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American Journal of Sexuality


Education
Publication details, including instructions for
authors and subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wajs20

A Review of The New Gay


Teenager
David M. Hall MSEd

Widener University ,
Published online: 20 Nov 2008.

To cite this article: David M. Hall MSEd (2006) A Review of The New Gay Teenager,
American Journal of Sexuality Education, 1:3, 83-88, DOI: 10.1300/J455v01n03_06
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J455v01n03_06

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RESOURCE REVIEWS

A Review of The New Gay Teenager


David M. Hall, MSEd

ABSTRACT. This article is a review of The New Gay Teenager by


Ritch C. Savin-Williams, which examines the contemporary world of
gay youth. Challenging what he considers poorly constructed research,
he believes that gay activists overstate the consequences of the pain and
isolation of the closet. According to Savin-Williams, the new gay teenager rejects the categories of lesbian, gay, and bisexual and lives in a
world in which sexual diversity is widely accepted. [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800HAWORTH. E-mail address: <docdelivery@haworthpress.com> Website:
<http://www.HaworthPress.com> 2006 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights
reserved.]

KEYWORDS. Book review, The New Gay Teenager, LGBTQ youth,


queer youth, LGBTQ rights
David M. Hall is a doctoral student at Widener University, writing his dissertation
on the Politics of Same-Sex Marriage in the 2004 Presidential Election. He holds
an MSEd from the University of Pennsylvania and a BA from Hampshire College.
He is a social studies teacher and advisor to the Gay Straight Alliance at a suburban
Philadelphia high school. He is the founder of David M. Hall Associates, LLC, training
on issues related to human rights in American society.
Address correspondence to: David M. Hall Associates, LLC, 806 Sand Wedge
Court, Warrington, PA 18976, (E-mail: david@davidmhall.com, www.davidmhall.
com).
American Journal of Sexuality Education, Vol. 1(3) 2006
Available online at http://www.haworthpress.com/web/AJSE
2006 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1300/J455v01n03_06

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AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SEXUALITY EDUCATION

RESOURCE REVIEWED: THE NEW GAY TEENAGER, Ritch C.


Savin-Williams. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, 272 pp.
ISBN 0-674-01673-0.
By 2004, there were over 2,000 Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools
across America, present in every state with the exception of North Dakota
and Mississippi (Summer, 2004). With lesbian and gay characters playing prominent roles on television and same-sex couples legally marrying
in Massachusetts, Savin-Williams (2005) book, The New Gay Teenager,
provides a timely examination of the changing world of queer youth.
While Savin-Williams emphasizes the importance of listening to gay
youth, this book struggles with basic definitions, portrays the victimization of the queer community as inauthentic, and casts blame on adult allies for creating a burdensome world for gay teens. This book could lead
some teachers and Gay Straight Alliance advisors to misunderstand the
pain and isolation caused by heterosexism and homophobia in our
schools. A critical analysis is necessary to keep Savin-Williams from perpetuating a distorted view of the lives of gay teens.
Much of The New Gay Teenager critiques the nature of studies that
characterize youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. It is correctly noted that much of this research excludes teens who have homoerotic feelings but do not identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (p. 48).
Additionally, Savin-Williams stresses the need to recognize the triumphs
of gay teens and not just the challenges they face, as illustrated by a
young man: I dont think Im gay. I havent tried to kill myself yet. . . .
Well, Ive read so much about gay youth suicide that I thought that was
a right of passage (p. 68). This statement is a reminder to recognize and
celebrate the resiliency possessed by gay youth, a characteristic that
SavinWilliams believes too often goes unrecognized.
Beyond these thoughtful arguments, Savin-Williams unconvincingly
asserts that we are seeing the fulfillment of his lifetime professional
dream-that homosexuality will be eliminated as a defining characteristic of adolescents . . . within reach, asserting that for queer teens the
identities of lesbian, gay, and bisexual are practically meaningless
(p. ix-x, 1).
Savin-Williams repeatedly rambles with unclear definitions of language that is central to his theory. Words are consistently utilized
without offering the reader any definition of what they mean: Is this
young woman gay? Perhaps she is simply gayish (p. 4). In attempting

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85

to explain that gay does not have a concrete meaning, he insists that gay
has a broad definition yet acknowledges that he cannot define it: A
modern teen can also act gay, although exactly what that means is
anyones guess (p. 7).
As if he has discovered a new phenomenon, Savin-Williams declares
that queer youth have a disconnect between their behavior, identity, and
sexual orientation. Seemingly unaware that this has been common
across time, he glowingly compares gay teens, who he argues reject
labels, with their pre-labeled, pre-identified grandparents, whom he
contends lived without labels but did not live is self-deception or repression (p. 5). However, these grandparents were typically in the closet as
a result of the consequences of coming out. The world in which they
lived was a time during which there was only the smallest movement on
behalf of gay rights and discrimination failed to even warrant national
discourse. That Savin-Williams would hold this homophobic era up for
praise powerfully demonstrates his blind drive to prove his thesis.
Savin-Williams continuously critiques the limitation of sampling in
research. Much of this valid criticism raises valuable questions about
creating a representative sample. However, he misunderstands why behavior or identity are typically studied. In fact, he critiques virtually all
research on queer youth by stating, After half a century of research, we
still cant agree on how to count gay people (p. 24). This lack of agreement is because researchers study what can be measured. Orientation
cannot be measured, but behavior and identity can be measured though
the ways in which this occurs will vary among studies.
In his critique of researchers who study those who identify as gay,
Savin-Williams laments, I find this very puzzling. If one wants to
know about female development, one does not sample only self-identified feminists. . . . If one wants to know about same-sex desires, why
sample only gay-identified individuals? (p. 180). This analogy does
not withstand examination. The category of gay-identified individuals allows the study of a specific sexual orientation. In contrast, the
sole category of self-identified feminist would interfere with a study
of women. Furthermore, self-identified feminists references a certain
socioeconomic and political view of the power structure in society. In
contrast, one can be gay-identified and be an active member of the
Green Party or a conservative Republican.
A disturbing quality of this book is that at times the author borders
on blaming the victim for harassment and a sense of helplessness. He
portrays gay youth who defy the stereotype as the teens who are truly authentic individuals, referring to gay teens who are not so flamboyant,

