of the first things we realized as parents is that in order for our son to have safe, positive dating experiences, it literally takes a village.

Sure, we need to communicate (and model!!) our values to our youth.  But that's not enough.

Parents need to be able to communicate with other parents.  If my son is going on a date, I'd like to be able to touch base with the parents of the young person he's dating.  We had rules, like: No drugs and no drinking.  You can't be alone in a house with a date.  If you're in the bedroom together, the door stays open.  If you're out of the house, we need to know where you are and what you're doing.  You need to be home by a reasonable hour.  Oh, and we always want to spend a little time getting to know your friends. We gave our son a cell phone, because we wanted to be able to communicate with him and we wanted him to be able to call us whenever

In addition to providing some structure and supervision, this communicates to our youth that we care about them, and it communicates in a very tangible way what we believe about sex.

Now, this parental communication and structure is not all we need.

Church plays an important role as well.  Church provides a social context in which values are communicated across the board -- not just about sex, but about everything in life.  Church teaches us about love, hope, forgiveness, patience.  All the core values that make all relationships meaningful, that give us a framework for steering our lives.  Church also reinforces (hopefully in a positive way) our values in relation to sex, about commitment, love and deferred gratification.  Church creates a community of shared values where youth relate to other youth who -- even if they wrestle with the rules and values -- at least have a common framework.  Church also provides an all-important alternative to a ubiquitous popular culture that emphasizes instant gratification and the evasion of consequences.

OK, so far so good.

Now, what if you've got a gay kid?  What if you've got a church culture that tells him, because he's gay he goes into a special category?  Not deferred gratification, but denied gratification.  What if the Church's official messaging about being gay essentially tells him he's disabled or flawed in some fundamental way that can only be fixed in the next life?

Personally, I was OK bringing our foster son to Church, because the vast majority of messages were positive and helpful, and I felt I could address the more problematic messages at home and through personal example.  But there was still a problem in that our son perceived the Church as anti-gay, and therefore tended to want to stay away.  (And thought I was slightly crazy for being involved in the Church.) Church culture can't help our gay youth no matter how positive it is, if they decide to stay away from it because they feel that the prescribed Church path for gay youth does not offer them sufficient hope of happiness in this life.

Another problem is, what if most of the parents in your community have some pretty homophobic attitudes?  What if many of those parents see homosexuals as perverts and deviants, and as a menace to society?  That means that many of your child's prospective dates will be deeply in the closet to their family, which means that safety structure of parental communication and relationships is literally impossible.  Furthermore, because of homophobic family attitudes, these kids may see their homosexuality as a form of rebellion.  They may be acting out; looking for sex on the sly; dealing with feelings of shame, rejection and depression in unhealthy ways through substance abuse.  Göran and I witnessed all of this as we faced the challenge of providing a healthy "normal" dating experience for our gay son.

You've tried to give your gay youth a solid foundation of self-esteem, models of healthy relationships, and solid values.  You've tried to offer them hope for a successful and happy future, and you hope you've given them a road map to that future.  But gay youth can easily get discouraged when they realize that the community structure that supports their values and your values just isn't there.  I've witnessed that discouragement too, and it's heartbreaking.

Our Hopes?

Now the (relatively) good news is, human beings are resilient and creative.  Those of my generation who have found and established happy, committed relationships have managed to do so, despite the fact that we pretty much had to ditch the road maps our parents gave us.  I met my husband at a gay bar.  We both managed to avoid chemical abuse problems.  We dated in a gay culture that expected easy sex up front in the dating relationship, instead of sex deferred for after a commitment.  That created challenges for me and my husband in our relationship.  It resulted, frankly, in unnecessary heart break and lots of lessons learned the hard way.

Nevertheless, I think we've reached the end goal, and in some ways, learning hard lessons means acquiring unique wisdom.  It means having learned the value of love from having tested it in a kind of crucible.  I'm ultimately grateful for what we've learned, even if the way we learned it was sometimes awkward, sometimes painful.  In some ultimate sense, the values we were raised with were guiding stars to us, that eventually successfully brought us home.  They gave us the big picture that helped us work out the messy details on the ground.

With the benefit of hindsight, would I have done it differently if I could have?  Absolutely.  That's why I feel passionate about the need for us to reform the culture.  I also feel passionate because of the many train wrecks I've witnessed.  AIDS is only the most prominent example of damage wrought by a homophobic culture that forced the gay community into the shadows in order to survive.  My husband and I have been lucky.  Far too many others have not been.

As homosexuality has become more and more normalized, I'm witnessing more and more hopeful stories of individuals who are able to practice the values that make for happier endings.  There are more and more gay guys who've by-passed the alcohol-soaked bar culture and are meeting each other in a growing constellation of gay social, religious and cultural groups.  Many are insisting on dating non-sexually, even when to do so runs against the current.  In American gay culture non-sexual dating is often seen as confusing (i.e., "maybe this guy isn't interested in me because he won't have sex!").  But I am witnessing a younger generation of gay men forging a different kind of gay culture through self-confidence and communication.

