School's Out: Popular Media and the Gay Teen Martyr
Hi everyone! I'm Sharday and "School's Out" is my new guest blog on the topic of youth, sexuality, and—very broadly conceived—education. I'm a visual artist, musician, and writer, the latter of which mostly happens in the context of my PhD studies at a university in Kingston, ON. There, and in all my work, I take an interdisciplinary (mostly Religious Studies, Cultural Studies, and Gender Studies) and interlocking approach to cultural analysis. Since I have a guilty love of theory and the abstract, I decided to take this opportunity to ground my thinking in some concrete realities of queer life in the global North today.
Kids are indeed the future and so they're also the site of great moral panic. As more kids are skipping the closet, debate rages on about what is appropriate to "expose" young people to—which also raises the question of what is appropriate to acknowledge as already existing in young people's experiences. And because it is easier to recognize the specificity of queer sexuality, sociality, and familial forms in the face of unmarked mainstream culture—where hetero love stories provide the narrative framing for most cultural products—youth and non-normative sexuality are a fascinating and revealing combination. (Maybe my next post will be on why the Disney Princesses have made the "PC" leap to include a princess of color but won't be advertising a lesbian princess any time soon?) So in this series, I want to ask: How have discourses of sexuality and gender been transformed in the context of youth? Who gets to speak for kids? Where do young people receive their most influential messages about the values around sex, sexuality, and gender, and their proper performance?
I'm looking forward to your comments as a way to dialogue and workshop ideas, and if there's anything you want to see covered in an upcoming blog post, please let me know!
Now onto one of the topics I've been thinking about lately as I peruse the local newspapers...
There's a lot of talk lately across North America about gay youth suicides. In my neck of the words, the name on everyone's lips is Jamie Hubley, an openly gay Ottawa teen who recently took his own life and had publicly documented his schoolyard struggles in a blog. While it's heartening that public voices seem to be united in calling the situation tragic, they also seem to be individualizing the problem onto the psyches of kids and their bullies, as opposed to taking a sober look at the way prejudice works in society at large.
In the climate of these discussions, thankfully, it's no longer politically correct in many circles to ask what makes these kids "the way they are"—losing our urge to discover where difference came from, as if it were the etiology of a disease, is definitely a stop on the way toward accepting difference—but what if we reframe the question (à la the heterosexual questionnaire) and ask how we all get to be the way we are? Education teaches us about our possibilities, but practice develops our tastes for these different options.
Unfortunately for most young people, queer gender and queer desire aren't options taught in sex-ed or social studies. As far as "practice" goes, sexual experimentation can be an important component. Disturbingly, queer sexual experimentation is often viewed as either a party trick or college-age detour on the way back to the straight and narrow. (What's more, the phrase usually only conjures up images of girls because female bodies are so commodified at every turn that, hey, why wouldn't women wind up wanting what the ads promise?) Heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, makes sure that sexual experimentation isn't widely understood as the way that we come to know our real desires—the desires that lead us to choose partners, not just dance-floor flings, that situate us in political alliances—not just allow us to passively believe that others can love whomever they choose. By reading male-female desire into every part of the majority culture, the hetero norm also encourages us to forget how foreign some of our first heterosexual experiences felt. When I look back to my teenage years and think about the girls I made out with or had pseudo-relationships with on the sly while openly pursuing boys—without ever talking about why ours wasn't really a relationship—I wonder why today's PC rhetoric can maintain that sexuality is a private matter (baby, you were born that way?) and that acceptance of different sexualities is just a matter of who you want to marry. In reality, there's a mine of learned behaviors and diverted interests beneath the choices that the world can see.
Moreover, this flavor of toleration completely erases the fact that to be GLBTQ is not just a matter confined to one personal part of your life which, in order to be integrated comfortably, only requires that people be fine with the sex of your partner. It's about who you are when you're not partnered, too, and it's still in play when you're involved with "opposite" gender lovers, because it's really about the locus of your entire being in the social world. Hopefully every time you walk right into a boundary, whether linguistic, economic, or cultural, the pain of that impact will rouse you a little more until you wake up to a radical political consciousness. But this doesn't happen for everyone, no matter how queer they may really feel. And for some who surmount the many barriers to even coming out, something still might have to give. When it does, like it did for Jamie Hubley, we have to seize the opportunity in this tragedy for shifting our focus from the psychology of the troubled kid onto the society-level sickness we're really dealing with.
In order to create an environment where youth don't feel the need to choose between death and living up to "straight" expectations, we need to create a space of greater sexual possibilities and less social coercion. We need, among other things, real education about gender and anatomical and sexual diversity in schools; we need more role models in books, on TV, and in advertising; and we also need to be aware of the mental gymnastics our psyches can perform in order to keep our queer desires an invisible secret.
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