Dangerous Message Urging LGBT Youth to Stay in the Closet

Last week the Houston Chronicle published a blog piece by Kathleen McKinley titled, “Are Adults Also to Blame For Gay teen Suicides? Yes.”

In broad strokes, McKinley argues that society is overly encouraging LGBT young people with campaigns like “It Gets Better,” which she says will lead more LGBT young people to come out, which in turn, she says, will inevitably lead to bullying, because teenagers can’t handle the reality of people who are LGBT. This blog post left readers confused and outraged. So much so, she has printed an update to the original column in an attempt to clarify and address some of the concerns raised by community responses.

Perhaps her sentiment is in the right place – she is a mother who believes that all children should be loved for who they are and kept safe. She says, “If my 13 yr old had told me he was gay, I would have hugged him too. I also would have told him that I would love him no matter what.”  At least that underlying message is inserted somewhere in what is otherwise a misguided viewpoint on youth and identity.

The reality is that adolescent attraction, dating, and self-expression are a part of adolescence, and simply ignoring this is not a reality for any young person.  Parents or educators who pretend otherwise are putting youth at risk. Suggesting that the students who happen to be gay or bi should wait to deal with it until they are older, while their straight friends and classmates are free to be who they are, is discriminatory and potentially very damaging.

McKinley can complain about the overrepresentation of sexualized images in the media. She can ask for adults to be more aware of the realities that youth will face in their social circles and to be a part of the effort to keep students safe. But to suggest that teenagers who are LGBT need to wait until college to start being true to themselves is offensive. Not even beginning to address the overly patronizing tones about what young people are and are not capable of handling, what it amounts to is blaming the victim. She writes, “This whole post was about adults realizing that kids cannot handle the things we can. They are not mature enough, and no amount of wishing will change that.”

Which kids? Just the LGBT ones. To which she responds, “You can grumble all day long how unfair it is that straight teens can be straight in high school, and gay kids can’t, but life is unfair. Isn’t the price they are paying too high?? Is it so much to ask them to stand at the door of adulthood before they ‘come out’ publically? Because it may save their life.”  She basically wants a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy to be put in place for all teenagers.

Just so we’re clear: McKinley recognizes that young people are capable of knowing if they are LGBT. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and imagine that what she is attempting to say is that during adolescence a young person is not always able to anticipate the consequences of their decisions. What is inexcusable is that she is placing the solution to the problem on the shoulders of those youth who don’t want to hide their true selves from their friends, family, and classmates.

To give credit where credit is due, McKinley wants to save lives, and her outrage over the impact of anti-LGBT bullying in a young person’s life is completely justified. But we should not ask students to delay coming out so that they can make other young people in their lives feel more comfortable. Please remember that anti-LGBT bullying takes place whether a student actually identifies as LGBT or if they are solely perceived to be LGBT.

We must stop blaming the victims of bullying for simply being true to themselves. Let us instead focus our attention on shifting the conversation to how we can change people’s hearts and minds to be more accepting of all students, including those who come out as LGBT.