SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University Library.
SPEAKER 2: Glad you could make it to our third of the semester Chats in the Stacks talk today. We still have several more talks to go, and they run the gamut of butter, butterflies, botany, and birds, in that order. And so if you'd like more information about the upcoming talks, there are cards on the back table there with the goodies that you can pick up so you know when those will be.
I'd also like to introduce Ashley in the back from Buffalo Street Books. We're glad they could be here to sell copies of the book today. So if you're interested in getting a copy, she'll be in the back throughout the book talk.
So it's my honor to introduce our speaker today Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams, Emeritus Professor of Human Development here at Cornell. Having earned both an MA in religious studies and a PhD in human development from the University of Chicago, Dr. Savin-Williams joined the Cornell faculty in 1977 and served as the director of the Sex and Gender Lab from 2010 until his retirement in 2016. I'm not convinced you're very retired, but--
His research has focused on the experiences of same sex attractions, the sexual development of youth, and the mental health of sexual minority youth. He has also practiced as a licensed clinical psychologist since 1994, specializing in identity, relationship, and family issues among sexual minority young adults.
Dr. Savin-Williams has published extensively in leading academic and professional journals in the fields of psychology, human behavior, and family life. The quality and impact of this research have earned Doctor Savin-Williams critical professional acclaim, including recognition from the American Psychological Association for distinguished scientific contributions to the field, the APA's Distinguished Book Award for his 2005 book, The New Gay Teenager, and Fellow status with the Association for Psychological Science.
Dr. Savin-Williams has also been active as an advocate, shaper of public policy, and promoter of greater national understanding about sexuality, sexual identity, and youth. He has served as an expert witness in legal proceedings and on numerous professional review boards, and has contributed greatly to public dialogue and policy development through his contributions on numerous national media programs and news venues, including Oprah Winfrey, CNN, Newsweek, The New York Times, the LA Times, and tomorrow, the cover story of Time magazine.
The book the Dr. Savin-Williams is discussing with us today, Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay is his eighth book. Yet another, Mostly Straight: Sexually Fluid Among Men, will again be published by Harvard University Press later this year.
It's with much gratitude that you've taken the time to come that I hand off this microphone to you.
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: I've got my own. I'm glad I fit in. Mine is a B, too, becoming. So at least I'm in the right track. Actually, the Time magazine article is not going to appear tomorrow. It keeps getting bumped because of presidential politics. So something so simple as sexual fluidity and mostly straightness just keeps getting bumped back. It's now about three months. So I'm not even sure what I said.
What I want to do today is actually a follow-up to when I was here a decade ago for The New Gay Teenager. And in some ways, this is an elaboration of The New Gay Teenager. While that was filled with science, this book is filled with stories. And for me, I had to almost carve out a particular place for a book like this because once I start reading these stories of young men, they are all-consuming.
So finally this is done, and now we've got the bisexual book to do, and then the ultimate, which is going to be the one I'm dreading the most because I have no clue what to do, is on straight youth. Good luck for myself on that one.
So what I want to do is sort of in some ways, I'm going back to my basics, back to the source. When I was doing my dissertation, it was done at summer camp in Michigan. And I was doing a lot of observation of behavior, of adolescent behavior. And so since that time, I got really hooked into the scientific community and had to do science in order to get tenure and promotion. But I always longed to get back to where I really feel my roots are, which is to listen to the stories of young men and young women. But I'll get to why this is not about young women in a little bit. So this is back to the source.
Now after The New Gay Teenager came out, it got some media attention. And some people-- interesting enough, high school kids-- read it, which it was not intended for them, but they read it nevertheless. And I began getting emails from young people.
So I'm going to sort of show you about their influence on me. So Adrian, who is age 18-- I have no idea who he is-- but he emailed me. Says, "It comes as no surprise to me that most gay teens, whether male or female, do not associate themselves with the general description of same sex attracted teens." This is a direct slam on my science, OK? Though I was happy, in a very real way, to see it.
So then I got one not too long after that, and I've left it exactly as he wrote it. "I think it would be good for someone who understands, or at least want to understand the life of gay youth batter would listen to what I have to say." And he then proceeded to write me about four pages of his first novel about himself.
Then Travis, who contacted me because he was doing his high school honors thesis on being gay which I just couldn't believe that someone would actually have a high school and would do something like this. But I, of course, said, well, of course. So he had read The New Gay Teenager and he wanted to ask me a lot of questions. I answered those, then a little bit later, when I was thinking about this book, I started asking these people, these guys, what would you like for me to do?