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AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SEXUALITY EDUCATION

who have been freed from the mandate to categorize themselves (p. x).
He repeatedly criticizes researchers for focusing their studies on those
who supposedly fit stereotypes, which he broadly categorizes as virtually
anyone who identifies with a sexual minority label. He even argues that if
the research is true about gay youth committing suicide, rather than examining the pain and isolation of the closet, this seems to prove to many
that when comparing gay and straight teens, One population is normal
and the other is not (p. 179).
Savin-Williams saves some of his sharpest criticism for adult allies
of gay youth, who he argues, create a culture of labels and victimization,
portraying gay youth as weak and defenseless (p. 179). He argues that
this problem has two roots. First, early studies by the mental health field
focused on poorly adjusted queer youth. Second, too many reports come
from those who identify as gay during adolescence, and Savin-Williams
argues that this population will have disproportionately negative results. He cites little and unconvincing research to demonstrate this
contention, but even if he is correct, these teens need support and safe
spaces.
In criticizing the nurturing environment that queer youth are finding in
some spaces, Savin-Williams underestimates the activism of gay youth
by stating that adult allies provide students with Gay Straight Alliances
and other support networks. Additionally, Savin-Williams clearly misunderstands the legal parameters of Gay Straight Alliances. Indeed, a school
could create a Gay Straight Alliance, but it is typically students who form
chapters. In fact, teachers do not necessarily have the legal power to do
so. Under the Equal Access Act of 1984, a law intended to allow Christian clubs to meet that now serves as the legal precedent allowing the formation of Gay Straight Alliances; this right to form such clubs is based on
the club and its meetings being student-initiated (Haynes & Thomas,
2002). Indeed, there are over 2,000 Gay Straight Alliances in American
high schools, because those teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual, queer, questioning, and allies have the courage to demand that their schools allow them to create this space.
Savin-Williams cites highly suspect research stating that gay youth
encounter only five percent of their school population responding negatively to their sexual orientation. In contrast, the Gay, Lesbian and
Straight Education Networks 2003 National School Climate Survey
reveals that over ninety percent of youth surveyed heard negative words
like fag and dyke frequently or often, and four out of five reported
hearing those remarks from most of the students in their school. Seventy-five percent of students surveyed felt that they were unsafe in

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87

school, mostly due to their sexual orientation or gender identity


(Kosciw, 2003).
Savin-Williams argues that this supposed new gay teenager rejecting
labels frightens adult gay activists who see themselves as rebels
(p. 195). However, he never identifies the supposed rebellious nature of
these leaders. Is it rebellious to fight for the legal rights of marriage
enjoyed by heterosexual couples? Is it rebellious to advocate for legal
protections that keep one from being discriminated against? Is it rebellious to demand that one is treated with human dignity?
Savin-Williams demonstrates that he is removed from reality when
discussing the impact of the gay rights movement on parents: So strongly has this image taken hold that even well-meaning parents doubt that
being gay is a decent outcome for their childhood. Shell have a difficult
life, thrown out of the military, victimized. Hell be bullied, excluded
from jobs, unable to parent (p. 182). Actually, she will be thrown out of
the military. He may very well be bullied and excluded from jobs. And
he will be unable to adopt children in Florida and Texas. While it hurts
to prepare teens for the fact that they will continue to face discrimination, perhaps what would be most cruel is to fail to prepare them for the
realities of a world in which they may very well find that they are not
fully accepted. Furthermore, acknowledging these realities does not
preclude a decent outcome for their childhood. It does, however,
illustrate the unique challenges faced by these children.
Savin-Williams ends his book with the false contention that gay
adolescents have the same . . . liabilities as heterosexual adolescents
(p. 222). The truth is that we have a responsibility to provide safe spaces
for queer youth in schools and in our communities, because the liabilities faced by gay adolescents are decidedly different from those faced
by their heterosexual classmates. Queer youth need a support network
to discuss any discrimination they experience from peers, family, community, place of worship, or the United States government. We will
know when we live in the world that Savin-Williams believes is already
here. We will know it because no one will attend Gay Straight Alliance
meetings. No one will understand the meaning of the Day of Silence.
No one will have experience being called a faggot or a dyke on the playground, in the hallways, or in their own home. As a society, though
there has been progress, Savin-Williams has created his own reality.
Sadly, that reality remains far removed from the relationship hierarchy
enforced in American society today.

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REFERENCES
Haynes, C.C. & Thomas, O. (2002). Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious
Liberty in Public Schools. Nashville: First Amendment Center.
Kosciw, J.P. (2003). The 2003 National School Climate Survey: The School-Related
Experiences of Our Nations Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth. New
York: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Retrieved on August 22, 2005
from http://www.glsen.org.
Savin-Williams, R.C. (2005). The New Gay Teenager. Cambridge: Harvard University
Press.
Summer, C.J. (Ed.) (2004). Student Organizations. GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Retrieved on August 22, 2005
from http://www.glbtq.com.

RECEIVED: 08/28/05
ACCEPTED: 11/27/05