Clearly, the last decades have been times of significant social change regarding sexuality and same-sex sexuality in contemporary societies. Yet, the typical contexts in which adolescents grow and develop – their families, schools, faith communities, and peer groups – continue to be influenced by historically traditional gender and sexuality norms.
Thus, in many contemporary societies and for contemporary youth, we see evidence of dramatic social change, along with tensions in understandings and acceptance around diversity in sexual orientations.
How do the ethical questions relating to sexual orientation and sexual activities connect to the legal questions surveyed above? Some practices considered unethical or immoral are not illegal – for example, abandoning a close friend. However, one’s ethical stance toward same-sex sexuality is likely to influence one’s view on the legal questions surveyed.
If there is nothing unethical about same-sex sexual activity, then there seems to be no good reason for sodomy laws. If there is nothing wrong with being attracted to people of the same sex, then discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation seems unjustified. And if there is nothing wrong with same-sex sexuality, then there seems to be no good reason for not giving LGB people the positive rights that other citizens are granted.
This article has articulated the challenges facing attempts to show that there is something morally problematic about same-sex sexual activity and attraction. Absent successful replies to these challenges, it is hard to justify the legal distinctions between different-sex sexual activity and same-sex sexual activity, on the one hand, and the distinction between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality on the other.
this view ignores the developmental reality of conformity to social and cultural norms around gender that can be at odds with the developmental course of sexuality development for individual teenagers. In the context where social change and openness are occurring and youth are accepting of their same-sex sexuality, there remains a tension to conform – a tension that may be especially salient for contemporary adolescents.
Research in schools, among peer cultures, and in family contexts has shown that gender nonconforming boys are especially at risk for social isolation, discrimination, and harassment/violence, and much of this has to do with their perceived sexual orientation as gay.
Boys who do not conform to traditionally masculine gender-role norms are less likely to gain peer acceptance than their nonconforming counterparts.
Gender-atypical boys also suffer from greater self-image problems and are more frequently the victims of homophobic behavior such as name-calling or bullying. More extreme cases have resulted in severe violence against gender nonconforming youth.
Sexual-minority youth are socialized to live and conform to heterosexual lives, and this has implications for their mental health and well-being. The family is one such context that has historically privileged and normalized heterosexuality. In families, even though most families eventually adjust, coming out as an adolescent has historically been met with some form of family disturbance.
Particularly during the coming out period, parent–adolescent relationships can be strained, and this family stress has negative consequences for sexual-minority youth. For example, research has shown strong associations between a family's rejection of a child based on sexual orientation and health risks among sexual-minority adolescents and young adults.
Family rejection or strain is closely tied to parents' expectations and images of their child's family life course; when a child comes out, many parents feel that their imagined future family life is undermined or that their family history is being rejected.
Other developmentally normative adolescent sexuality experiences remain elusive for many sexual-minority youth. Dating and romance are typically thought to be developmentally normal, meaningful, and important for adolescents' interpersonal development, but may be limited or abbreviated for sexual minorities.
The initiation of intimacy and romance is understood to be a core developmental task during the adolescent years; it provides young people with experiences to learn about trust, communication, commitment, mutuality, and emotional expression, capacities that will serve them the rest of their lives. However, sexual-minority youth have historically been unable to form and maintain romantic relationships openly and easily.
Yet, many same-sex oriented youth engage in dating and romance. Due to the primacy of heterosexual dating scripts for teens, they may feel pressure to participate in heterosexual dating despite or in spite of their same-sex desires. For example, one study based on a national survey of youth found that although same-sex attracted adolescents were much more likely to report same-sex relationships, they were equally as likely as heterosexual adolescents to be involved in heterosexual relationships.
However, sexual-minority youth in heterosexual relationships experienced high rates of anxiety and depression (similar to those sexual-minority youth who did not date at all). Feeling the need to conform to heterosexuality during adolescence might set a course for adult intimate relationships that could explain, for example, elevated rates of high-risk sexual behavior on the one hand, or possibilities for alternative relationship forms on the other.