And he said, us. Make it about our lives, our friends, and our families. And that's all it took. I said, that's what I need. Then Anthony contacted me. Now Anthony is not his real name. But he contacted me the day before his 15th birthday by email and proceeded to say, my name is Anthony. I'm 15 years old, actually, almost. And I personally identify as gay. Through reading that article, I feel an honest belief that people generally care, that gay acceptance will one day become the complete norm, and that I am truly proud to be gay.
I later was to meet Anthony at a youth conference that I did on Long Island. There were about 300 gay youth there. And there he was in the back. I knew immediately it was him. Of course, he had sent me a picture so that I would recognize him. And afterwards, I thought how crazy that I would recognize him among 300 kids.
But he had a very unique look about him, which is he came directly from Catholic school. And he was the only kid, I think, who had the Catholic uniform of brown pants, white shirt, tie, and so forth. So we began a correspondence that continues to this day, and he's about to graduate from college. Not Cornell, unfortunately. I tried my best to get him here. But he didn't want to come to Cornell for various reasons.
So he is sort of the anchor person in my book. And you will read about his story in all of the different chapters as I go through various developmental milestones that I use the real life stories of these youth that I tape recorded. Now these youth actually began to make me even more sensitive to the fact that I think, in some very real ways, us adults, meaning scientists and political advocates, we have hijacked gay youth, which we now sort of portray them as we think that they are based on our science.
And what these youth were telling me, and what the youth that I wrote the book about, they all strongly rejected the science and the politics involved. Wasn't always easy to sit in a room and hear all of this. But nevertheless, they felt very strongly that we have misrepresented them. Now I am very sensitive to some of the problems with science. So I could give this whole talk on the problems of science, of gay youth, but I'm not. And I know you're happy about that.
Nevertheless, I just want to give you an example. So this was a CDC study, which is government financed. You financed this. And it really received huge amount of headlines in The New York Times and every magazine, newspaper, about the results of this study, which I strongly disagreed with.
So for example-- and I'll just give you a few of the problems. For example, their gay youth were actually mostly bisexual females. Now there's something very particular about bisexual females in that they are-- in every study that I've ever seen, they are very disturbed individuals. And the reason why is because very few of them are bisexual because of their sexuality. They are bisexual for other reasons, and many of those reasons are not healthy reasons.
So when you combine bisexual women with real bisexual women and lesbians and gays, what you get is a very bad mental health portrayal, high suicide rates, high suicide attempt, depression, anxiety. And why? If you remove the bisexual women out of there, suddenly gay people look very healthy. Honest to God, this doesn't take a genius to sort of see this, and yet we have neglected that real fact.
Another problem was that the mean age-- because these were high school kids that the CDC assessed-- mean age was 16. Now what do we know about the age of 16? Only about half of all youth are out enough to even pretend to say it on an anonymous survey. Now do we know that the youth who are out at age 16 differ from those who are not out at 16? Yes, we do. They are the most gender atypical. They are pushed out or shoved out. And so they really have almost no choice. I'm not talking about all of them, but on proportionally.
And these tend to be the youth who have our most problematic not because of their sexuality, but because of their gender expression. In fact, if you look at gender expression and sexuality, about what's causing depression, suicide attempts, bullying, and all those, sexuality falls completely out. It's all about gender expression, not about being gay when you really do the kind of stats on this.
Also, the big topic was bullying in many of these headlines. And the question was, have you ever been bullied? Yes or no. They didn't ask about what about. So anyone who has heard, oh, that's so gay would be yes, I was bullied. Even if another kid was knifed or severely injured, they all count as the same category. Not good science.
Another was depression. Now we have many, many measures of depression. They used one question. During the last year, did you feel sad or hopeless? Not a good measure of depression. Another one. Do you feel safe in school? Yes or no. The only question. Didn't say what safety was about or how you experienced it, just yes or no. Have you had sexual contact? And guess what? Gay people had a lot of sexual contact. However, they didn't define what is meant by sexual contact. So it could be touching a breast. It could be having full force, full on intercourse. That's all sexual contact. No distinction.
I don't know about many of you. But there would be no way in hell that that could pass an elementary statistics test or a course here at Cornell. So the result. We believe, as a culture, that gay youth are suicidal. We feel that they are depressed, that they are bullied. They feel unsafe in school, that parents will throw them out. One stat I saw, 50% of all gay youth, when they come out to their family, are thrown out of the house. 50%. The reality is it's less than 2% in reality, when you really look at the research, that we say that huge amount.
