Rain Before Rainbows

The sheer magnitude of changes taking place during puberty and throughout adolescence pushes to center stage the issue of identity, in all its forms and with all of its vagaries.
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Two teenage girls (15-17) embracing, smiling, portrait
Two teenage girls (15-17) embracing, smiling, portrait

Awash in both awards and advice, the recent 87th Academy Awards offered a particularly poignant appeal from Graham Moore. The award-winning 34-year-old writer of The Imitation Game told the star-studded audience, "When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong."

Odd? Not at all.

The sheer magnitude of changes taking place during puberty and throughout adolescence pushes to center stage the issue of identity, in all its forms and with all of its vagaries.

Psychologist Erik Erikson framed this particular stage of development as a dilemma between "achievement" and "confusion" -- the former being the goal and, perhaps, the latter being the norm... at least for a bit. In either case, it is quite possible that of life's inevitable puzzles, this particular one has the most far-reaching consequences in paving a path to the future.

Indeed, the stakes are high and include such reckonings as social, emotional, spiritual and sexual identity formation.

If confusion about whom one is and may be becoming is typical for those in the norm, what might be the ramifications for those who are not -- perhaps especially regarding sexuality? And, if it is true that those who successfully attain a positive identity are usually supported by communicative adults in their lives, what about those young people unwilling or unable to share their innermost thoughts and turmoil?

In eighth grade, Max, now 25, was experiencing that particular conundrum.

"My dad sat down with me and went through a book of cartoons about sex. But it was basically all mechanical and non-emotional. It didn't begin to connect with how I was feeling. I was gay and afraid, and I didn't know the words to talk about it. I was in a closet within a closet."

Max's sexual identity unfolded without meaningful input from two of the most important people in his life, his mom and dad. "They didn't have the right talk with me because they didn't know I was gay," he said. "Parents just assume at puberty that you'll develop interest in the opposite sex and talk about it from that perspective. Gays don't get that talk, even after they come out."

And it's likely not any better for gay females.

Kristin is a teenage girl quoted in the article "How to Talk to Your Gay Teen About Sex" by Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo. She said, "I am sure that I had a few health classes that talked about condoms and rattled off a lot of facts about scary diseases I might get if I did the wrong thing with the wrong person -- but no one ever mentioned what to do if I wasn't having sex with a boy."

Owens-Reid and Russo offer some advice for parents having these conversations.

1."Be open to questions. The most important thing you can accomplish is to become an 'askable parent.' This does not mean you have to have all of the answers, or that you need to be comfortable talking to your child about everything... just that you are approachable."

2."Educate yourself." Your gay teen is not going to have more sex than his or her peers. "There's no such thing as 'gay' sex acts -- there are sexual acts that are shared between people of all genders, and the way we keep ourselves safe is always the same."

3."Learn what works for your kid." Consider your approach and timing. "You know your kid, and you also know yourself... Prepare yourself with information, and communicate in the way that you think will bring the highest level of comfort to both you and your child."

Bottom line? Communication counts. Not only because it helps young people develop the sexual side of their identities, or simply to decrease risk of infection and disease. But also because it can help ameliorate high rates of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and substance use or dependence in lesbian, gay and bisexual youth.

According to The Trevor Project, these young people are four times more likely to attempt suicide than are their straight peers. And questioning youth are three times more likely.

Sadly, a female friend of Max's was one who died.

These statistics speak to the imperative of information and parental support.

As Judy Shepard, cofounder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, says, "You need to make the decision that your child's happiness and safety is totally unrelated to his sexual orientation." She advocates that homes be "safe havens" for kids -- even if they're not yet ready to talk about sex.

What about straight teens?

When he was in eighth grade, Sam (now 24), was the opposite of Max:

I've been exposed to willing girls since middle school, and always saw touching and kissing and sex as an exciting education. But I never had a question about my sexuality. And lucky for me, the societal 'norm' is synonymous with the sexual brand my own body and mind subscribe to. Still, having a caring adult in my life as I was 'coming of age' was helpful in learning about what was happening to me during puberty and to ask questions about becoming sexual with others.

And the kids in the middle, where confusion really reigns? Good news is at hand.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Fishberger at The Trevor Project, "Some people are sure of their sexuality as children, and others as teens. Still others continue to question their sexual orientation as adults." He adds, encouragingly, "The fact that people are able to recognize their sexual orientation at a younger age than in the past demonstrates that we are making strides towards greater support and acceptance of L.G.B.T. people."

In wrapping up his speech, Moore added, "for that kid out there who feels like she's weird or she's different or she doesn't belong, yes you do. I promise you do."

Wise counsel. And truly rainbows after rain.

*Names of the non-professionals referenced have been changed for privacy reasons.

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