These findings highlight the fact that romantic relationships and intimacy play important roles in adolescence, and have some of the same developmental benefits for sexual minority youth that they do for young heterosexuals. Little prospective research exists that follows sexual minority youth into adulthood, yet we suspect adolescent dating and romantic experiences for sexual minority youth have lasting influence on their adult relationships.
Perhaps the most important recommendation for clinicians serving sexual-minority, gender-nonconforming, and transgender youths is to take seriously the incredible diversity of these individuals’ sexual profiles.
This entails acknowledging and communicating to youths that the categories “heterosexual,” “gay/lesbian,” “bisexual,” and even “female” and “male” do not represent the full range of feelings, fantasies, and relationships they may find themselves experiencing throughout the lifespan.
Clinicians can play a critically important role for youths by simply providing them with a safe and supportive context within which they can consider the personal meaning of same-sex sexuality and gender expression for their current and future relationships and identity.
Our current task is to chart the multiple, interacting factors producing diversity in their developmental pathways. A fuller understanding of such diversity will clearly advance our capacity to foster all youths’ positive sexual and gender development over the lifespan.
One of the most notable recent developments in adolescent research has been to understand the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The overwhelming majority of the studies on sexual minorities and gender nonconforming youth has treated them as a homogenous group and paid little attention to differences based on other important social categories such as race and ethnicity.
As a consequence, we currently know very little about whether and how gender and race and ethnicity combine to shape adolescents understanding of their sexual orientation and gender expression.
Below, we first review existing research on a single social category, namely sexual orientation and gender nonconformity among adolescents. Next, where available, we review research on sexual orientation and gender nonconformity at the intersection of gender and ethnicity and race.
Developmental researchers now agree that sexual orientation is a multidimensional construct comprised of sexual thoughts, behaviors, and identity (Diamond, 2013; Saewyc, 2011).
Studies examining sexual attraction, for example, often find that youth report same-sex attractions by 8–10 years of age (eg, Savin-Williams, 2011) with 1–2.6% identifying as gay or lesbian, 3–5% as bisexual, and 1.3–4.7% as unsure of their sexual orientation (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Kann et al., 2011).
Developmental research has only recently begun to examine differences based on gender and ethnicity in this area. Results show that the prevalence of same-sexuality and sexual orientation identification differs by gender.
Because the criminalization of same-sex sexuality is the most obvious expression of state condemnation, sexual orientation law began by challenging anti-sodomy laws. In the US case Bowers vs. Hardwick, 478 US 186 (1986), the US Supreme Court upheld Georgia's statute criminalizing sodomy against a constitutional privacy challenge.
The Court issued extraordinarily homophobic declarations, such as the concurring opinion's citation of Blackstone (1859) to describe same-sex sodomy as ‘an offense of “deeper malignity” than rape, a heinous act “the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature.”’
The gratuitous nastiness inspired both numerous critiques of the decision (Goldstein 1988, Thomas 1992) and challenges to other laws disadvantaging gay people.
One strand of this critique challenges the validity of anti-sodomy statutes, arguing that sodomy is an historically contingent category. For example, early Roman–Dutch law (imported to Colonial South Africa) interpreted sodomy as including a wide range of nonconforming sexual acts, such as anal penetration, bestiality, masturbation, oral penetration, penetration with an inanimate object, interfemoral intercourse, and heterosexual intercourse between a Jew and a Christian (West and Green 1997, p. 6).
This insight undermines the logic of sodomy law defenders, who, along with the US Supreme Court in Bowers vs. Hardwick, rest their defense on ‘millennia of moral teaching’ (Goldstein 1988). If what counts as reprehensible conduct differs markedly among people, places, and times, theorists reason, then one cannot invoke a uniform condemnation of the conduct.
