|by Bill Sievert|
|"Free Agents" Could Spell an End to Traditional Gay Culture
When you visit your favorite gay bar or restaurant, do you ever notice how old most of the customers seem to be? In my conversations with folks from P-Town to Rehoboth, from Palm Springs to Florida, the topic frequently comes up: Where have all the younger GLBT people gone?
For some time now my stock answer has been that it only looks like there are not many young gay folks around because they are outnumbered by the population of GLBT baby boomers who continue to dominate the clientele of traditional gay businesses and organizations. What's more, with some exceptions, younger people prefer to hang out with those their own approximate ages so they are forging new institutions of their own.
Those factors may be part of the explanation, but a growing body of evidence suggests that younger generations are losing interest in the post-gay-liberation, bar-based culture which many of us older folks have long embraced for support. Closings of once-popular gay clubs have made the news in numerous cities, and the Orlando Sentinel recently reported that younger gay guys and girls simply don't identify with predominantly homosexual bars. They would rather socialize with mixed groups of friendsmale and female, straight and queer.
One of the few younger men (age 25) who participates in my area's GLBT networking and social organization concurs with that idea. "It's not that openly gay guys my age and younger are antagonistic toward specifically gay places or groups, it's just that lots of us find them less interesting than hanging out wherever all our friends want to go. I can feel comfortable pretty much anywhere."
It's partly a matter of assimilation and partly one of changing attitudes toward sexual experience. Especially in urban environments, many younger people don't need to frequent a gay or lesbian bar either to feel whole or to find a partner. They don't even need to define themselves as straight, gay or bisexual. Consider the attitude of rising band Dangerous Muse. (I talked about them in the last issue of Letters). The band's members involve themselves in gay causes and appear on Logo TV but prefer to label themselves "ambisexual." Other performers describe their orientation using such terms as "omnisexual," "pansexual" oras with a growing number of young people on their MySpace pages"whatever." As in the John Lennon song, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night (is alright)." That song may ultimately rival his "Imagine" as a statement for the ages.
In his new book The Gay Teenager, which is one of the first significant studies of self-identification among today's gay adolescents, Cornell University psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams writes that many reject labels altogether, preferring to view themselves as "free agents." They are willing to try new things and to explore uncharted sexual boundariesthough it might be argued that young people have always been like that.
The difference for this latest generation may be primarily in the attitude toward labeling. "In some respects," Savin-Williams says, "these teenagers might relate better to their pre-labeled, pre-identified grandparents than they do with their gay-liberated parents or their gay-resigned older cousins.... For them 'gay' carries too much baggage."
One reason some of them want to avoid the baggage undoubtedly is their good old-fashioned fear of being pigeonholed as homo. But from his research, Savin-Williams concludes that the situation is more representative of an emerging nonchalance about sexual identification. "The generation coming of age now," he says, "has increasingly open ideas about sexuality that will likely create huge cultural shifts in the coming decades."It certainly offers to expand the definition of diversity.
If this trend represents the blossoming of a new level of honesty among peers it's a good thing. If it results in more young people becoming comfortable with their orientationand learning to be more tolerant of one anotherit's remarkable. However, in situations where it provides an easy escape from the truth or a means of achieving less honest and less safe sex "on the down-low," it can represent a setback to the progress the GLBT community has made in recent decades.
It is also important to keep in mind that, for every adolescent who professes a sense of relaxation about his or her sexuality, it is easy to find one who is deeply troubled. As I wrote in this column recently (May 2 issue), bullying in schools remains a hugeand sometimes deadlyconcern, and those most targeted for physical or psychological violence are students perceived (correctly or incorrectly) to be GLBT. Organizations such as GLSEN (the Gay,
Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and Be Real (with whom I do some work in Central Florida) are struggling to encourage schools to support "safe classroom" programs and to encourage students, faculty members and guidance counselors to establish gay-straight alliances.For all the changes in self-labeling and where and how they play, most young people still have a long way to go on the road to liberation. And that is why the infrastructure built by the GLBT activist community during the last 40 to 50 years remains not only viable but also vital to support.
Bill Sievert can be reached at email@example.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 11 August 08, 2008