Gay youth lead unusual lives. And as a result, they are victims. They're not normal. Now I will not get into this because this makes these researchers extraordinarily angry when I bring this up. There is the very real possibility that they are actually promoting exactly what it is that they want to stop. That is, by portraying gay youth as being all of these things-- and I'm just talking about the global. I'm not saying all gay youth, obviously, are healthy. But by portraying them in such a negative way, do they actually manifest these kinds of problems as a result of that?
And indeed, one time I was talking at a youth workshop, and I said, what you know about gay youth? And I distinctly remember this one kid raised his hand and say, we do suicide better than anybody else. And everybody laughed, and I started to chuckle. And then I thought, this is incredibly sad that this is what this kid thinks that being gay is all about.
OK. So the essence is that we know very little about growing up gay. So seven or eight years ago, as I was still sort of the middle of my chair days of human development, and deciding I have one really good last research project in me, I decided, by listening to the kids and so forth, that I wanted to go back to the source, and I wanted to do this extensive study of gay youth.
Now originally, I had a woman on board, a faculty person. And we had agreed that she was going to do the women and I was going to do the men. Because of the kinds of questions that we were asking, she felt strongly-- and I respected that view and I think she was right-- that the kinds of questions we wanted to ask were not the kinds of questions that a guy could ask young women about. So that's the reason why this is only about men is because she said that it would not be good for her career. That was her reason, and I obviously had to respect it.
So what I did was I interviewed 206 men between the ages of 17 to 32. And you can tell that most of them were certainly on the young side. The interviews lasted 40 minutes. That was the shortest. And I will tell you almost all of the interviews were by straight men. And the long ones, I think both of us got exhausted after two hours of these interviews.
So they were what I call structured conversations. And by that I did not have a set, rigid set of questions in a particular order. Rather, it was a conversation. And you'll see that whenever I play some of the tapes from that, you'll see. I'm in the background. I'm not absent. I am involved very much in these kinds of questions. They are not representative. I'd never say they are. They are quite diverse. And they are not all Cornell students. I think that's the misunderstanding. Yes, they are a significant number of Cornell students in this. I don't think any of you will know them. I've tried to disguise their identity. They all graduated, as far as I know.
Rather, I tried to advertise this. I have IC students, I have TC3 students, I have high school students. I went somewhere in upstate New York in a very blue collar university-- college, where I think it'd be safe to say they've met everyone who applies. And Cornell would probably accept none of them. And there's no Cornell student who would ever go there.
But 30 interviews were there, including one guy who threw up during the interview because he was totally drunk, and he came right after class. So I got my taste there of diversity. And I interviewed people of all sexualities, not all gay, by any means. And I was interested primarily in their sexual and romantic histories. So I cut out a lot of stuff, but we did talk about families, obviously. We did talk about friends. And we talked about their views about a lot of things, but it was explicitly about their sexual and romantic history.
All right. So Anthony. So Anthony, as I said, is the key person, the anchor person. So I'm just going to give you his timeline. And these are the topics that are in the book. These are the topics that I cover, most of them in separate chapters.
So he knows he was born gay because he could count relatives in his family. And it is the rare gay person that I ever talk with who cannot come up with someone gay in their families. There are some, for sure, but it is rare. So age seven is his first sexual memory, and he distinctly remembers touching his friend's penis. They decided they would touch each other. And they didn't know quite what to do. They put the penises of the other one in their mouth, and they thought somehow this is supposed to feel good. But anyway, it was his first definite sexual memory.
I will say seven is kind of old for a first sexual memory. Many of these boys that I interviewed recalled something sexual from their very first memory. Now I will just say that most of these young people had never told anyone about their first sexual memory. And that was my first question, always my first question because I want to destroy all sense that this is a formal interview. They struggled. They struggled, but all of them could remember something that occurred at a very early age.
Seven, he realized he had a crush on a boy that he saw walking on a beach, and he caught up with him and spoke with him very briefly. And he remembers every detail about this guy from the age of seven. Never talked with him, never met him, never anything ever again. But that was his first crush.
He also had crushes on a pretty girl in his class, though as he described it, I just got a sense he was not very enthusiastic about describing this girl crush. And most of the gay boys have a girl crush, but they are certainly less intense. They're not that particular.