While many governments have decriminalized same-sex sexuality, the criminal ban remains strong in some places. In 2000 in Malaysia, for example, former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to nine years in prison after a 14-month trial. At the opposite extreme, the 1996 South African Constitution explicitly forbade sexual orientation discrimination.
The ban on gays in the military, like anti-sodomy laws, excludes gay people from full citizenship. While the ban remains in the US, other countries, such as Israel, allow gay people to serve in the military.
Gender and sexual norms are internalized at young ages and are perpetuated through external rewards and punishments given by others in their social world. The internalization of these norms happens so early that most young people cannot recognize the social forces that influence them; instead, young people come to think of these gender and sexual norms as normal and natural.
Thus, heterosexuality is normalized in the major institutions that shape adolescents' lives: family, school, faith, and in the media. Recent research shows, for example, that when parents or peers are rejecting of same-sex orientation during adolescence, LGB delay coming out, and as young adults have lower esteem about their sexual orientation and report more mental and behavioral health problems.
In other words, nonheterosexual adolescents must navigate their developing identities within multiple contexts that may range from rejecting to supportive. Not surprisingly, from the very earliest studies, research on sexual orientation in adolescence has focused on problems and risk in the context of a heteronormative and homophobic society.
Research on adult health disparities clearly shows that sexual-minority adults are at dramatically disproportionate risk for emotional, behavioral, and physical health problems across the adult life span. These disparities are presumed to have their origins in adolescence given the similar statistics about the health and well-being of queer adolescents.
There are two competing trends that shape the everyday experiences of youth in their social settings (i.e., relations with peers and in the school environment): youth with same-sex sexual orientations are coming out at younger ages, yet attitudes about same-sex sexuality become more favorable only as adolescents get older.
Thus, there appears to be a developmental tension between individual awareness of sexual orientation and adoption of alternative sexual identities which may conflict with the social pressures of conformity to gender and sexuality norms that are particularly strong during early adolescence.
These pressures coincide in the early teenage years in ways that may explain the tensions that are evident for contemporary queer youth. Thus, although some have argued that the social changes of recent decades have resulted in unprecedented freedoms for nonheterosexual adolescents,
Practically, all research on same-sex behavior has been conducted with youth from the United States and other western industrialized nations who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, even though such youth comprise only a small subset of the total number of adolescents with same-sex attractions, fantasies, romances, or sexual activities.
Furthermore, these different components of same-sex sexuality do not necessarily coincide. Quite simply, not all adolescents who experience same-sex desires identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and not all of these individuals engage in same-sex activities during adolescence.
Regarding the prevalence of same-sex sexuality, a number of studies using random, representative samples suggest that around 10% of youths report some experience with same-sex attractions or behavior
(although estimates have varied across different studies in different cultures, with some estimates as low as 8% and other estimates as high as 15%), although usually, only around 2% claim a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity in adolescence.
Although this review has necessarily emphasized many of the psychosocial challenges faced by sexual-minority, gender-nonconforming, and transgender youths, it is important to acknowledge that an increasing body of research has focused on the positive attributes, strengths, and skills of these youths (for example Savin-Williams, 2005).
For example, evidence suggests that for some youths, actively wrestling with questions about their gender and sexuality can help them to foster a healthier sense of sexual agency, to become better able “to know their sexuality as feelings as well as actions, feelings to which they are entitled” (Tolman, 1994, p. 268).
Even individuals who experiment with same-sex sexuality, but end up identifying as heterosexual, might benefit from temporarily broadening their definitions and conceptualizations of sexuality. In particular, participation in same-sex activity necessarily disrupts widespread cultural assumptions about the “naturalness” of heterosexuality, as well as the “naturalness” of female and male gender roles.
Participation in same-sex relationships and consideration of same-sex attractions might prompt all individuals to ask themselves important, useful questions about how they conceive of their sexuality, and what types of relationships they desire in the future. This has the potential to create altogether new and healthy trajectories of sexual and gender development.
