Monday, June 14, 2010

Gay Teens (Not) In Seventeen

Friday's graph-heavy post on hot guys ended up generating a lot of discussion in the comments about how there appears to be a lack of attention, or even recognition, of LGBT girls in Seventeen. I'll state now, at the outset of this post, that I don't believe that Seventeen is an anti-gay publication. Searching gay on yields a few basic, yet tolerant, tips and articles about coming out, supporting LGBT friends, and current events about gay rights. These articles exist on the site, though I couldn't find them without running a search. None were linked to from the home page, or the main pages for the heath or dating sections. In my mind, I imagine that every time one of these articles is searched for in the search bar, a snoozing librarian is nudged from her chair and begrudgingly has to go fetch the stack of Gay Articles from some 2' by 2' closet in the back of the Seventeen library.
Anyhow, once I determined that articles existed on acknowledging the fact that gay teens existed, I was happy to draw the conclusion that the Seventeen editors assume that some LGBT teens do, in fact, read Seventeen. Since Friday's post focused heavily on hard data and statistics, I thought it might be interesting to focus more on feeling and general perception in addressing this issue. Accordingly, to find out what LGBT girls thought of their portrayal and inclusion in mainstream media, I simply chose to ask them.
Through a (mostly open-ended) survey, I asked 40 non-straight young women between the ages of 15 and 19 for their opinions on mainstream media, Seventeen, and how the two outlets address sexual orientation. The format of the survey, which you can view at the above link, asked participants to browse certain sections of the website and then describe their feelings and observations. The word cloud below shows the girls' responses to the prompt, "Describe how you are feeling about yourself after browsing the Dating section of the Seventeen website." Larger words were mentioned more frequently.

It was upsetting to see how many people replied with words like alienated and depressed, but those feelings were far outweighed by the fact that my survey group seemed too smart for Seventeen. By far, the most popular responses were those that took a joke's-on-you stance toward Seventeen's dating advice. Tons of girls were amused, bored, indifferent, and uninterested. Seventeen isn't giving advice to LGBT girls on how to date, but it doesn't see like these girls even would take Seventeen's advice very seriously. In fact, it turns out that they have plenty of other far-better sources for sex and dating advice. Here are their responses to the question, "If you are looking for dating/sex advice, where are you most likely to look?"
Magazines actually made a pretty good showing in this area. Luckily, only 22% of survey participants indicated that they read Seventeen in their spare time; most prefer magazines geared more toward specific interests or adults. Friends were by far the most mentioned source of information. Here are some direct quotes about where they get their sex advice:
  • "The internet! The internet has bazillions of informations, so its easier to find the feminist stuff."
  • " It's discreet, fair, and honest. They don't loop groups together and say, 'This is how ALL of you must feel!'"
  • "I know enough people of different ages, orientations, and experiences to feel understood and supported from different perspectives when it comes to a dating/sex situation I might want advice about."
  • "Progressive sex sites like Scarleteen, Betty Dodson, etc. are my best bet because they are feminist, reality-based, and their duty is to educate people.
Overall, I think that the straight community (i.e. the rest of the world) could learn a lot from this mindset. Because gay teens don't have relevant media being thrown at them by mainstream sources, it seems that they have been far more successful than straight teens in finding good alternatives. Most of the advice mentioned by my survey group is applicable to teens regardless of sexual orientation. I'm willing to bet that a sex-positive website or chat with an older friend would be more helpful in most situation of query than Seventeen.
To close the survey, I asked the interview group about their qualms with how media portrays the LGBT community, and their suggestions on how to fix these issues. Sadly, but not surprisingly, only one girl out of the 40 surveyed found that mainstream media portrayed homosexuals fairly and accurately. To sum, here are the top directives provided by the survey group for improving media portrayal of LGBT teenagers, and LGBT people in general:
  • Stop treating bisexual people like sluts who are willing to sleep with anything, or dumb confused people
  • Stop simplifying gay problems/gay lifestyles
  • Stop using gay and bi people as caricatures/tokens/props
  • Consider that not everyone is cisgender
  • Gay is not part of a plot line; its just another aspect of what makes up a person
A bunch of people also responded to the survey with information about asexuality. To be honest, I don't know enough about asexuality to write about the topic. This faction of my survey group seemed to express that their biggest concern was with people like me, who lacked even a basic premise of what their sexuality entailed. Anyone who is asexual, or has some reliable information about being asexual, please feel free to discuss in the comments. I'd love some recommended reading on the subject!

I'd also like to thank all the girls who participated in this survey, including Charlotte, Cornelia, Nyxelestia, Jill, Vida, Lauren, Catherine, Michelle, and my friend Laura Ansill. Check out their blogs!