But boy, you talk about the first boy crush, you've got animation plus. Age 11 he discovered online porn. That's about the average age, I would say, right now. You ask how could they get by their parents by watching online porn? And they all laughed and said, it was so easy. Their parents knew nothing at all about how to do computers or how to hide or where to put things.
And I would say every single boy I talked with did start seeing online porn at a very early age, usually right around puberty. That's the magical age. 12, he recognized that he had pubic hair and realized, oh, something's happening. He told no one. Was he prepared? Absolutely not. There was no sex education in a Catholic school. He received no information from his parents. There was no sex talk.
And it was the rare, the rare boy who had ever had a sex talk with his parents before, say, 17 or 18, when they would say, as they went off to college, be sure and wear condoms or something. Or as one great parent said, don't have sex with dirty girls. So that was his sex education from his parents.
So where did Anthony get his information? Sex ed by porn. That is probably-- not probably. I will venture to say that is the number one sex education tool in America today, porn. Welcome to the world, parents and teachers. They recognized that there were some problems with porn. But it was so incredibly valuable to these gay boys. Why? Because it told them the truth about themselves. They often started with straight porn, and then they soon realized they were not interested in the girls or the women in the porn. It was the guys.
So if I had to name one thing about how kids knew they were gay, it's porn. Also, he had friends who loved to talk about sex. And he was blessed with an older brother. Oh, I didn't say, but I want to point out, that his parents did give him a book. He thinks it was from his parents. It just sort of appeared on his nightstand. But that was good. That was actually forthcoming parents. To even do that much was good.
Masturbation. He definitely remembers his first. He was watching a movie. I know how he was watching this movie, but somewhere in the movie a guy seemed to be moving a sock around his pelvic area, and he thought, oh, that's how you do it. So he then got one of his socks, went into the bathroom, and had his first masturbation. I should say he told absolutely no one about it.
First wet dream. He's had several. Kind of weird. Did he tell anyone? Absolutely not. Attractions to girls. He recognized at age 13-- once again, this is all happening around puberty, as you might expect. But he then realized it was emotional rather than erotic. But when he had attractions to guys, there was both the romantic and the sexual present.
And I emphasize in my research both the romantic and the sexual because they are not always the same. And we fail to recognize that. It's one of my big things that I'm trying to understand better. And I do have a story next time, when I talk somewhere about the mostly straight guys. They are very, very interesting about how some fall madly in love with guys but have no sexual interest in them and vice versa. So there are clearly some disjuncture between these two.
At 13 he went through his bisexual phase. Over half the guys had a bisexual phase. It could last a day or it could last years or a lifetime. But for Anthony, it was pretty brief. He did have sex with, as he called it, two girls. And they were friends of his. And it was more by their invitation than by his desire. But he fingered them. And then he thought, OK. That's it. I'm done with having sex with girls. But he did feel guilt because after all, he went to a Catholic school, so he felt guilty about that.
OK. So 14. We got him up to age 14. He got a smartphone. What's first thing he did? He got an app that showed him who was around in his neighborhood who also was seeking male sex. So he found someone first day. It was magical for him. They went to a beach and had oral sex. And that was his first sexual experience, which he, of course, told no one about.
14. After this experience and several others, he definitely says, I'm gay. Not a shadow of a doubt. 14, he told his bisexual female friend, and of course she was supportive. 15, he told his mother, who told his father. And I bold that because we're going to hear that soon.
16, he discovered his true love in high school, Chris. They fell madly in love with each other and stayed together, actually, for some time. I won't destroy the end of the book, where you find out what happened to the relationship. And they had real sex. And all of the guys, pretty much all the guys, defined real sex as anal sex, though some did define it as oral sex.
He discovered, age 20, that his mother had told all of his relatives, known to him because he was thinking about maybe I should be coming out to my cousins and aunts and uncles. And the mother says, I've already done that. And he went to his first gay bar, which he thought was sort of a novelty thing. He thought he should go to one, at least some point. And he said it was OK, you know. Danceable music. But it wasn't sort of the big thing that he thought.
Coming out to parents. OK. All right. I'm hoping that this will work with the audio and everything. This is very brief. This is the view of parents and son that was portrayed not so many years ago. I want to say at the outset that this is not put out by some right wing nut job organization. This is put out by us, the gay people. One of the gay organizations put this out. I hate this one, but I will play it. All right. Once again, it's very brief. It's like just a few seconds. OK. Here we go.
