Gay Millennials, Part 1: Beyond ‘Coming Out’

by Matt Cohen, MTV Insights

For previous gay generations, “Coming Out” was one of the most significant things you would do in your life as a gay person.  For Gay Millennials, “Coming Out” is increasingly “no big deal” – to use the words of one Millennial we interviewed.  In honor of National Coming Out Day, today we’re taking a look at how this generation of gay youth is redefining this rite of passage…

When we began studying Gay Millennials earlier this year, we started by asking ourselves what the major challenges and tension points are for this particular subgroup of Millennials.  “Coming Out” seemed like a natural place to begin our discussion.  After all, rites of passage on the road to adulthood are often tough, and “Coming Out” has long been treated as one of the scariest and most risky acts of self-definition.  For previous generations – where gay men and women often didn’t come out until their 20s, 30s, or later (if it at all) for fear of rejection or persecution – simply revealing one’s sexual identity was, perhaps, the ultimate challenge for a gay person.  However, that seems to be changing. 

For Gay Millennials, who have grown up in a culture with high gay visibility, “Coming Out”, seems to be increasingly less of a tension point for many gay youth today.  When we talked to Gay Millennials over the course of our research, many of them shared “Coming Out” stories that were surprisingly positive, drama-free, and — in some ways — a bit anti-climactic.

With more supportive friends and schools than ever before, for many, “Coming Out” as a teenager is no longer the dreaded nightmare it once was.  Domenic, 19, explains “When I came out in high school when I was 14, it was no big deal. I was the only gay kid in my high school, and my high school was really liberal, so within a week I was like a celebrity.”

Tom, 23, expresses a similar sentiment: “When I was a freshman in high school, I told my best friend and she decided to tell the entire school. Technically, I was outed. At that point, I was accused of being gay for so long that finally when I came out, everyone was just like ‘OK.’ High school was super, super easy for me.”

We also heard stories that suggest “Coming Out” at home is becoming increasingly easier as well, with many parents taking the news surprisingly well.  Jennifer, 23, was surprised by how enthusiastically her parents responded: “The weekend after my girlfriend and I put a title on our relationship, I told my parents at dinner. They were so supportive that they called the rest of my family and had me tell them that night. It was funny and tiring, but I guess all my hard work is over!”

Other parents offered reactions that were more muted but equally supportive.  Allie, 23, recalls “One day my mom asked me why my friends had boyfriends and I didn’t. “Do you even like boys?” she asked. I said “no,” and then she told me that I can get diseases too.  Ha! Ever since then she’s been completely supportive of me.”

With Gay Millennials coming out so early in life (the average “Coming Out” age is now 16), often prompting reactions from friends and family that range from gushingly supportive to benignly blasé, the process is becoming less scary.  Furthermore, young people are coming out in record numbers.  A New York Times article from last week cites a recent study on LGBT teens by the Human Rights Campaign in which 64% of high school students and 54% of middle school students report that they are out at school.  While there are, of course, still many areas and communities in the U.S. where “Coming Out” is extremely difficult, stories like the ones mentioned above are increasingly common.

We’re starting to see this new reality reflected on TV as well.  Whereas TV shows in the ‘90s introduced gay characters and storylines via tearful and dramatic “Coming Out” scenes (see Jack McPhee’s emotional reveal to his father in the second season of Dawson’s Creek or Buffy’s metaphorical “Coming Out” as the slayer to her mother in the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), today’s young gay characters are more often embraced than rejected by their on-screen friends and family.  On the first season of Glee, car mechanic Burt Hummel offered a warm and heartfelt reaction to his son Kurt’s unsurprising admission that he is gay. Similarly, on the first season of Pretty Little Liars, Aria, Hannah, and Spencer unflinchingly welcomed their friend Emily’s admission that she was in love with their former best friend, Alison.  Even more recently, some shows are forgoing “Coming Out” storylines altogether by introducing viewers to characters who are openly gay right from the start (see Glee, Happy Endings, Smash, and The New Normal to name a few) – reflecting the rising Millennial notion that being gay shouldn’t be a source of conflict.

As “Coming Out” becomes less of a tension point for this generation, new tension points are emerging center stage for Gay Millennials.   The conversation around gay youth is now shifting from “Coming Out” to what comes after: navigating the complex world of Millennial relationships and sex, forging unique paths while planning for somewhat conventional futures, forming gay identities that are not exclusively gay – to name a few.

Look out for additional posts in this series on Gay Millennials.

Matt Cohen is a Senior Analyst for Creative Development & Marketing Research at MTV. For more insights and ideas from MTV, check out the MTV Insights blog.

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