Michele O'Mara

Homosexuality 101

Filed By Michele O'Mara | October 19, 2007 11:18 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: coming out of the closet

What is sexual orientation?
This is the word used to describe a person’s romantic, emotional, or sexual attraction to another person. A person who is attracted to another of the same sex is said to have a homosexual orientation, commonly referred to as gay (for both men and women) and lesbian (for women only). Those with an attraction to persons of either, or both, sexes, are considered bisexual. Those with an attraction to persons of the other sex are considered heterosexual (slang word is “straight”).

Is homosexuality a mental illness?

No. All of the leading professional mental health organizations have publicly affirmed that homosexuality is not a mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the guide in which mental health professional’s turn, to identify and label human behavior as disordered. In 1973, the experts found that homosexuality does not meet the criteria necessary to be considered a mental illness.

What determines our sexual orientation?
No one knows what causes a person to become heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. There have been research attempts made to explain the etiology of homosexuality, but just as we can not explain why roughly ten-percent of the population is left-handed, we have also come up empty each time attempts have been made to explain the roots of homosexuality. There is also some debate about whether or not it's fruitful to identify the "cause" of homosexuality, as the search for a cause infers that it is not a naturally occurring phenomenon that is just as viable and healthy as heterosexuality. There is no known research currently being explored to explain why people are heterosexual. That is as much a mystery to us as is homosexuality.

Sexual orientation is comprised of three key components:

  1. Behavior – How do I behave as a sexual, emotional being? Am I engaging in same-sex sexual activity, or do I behave consistently in heterosexual ways?
  2. Attractions – What is the nature of my fantasies, feelings, thoughts, and desires? Attractions are involuntary, uncontrollable aspects of our psyche that draw us toward one, or both sexes.
  3. Identity – How do I label myself? What do I believe I am: gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual?

The more congruent these aspects of our sexuality are, the more at peace we are in our own skin. If, for example, your attractions are homosexual, but your behavior and identity are heterosexual, this discrepancy is likely to create an internal conflict around your sexual orientation. If, on the other hand, you have homosexual fantasies and attractions, and you identify as gay, and you engage in same-sex relationships, you are less likely to experience internal conflict around your sexual orientation.

When and how does a person know if he or she is gay?
There is no particular age at which a person concludes, or discovers, that he or she is gay. The journey to self-awareness varies from person to person, and is typically marked by an initial feeling of “I am different.” This sense of difference then evolves over time as you begin to connect the dots. Because of societal rejection and the stigma often associated with homosexuality, the prospect of being gay can be so overwhelming that young men and women categorize their feelings as a “phase” that they will grow out of, or they may convince themselves that the attraction they feel for someone of the same-gender is about a particular person, but that they would never find another same-gendered person attractive.

Over time, for the gay man or lesbian, the attraction becomes undeniable, and unyielding as the nature of this attraction begins to break-through, leading to the conclusion that “yes, I must be gay.” For bisexuals, the path can be less clear, because of the potential attraction to both sexes. Though not always, there are also some gay men and lesbians that identify as bisexuals, briefly, while they are assessing the level of attraction they feel toward each sex. There is no right, or predictable path toward the discovery of one’s sexual orientation, and there is no need to attach a label to your feelings. There are simply layers to be peeled back as we move closer to understanding ourselves as sexual human beings, and making peace with what you discover is the key.

What does “Coming Out” mean?

Coming Out is the term used to describe a process, or an event, by which a gay, lesbian, or bisexual-identified person discloses his or her sexual orientation to another person (a coming out event), or to several others (a process). If a gay male tells his mother that he is “gay,” he is said to have “come out to his mother.” If a gay male has made a decision to stop hiding his sexual orientation, and he slowly begins to reveal more about his status as a gay male, he is engaging in the process of coming out.

Is homosexuality viewed as negatively as it once was?
Public opinion polls in the United States over the last twenty years reveal that attitudes and feelings toward gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals have changed significantly, for the better. However, compared to other social groups, gays are still among the most stigmatized. Hate crimes still exist. Prohibitions around openly serving in the military are still in place. Legal rights are still lacking, and gay and lesbian families still struggle to differing degrees in different states to legally create families and co-adoptions. Adolescents and teens are still teased and humiliated in their school systems upon, often without the protection of administration.

Is it possible for someone to change his or her sexual orientation – for a heterosexual to become homosexual, or a homosexual to become heterosexual?

