Friday, 19 April 2013

Teenage Identities

One of the things about working with young people is that their conviction and passion constantly challenges your own beliefs and actions. Far from being the disinterested, apathetic and socially destructive teenagers and young adults that the media perceives them to be, they are (on the whole) perceptive, motivated and creative. These young people are more than aware of the damage that their predecessors are doing, which remove them ever further from their ideal society. They want to speak out, campaign for change, but they don't always understand how to harness that voice so the society that disrespects them so much stops to listen. Anyone spending time with this age group will see this passion in them, and will see the staggering maturity with which they speak - often far outstripping that of their "adult" counterparts. I consider myself privileged to witness this on a weekly basis, and was incredibly proud of last night's discussion. 

Before Easter, one of my members contacted me to say that she would be having a romantic night in with her girlfriend. Last night, she confessed that she had been trying to gauge opinion and adult reaction to it, and was confused by mine. She had expected an offer of support, or perhaps shock, admonishment about it being a phase, but any form of acknowledgment other than the simple "have fun" that she received.

Last night, she also "came out" to the rest of the group, in her own way and on her own terms. Less of a "coming out" than just telling them she had a girlfriend. But that is no easy thing to do for a teenager amongst her peers, however it happens. Her phrasing was, "I'm a girl who has a girlfriend, but it doesn't make me a lesbian. It doesn't even make me bisexual. Sexual identity isn't about labels, it's about individuals, attraction and comfort."

They discussed a girl (their choice of terminology) at their college who always introduces herslelf, "Hi, I'm X and I'm a lesbian". R said it was almost as if the fact she likes women is as important as her name, that it defined her as much as - perhaps more than - what she's called.

The conversation progressed and H commented on the importance of sexual identity to teenagers. At school, in their social groups, at home, they are defined by family, friends and enemies like by their relationships and romantic interactions. If they have a "steady" boyfriend, they are successful, and if they date different people, they are considered "dirty".

And it's not just peer pressure to have a boyfriend, but media too. Magazines are full of quizzes about dream boys, how to attract a boyfriend, what men want and how to please them. Films seem to centre around the old "boy meets girl" story, and princesses always find their true love in the end. Even music revolves around the struggles and celebrations of teen romance.

With this in mind, they told me, can't we say that sexual identity is actually central to the majority of teenagers, regardless of what that sexuality may be? Is the "Hi, I'm a lesbian" approach really that different to the everyday ways in which heterosexual teenagers allow themselves to be defined by their sexuality?

Having identified this need to claim sexuality as identity - already a staggering discussion with fantastic insight from the 14 year old members who really led it - they went a step further.

"To paraphrase Doctor Who," explained 17 year old A, "Sexuality isn't a straight line (pardon the pun), but a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, sexuality.... stuff."

R added, "I don't want to be put in a box according to who I date. Just as I don't feel comfortable with denominational labels. I am a person; wonderful and unique. Surely these sexual identity labels are just an extension of everyday sexism."

"To go around introducing myself as a lesbian," one member continued, "would be disrespectful and negate all the other things I've achieved. I'm an artist, a student, a daughter, a sister and a Guide. How is any of that less important than who I date?"

Eventually, the member who started the conversation with her "revelation" breathed a sigh of relief. 

"I was a bit worried you'd be funny about it," she admitted to them, as they laughed and hugged her.

"Why would we?" asked L. "You're still the same person you always were."

She was more than a little surprised at this. "But you don't think I fancy you all?"

"Why would we?" R asked, shaking her head. "That's like saying I fancy that old bloke over there, just because he's male! It doesn't work like that."

"That's what M keeps saying at school," the girl sighed sadly. "I always wish they understood like you guys. I'm so glad I've got Rangers."

And so am I.

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