As it becomes more common for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and their allies to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in middle schools, some adults have reacted with confusion, consternation, or outrage, insisting that middle school students are too young to know their sexual orientation or at least too young to disclose it.
As discussed in an April post, for example, a member of Florida’s Lake County School Board recently questioned the sexual orientation of an openly bisexual eighth grader in his district who wanted to form a GSA, saying he could “not rationalize how” a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old could know she is bisexual. A local blog implicitly criticized the same young woman last week (without mentioning her name), remarking that “most 14 year old children do not discuss their sexuality in public.”
Are middle school students really too young to know or disclose their sexual orientation?
One way to approach the question is to consider the reactions adults have when children or young adolescents reveal romantic or even sexual interest in peers of a different sex. That’s the point of this post’s title.
Imagine, for example, that a thirteen-year-old kid tells his mother, “Mom, I’m going on a date with a girl I met in class.” The mother might object to his dating for various reasons, but few people would expect her to say, “But Honey, how could you possibly know that you are heterosexual and like girls? Your father and I just can’t rationalize that.”
Or imagine that a parent finds out that his or her fourteen-year-old son has been publicly holding hands with a girl from class, and had even kissed her on the cheek in front of some classmates. Again, many parents may have concerns about their son’s dating or having physical contact with a young woman at age fourteen, but how many parents would fixate on the issue of sexual orientation? How many would say something like, “You shouldn’t go around advertising yourself as heterosexual like that. The fact that you might like girls, which you’re probably too young to know anyway, is private. Kids your age shouldn’t be revealing their sexuality in public!”
We don’t expect parents to react this way because, while attitudes might vary about the appropriate age for dating or sexual behavior, we accept it as normal—and indeed, totally unremarkable—for children and young adolescents to realize and reveal in some way that they are heterosexually oriented.
Some youth, however, become aware of and talk about attractions toward members of the same sex, and that’s normal too.
Scientific and Professional Understandings
As the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the National Association of Social Workers recently observed, “[c]urrent scientific and professional understanding is that the core feelings that form the basis for adult sexual orientation typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence, without any necessary prior sexual experience.” It’s important to emphasize the distinction, moreover, between orientation and conduct. A Child Welfare League of America publication explains: “Contrary to common misconceptions, adolescents do not need to have a sexual relationship with an opposite-sex (or same-sex) partner to understand their sexual orientation.”
This isn’t to say that all LGB individuals—or heterosexuals—fully understand or come to terms with their sexual orientation at a young age; nor is it to say, by any means, that all LGB youth should come out. Studies indicate that the age of self-identification and self-acceptance for LGB individuals varies widely, with some people identifying as LGB at a very early age and others coming out only in adulthood. Many youth may be aware of same-sex attractions and/or self-identify as LGB but keep these thoughts and feelings private to protect their safety, to avoid family or peer rejection, or for similar reasons.
Related link: Should LGBT Youth Come Out?
The notion that middle school students are necessarily too young to know their sexual orientation, however, has no scientific basis. The idea that a young adolescent can’t know his or her sexual orientation also flies in the face of common if not universal understandings of adolescence when it comes to heterosexual attraction.
For similar reasons, outrage over a young person’s decision to come out is often misplaced. Certainly, to the extent parents and educators worry about a young person’s safety in an anti-gay environment, some concerns about the youth’s coming out may be legitimate. But adults can best protect LGB and questioning youth if they also take time to consider that their reactions to a young person’s stated sexual orientation (or decision to come out) may arise in part from bias, stereotypes, or unfair double standards. Before telling a youth that he or she is too young to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual, adults should ask themselves if they would ever tell a youth of the same age that he or she is too young to be straight.
In any event, even if nobody in a particular community is out as LGB, middle schools can and should allow GSAs or similar groups, which can provide all students an opportunity and safe space to talk about sexual orientation, gender stereotypes and identity, anti-gay bias, and bullying. These issues can deeply affect youth of any age, orientation or identity. As any middle school student can tell you, you don’t need to be gay to be called an anti-gay slur. And you don’t need to be gay (or out) to join a GSA.
Related Links (Updated 2/13/14):
- Lake County School Board’s Misleading & Confused Court Filings Call GSA’s Anti-Bullying Efforts “Sexual” “Advocacy” (February 2014)
- Lake County School District Still Failing to Protect LGBT Students & Their Allies (July 2013) (Popular post)
- Too Young to Be Straight? (May 2013) (Popular post)
- Gay-Straight Alliance Updates: Lake County (Victory!), Polk County (Victory) & Fort Worth (Progress!) (May 2013)
- Lake County School Board Member Questions 14-Year-Old Student’s Sexual Orientation (April 2013) (Popular post)
- After School Board Blocks Gay-Straight Alliance, Board Member Tells LGBT Youth Allies, “The Board Has Not Blocked the GSA.” (April 2013) (Popular post)
 I’ve left the “T” (transgender) off the “LGB” in several places in this post, because the question of when youth develop a sense of their gender identity is a different subject involving a different, even if often overlapping, set of questions. The American Psychological Association addresses some of these issues in Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression. This resource explains that transgender people “may become aware of their transgender identity at any age” and that “[s]ome can trace their transgender identities and feelings back to their earliest memories.” The APA also cautions that it is “not helpful to force” a gender-nonconforming child “to act in a more gender-conforming way.” (Jump back to the main text.)