Self-Help: Sexual Identity and Orientation
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What Is Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation?
Human sexuality is complex. Many men and women identify primarily with their biological sex but transgendered people identify more with the biological and social characteristics of the other gender. An integral part of sexual identity is sexual orientation, which essentially is defined by who we are emotionally and/or physically attracted to.
A person's sexual orientation can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or questioning. All of these sexual orientations are considered to be normal by all prominent mental health organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Conservatively, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people represent at least 10% of the total population.
Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Discrimination
Heterosexism is the belief that heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation and those falling outside this norm are abnormal or flawed. Homophobia, a fear of homosexuality that entails negative feelings and attitudes about LGBT people, often accompanies heterosexism.
Heterosexism and homophobia tend to reinforce each other and are present in most cultures, meaning that LGBT individuals often experience discrimination. Here are some examples of heterosexism, homophobia, and discrimination:
- A man is assumed to be gay because he likes to shop and is not interested in sports.
- A woman decides not to confront a colleague about a homophobic joke because she fears her colleague will assume she is a lesbian.
- A gay man hides his sexual orientation from his colleagues because he is worried about being fired.
- A lesbian is raped after leaving a bar by a man who believes that lesbians just need a good man in order to "straighten out."
- Two heterosexual men beat a young college student to death when they discover he is gay.
- Many parents file complaints to the school board that a lesbian teacher may be a pedophile or will recruit their children into a homosexual lifestyle. Despite the teacher's excellent work history and standing in the community, the school board fires her.
The term coming out is used to describe the process of understanding, accepting, and disclosing one's sexual identity. The process is very personal and can happen in different ways for each person.
Some people acknowledge their sexual identity during their teenage years, while others continue to explore their sexual identity much later in life.
For those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, coming out is an ongoing process that may involve confusion, self-doubt, and stress because of institutionalized heterosexism and homophobia.
LGBT individuals revisit and disclose their sexual identity over a lifespan of encountering new jobs, new places to live, and new friends.
One of the first steps in the process of coming out is acknowledging one's own sexual identity. During this process, it can help to think of sexual orientation as a continuum from exclusive attraction to the same sex to exclusive attraction to the opposite sex. People of many sexual orientations have questions about their physical and emotional attractions to others.
It is normal to have questions about one's attractions. Simply exploring these questions does not determine if one is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or straight. It is okay not to know one's own sexual identity.
Some people read books, watch movies, see theater, listen to music, and/or view art that includes positive role models in the LGBT community. Some of the positive outcomes of examining one's sexual identity in detail, even for those who identify as heterosexual, can be greater honesty in one's life, increased self-esteem, and a sense of greater personal integrity.
The next steps in the coming out process often involve disclosing one's sexual identity to others. After discovering one's own sexual identity, an individual makes choices about sharing his or her identity.
There are several important considerations in coming out to others. What is anticipated in the decision to disclose one's sexual identity? What risks are involved in disclosing this personal information? Will openness and honesty be fostered in the decision to disclose one's sexual identity? Will the benefits of disclosure outweigh the costs? Heterosexuals do not often have to consider these issues in depth.
However, LGBT individuals must confront these questions because of the very real presence of heterosexism, homophobia, and discrimination. Some people feel more comfortable disclosing their sexual identity to LGBT people or others who will be supportive before they decide to disclose their identities on a broader basis.
Often, people choose to disclose to close friends and family members, depending on their comfort levels. Some people choose to come out in very public forums. Regardless of the circumstances, the choices surrounding coming out to others require courage and deserve respect.
How to be an Advocate of Sexual Diversity
Adopt the attitude that homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation are unacceptable. Be vocal about this attitude and take responsibility for your actions. Explore your own biases and prejudices.
For heterosexuals, this process involves recognizing the privilege that comes with your majority status. For LGBT individuals, this process involves confronting internalized homophobia.
If you are struggling with issues related to sexual orientation, seek help. If someone you care about is struggling, help them find help. Educate yourself about issues related to human diversity, including sexual identity and orientation. Object to homophobic jokes or statements made by others.
Be supportive if someone comes out to you. Remember how much courage and risk is involved in coming out. A person who is coming out deserves friendship, love, support, and respect, as all humans do.
On Campus Resources for UT Dallas students
Student Counseling Center
Student Services Building 4.600
Galerstein Women's Center
Student Services Building 4.300
Student Services Building 2.400
Off Campus Resources for UT Dallas Students
Resources in the Dallas Area
John Thomas Gay & Lesbian Community Center
Dallas Gay & Lesbian Alliance
Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
Dallas Chapter (PFLAG)
Dallas Voice Newspaper