Is it finally okay to be a 13-year-old sissy? From the feather-cuffed, drama-filled Olympic figure-skating competitions to the unashamedly oddball high-school TV show Glee, being young and gay suddenly has a place in pop culture that isn’t cruel or tragic.
Of course, there has never been a lack of gay subtext on TV (Dukes of Hazzard, Pee-wee Herman, Jonny Quest, SpongeBob). But it seems that, in our world of niche-entertainment marketing, gay boys are becoming a viable demographic, up there with tween girls and security moms. Call them Twinkles: preteen boys who may not know they are gay yet, or may not want to say they are gay yet, but who have a gleam in their eye and a definite sensibility. Twinkles proudly prance, unashamedly emote, high-kick, jazz-hand, belt out “Paparazzi” with piano — everything a gay kid used to do in his bedroom with the door shut.
Consider the current range of twinkle archetypes and twinkle-friendly supporters. We have High School Musical’s Ryan singing with spunk and no convincing female romantic interest. Kurt on Glee is an intelligent and confident sissy main character. Ugly Betty’s Justin gets to kiss a boy.
Project Runway champ Christian Siriano gives off a consistently femmy fierceness. The raccoon-eyed, magician-wardrobed Adam Lambert is basically a 14-year-old gay kid’s fantasy of a rock star. There is even a heartthrob: Taylor Lautner. I’m not claiming he’s gay; there’s just something about him. No matter how hard-bodied and abstinent the Twilight franchise tries to make him, it cannot repress the ascending megastar’s yearning sweetness or his droves of swooning boy-fans.
Maybe the most significant sign of the times is piano-playing sixth grader Greyson Chance, who belted out Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” at his high-school talent show and got a record deal a month later. (I’m not saying he is gay either — but he sure is twinkly.)
The twinkle’s market power has not been scientifically measured, but their consumer presence is getting noticed. "Young males today are shopping more than any other generation before them," says Mike Gatti, executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation. "In the last year or so, we’re seeing a proliferation of merchandise targeting young men — clothing and also things like skincare, lotion, and hair products aimed at 12- and 13-year-old boys. We’re also seeing young boys buying things that cross traditional gender lines."
Beyond the money to be made with this market, there’s the telling fact that sensitive wizard role model (albeit heterosexual) Daniel Radcliffe is going to be appearing in a PSA for gay-youth suicide prevention. "Pre-Internet, a Twinkle would have had a very difficult and potentially dangerous time finding his peers," says David Kleeman, president of American Center for Children and the Media. "With hundreds of TV channels and in-game advertising and Internet adver-gaming and product placement , there are virtually infinite options to target the real niche groups of kids who are most likely interested in what you’re selling." And to reassure them that they are far from alone.
All of this is abetted by the deliberate parenting of the first generation to have had queer studies in its college curriculum. It’s become almost fashionable to look for — instead of dread — signs of queerness in this generation’s offspring. A couple I know in Brooklyn have a 7-year-old son who loves to bead instead of play soccer and recently made a careful drawing of a Tab can with pink markers. And the other week, my friend Seth was trying to give his 12-year-old son, Jake, supportive advice. "I was trying to tell him that it was okay if he liked boys or girls," says Seth. "He just interrupted me to say, ‘Yeah, I know, Dad. Right now, I don’t like either.’ "