- You know, I don't know what I'd do if I found out our kid was a queer.
- I just can't tolerate it.
- As far as I'm concerned, the only good fag is a dead fag.
NARRATOR: Don't make unnecessary, uneducated judgments on gays. It might be someone you care about a lot. Lesbians and gays amount to over 30% of all suicides from ages 15 through 24. Support sons and daughters of America. They may be your own.
Now this is a lie. It's not true. They know it's not true. We know nothing at all about the suicide rate of gay youth, nothing at all, whether it's the same, different, whatever, we don't know. What they really mean to imply here is the suicide attempt rate, but they say suicide rate. There's a little bit of difference between suicide attempts and actual suicide. So this is the view that a lot of the youth still have in their head, by the way. The young people, the young guys I'm interviewing, some of them still have this horrible portrayal in their heads about what it means to come out to their parents. And you're going to hear about some of that.
So what do we know about coming out to parents? And this is true now for men and women. This is a review of the literature. Very brief. The range is 10. I know some 10-year-olds who have come out to their parents-- I can't believe it, but it's true-- and others who have said they will never come out to their parents. A wide range. Many parents suspect. And it just strikes me sometimes where the mother is shocked and surprised. And the kid says, you knew it. You walked in on me and Eric. What do you think we were doing?
So I say moms because I don't want to be anti-father here, but the fathers generally have no clue what's going on with their kid. So it's usually the mother who suspects. They are almost never the first to know. Nice loving, caring relationship, the family and everything. And do they tell the parents? No. Not until much later in the process.
Why do they not tell the parents? I think it's simply because they are so important. You want to absolutely know for sure that you're gay. This is not changing. You are gay. And there is some fear, once again. And that's why I hate these kinds of videos because I think they create these kinds of fears and anxieties that gay kids have about coming out to their parents. So very few parents are the first to know. And I will tell you, the exceptions, I want to adopt those families because as the kid talks about those families, I go, wow. If we could only export those kinds of people and parents everywhere.
Moms are almost always told before dads, but there are some interesting exceptions. And these exceptions are those in which they really fear what the mom will say and do, and they know that dad will just go, OK, thanks. It's like they won't react type fathers. And they are told in various ways. Face to face. I used to put, as you can see, letters. And that never happens anymore. So email and text. Text is becoming one of the top ways to disclose to your parents. No comment from me. And grandparents are almost never told.
So here is Anthony. And this is his story of coming out to his mom and dad. I just put the page number on here where this is. But this is illustrative of what this book is about. It's filled with these kinds of quotes. All right, here we go. It's about four minutes, three to four minutes long.
For some reasons mother want to know about sex, that gay kids, have said very inappropriate things. So there's no yelling, no screaming, no kicking out. They continue to love and support him. And the question is, is this weird? Is this strange? Is Anthony an outlier? And the answer is absolutely not.
So I think what I want to do is I think I want to skip over the next section, which I can summarize by saying a lot has changed in the last 20 years. So I could do that, or I could play another episode or two. You have a preference? You want to hear the guys, or do you want to see what I say? OK. It's unknown. OK. So this is a stereotype that they hate. They hate, they hate, they hate these stereotypes.
The what? OK. All right. Then I will do that. One person. OK. So things are very different today. These are some of the people who are out as gay, and they're very noteworthy. This is the best actress in the world right now, I think. And Kristen Stewart says, I'm so gay, and she's getting away with it. You can be and Mormon and gay or be in a pop band. Don't even have to be real.
So just to say that I've done this before. All these things, there is no difference between gay and straight youth. They are just as close to their parents. They have just as many friends. They have just the same kinds of relationships in terms of closeness. Yeah.
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Now? Now. Right. And this is for women, too. This is not just for young men. All of these, you cannot distinguish gay and straight. There is no difference in their personality, except for gay and lesbian people are a little bit more open to new experiences, which you may think is good or bad. And also, in terms of positive health, there is no difference between gay and straight youth on self-esteem, on life satisfaction, on negative life events, or in terms of sort of mastery and control of your life. Their well-being is just as good as straight kids. That is absolutely counter to what we have as the portrayal for them.
Now another thing. I just asked a group of gay youth at a workshop, I said, just imagine gay people are better than straight people. What might be some of those things? And I could not shut them up. And this was a mixed sexuality group, too. And we investigated the three that are highlighted in red, a graduate student. And indeed, gay youth are higher on those three in terms of sensitivity, empathy, creativity, in terms of flexibility, and feeling more authentic. And this was a study done not too long ago.