No published scientific evidence supports the effectiveness, or viability of programs designed to change the sexual orientation of a person (called “reparative therapy” or “conversion” therapy).

Reparative therapy attempts to change behavior, not sexual orientation. It is agreed by all, even reparative programs, that it has not been possible to change the direction of a persons sexual and emotional attractions. The only thing that can be changed is one’s behavior. The American Psychiatric Association strictly opposes any psychiatric treatment such as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, which is based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, and that he or she should change his/her homosexual orientation.

What is it like for the parents of gay men and women who come out to them?

Coming out to important others can be one of the most stressful life events a gay man or lesbian experiences. Gay men and lesbians typically spend years coming to terms with their sexual orientation and in many cases, they have attempted to prove their heterosexuality to themselves, and others, and have put a lot of energy into appearing to be heterosexual.

Parents commonly respond with fear, hurt, and a sense of grief. It is common for parents to fear for the safety and well-being of their child, worrying about discrimination, violence, and general rejection. There is also a sense of confusion and self-blame: “what did I do wrong?” Parents often have dreams for their children, and what their child’s life will look like, that didn’t include homosexuality. This causes a sense of loss, causing parents to grieve for their own lost dreams.

Is there support for friends, family and parents?
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-Flag) is a national, non-profit organization that has brought together the parents of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals from all across the world. Therapy is also a helpful option for parents grieving the discovery of their child’s homosexuality.

1012 14th Street, N.W., Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 638-4200

Are there many gay and lesbian parents?
Yes. The actual number of gay and lesbian parents is difficult to measure because of the difficulty gaining accurate information about parental sexual orientation. Some of the research includes the following statistics:

  • The American Bar Association, Family Law Section estimates that there are four million gay and lesbian parents raising 8-10 million children.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that gay or lesbian American parents are raising eight-to-13 million children.
  • Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund estimates there are from six-to-10 million lesbian and gay parents who are mothers and fathers to an estimated six-to-14 million children.
  • As of 1990, 6 million to 14 million children in the United States were living with a gay or lesbian parent. (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, a service of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.)
  • According to the May 2000 edition of “Demography,” published by the Population Association of America, 21.6 percent of lesbian homes and 5.2 percent of male homosexual homes have children present, wrote Dan Black of the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University in New York.
  • A November 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation poll revealed that of 405 self-identified gay, lesbian and bisexual adults, 11 percent had children under 18 living with them. Only eight percent were the legal guardian. The poll also found that 49 percent of the gay people who were not parents said they would like to have children someday.
  • A survey released in October 2002, by marketing company Witeck-Combs Communications, stated that 2 million same-sex couples have children. They forecast that by 2004, the number will be 3.4 million children.
  • Gary Gates of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates that 150,000 same-sex couples are now raising 250,000 kids, based on the 2000 census.
  • Same-sex couples raising chidren live in 96% of all counties nationwide in the United States. (2000 U.S. Census analyses by the Urban Institute and Human Rights Campaign)
  • The highest percentages of same-sex couples raising children live in the South. (2000 U.S. Census analyses by the Urban Institute and Human Rights Campaign)

How are children affected by having gay and lesbian parents?

  • There is absolutely no evidence that children are psychologically or physically harmed in any way by having LGBT parents. There is, however, much evidence that shows that they are not.

  • People with LGBT parents have the same incidence of homosexuality as the general population, about 10%. No research has ever shown that LGBT parents have any affect on the sexuality of their children. (Patterson, Charlotte J. 1992)

  • Research claims that children with LGBT parents are exposed to more people of the opposite sex than many kids of straight parents. (Rofes, E.E., 1983, Herdt, 1989)

  • Studies have shown that people with LGBT parents are more open-minded about a wide variety of things than people with straight parents. (Harris and Turner, 1985/86)

  • Daughters of lesbians have higher self-esteem than daughters of straight women. Sons are more caring and less aggressive. (Hoeffer, 1981)

  • On measures of psychosocial well-being, school functioning, and romantic relationships and behaviors, teens with same-sex parents are as well adjusted as their peers with opposite-sex parents. A more important predictor of teens' psychological and social adjustment is the quality of the relationships they have with their parents. (National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, 2004)

  • Most "problems" that kids of LGBT parents face actually stem from the challenges of dealing with divorce and the homophobia and transphobia in society rather then the sexual orientation or gender identity of their parents.

by Michele O'Mara, LCSW

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What an excellent primer, Michele. I hope our readers are able to share it with others.