Answers to Your QuestionsFor a Better Understanding of SexualOrientation & HomosexualityS ince 1975, the American Psychological and genetic characteristics associated with Association has called on psychologists being male or female), gender identity (the to take the lead in removing the stigma psychological sense of being male or female),*of mental illness that has long been associated and social gender role (the cultural norms thatwith lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations. define feminine and masculine behavior).The discipline of psychology is concernedwith the well-being of people and groups Sexual orientation is commonly discussed as ifand therefore with threats to that well-being. it were solely a characteristic of an individual,The prejudice and discrimination that people like biological sex, gender identity, or age.who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual This perspective is incomplete because sexualregularly experience have been shown to have orientation is defined in terms of relationshipsnegative psychological effects. This pamphlet with others. People express their sexualis designed to provide accurate information orientation through behaviors with others,for those who want to better understand including such simple actions as holding handssexual orientation and the impact of prejudice or kissing. Thus, sexual orientation is closelyand discrimination on those who identify as tied to the intimate personal relationships thatlesbian, gay, or bisexual. meet deeply felt needs for love, attachment,Q and intimacy. In addition to sexual behaviors,What is sexual orientation? these bonds include nonsexual physicalSexual orientation refers to an enduring affection between partners, shared goalspattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual and values, mutual support, and ongoingattractions to men, women, or both sexes. commitment. Therefore, sexual orientation isSexual orientation also refers to a person’s not merely a personal characteristic withinsense of identity based on those attractions, an individual. Rather, one’s sexual orientationrelated behaviors, and membership in defines the group of people in which onea community of others who share those is likely to find the satisfying and fulfillingattractions. Research over several decades has romantic relationships that are an essentialdemonstrated that sexual orientation ranges component of personal identity foralong a continuum, from exclusive attraction many people.to the other sex to exclusive attraction to thesame sex. However, sexual orientation is How do people know if theyusually discussed in terms of three categories: are lesbian, gay, or bisexual?heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or According to current scientific and professional&sexual attractions to members of the other sex), understanding, the core attractions that formgay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic, or the basis for adult sexual orientation typicallysexual attractions to members of one’s own emerge between middle childhood and earlysex), and bisexual (having emotional, romantic, adolescence. These patterns of emotional,or sexual attractions to both men and women). romantic, and sexual attraction may ariseAThis range of behaviors and attractions has without any prior sexual experience. Peoplebeen described in various cultures and nations can be celibate and still know their sexualthroughout the world. Many cultures use orientation-–be it lesbian, gay, bisexual, oridentity labels to describe people who express heterosexual.these attractions. In the United States the mostfrequent labels are lesbians (women attracted Different lesbian, gay, and bisexual peopleto women), gay men (men attracted to men), have very different experiences regarding theirand bisexual people (men or women attracted to sexual orientation. Some people know thatboth sexes). However, some people may use they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual for a longdifferent labels or none at all. * his brochure focuses on sexual orientation. Another TSexual orientation is distinct from other APA brochure, Answers to Your Questions Aboutcomponents of sex and gender, including Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity,biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, addresses gender identity.
time before they actually pursue relationships among lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. with other people. Some people engage in Also, discrimination against lesbian, gay, and sexual activity (with same-sex and/or other- bisexual people in employment and housing sex partners) before assigning a clear label appears to remain widespread. to their sexual orientation. Prejudice and The HIV/AIDS pandemic is another area in discrimination make it difficult for many which prejudice and discrimination against people to come to terms with their sexual lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have had orientation identities, so claiming a lesbian, negative effects. Early in the pandemic, the gay, or bisexual identity may be a slow process. assumption that HIV/AIDS was a “gay disease” contributed to the delay in addressing What causes a person to the massive social upheaval that AIDS would have a particular sexual generate. Gay and bisexual men have been disproportionately affected by this disease. orientation? The association of HIV/AIDS with gay and There is no consensus among scientists bisexual men and the inaccurate belief that about the exact reasons that an individual some people held that all gay and bisexual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or men were infected served to further stigmatize lesbian orientation. Although much research lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have What is the psychological emerged that permit scientists to conclude impact of prejudice and that sexual orientation is determined by any discrimination? particular factor or factors. Many think that Prejudice and discrimination have social and nature and nurture both play complex roles; personal impact. On the social level, prejudice most people experience little or no sense of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, and choice about their sexual orientation. bisexual people are reflected in the everyday stereotypes of members of these groups. What role do prejudice and These stereotypes persist even though they discrimination play in the are not supported by evidence, and they are often used to excuse unequal treatment of lives of lesbian, gay, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. For example, bisexual people? limitations on job