Most people understand the bullying, exclusion, and violence that LGBTQ youth sometimes face from straight and/or non-LGBTQ people in their wider community. But something many people don’t know is that the pressure to look and act certain ways that teens experience from their LGBTQ peers can be just as damaging to their wellbeing.
As television, film, and celebrity culture include more LGBTQ people, the media still sometimes falls into the trap of promoting a right way to be gay, transgender, or non-binary. For teens who don’t see themselves in the stories, music, and shows that matter to them, the perception that there are certain things people have to do or be in order to count as LGBTQ can leave them feeling like an outsider. The good news is that when teens understand that toxic peer-pressure exists within the queer community, they can learn to resist it. They can also help show others that there’s not one way to be LGBTQ.
LGBTQ Party Culture
LGBTQ and straight people alike enjoy music, dancing, and dressing up in their sharpest style. For some LGBTQ individuals – beyond the substance abuse that can occur in bar culture – the loud music, strobing lights, and crowded spaces can be a significant obstacle to meeting and connecting with people like them. Although the party scene shows up in nearly every story about young people coming out and finding their community, that doesn’t mean that’s where everyone actually spends their time.
Stories like this one show that it’s possible to connect with LGBTQ folks who support each other outside of bar culture.
For teens and adults who count themselves among the quiet queers that Hannah Gadsby wondered about in her comedy special, entrepreneurs and non-profit groups create spaces for socializing around all kinds of other activities. From LGBTQ bookshops and cafes to hiking clubs and artist meetups, new businesses and groups are popping up around the country to connect LGBTQ youth and adults who want to do something different and explore other things.
Body Image and “Looking Gay”
If your teen dates, they may worry that the way they look gets in the way of meeting someone. Between the pressure to be stylish and good-looking and the idea that they need to “look gay,” teens can feel overwhelmed when it comes to their appearance. It’s important to support teens who want to experiment with their style while also reminding them that being healthy comes before looks. They also need reminding that fictional LGBTQ characters depict a tiny fraction of the kinds of bodies and styles that real LGBTQ people have.
For teens coming out or exploring their gender identity, it can feel exciting and validating to try on the styles stereotypically associated with that identity. It’s important to support teens who experiment with their appearance and gender presentation. But it’s just as important to support them if they find that some of those stereotypes or expectations don’t feel right for them. Not every lesbian has short hair, not every trans person undergoes hormone therapy, and not every gay man does drag.
Most people understand the role of fitness culture and the beauty industry in creating body image issues, but the pressure to be exceptionally physically fit can be especially strong among gay men. It can seem like only people with a good body are dateable or welcome in the gay community. This can make LGBTQ teens more susceptible to eating disorders or steroid abuse. Connecting with LGBTQ folks who are working to create a body-positive community is a great way to push back against toxic ideals. These celebrities, influencers, and activists on Instagram are real people who, with their words and their bodies, remind teens that every body deserves respect and love.
The emphasis on idealized body types and particular appearances in LGBTQ spaces can also reinforce the racial discrimination and ableist exclusion that exists in teens’ wider straight and non-LGBTQ community. Stories like this one show how complicated the pressures can be on Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous men in the LGBTQ community. This story highlights the tensions that bisexual women confront in claiming their racial, sexual, and gender identities.
The good news is that many LGBTQ organizations exist to support teens who face any or all of these pressures. Peer groups for youth with differing abilities and of all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds help build connections that empower teens to be proud of who they are every day. Mentoring programs can remind teens that, while everything might not magically get better, they have futures to look forward to. Those futures include love, acceptance, encouragement, and support from people who understand the struggles they’ve faced.
Amplifying Diversity in the LGBTQ community
When there is only one character in a TV show or a movie it can seem like that person must be a stand-in for how all LGBTQ people look, act, think, and feel. But no matter how your teen likes to dress, what kinds of things they enjoy, or what background and abilities they have, remind them that all they have to do to be queer enough is identify as part of the LGBTQ community. And check out these young people and how they define themselves for a great reminder that LGBTQ people exist in all kinds of communities and have all kinds of hobbies, bodies, styles, backgrounds, and dreams.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.