There will always be a gay culture of instant gratification, just as there is and always has been a straight culture of instant gratification.  Fortunately, the gay community is starting to develop healthy alternative norms and community structures.

There is still a lot of work to do, though, to make those alternatives more viable.  I've been having conversations with young heterosexual LDS parents of gay kids -- in the framework of Mormons Building Bridges and Circling the Wagons.  They're concerned about the health and safety of their kids.  They want that social/community framework that can provide a better context for their kids to make wise choices, but they just don't see it there yet.

One LDS couple I know is determined to do something about it.  They want to start a movement that can help transform the culture more quickly, and I'm with them.  We've had some interesting conversations about how to go about this.  Their hopes for their young gay son give them an added sense of urgency.

I'm not sure what the road map looks like in detail.  Though I think it must involve a continuing long-term strategy of educating parents and religious communities (à la Family Acceptance Project), while instilling in our youth the self-confidence and hope, and the leadership and communication skills to, essentially, swim successfully against a difficult tide, and to create new forums and community structures that will work for them.  I fully agree with Josh Weed's model of unconditional love as the framework that will best enable gay youth to make the individual choices that will best work for them.

I also think there's an important role here for LGBT elders -- those of us who've made it to the other side, and whose experience can provide both an inspiration and information for LGBT youth having to make decisions in a dramatically different and constantly changing environment.  Existing LGBT organizations need to be more attentive than ever to the ways the culture has changed, and we need to change our organizations accordingly, so that the current generation of LGBT youth can access the wisdom and resources we have to offer them in a faith-affirming environment.  (More on that in another post, because I think this won't just happen; we need to work at it.)

Mostly I'm hopeful, given the recent electoral events in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state.  Those electoral outcomes suggest we're heading toward the kind of broad cultural consensus we need.  After all, it is very difficult to uphold a single norm of marriage/commitment as the framework for sex, if that kind of commitment is legally banned for gay people.

For what it's worth, we're very proud of our gay foster son's negotiation of the challenges around sex and relationships.  He's a junior in college, and is excelling academically.  His boyfriend has a very supportive family.  We celebrated Thanksgiving last year with our son's boyfriend's family, and we will again this year.  We're very proud of the network of relationships we've built that support both of our sons.  We're very happy with what our foster son has achieved in school, in life, and in his relationship.  And his story bodes well for other future stories.

Still, there's hard work ahead that will require great creativity and love to help ensure the long-term health of LGBT people within our families, churches and communities.


Michael Peterson said...

What a lovely account of your family life. Thanks for sharing. Personally I don't think I could raise a gay teen with any involvement in the LDS church. It's one thing for a gay adult to stay and try to just hold fast to the good parts. Did you and your husband ever consider other churches that are more accepting of gay people?

Mind Of Mine said...

I was going to ask the same question as Michael. I also agree that I could not participate in a congregation that would not accept my child for being gay.

J G-W said...

Michael, MOM - Taking your gay son to a church where they teach gay-friendly doctrine is like feeding him fish for a day.

Taking him to a church where they teach him how to seek out God, and receive his own answers directly from God is like teaching him how to fish for a lifetime.

The LDS Church gave me a spiritual foundation that stood me in good stead for coming to terms with my sexuality, in spite of the Church's gay-unfriendly doctrines. I came to accept my sexuality and learned to love myself by seeking and receiving greater understanding from God.

With the exception of an occasional talk or Sunday School comment once every year or two, or the stray BKP talk at General Conference, you can attend the Church faithfully without being exposed to any anti-gay statements... And as I said, a gay Mormon dad can easily provide an appropriate context for evaluating those kinds of comments... So I wasn't particularly worried!

J G-W said...

We did though, for the record, take him to a UCC Church, but he ultimately was not really interested in that either. :-(

Diane Oviatt said...

You are so sensible and wise! Where were you when my son was a teenager? :-). I could have just shipped him out to you and Goran. Thanks so much for thinking of the next generation of gay kids. It truly is getting better. <3 Diane Oviatt

Steven B said...

John, this post just blows me away. And hits very close to home, as we had a gay youth we raised until he passed away at age 27 from diabetes. I believe the values and beliefs we received from our Mormon upbringing helped us guide this young man through difficult and confusing challenges finding his place in the world and in such a diverse and often troubled youth culture. As a result he ended up being a strength and example to a great many young people in the community.

My only regret is that we didn't teach him principles of communing with God, as it would have helped bring comfort, support and inspiration to his challenging life.

Melanie B said...

I am with you. I wish that our L.D.S. faith would be more accepting of our gay son. He was treated awful from the time of attending young men at the age of 12. He had food thrown at him, told by other y.m to ride in other vehicles than youth his age and other sad encounters. My son said he would rather die than addend Y.M. So at age 14 we did not push this issue. At age 16 our son refused to attend church on Sundays at all. He had very few friends and because of that he led to drugs since these type didn't care who you are. Now at the age of 17 he is in a treatment program. Now he feels he would be "safer" as a Buddhist. I wish he could feel free cared for in his own religion. Thank you for your efforts.