OK. Now Jonathan. So Jonathan-- actually, I'll go ahead and play and I won't review. However, what is thought here is that Jonathan expected the worst. He really expected to be thrown out of the home. So here we have Jonathan coming out to his-- now they did come to accept Jonathan once he brought his boyfriend home. He didn't ask. He just brought his boyfriend home.
Jonathan is a very interesting character. But he brought his boyfriend home. And the parents loved him. They absolutely adored him, probably as my mother adores my husband, Ken, so much more than she adores me. So it's always that way.
And she also saw, oh, he is helping my son cope with life. His stress is much reduced. He's going to classes now. He's getting good grades. So she liked him having a boyfriend kind of thing. Now Tyler-- once again, I'm going to sort of skip through this and then just to play. But his big task was he had his first relationship, and they were about to celebrate their one month anniversary. The question is how to get together? All right.
So any time you have a small group, like when you're dealing with sexual minorities, and if you get a very diverse group, which is what bisexual women constitute. So there are women there who are borderline, who have clinical issues, and who are identifying that way for various kinds of personal, abusive relationships sometimes. And so when you get a significant number of those in that group, all of a sudden that group looks very, very bad. So the authentic bisexual women look fine. It's the actual distortion that you get.
Another classic example was just released last week, was a finding that if you have a state where you have same sex marriage, then the suicide attempts go down. Interesting. I have some problems with the study. But one big problem I had was 1/3 of the sample of sexual minority youth were young people who said, when asked the question, what is your sexual orientation, said not sure. And all of a sudden those kids are thrown in with the LGB's.
Not sure. I can think of a lot of reasons why one would pick not sure, including maybe you're asexual. Maybe you don't know what the words mean. Maybe you are a jokester and you just love to screw up the researchers. You know, there are a lot of reasons. But I think one of the last reasons is because they're gay or lesbian or bisexual. So again, we really have to look at the science, and I'm sort of tired of doing that, which is why I want to go to the source with this. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] fair to say that [INAUDIBLE] are bisexual because of abuses or that it might be the other way around. How can you not be certain that abuses result from bisexual behavior?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely it could be. I mean, I think once again that some of the women in that group are there for various reasons, some of which is that there is certainly some evidence that suggests that if you were sexually abused as a young person, you're more likely to identify as LGB later on. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to stay that way. But there are various reasons, especially when you're dealing with adolescents. We're not talking now about adults. We're talking about adolescents.
So yea, I think there are various ways in which this causal chain could be done. But the research, the question is, are LGB's, sexual minorities, more likely to be abused as children? The answer is no. The research shows no, though there are some people who are making that argument for sure. I don't doubt that. I just don't think they have the evidence yet to show that's the case. Yes.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] questions about how their sexuality affected their work life?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Very, very little because they were of the age that they hadn't really been talking about their work life, though they were getting some advice. And one of the guys I distinctly remember whose father-- the kid wanted to go out and work in Idaho and Montana, and the father said, that may not be a good idea because of the political climate there in that community. But I don't think very many of them-- I want to be very clear. Most of these young people believe that their sexuality will make no difference in their lives in terms of their future, their income, their jobs, or whatever.
Now whether they're naive or not, I don't know. But this is a dramatic change. I kept thinking, no, no, no. Come on, now. They just assume that their culture is going to evolve to the point where sexual orientation is a non-issue. And of course, what they have there are their peers because their peers-- slide I went over very quickly-- their peers are about 85% supportive. So in their world, there is really very little bullying. There's very little gay harassment.
I asked them, in your school, where there out gay people? Almost all of them said yes. Did they get bullied? No. They were accepted for who they were, except if they were obnoxious people. Then they got bullied. But their world is different in that way. And for me, well, OK, I kind of like that idea.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. It's very interesting. OK. So things being different, young people being, on average, more accepting than old people in the society, and families seem to getting with the program. What are the implications for gay culture? Like gay bars are not a big deal anymore. So we're talking about major assimilation pressure. You're going to talk about kind of minority culture. Is that a loss?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: It depends on who you ask. And I think you hit upon a very important issue, which is that there is this battleground within the gay community, if I can call it that. And I'm not so sure I can even call there being such a thing, a gay community. But there's a lot of controversy about this. And of course, this is part of the objection to same sex marriage was why do we want to be like all those straight people?
