Community groups have noted it, events have been put on for it and I’m sure that you’ll see it represented in the upcoming Pride season. I’m talking about queer youth and the micro-cultural phenomenon surrounding them. If you’ve noticed it but aren’t really sure what it is, you’re not alone. Defining queer youth culture is particularly hard.
Different community groups are struggling to figure it out in order to gear their programs to young queer people. Of course, I’m not going to answer this question either. But I’ll suggest that certain other questions bear asking as well: Does queer youth culture even exist? What makes queer youth culture different from mainstream gay culture? How does one separate queer youth culture from that of youth culture in general (ie from the hetero variety)? Is there a purpose to having a culture that is associated with queer youth?
It seems to me this category has been demographically getting younger. It used to be, up until fairly recently, that there was always this one kid in high school who seemed a bit queer, but nobody knew for sure. I’m sure some of you were that kid. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to have several “out” young people in high school. Queer youth culture blends mainstream youth culture – mass-marketed popular music, fashion, tween/teen icons, strange terms and stranger behaviours – with that of mainstream gay culture: rainbows, bars, levels of oppression, circuit party imagery, camp and sexual identification.
In fact, some might say it would be better thought of as a subculture of gay culture. Queer youth culture is newly identifiable. With the exception of large meccas like San Francisco and New York, queer youth culture could not be identified in most other places until about 10 to 15 years ago. Possibly that’s because the gay rights movement had not yet come of age.
It is impossible to have queer youth culture if there are no clear ideas about queer identity. The gay rights movement needed to create space where sexual orientation would be discussed and to establish a political and cultural identity of its own so that young queers had something meaningful to identify with other than the role of victim.
By breaking down societal barriers and barriers of ideology, the first wave of the gay rights movement answered the question, “What is gay?” sufficiently so that there was popular consensus among the queer community – rainbows, drag, Judy, camp and other symbols permeated through Western culture across national, geographic and religious lines. The word queer entered into collective consciousness through movies and television shows with queer characters, news media covering bashings and legal proceedings, the AIDS crisis and the sensationalization of homoerotic images.
The concept of “queer” became unified beyond traditional stereotypes. Young queer people can see images of their sexuality and their identity reflected back at them, and those images are not the same queer victim/depressive/pervert/suicidal/diseased/invisible roles that were once prevalent. The creation of queer youth culture indicates a certain cohesion, integration and legitimization of queer identity. Once the concept of “queer” was popularized, queer youth had something to identify with.
As youth now self-identify at an earlier age (due to a changing social climate and the awareness of sexual difference), a vacuum crisis is created. Young people are coming out at an earlier age but as with youth things in general, society is slow to identify their particular needs. If queer youth are lucky enough to live in the core of large urban centres, there might be some social groups and programs, but that is most often not the case.
youth are often treated as redundant members of society – not young enough to be children and not old enough to enter the adult working world. Semi-dependents. But discovering a queer identity and an idea of queer culture, young queer people are able to recognize the ways queers are marginalized and can identify ways to overcome barriers.
There are just not sufficient supportive outlets for young queer expression. The bar was once the principal focal point (the first step), but what of youth who are (legally) too young to enter into that scene? This is not just a queer youth problem of course. But in queer culture, the bar occupies a specific place and still maintains a certain queer-cultural resonance. A whole bunch of liquor doesn’t really serve the needs of queer youth who are trying to explore their identity. As a result, there needs to be alternatives to the bar scene.
For other youth growing up in the straight world, there are programs, sports teams, activities, religious and community groups (now also too few due to cut-backs in funding) to turn to. But what of queer youth? Luckily there’s PTY and its Western Ottawa (Kanata) version and the good people at the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa and the youth days that they put on.
Hopefully, there will be even more.