Guest Blogger

Ageism is an LGBT Issue

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 09, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Constance McMillen, gay prom, It Gets Better, Kathleen Nicole O'Neal, LGBT youth, National Youth Rights Association, same-sex prom date, schools and lgbt kids, youth advocacy

014.JPGEditors' Note: Kathleen Nicole O'Neal was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the National Youth Rights Association. She is currently getting her Master of Public Administration degree at American University with a concentration in Nonprofit Management.

In the LGBT community, we rightly spend a lot of time discussing (if not exactly acting on) the problems facing the youngest members of our community. Suicide, harassment in schools, bias-motivated crimes, rejection at home (sometimes leading to homelessness), obstacles to trans-related and sexual healthcare, religiously motivated bigotry in local communities, and general feelings of hopelessness and malaise have become classic examples of the way heterosexism impacts our young people.

We are quick to look at these dynamics and express outrage over the role that heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia play in the lives of young LGBT people. With the advent of the "It Gets Better" project, bemoaning the way in which our society hurls abuse at LGBT youth has become something of a cliché.

It is a positive step in the right direction that LGBT people and their supporters are finally paying attention to the toll bigotry takes on youth. However, our analysis rarely goes deep enough to begin to unpack the intersectional role that ageism plays in these tragedies. As long as we refuse to take into account the way that ageist social structures unnecessarily inhibit the liberty, equality, and pursuit of happiness of our youngest LGBT people, our analysis of the problem will be toothless and incomplete.

Not long after I came out as bisexual, I became involved in the youth rights movement. Because young people are basically treated as parental property until they turn 18 years old, are confined in schools not of their choosing for most of their waking hours, and have limited mobility due to their impotence at the hands of law and custom, almost every avenue available to LGBT adults to improve their lots is closed to them.

This is neither natural nor inevitable - it is a function of the way our government and society relates to young people. It is ultimately harmful to all youth, but LGBT youth often suffer the most. And no matter how many same-sex couples are able to marry or how many anti-discrimination ordinances are passed, these problems will remain until we get serious about the fact that ageism is an LGBT issue.

Were LGBT youth persecuted in their schools able to choose to educate themselves elsewhere; were our young people able to emancipate themselves from problematic home situations; were young people able to invoke legal rights against parents who send them to facilities for "troubled teens" due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, we would not see the same degree of problems that we do among young LGBT people - even if a significant segment of society never supported our equality.

When Constance McMillan bravely endured her prom fiasco we shook our collective heads and asked why the school would not let her bring her date to prom. Instead we should have shaken our heads and wondered why she was forced to attend school among such a den of vipers to begin with. When we tell our youth "it gets better" we should be asking ourselves "Why do we feel it has to be so bad for them now?" and we should also be saying that "We can do better."

LGBT rights advocates must become youth rights advocates too. For all our talk of intersectionality and challenging privilege, we almost never seriously discuss - let alone plan our activism around - the ways in which ageism intersects with heterosexism to make life harder than need be for so many LGBT young people. Until we get serious about confronting the political, social, economic, and cultural ways in which our society oppresses all young people, LGBT youth will be hit hardest of all.


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This is actually a really fantastic and well-articulated article. I've actually never even considered this before.

critropolitan | August 9, 2011 10:36 PM

I absolutely agree with the analysis in this blog post. LGBT issues have historically been ignored by a public that didn't want to see the problem and assumed heteronormative dominance to be the natural and necessary order of things. They have historically been rendered invisible in other civil rights movements that thought they would be too subversive and discrediting to bring up.

Well, what we have today is the same situation with the adultist oppression of children and teenagers. People assume this is natural, necessary and unproblematic - and to try for a moment to decostruct these assumptions is seen as subversive to the point that it discredits the speaker. In doing however we neglect the very most oppressed population, a population that is still today under the bondage of another set of private individuals who can dictate rules over them at their whim: their parents and parental proxies such as schools.

