Sexuality and U
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Sexual Health

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Sexual Orientation and Coming Out

Some basic information
Sexual orientation refers to romantic and/or sexual attraction to men, women or both sexes. At a basic level, there are three categories of sexual orientation: (1) heterosexual (attraction to the opposite sex), (2) gay/lesbian (attraction to the same sex), and (3) bisexual (attraction to both sexes).

Basic Categories of Sexual Orientation

Heterosexual
A male who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to females
A female who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to males

Gay
A male who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to males

Lesbian
A female who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to females

Bisexual
A male who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to both males and females
A female who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to both males and females

Most people will begin to get a sense of their own sexual orientation in childhood or the early teenage years when they have feelings of romantic or sexual attraction towards other people. For some people, an awareness of their own sexual orientation is clear from the beginning.  For other people, it takes time for them to develop a clear enough understanding of who they are attracted to that they can identify themselves as heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Queer and Questioning
Some people do not think of their own sexual orientation in terms of the categories of heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Some people will find that none of these categories seem to fit for them.

In the past, the term “Queer” was universally seen as derogatory (i.e, degrading, insulting). However, in recent years, some non-heterosexual people have adopted the term because the are not comfortable labeling themselves according to the traditional categories of gay, lesbian, or bisexual and/or because they see these terms as oppressive reflecting the discrimination that non-heterosexual people have often faced.

With respect to sexual orientation, some people are in the process of “Questioning”. Arriving at a clear cut sense of whether you are attracted to the opposite sex only or to the same sex only or to one sex more than the other or to both sexes equally can be confusing. This can be especially true for younger people who need some time to sort out their feelings related to romantic and sexual attraction.     

What causes a person to be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
Scientists have not been able to figure out exactly what causes one person to be heterosexual, another person to be gay or lesbian, and another person to be bisexual. Scientific research does suggest that genetic or hormonal factors occurring before a person is born influences the development of sexual orientation. Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that people do not make a conscious choice to be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Rather, it is simply who they are.
     
Sexual orientation and Mental Health
Historically, society has held negative attitudes towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual people that included the belief that homosexuality was a mental disorder. As a result, many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people tried to ignore or suppress their feelings or accepted the false claim that they were “abnormal” or “sick”. Many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people lived a life of silence with regard to their sexual orientation, pretending for the outside world that they were heterosexual. However, beginning in the 1970s, the professional mental health community has clearly rejected the idea that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is, in any way, a disorder. 
  
Is Homosexuality a Mental Disorder?
No, lesbian, gay and bisexual orientations are not disorders. Research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology. Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality. Both have been documented in many different cultures and historical eras. Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual relationships are normal forms of human bonding. Therefore, these mainstream organizations long ago abandoned classifications of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, D.C.: APA. Copyright © 2008 American Psychological Association

Accepting Your Sexual Orientation and Coming Out 
Experiencing same sex attractions is the first step in a process of self acceptance and coming out that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people go through. In short, coming out means personally accepting your sexuality, getting comfortable with who you are, and then telling others such as friends and family members that you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Before you decide to come out to others you should be clear with yourself about the risks and benefits of coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Remember, it’s your decision not anybody else’s. You decide who to tell and when to tell them. You may decide to tell some people but not others. It can be a good idea to plan how you will do it. It’s probably best to come out first to someone you think is most likely to have a positive and supportive reaction. Telling another person who is openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual can be a great place to start because it gives you the opportunity to tell someone in a relatively low risk way.  Friends who seem to have positive attitudes towards gay, lesbian, bisexual orientations are also a good place to start. Sometimes a friend will be surprised when you tell them. And sometimes a friend who you thought would have a positive reaction will have a negative reaction instead. While coming out has many benefits, you may lose some friendships.
   
Coming out to parents and family members can be a scary thing for many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. It’s useful to keep in mind that your parents may have grown up in a time when negative attitudes towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were stronger and more common than they are today. If you live in your parents or family members home and/or are financially dependent on them, the decision to come out needs to be made carefully. Do you feel confident that they will react in a supportive or at least neutral way? Will you be putting yourself at risk of being thrown out of your home or financially cut off. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how your parents and family members will react, if you think that coming out to your parents or family members is likely to be significantly harmful to you, it may be better to wait.

Benefits and Risks of Coming Out as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual
 
  Benefits      
● Living an open and whole life     
● Developing closer, more genuine relationships   
● Gaining self-esteem for being known and loved for who you really are                       
● Reducing the stress of hiding our identity            
● Connecting with others in the gay, lesbian, bisexual community       
● Becoming part of a strong and vibrant community
● Becoming a positive role model for others

Risks
● Not everyone will be accepting
● Family, friends, classmates, co-workers may be shocked, confused or hostile
● Some relationships may permanently change
● May experience harassment or discrimination 
● Personal safety may be put at risk
● Some young people may be thrown out of their home,or lose financial support from their parents.

Adapted from: Human Rights Campaign Foundation Coming Out Project. (2011). A resource guide to coming out.

A Range of Possible Parent Reactions When a Son or Daughter Comes Out
•Some parents will react in a neutral or positive way, expressing appreciation that you have entrusted them with information about an important part of who you are.
•Some parents may react in ways that are hurtful to you: they may cry, get angry, or show embarrassment.
•Your parents may have had a vision of your future life that involved forming heterosexual relationships. They may be sad for a while as they adjust to the reality that you will take a different path.
•Some parents may ask “where did we go wrong?” or if they did something to “cause this to happen”. You can assure them that their parenting has nothing to do with your sexual orientation.
•In some cases, parents will say that “homosexuality is a sin” or want their child to see a counselor or therapist in the misguided hope that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed.
•Your parents may already know that you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual or have been wondering if you are. They may have been waiting for you to tell them and are relieved that you finally have so that you and your parents can move forward in your relationship.
•Some parents react negatively at first to the news that you are gay, lesbian or bisexual but over time, as they come to terms with it, they accept you for who you are.

Adapted from: Human Rights Campaign Foundation Coming Out Project. (2011). A resource guide to coming out.

Support and Networking
Obviously, the process of coming out and living openly as a gay, lesbian or bisexual person can be stressful. If you have not done so already, it can be very helpful and reassuring to make connections with others in the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. For example, some high schools now have “gay/straight” alliances. Most Canadian universities have gay and lesbian support groups. Many cities and towns across Canada offer support services for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. This includes supportive organizations of parents, families, and friends of sexual minority youth. The important thing to keep in mind is that no matter what stage you are at in your own personal journey in coming out is that you are not alone.