To illustrate, using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, a nationally representative sample of over 14,000 individuals, Chandra, Mosher, Copen, and Sionean (2011) found that while 12% of adolescent girls reported same-sex sexual contact, only 5% of boys reported same-sex sexual contact.
Similarly, Savin-Williams and Ream (2007) analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescents Health and found that, overall, 2.4% of boys and 3.8% of girls identified as sexual minorities using labels such as bisexual, mostly homosexual, or homosexual.
Other studies using national samples of adolescents have strongly replicated these gender differences (Chandra et al., 2011; see review by Diamond, 2013; Saewyc, 2011).
No study has systematically examined differences in same-sex sexuality or sexual orientation identification among adolescents based race and ethnicity. Preliminary evidence, however, points to ethnic differences in rates of minority sexual orientation identification.
For example, Kann et al. (2011) found that although the rates of same-sex sexual contact did not differ by ethnicity (10.5% of Black, 12.0% of Hispanic, and 12.5% of White students), the rates of sexual orientation identification did. Specifically, while 6% of Blacks and 7.5% of Hispanics identified as lesbians, gay, or bisexual, 4.5% of Whites identified as such.
An intersectionality perspective assesses the nature of same-sex sexuality and sexual orientation among various intersectional social groups—for example, “White gay boys,” “Black gay boys,” and so on.
To our knowledge, studies that systematically assess and compare the nature and prevalence of same-sex sexuality and sexual orientation identification among specific gender by racial/ethnic groups do not currently exist.>h4>6.2 Gender Nonconformity
Gender nonconformity refers to the degree to which an individual's appearance, behavior, interests, and subjective self-concept deviate from the conventional norms of masculinity and femininity. Because research on gender nonconforming youth lags behind research on sexual minority youth, we know little about the prevalence of gender nonconformity among adolescents.
Sandberg, Meyer-Bahlburg, Ehrhardt, and Yager (1993) found that among 6- to 10-year-old children, on average 30% of participants showed 10 or more gender nonconforming behaviors. Other studies (eg, Egan & Perry, 2001) find a similar pattern, documenting a range of gender nonconforming feelings and behavior among children and adolescents.
One of the most salient factors differentiating adolescents’ experiences of gender nonconformity is gender itself. Gender nonconformity is more common among females (here we are referring to the gender assigned a person at birth) perhaps because it is less stigmatized, less likely to be treated as an indicator of psychiatric disturbance and less strongly associated with same-sex sexual orientation
(Kosciw, Greytak, & Diaz, 2008; Zucker & Bradley, 1995). In Sandberg et al. (1993), for example, while 39% of females reported gender nonconforming behaviors, 23% of males indicated such behaviors. We are not aware of studies that have systematically assessed and compared the nature and frequency of gender nonconformity among various racial ethnic groups.
In addition, no study has systematically examined the experiences of gender nonconforming youth at the intersection of gender and race and ethnicity.
Because intergroup bias is key in shaping social disadvantage and negative outcomes, a great deal of developmental research has focused on charting attitudes toward lesbians and gay youth. Early studies typically assessed adolescents’ attitudes toward homosexuals as a group (eg, Van de Ven, 1994).
However, consensus soon emerged among researchers that attitudes toward sexual minorities were complex and differed based both on characteristics of the target and those of the respondent.
Studies assessing adolescents’ intergroup attitudes have generally focused on attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. We are not aware of any studies that have assessed attitudes toward bisexuals among adolescents. Of the extant studies, the majority has employed measurements originally developed for adults, for example, Herek's (1988) attitudes toward gay men and lesbians (ATGL) scale.
One of the most robust patterns of findings in this literature is that gender of the target intersects with sexual minority status to shape attitudes. To illustrate, in a study of ethnically diverse urban high school students, Mata, Ghavami, and Wittig (2010) assessed adolescents’ attitudes toward lesbians and toward gay men using the ATGL.