It's interesting to me that almost none of the young men, or the young adults that I've talked with, are at all concerned about that issue. I was talking with one young man who, I asked him, are you going to watch When We Rise, which is an ABC four-part special about gay history, my history, in many ways. And he goes, no. He says, I'm not interested in that history stuff. And I sort of said, well, you know-- I was trying to sort of pull him in a little bit.
And he kept saying no, gay's not a big deal for me. Has he told his parents? No, not formally, but they know. Everybody knows. And it was just like, why are you asking me these questions about something that is so unimportant to me? Was he ever bullied? No. He was never bullied. And he is, I would say from my own eyes, very gender atypical. And he went to a pretty lower social class high school. No, he was never bullied. No, not at all.
So yes, this is big among us adults who fear gay culture is evaporating. They don't give a shit, not at all. Not at all. Yeah. Oh, OK. Oh, sorry. I didn't see you.
AUDIENCE: No. You're fine. I moved from over there so I could come get the mic. So I'm actually in a Development of Human Sexuality class this semester, and we read one of your papers that you co-authored with Lisa Diamond. And at some point it was talked about, the trajectory that you see for queer youth, and how, essentially, just the development of the fact that eventually saying, I was queer during adolescence will just be a norm. And I was wondering if you could just talk about that a little bit.
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Yeah. Right. So I think that that that's one of those things that I'm thinking about in a couple of different ways. I think it's their peers sort of don't care. Or they think, oh, that's neat. That's kind of-- you know, it's like you say you modeled, or you did something or whatever. You grew up on a farm or something. It's just something kind of interesting about you.
And they're of the point now where if you have problems with it, they don't care, by and large. Once again, I'm really talking generalities, of course, here. They don't really care because they know they have friends who will endorse it, will support it, who don't care about it. So I think that trajectory-- which that paper is probably, I think, at least probably a decade old-- I think even then I was not quite thinking we would be reaching this point now where that is the case. I do think it's a lot of heroes coming out as gay, that there is so much visibility now in the culture of these young people that they don't really care.
Now what is also happening, and which is the topic of the book that will be coming out, is that now-- Lisa Diamond has talked about sexual fluidity among women. And so I decided, though we've had this debate, she graduated. She was one of my students some years ago now. And I maintain that guys are also sexually fluid. And she says, well, I want to see the evidence. So now the evidence is there. And they're not as frequently sexually fluid, but there is a significant number of sexually fluid men, more sexually fluid men than there are gay and bisexual combined.
And there are more sexually fluid women than lesbian and bisexual combined. It is the largest sexual minority group now. And by sexually fluid, mostly straight, these are straight people with a little bit of gayness. I don't know how else to explain it, but that's what they are. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: So I'm just a little curious how you accounted for response bias with young men who may be confident enough to speak on this issue versus people who aren't.
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Right. That is the one way in which I don't have diversity because they all made a decision to talk to me. Now I have a little bit of an out in that many of them did not initially know the extent to which it was going to be, because I said-- my advertisement was friends and lovers, and I also always offered money, a fair amount of money, actually, through some grants that I had. So I wanted to pay them for their time.
So a lot of the people, a lot of the guys said, well, you know, I'm just doing this for the money. And I go, that's fine. That's fine. You can leave as soon as you want to. Here's your money. But they were willing to talk. I will say that a lot of the interviews started out kind of difficult. And then they really got into it and began talking.
And there were also a fair number of international students in there. And these are the individuals who were most frightened at Cornell to come out. Or they will be out here, but not at home. But yes, it is definitely a bias. That's why I say this is not a representative sample, which is why I would ask them about their high school. I would ask them, outside of your own experience or your own life, what's it like?
But yes, this is definitely a positive portrayal. Absolutely no doubt about that. But then I think, so what? Where is that elsewhere? And there isn't any. There's really almost no portrayal at all of gay youth being ordinary kids. So-- yeah.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for your presentation. In one of your slides you said that-- I don't know if I get it right, but it takes from 10 years to never to come out. Do you know why people never come out, for example, to their parents?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Good question. I don't have much information, except there were some of these young people who hadn't. But almost all were going to. They just hadn't got around to it yet, or they wanted to go further in their own development, or they had some very real fears. They wanted to get through their college education first so they wouldn't be disowned or lack of finances.