We may accept that children are different or tend to be different from adults in relevant and important ways without assuming that these differences automatically justify domination by adults without ordinary civil rights. For example, just because a child lacks the capability to take on a certain role that adults are typically able to handle does not mean that the child should have to give up their rights in order for the adult to provide for them, anymore than a patient should have to give up their right to bodily autonomy when in the care of a doctor competent to do things the patient cannot do on their own. Instead of adults as "guardians" and masters of children with varying degrees of beneficence, adults could instead act as children's agents: able to facilitate their decisions and perform technical functions, but never override their will.

Indeed, if an adult treated another adult as parents do children, if they set a curfew, told them what to eat, how to dress, who to associate with, who not to associate with, who they could date, what religion to belong to, where to live, - and they could enforce this with state assistance via a legal privilege to assault and batter them ('corporal punishment') or imprison them without due process ('time out'/'grounding') we would think such an adult a tyrant, and the relation between the two a relationship of thralldom. Failing to take a similar critical stance with regard to children is in part because people simply don't care as much about children's human rights and personal dignity and in part because the extent and pervasiveness of their oppression is too much to think about.

Appealing to adult's superior rationality and experience is no way out of this dilemma. Putting to aside the fact that what is 'rational' and what experience relevantly informs competent choices is an inherently subjective matter judged by fallible human beings - the entire point of the liberty society extends to adults is a liberty to make their own choices *even when* the government, experts, the majority, and other 'rational' adults see their choices as irrational, unsound and unwise. For example, the right to refuse medical treatment would be no right at all if it could not be exercised when to do so would be 'irrational' - since physicians only recommend medical treatment when it is presumed to be the rational course of action. The conclusion is that when it comes to adults, that except where prohibited by the law for the safety of others, for an adult to make a bad choice is a less invasive, less offensive possibility than the prospect of overriding their choice paternalistically and taking away their freedom. To say the opposite is true of children is not to say that children are simply more apt to make bad choices - since the desire to override anyone's choice, whether child or adult, only arises when they make an allegedly bad choice. It is instead to say that children's freedom matters less. And this, is at the heart of all forms of dehumanization, whether directed at minorities, women, low caste members, lgbt people, immigrants, disabled people, or children.

Rick Elliott | August 10, 2011 2:16 AM


There's another side to ageism in the GLBT community--Gay men have a preoccupation with getting old. With the exception of Silverdaddies and Caffmos Community maturity isn't seen as a positive. Even these sites almost see "silver" as a type of fetish.

I want to add some important context to this post. The LGBTQ community has long labored under the heavy stigma of being slammed as pedophiles, no matter how many times and ways we have refuted this charge as spurious, our organizations and services still labor under a strong degree of heightened suspicion around any attention or provisions offered to youth. Many are forced by outside pressure to limit membership and attendance to those over 18. In areas where we have LGBTQ community centers, youth is often segregated from the adult population serviced, so the organization won't be subjected to attack for either "recruiting" or otherwise victimizing youth. We remain very vulnerable on this issue.

I'm not saying ageism regarding youth is not present, but much of the way our community deals with youth has been long shaped by outside forces who regard youth as a protected class, that should be protected from us.

to contextualize your context a bit, outside pressure has largely been *allowed* to shape how youth are dealt with so that lgbtq rights for adults would have that much less mainstream opposition.

Totally disagree on the "allowed" part. We do not have the wherewithal to protect ourselves from this onslaught of stigma in most areas of the country.

critropolitan | August 11, 2011 9:46 PM

For a community that puts such a high premium on being inclusive and not excluding anyone, throwing young people under the bus to satisfy some hold out bigots who are never going to be supportive anyways, is ridiculously poor judgment. There has been a history of threatening to split lgbt political movements to placate bigots by excluding the more socially subversive lgbt populations. Those attempts have however been rigorously and very publicly resisted. It is only because youth are so extremely marginalized, have so little political power (which is to say essentially none) that people get away with treating them like this.