Consistent with research among adults, adolescents’ attitudes toward gay men were significantly more negative than those toward lesbians. Other studies with different populations of adolescents consistently document a similar pattern of gender difference (Horn, 2003, 2007;
Poteat & Anderson, 2012). We are not aware of any published studies that have measured adolescents’ attitudes toward lesbians, gay, or bisexual individuals who belong to various racial and ethnic groups.
Additionally, participants’ characteristics also intersect with characteristics of the target to shape attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Research has mainly focused on the gender and race and ethnicity of the participants. In an early study, Van de Ven (1994) examined attitudes toward homosexuals as a group and found that girls were generally less negative toward homosexuals than boys.
More recent studies (eg, Horn, 2003, 2007; Mata et al., 2010; Poteat & Anderson, 2012) that have distinguished between gay men and lesbians demonstrate that boys report significantly more negative attitudes toward gay men than lesbians. Although girls’ attitudes are generally more negative toward lesbians than gay men, those attitudes do not differ significantly.
Although scarce, emerging studies show that participants’ race and ethnicity also play a role in attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. For example, in a longitudinal study of middle and high school students, Poteat and Anderson (2012) assessed and compared White and ethnic minority participants’ attitudes toward gay men and lesbians using the ATGL.
Analyses revealed racial and gender group differences such that girls and Whites, on average, reported lower levels of negative attitudes toward lesbians and gay men than boys and racial minorities. Differences based on the intersection of those social categories were not examined.
Gender nonconformity and same-sex sexuality are often conceptualized by young people as proxies for one another. For example, a girl who appears masculine is teased, referred to as “mannish” and is often taunted as lesbian.
A boy whose interests are more feminine, for example, likes cheerleading, is often ridiculed, called “gay” and is considered “not a real boy.” Gender nonconforming adolescents often face stigmatization and condemnation similar to those typically faced by openly identified lesbians, gay, and bisexual youth, regardless of whether they experience same-sex attractions.
Developmental studies of gender atypicality clearly show that boys and girls whose mannerisms, personality, or activity preferences fall outside of the typical gender norms are often ridiculed, victimized, and excluded by peers (Craig et al., 2001; Killen & Rutland, 2011).
However, evidence also shows that the consequences of gender norm violation differ for boys and girls. For example, among children, boys who exhibit nonstereotypic mannerisms and interests, for example, are less assertive or tough and play with dolls are ridiculed, often called “fags” or “sissies” and referred to as “girls” (eg, Peplau, Garnets, Spalding, Conley, & Veniegas, 1998).
By contrast, girls who are more gender nonconforming in appearance and activity preferences are often labeled as “tomboys” and rarely perceived as the other sex, a “boy.” These results indicate that although both boys and girls are expected to be gender typical, the extent to which they can deviate from those norms differs by gender.
Similarly, research on sexual orientation-based victimization in the school setting reveals a link between minority sexual orientation and gender atypicality. For instance, studies of middle and high school students (Kosciw et al., 2008) show that anti-LGB language such as calling someone “fag” or “dyke” is part of LGB adolescents’ daily experiences.
However, homophobic remarks are not only directed at peers who identify as LGB but also at those who are perceived to be LGB, a group who is comprised of gender nonconforming adolescents (Heinze & Horn, 2014; Horn, 2007; Toomey, Ryan, Diaz, Card, & Russell, 2010).
A recent study by Heinze and Horn (2014) examined attitudes and reasoning about the exclusion of peers based on sexual orientation and gender nonconformity among a large sample of adolescents.
Results indicate that although it was more acceptable to exclude gay or lesbian peers than heterosexual peers, gender nonconformity played a significant role, however, differentially so based on the domain under consideration.
Gay targets were rated less positively than heterosexual targets when mannerisms and activity preferences were deemed as gender nonconforming. Nonetheless, when targets deviated from appearance norms related to gender, heterosexual, and gay targets were evaluated similarly.