But I think that among some of the young people, there was clearly some understanding that their parent was going to dictate their wife for them. And so that made some real conflict for them. But I will say I don't think we know very much at all about why some youth come out and others don't. We can guess, but we've not asked that kind of question at all.
And it seems to me, based on these talks, these youth, very few of them planned to come out. It was an accident waiting to happen, and when it happened, they go, OK, now's the time. But then once again, they didn't all feel like their parents were absolutely going to be supportive. So there were some real fears. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: So the sample was of students or people in New York, right?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: No, not always.
AUDIENCE: Were there any people that you interviewed in different geographic areas, like down south or in the Midwest?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes.
AUDIENCE: And did you find different results?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: I think my sample's too small to say much about that. But I will say that when I look at the research and polling data, this youth culture has become so generalized that there really is very little regional differences now despite what I would have guessed. I'm shocked whenever I see that there are very few regional differences.
The social class differences are still somewhat there. There clearly are ethnic differences. African-American families tend not to be as supportive, and African-American youth tend to come out to their parents at a later age. That's not super strong research. Seemingly, Latino youth tend to come out earlier. But it's always to the mother. She knows. She just knows.
Once again, there's not great research on this area. I feel a little awkward even speaking about this because there's so little known. But I would say generally, I feel very comfortable saying the polling data indicate that these kinds of differences don't exist. I would have thought conservative Republican or even Catholics would be most negative.
But if you wanted to go to a university or college that was going to be most supportive, you would go to Catholic college because they are the most progressive when it comes to sexual minority rights. In atmosphere, Catholic colleges are the best. Who would have guessed? The institution says no. Catholic people say yes. The people on the ground say yes, we are accepting of homosexuality even though it's against the teachings of the institution.
So that's why sometimes these traditional things that we think are not great for sexual minority youth are actually evaporating. How long will that last? I can't say. It's a different climate.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for your presentation. Connected to the question that was asked earlier about the dissolving of the gay community, do you think that over time-- you know, when gay men are growing up, often they have to develop an alternative self. They have two selves. Do you think that over time, as gay culture or homosexuality is more mainstream or accepted, that that division of alternate self, that that's not really going to be a thing? What are your opinions on that?
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: I think it will become much less important, though one of the things which-- because it went so fast-- one of the things where the young people were saying what's good about gay people is that they had a real strong ability, what they call code switching so that they could do exactly what you're saying.
I'm sort of thinking that may be less important now, though I was always struck, by many of these young men who were talking to me, that they still had that real ability to sort of figure out now's not a good time, now is a good time, this Is a safe person, that's not a safe person. But I do think that that will begin to go away, I think, to some extent. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I have another question. So you talked a lot about the LGBT. What about T? What about trans youth? This is a very important thing right now. So I'm wondering what you can say about that issue.
RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: OK. I will be very, very, very clear about this. I give a lot of clinical workshops to various audiences. I have been told by my trans friends to stop it. They say that because I am not a trans person, I should not be talking about trans issues. So I have stopped talking about trans issues.
It is a different issue than sexual orientation, and they make that point very clear. You should not be talking about that issue. I will say, though, that several of the young men I interviewed are trans. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with those transcripts because they are electrifying, to say the least. They are amazing. I don't know what to do with them, for sure.
So one thought I'm having is I may try to sort of put them in a little bit in the bisexual book because most of them would say they are bi to some extent. But yeah, I'm not so fond of it. But on the other hand, I do listen. And it's not just me, by the way.
And they do. I have a list of trans people who I trust who would give, I think, pretty good talks. So that's what I say to organization. I go, if you want a trans talk, here's a list of people.
OK. I've gone over time. There are books in the back if you're interested. And thank you for your attention and for being here today.
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Gay youth today describe themselves as proud, happy, and grateful – something many of us would have found surprising a generation ago. Yet many adults seem skeptical about this change in perceptions and attitudes. What does it mean to be gay today?
Ritch Savin-Williams, professor emeritus of developmental psychology, observes that huge gaps still remain in our knowledge about gay youth’s basic developmental needs, their sexual and romantic life, and overall well-being. With his new book, Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay, Savin-Williams aims to begin filling this void, exploring identity and sexuality as told by today’s generation of gay young men. Through a series of in-depth interviews with teenagers and men in their early 20s, he offers a contemporary perspective on gay lives in present day America.
In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Mann Library in March 2017, Savin-Williams shared highlights from this work and some thoughts about what his findings suggest for the future of gay youth in an age of growing tolerance.