Young adults 'don't want to be defined by gender, orientation'
By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
CHICAGO — Sexual orientation and sexual labels. Gender crossing and
gender bending. These aren't X-rated or adults-only topics but rather
subjects that young people talk about as they figure out where they
fit in, said a panel of experts at a weekend conference of the Council
on Contemporary Families here.
"Youth are saying they don't want to be defined by gender or
orientation," Chicago psychologist Braden Berkey told those attending
a panel on "Gender in the Next Generation" on the final day of the
Berkey is founding director of the Sexual Orientation and Gender
Institute at the Center on Halsted, which opened in 2007 to offer
support services and programming for the area's lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender community. He talked about the evolution of sexual and
gender labels and how young people today are trying to dissolve them.
He says the terms created in the early days, such as lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender, are giving way to other descriptions, such
as polygender or multisex. Young people, he says, reject narrow gender
definitions and say they don't want to be defined by their sexuality.
However, a presentation by sociologist Barbara Risman of the
University of Illinois at Chicago suggested that for the
middle-schoolers she's studied, attitudes about sexual orientation are
less open-minded, especially for boys. She says these boys fear the
Among boys, "homophobia in middle school is used to police gender," she says.
In-depth interviews with 43 students at an urban middle school in the
Southeast found vast differences between the sexes.
"Today, girls are free to do sports and be competitive. No one thought
they had to play dumb to get a boyfriend. The women's movement has
done great things for middle school girls," she says.
"It's another story with boys. I feel like we're in a time warp. We
have not dealt with men and masculinity in a serious enough way," she
"Boys police each other. There's no room not to do anything not
Risman says it's important not to generalize the findings to most
American children, but she says the fact that boys are labeled quickly
suggests that this is a developmental stage. The study, she adds, was
limited by many rules requiring parental permission for contact with
Risman says it's the stigma of homosexuality that looms among young
boys. Being emotional or caring too much about clothes or liking to
dance are reasons that boys give for describing someone as "girlish,"
Berkey suggests that we're living in a "post-gay world" where gay
celebrities can hawk products that traditionally have been marketed as
attractive to the opposite sex. He suggests that society has advanced
to the point that companies don't worry about anti-gay bias when
seeking spokespeople for products. As examples, he mentioned openly
gay actor Neil Patrick Harris as a spokesman for the traditionally
male Old Spice deodorant and lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres,
who is a spokeswoman for Cover Girl cosmetics.
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