On Knowing; or, the NYT Lends Itself to Yet Another Personal Rant

In a sentiment that is hardly unusual, some New York Times readers express surprise that their children and other teenagers they know could possibly have any knowledge of their sexual orientation at such a young age:

My question is about the Q (Questioning) subgroup of L.G.B.T.Q. Youth.

Surely most teens will be in this group at least until they experience a “full” sexual relationship with another person?


Teen years are so full of doubt and confusion about self and identity. Teens are suggestible, peer pull is strong as is the desire to forge an interesting and individual social identity for themselves.

My concern is for all those teenagers experiencing doubt and sometimes a lot of hidden angst and silent but very real suffering in a world which is incredibly difficult to navigate at their age.

“Don’t worry, they will know if they are gay” is a standard answer. This may be true for adults who have had some experience, but is it really true for many teenagers? It seems too simplistic and inadequate. Any guidance and thoughts would be much appreciated.

I’ve heard this before, of course—I came out for the first time at 14, and over the past few years I’ve heard this many times. I mean, now I’m old enough and enough of a professional queer that folks don’t question the labels I assign myself or allow to be assigned to myself perhaps even as much as they should. But back in early high school, I heard things like this a lot. “You’re too young to know.” “Most teenagers go through a phase of same-sex attraction.” “You’ve never had a relationship.” Well, yes, the last two things were true. But facts B and C do not imply fact A. I don’t see, given the structure of our society, how you can possibly be too young to know.

Our society is very, very clear on what constitutes a normal or normative sexuality. I’m not too long out of high school, and I have friends and a sibling who are still there. I know that when teenagers ask each other “So… who do you like?” they expect you to answer with an opposite-sex name. I know that it is not easy to ask, and then take, a same-sex date to the school dance. I know that there is pressure after pressure, be they from students or parents or teachers or general cultural forces, to define heterosexuality as normal and all other sexualities as abnormal.

And so when you’re different, you know. Believe me. You see it if there is something powerfully and fundamentally (if amorphously) different about the way you interact with people both of the gender to whom you’re supposed to be interacted and the one to whom you’re not. You see it if there is something different about the way you understand and express your own gender. To teenagers, that line is very clear. You know if you’re not like your peers, just like you know when you don’t have the same stuff they do or talk the same way they do or have the same cultural values they do. The lines of difference are very strong in adolescent culture, as are the undercurrents of sexuality. If anything, it is more obvious that your understanding of sexuality is different from your peers, than any other contrast.

Literature shows us this, of course. I’ve read many memoirs—from men, mostly, because that’s what I read, but also because of how adolescent male sexuality is less repressed than and also homoerotic in a different way from female sexuality—in which the writers all say that they knew their queerness from the instant puberty set in. And even if they didn’t know any gay people, or if they were growing up before “gay” became a thing that you could be, they knew there was something different, something strange that made them not like their peers. It’s an undeniable fact of this entire genre, that you start in adolescence with this vague sense of not-belonging and go from there.

I’ve tried on many labels in the past five years. I’ve gone through bisexual and gay and queer and asexual and I don’t know what else. But it’s always been “different” and “other.” And sure, I envy anyone who can make it through adolescence without squirming in desperate confusion when yet another crowd at a lunch table or a birthday party asks, “So… who do you like?” But when you don’t know how to answer that question, or you fear to answer it honestly, you at least know, as I did. And you begin to construct an identity based on that knowledge, however old you are and however much sexual experience you’ve had.


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