Does race and ethnicity of the target influence adolescents’ evaluation of a gender nonconforming peer? The answer to this question is currently not known. Indirect evidence from the adult literature suggests that gay/lesbian targets are viewed as gender atypical and gender atypical targets are viewed as gay/lesbian, irrespective of their ethnicity.
As our nations’ young people become increasingly diverse, studies that investigate whether and how race/ethnicity shapes perceptions of gender typicality will undoubtedly shed important light on the complexity of the experiences of youth.
Developmental scientists have most often studied sexual orientation-based victimization from the target's perspective by asking LGBQ youth about their own personal experiences. These studies have generally focused on the experiences of students at school or with peers.
Other studies have also examined youth's experiences in the context of family relations, focusing primarily on youth's experiences with family rejection and victimization.
No matter how victimization or discrimination is assessed or in what domain, studies robustly demonstrate that youth who self-identify as LGB or are perceived to be LGB are routinely victimized, harassed, and excluded in the school setting.
A recent national study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN, 2015) surveyed over 2000 LGBT middle and high school students about their experiences at school.
Results revealed that nearly 100% of these youth had heard homophobic remarks, such as “fag” and “that's so gay.” Similarly, an overwhelming proportion of students also reported hearing negative remarks based on gender nonconformity.
The majority of research on the subjective experiences of sexual minority youth with bias and victimization has treated sexual minorities as a homogeneous group and paid little attention to differences based on other social identities such as gender and ethnicity.
A practical reason for this approach has been the small number of sexual minority participants in many studies. A theoretical rational for this approach was provided by Meyer (2010) based on the Minority Stress Model:
For the study of minority stress, therefore, the groups compared ought to be all sexual minorities—men and women—versus all heterosexuals. This is because in each comparison we are interested in the average effect on the disadvantaged versus advantaged, that is, across diverse subgroups within.
This monolithic approach has been commonly applied not only in adolescent research on bullying and victimization (eg, Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2012; Ybarra, Mitchell, Kosciw, & Korchmaros, 2014) but also in research on mental health (eg, Hatzenbuehler, 2011) and friendships (eg, Ueno, 2005, 2009).
Increasingly, however, studies have demonstrated that when researchers do compare lesbian/bisexual girls and gay/bisexual boys on experiences of discrimination, significant gender, and ethnicity differences emerge.
Studies show that gay, bisexual, and gender nonconforming boys for example, are more likely to be victimized and that the victimization is often more extreme and violent than victimization experienced by girls of each group.
To be clear, lower stigmatization does not mean that girls are immune to experiencing bias and victimization. These results raise the possibility that the nature and consequences of sexual minority status and gender nonconformity differ for boys and girls.
More recently, studies have begun to examine the impact of racial and ethnic minority status on the experiences of LGB youth (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2011). Although few in number, these studies show that racial and ethnic minority youth are at an increased risk for victimization.
As a case in point, a large national study by GLSEN (Kosciw, 2004) demonstrates that not only 100% of LGB youth of color report hearing homophobic remarks at school, almost 100% of these youth also report hearing racist slurs at school.
These results suggest that ethnic minority LGB youth are doubly disadvantaged both because of their ethnic minority status and because of their sexual minority status. These minority statuses may place ethnic minority LGB youth at greater risk for negative social, psychological, and health outcomes.
Some research has examined the ways in which developmental context intersects with sexual minority status to shape adolescents’ risk for victimization. While this research has focused on several factors (eg, geographic location), the ethnic composition of schools is the factor of most importance for our discussion.
A few studies have focused on the role of ethnic diversity of the school on the victimization experiences of LGB youth (Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006; Kosciw, 2004). Preliminary indirect evidence suggests that the risk of victimization of LGBQ youth may be greatest in schools where their ethnic group is in the majority (Kosciw, 2004).
These results raise the possibility that ethnic minority youth may not only be at risk for victimization from peers, at large, but also from peers of their own ethnic group, a group who generally provide a buffer against racism and race-based discrimination.