Kivell, P and Kleiber, D (2000) 'Leisure in the Identity Formation of Lesbian/ Gay Youth: Personal, but Not Social', in Leisure Sciences, 22: 215 - 232.
Most research about identity formation and the role that leisure plays in it assumes a heterosexual identity on the part of adolescents. As a result, the leisure activities of lesbian and gay youth is largely unresearched, and its impact on identity formation unknown. This study did in-depth 'phenomenological' analyses of interviews gathered from 10 lesbian and gay young people (who all self identified and attended a Lesbian and Gay Centre at a US university).
The literature review suggests that 10 per cent of adolescents in the USA are 'lesbian, gay, or bisexual and/or are questioning their sexual identity' (216). They are often isolated and a victim of homophobic attacks or heterosexism, a '"system of dominance ...[which privileges heterosexuality and]... stigmatises and punishes homosexual identity"'also provides difficulties (Kivel and Kleiber quoting Griffin, page 217). People perceived to be lesbian and gay can be harassed and subject to violent attack, or isolated. Such people often develop negative self-images and this can lead to 'self destructive behaviours' (217).
Leisure is often thought of as an important context for the development of adolescent identity, and can lead to 'a control over consciousness and a sense of agency that very likely extends to other contexts', especially in extra-curricular activities. Also 'leisure provides an ideal context for experimenting with different roles and activity patterns' (218), and can also provide opportunities to meet friends and possible partners. However, there are many restrictions for lesbian and gay youth, since so much leisure is 'either explicitly or implicitly heterosexual'. 'Public settings such as school dances, proms, dance clubs and the mall are contexts in which young people talk about and engage in heterosexual behaviours' (219).
Semi-structured interviews with 10 volunteers were held. Responses were organised in terms of the underlying narratives, and particular themes were selected out. Some attempts were made to increase coder reliability and also to conduct 'member checks by asking participants to review their transcripts and the initial analyses of these transcripts' (221).
There was little evidence of self-destructive behaviour. But there were particular themes to do with leisure:
(1) Reading was significant, in providing information about lesbian and gay issues, and in finding characters with whom people could identify, not necessarily because of their sexual identity. Thus one respondent liked 'coming- of-age books' in which strong characters came to terms with society, while another liked comic book characters 'because they had dual identity and... he had a dual identity' (222). Reading provoked some self-reflection and assurance.
(2) Media consumption, which was used again as a way of identifying with various characters. One respondent enjoyed satirical comedy that undermined normal values, while others identified particularly inspiring films, such as The Color Purple, or particular characters such as those who showed 'strength and sensitivity' (223). Yet such characters did not help them make the bridge into establishing a public social identity.
(3) Sports were surveyed to find suitable individuals to identify with too. It was seen as a venue for making friends, and also a 'context for challenging and resisting culturally sanctioned gender roles' (224), especially for the women. Some sports were avoided since they presented strong gender stereotypes, including a 'macho attitude' (224). Sporting experiences were often an early indication that people felt different. Overall sports were valued for their 'instrumental component (i.e., it assisted... with personal identity formation) and because of the social context it provided' (225).
(4) Music also provided such a context for understanding themselves in terms of gender and sexuality, and it could also be a place to either reproduce or challenge the usual gender norms. Musical instruments have a gendered status, for example drums were a male instrument, trumpets were more male than saxophones. Some girls played the drums specifically to be different and to stand out, but the boys seemed more anxious that particular choices would encourage rumours about them.
In each case, motives for participation were different from the usual ones of acquiring skills or developing leisure identities. Instead, they were monitored in terms of the implication for personal identities, and to do things like avoiding stigma.
Much of this work indicates problems arising from a need to conceal sexual preferences and identities. This sets up the tension between personal benefits, such as internal knowledge, and public risks in terms of social identities. In this way, respondents were unable to publicly commit to particular activities, which risks missing the 'subsequent positive development benefits' (226). One in particular is the inability to use leisure to experiment with different identities. Another is the inability to experience 'flow' (226) since the ability to lose self-awareness cannot be developed. Leisure is used instead to affirm private knowledge of difference rather than to develop public identities, as musicians or athletes, for example. Rejection of certain leisure activities seemed as important as positive choice, leading to many lost opportunities to become an athlete or a basketball player. Such opportunities are found in studies of women who have physical disabilities but who can come to terms with themselves through leisure activities: here, 'leisure seemed to be normalising context [sic] for these women' (227). This is restricted for those gays who are afraid that leisure might amplify their otherness.
Yet participation ran at quite normal rates, especially for the women who were able to use sport 'to flirt with other young women or seek out other young lesbians' (227). This obviously resists the usual gender roles and expectations and can help to develop independence. Even here, though, it did not seem to lead to public identification as athletes or sportspeople [a 'salient' social identity in the terms the authors use]. Gay men tended to reject these opportunities to explore their sexual identity in sport and leisure. They felt different, not aggressive enough, or put off by macho atmosphere. This too could be seen as a form of resistance, but further research is needed. Research shows that leisure activities can still be beneficial for 'private personal identity formation' (229) for gay people. Mostly though, gay people had to be constantly on guard to avoid exposure, and this limited their leisure use, or encouraged purely private forms of leisure. Clearly, participation in leisure also involves a risk of harassment or even violence. Further research is needed to spell out the details of the process of conveying gendered assumptions, how produce and discrimination against gay people get institutionalised , and how gay people are able to manage these effects.
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