Great article, Kathleen. I'd add that so many social spaces for LGBT folks exclude young people, and many LGBT youth programs aren't particularly conscious of youth-rights as a social justice issue that they end up being condescending.

There's a gay youth forum here in Atlanta called YouthPride that segregates people at the arbitrary age of 18. And there's another forum in Baltimore for gay men (none in Bmore are as active though), and they actually excluded me from the adult discussion because I was 17. We need to abolish unfair discrimination everywhere, but especially in our community.

When I was 15 years old (19670) and knew I was trans and that society perceived me as a lesbian, I attempted to contact the Mattachine Society, which was the only gay organization in my area, or much needed support. The man who called me back was very sympathetic, but explained that the entire organization would be in grave jeopardy if they allowed minors to attend meetings. They limited membership to 18 and over. It hurt, especially since there was no alternative then, and no internet support available, but I understood and did not wish to place them in any jeopardy.

The same issue exists today, especially since most LGBTQ organizations are run with volunteer and/or intern energy, and they cannot do extensive background checks on volunteers, or closely supervise their participation. If they do include youth.

This has long been a sticky problem, with no good answers It's easy to criticize, but much harder to find workable solutions once you actually try to take responsibility to serve large groups of people and be inclusive. I have had to deal with the complaints of young people who felt helpless and victimized when older group members in authority positions in the group attempted to have sex with them, and the resultant scandals are ugly and hurtful. It does happen, regularly, and we are faced with a choice as to whether we will take the risk of having an entire organization destroyed, so it no longer serves anyone LGBTQ, young or old, or if we restrict activities to those who are legally considered adult.

These issues need to be included in any discussion of youth participation in adult LGBTQ activities.

i must be misreading this, because it sounds like you're saying youth can't be allowed into these organizations because older members might respond inappropriately. isn't that the equivalent of saying minorities shouldn't be allowed in because some folks already in the group might be racist?

I don't think that the idea that lgbt people are pedophiles is respected or widely influential notion anymore. I could be wrong, but while I have heard it, I don't hear it frequently.

critropolitan | August 11, 2011 9:36 PM

Of course some bigots still associate homosexuality with pedophilia, but the only people who do that are open and blatant homophobes who are hostile towards gay people whether they support and include under 18 lgbt people or not. In other words excluding those under 18 wins no additional allies, reduces no criticism (since the homophobes complaining about that will just find something else to complain about) and simply excludes people who need support.

There is an obvious difference of opinion on this issue, but unless you live in an ultra liberal coastal urban area, there remains very serious and significant stigma and fear surrounding contact between LGBTQ adults and children. And even in the most liberal, gay friendly areas, you would be very surprised at the rage and condemnation that is leveled against gay people who are accused of sexually abusing children. That is when you get to see where we really stand with the public. Minimizing and denying that undercurrent doesn't make it go away, and when you put years of time, energy, and money into establishing LGBTQ groups and service organizations and wish to preserve them to help people another day it is appropriate to observe proper boundaries between adults and children.

It is far from only blatant homophobes who still believe we are all perverts and pedophiles. I think you would be shocked at how backward the public really is.

Excuse me, but dont you think that by grouping pedophiles and "perverts" together arent you being just as biggot as the ones you criticize? I dont understantd why you need to lump pedophiles into the "perverts" class just for having a different sexual orientation. Werent we victims of that for hundreds of years? Pedophilia is a sexual orientation, not a pervertion. I have a pedophile friend and he is not a pervert, he is a normal human being who support me and who i support.

I would hate being called a pervert just because of my sexual orientation, and I think you would hate it too. What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either. Do not call other people perverts just because they are different. Pedophiles are as normal as you and me, and they hate as you and me being called child molesters or perverts. Most pedophiles would never touch a child.

So please, what you dont want to happen to you, dont do it yourself.

Om Kalthoum | August 12, 2011 10:44 PM

Troll alert.
Or maybe just Yuck! alert. YMMV. But I hope not.

your response just proved erlanger's point.