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2001: social and developmental challenges for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.

Although the vast majority of lesbian and gay youth become well adjusted adults who lead satisfying, productive lives, they face additional developmental challenges that require a range of coping skills and adaptation. The struggle to develop and integrate a positive adult identity--a primary developmental task for all adolescents--becomes an even greater challenge for lesbian and gay youth, who learn from earliest childhood the profound stigma of a homosexual identity. Unlike many of their heterosexual peers, these adolescents have no built-in support system or assurances that their friends and family will not reject them if they reveal their sexuality.

Ignored by the social institutions that routinely provide emotional support and positive reinforcement for children and adolescents--families, religious organizations, schools, and peer groups--lesbian and gay adolescents must negotiate many important milestones without feedback or support. (1) They must learn to identify, explore, and ultimately integrate a positive adult identity despite persistent negative stereotypes of lesbian and gay people. They must learn to accept themselves, and to find intimacy and meaning through relationships, work, and connections with the broader community. They also must learn to protect themselves against ridicule, verbal and physical abuse, and exposure. And until they develop relationships with accepting adults and peers, they must do this alone. The social and emotional isolation experienced by lesbian and gay youth is a unique stressor that increases vulnerability and risk for a range of health and mental-health problems. (2)

From a very early age, negative attitudes about homosexuality are communicated and reinforced through social institutions and media. Children learn to think that being gay is deviant and unnatural. Although many of these attitudes are changing, they learn from a variety of credible sources--their families, teachers, religious leaders, friends--that being lesbian or gay means living alone, being rejected and ostracized, forgoing a meaningful career or satisfying intimate relationships, and not being accepted or integrated into the broader society. By the time they enter early adolescence, when social interaction and sexual striving coincide with formulating an adult identity, they have learned to hide same-sex feelings, attractions, and behaviors from others and often from themselves.

Prejudice, fear, and hatred of homosexuals (or homophobia) are also internalized. As adolescents struggle to reconcile societal myths and misconceptions about homosexuality with the realization that they might be lesbian or gay, these internalized feelings of stigma and self-hatred increase existing vulnerabilities, affect self-esteem, and, for many gay youth, restrict life choices. The extent to which lesbian and gay adolescents find supportive relationships with peers and adults and develop positive coping skills will determine their successful adaptation to stigma and their quality of life. Access to a caring, nonjudgmental provider who will offer appropriate services and referrals will help lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents negotiate difficult challenges and develop appropriate skills for self-care and survival....

Excerpted from SIECUS Report, Volume 29, Number 4, April/May 2001.


1. A. D. Martin, "Program for Gay Teenagers: Problems and Proposed Solutions," in Biobehavioral Control of AIDS, ed. D. G. Ostrow (New York: Irvington Publishers, 1987).

2. A. D. Martin and E. S. Hetrick, "The Stigmatization of the Gay and Lesbian Adolescent," Journal of Homosexuality, 15 (1988): 163; R. C. Savin-Williams, "Gay and Lesbian Adolescents," in Homosexuality and Family Relations, eds. F. W. Bozett and M. B. Sussman (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1990); R. C. Savin-Williams and R. E. Lenhart, "AIDS Prevention among Gay and Lesbian Youth: Psychosocial Stress and Health Care Intervention Guidelines," in Behavioral Aspects of AIDS, ed. D. G. Ostrow (New York: Plenum Publishing, 1990).

Caitlin Ryan, M.S.W. and Donna Futterman, M.D.
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Title Annotation:Forty Years of Speaking out SIECUS on GLBTQ Issues; Sex Information and Education Council of the United States
Author:Futterman, Donna
Publication:SIECUS Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Previous Article:1990: homophobia in HIV/AIDS education.
Next Article:1980: the SIECUS/Uppsala principles basic to education for sexuality.

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