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To be, and to parent, an LGBTQ teen

Dr. Wes Crenshaw joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

It may be easier than ever before for young people to be open and curious about their sexuality; or at least, Julia Poe of Prairie Village, Kansas seems to think so. Poe identifies as bisexual and believes that for people of her generation, coming out is becoming more common and less traumatic—just as same-sex marriage, recently legalized across the country, is increasingly frequent and accepted.

Poe, now a rising freshman at the University of Southern California, worked in high school to spread awareness and tolerance of non-heterosexual lifestyles and labels among her peers. In his practice, Dr. Wes Crenshaw keeps parents up-to-date on the rapid changes of adolescent sexual activity and identity. They spoke to “St. Louis on the Air” about the LGBTQ issues unique to young people.

Poe said her coming-out process was slow and awkward, but generally painless. “I never had a negative experience,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone be anything but extremely positive.”

Which isn’t to say that it was easy. Poe indicated that she had “mishandled” her coming-out, staying quiet about her first relationship with another young woman—who was, unlike Poe, open about her sexuality.

“I dated a girl for a little bit over a year…she was out, and I was just so scared to come out. I was so sure that everyone was going to hate me. I had a really hard time with my parents, with coming out. They found out; I didn’t get to tell them,” Poe said.

Poe’s relationship with her parents strengthened as they all went through the coming-out process together. Her parents were open and frank, she said; they were unafraid to ask questions when they were confused and often reassured her of their love. It was more constructive, and more positive, than she’d thought it could be.

“I made it harder for myself,” she said. “It thought it was just going to be awful, and by the time I realized that everyone knew and no one cared it was almost a whole year later.”

Though Poe’s fear may have been unnecessary, it was no less real. That anyone—family, friends—might reject a “core part” of her was a deep and frightening prospect.

“The coming-out process has changed in the last four or five years,” Crenshaw said. Instead of teens hosting a large and somber gathering to tell friends and family, things are now more casual, more intuitive.

“You have a situation where you say, ‘hey, you know, this is who I’m dating, this is Bill.’ And someone notices that Bill is a guy, and you’re a guy.”

Even four years makes a difference in how sexual identity is expressed and handled, Poe said. When she was a junior at Shawnee Mission East High School, its Gay-Straight Alliance numbered 10 people, many of whom kept quiet about their sexuality and joined mostly for a safe space to talk about LGBTQ life and issues. “And then, my senior year, this wave of freshmen came in.”

Most of these freshmen were comfortable with questioning—and with not knowing—the exact parameters of their sexuality, Poe said. “I think that’s the change you’re going to see, that less people are going to fall into this heteronormal idea of, ‘I’m straight, until I’m not.’” Rather than defining themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or anything else, “They don’t want to label themselves until they have everything figured out. And that takes a while.”

Though the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges and the growing acceptance of non-heteronormative lifestyles bode well for questioning young people, there are still many biases to overcome—some of them dangerous. Coming out is still a case-by-case problem, Crenshaw said. And for some teens, staying closeted is a matter of emotional and personal safety.

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, between 30-40 percent of LGBTQ youth have reported attempting suicide. Teens identifying as transgender are disproportionately subject to bullying, ostracization, and outright violence, as the suicide of Leelah Alcorn late last year exposed.

Sometimes, that violence happens at home; in many cases, the individual is simply rejected—turned away from the family, faith community, or other social group. Several of the trans*-identifying youth Poe knows have undergone “a physical, emotional, and social struggle” of this variety, she said, and the threat of suicide defines the coming-out experience for far too many LGBTQ youth.

“I know that a lot of people think that [the risk of suicide] is overstated, and I just want to say that it’s not,” Poe said. “Even if you have the most accepting church group, family, friends…there’s still this feeling of being so utterly different from everyone around you.”

Crenshaw and Poe agreed that the process of coming out, or even just of questioning, may be complex and difficult for the parents of questioning teens. “I guess my advice to families is: love your kids, and be supportive of them, and let them go through this questioning without freaking out so much,” Crenshaw said.

For the questioning teens themselves, he Internet has many good, helpful resources, Poe said—if you’re in the right place. Social media can be either helpful or harmful, depending on how deeply teens steep themselves in different kinds of Internet communities. Tumblr, for example, is very popular with LGBT youth, but makes it too easy to self-isolate.

“That’s great if you’re in a good place and you find people who are happy,” Poe said. But, “when I was depressed, I used it to talk to other people who were depressed and self-harming, and that was really negative. Because they did not try to talk me out of it; they just fed this feeling of depression.”

Crenshaw agreed that the Internet can be insular, but said that its benefits outweigh the negatives.

“It’s just a different way to build a community or gather information,” Crenshaw said. “We want to have a developed community—whether that’s done online or in real life, in this day and age, it doesn’t matter. The question is…is it building a sense of consent within yourself for sexuality, a sense of understanding, and a sense of positive self-regard?”

Overall, Poe and Crenshaw said, life is a little easier now—at least, easier for more LGBTQ teens than ever before. Some credit may go to generational shifts and formidable activism within the community, but public awareness of LGBTQ issues and the ability to talk openly and flexibly about sexuality are most important.

“Open communication is the key with everything when it comes to sexuality,” Poe said. She, for example, objects to the word ‘queer,’ which Crenshaw said has been re-appropriated by many members of the LGBTQ community to mean, generally, “not straight.”

“I’m hearing a lot more young people saying the word ‘queer,’” Poe said, but, “It always makes me flinch. I don’t think it’ll ever have a positive reaction from me, because I’ve heard people use it…in such a derogatory manner that I can’t see how the LGBT community can co-opt it.”

As with many LGBTQ issues, she and Crenshaw emphasized, it depends on who you ask.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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