opportunities, parenting, Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the and relationship recognition are often justified United States encounter extensive prejudice, by stereotypic assumptions about lesbian, gay, discrimination, and violence because of their and bisexual people. sexual orientation. Intense prejudice against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people was On an individual level, such prejudice and widespread throughout much of the 20th discrimination may also have negative century. Public opinion studies over the 1970s, consequences, especially if lesbian, gay, and 1980s, and 1990s routinely showed that, among bisexual people attempt to conceal or deny large segments of the public, lesbian, gay, and their sexual orientation. Although many bisexual people were the target of strongly lesbians and gay men learn to cope with the held negative attitudes. More recently, public social stigma against homosexuality, this opinion has increasingly opposed sexual pattern of prejudice can have serious negative orientation discrimination, but expressions of effects on health and well-being. Individuals hostility toward lesbians and gay men remain and groups may have the impact of stigma common in contemporary American society. reduced or worsened by other characteristics,Q Prejudice against bisexuals appears to exist at such as race, ethnicity, religion, or disability. comparable levels. In fact, bisexual individuals Some lesbian, gay, and bisexual people may may face discrimination from some lesbian and face less of a stigma. For others, race, sex, gay people as well as from heterosexual people. religion, disability, or other characteristics may exacerbate the negative impact of prejudice Sexual orientation discrimination takes many and discrimination. forms. Severe antigay prejudice is reflected in the high rate of harassment and violence The widespread prejudice, discrimination, andA directed toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual violence to which lesbians and gay men are individuals in American society. Numerous often subjected are significant mental health surveys indicate that verbal harassment concerns. Sexual prejudice, sexual orientation and abuse are nearly universal experiences discrimination, and antigay violence are major
sources of stress for lesbian, gay, and bisexual What is “coming out” and why people. Although social support is crucial in coping is it important?with stress, antigay attitudes and discrimination The phrase “coming out” is used to refer to severalmay make it difficult for lesbian, gay, and bisexual aspects of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons’people to find such support. experiences: self-awareness of same-sex attractions; the telling of one or a few people about theseIs homosexuality a mental attractions; widespread disclosure of same-sexdisorder? attractions; and identification with the lesbian, gay,No, lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations are and bisexual community. Many people hesitate tonot disorders. Research has found no inherent come out because of the risks of meeting prejudiceassociation between any of these sexual orientations and discrimination. Some choose to keep theirand psychopathology. Both heterosexual behavior identity a secret; some choose to come out inand homosexual behavior are normal aspects of limited circumstances; some decide to come out inhuman sexuality. Both have been documented very public ways.in many different cultures and historical eras.Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray Coming out is often an important psychologicallesbian, gay, and bisexual people as disturbed, step for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Researchseveral decades of research and clinical experience has shown that feeling positively about one’shave led all mainstream medical and mental sexual orientation and integrating it into one’shealth organizations in this country to conclude life fosters greater well-being and mental health.that these orientations represent normal forms This integration often involves disclosing one’sof human experience. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual identity to others; it may also entail participatingrelationships are normal forms of human bonding. in the gay community. Being able to discuss one’sTherefore, these mainstream organizations long ago sexual orientation with others also increases theabandoned classifications of homosexuality as a availability of social support, which is crucial tomental disorder. mental health and psychological well-being. Like heterosexuals, lesbians, gay men, and bisexualWhat about therapy intended to people benefit from being able to share their lives with and receive support from family, friends,change sexual orientation from and acquaintances. Thus, it is not surprising thatgay to straight? lesbians and gay men who feel they must concealAll major national mental health organizations their sexual orientation report more frequenthave officially expressed concerns about therapies mental health concerns than do lesbians and gaypromoted to modify sexual orientation. To men who are more open; they may even have moredate, there has been no scientifically adequate physical health problems.research to show that therapy aimed at changingsexual orientation (sometimes called reparativeor conversion therapy) is safe or effective. What about sexual orientationFurthermore, it seems likely that the promotion and coming out duringof change therapies reinforces stereotypes and adolescence?contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, Adolescence is a period when people separateand bisexual persons. This appears to be especially from their parents and families and begin tolikely for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who develop autonomy. Adolescence can be a periodgrow up in more conservative religious settings. of experimentation, and many youths may question their sexual feelings. Becoming aware ofHelpful responses of a therapist treating an sexual feelings is a normal developmental task ofindividual who is troubled about her or his same- adolescence. Sometimes adolescents have same-sex Qsex attractions include helping that person actively feelings or experiences that cause confusion aboutcope with social prejudices against homosexuality, their sexual orientation. This confusion appearssuccessfully resolve issues associated with and to decline over time, with different outcomes forresulting from internal conflicts, and actively different individuals.lead a happy and satisfying life. Mental healthprofessional organizations call on their members Some adolescents desire and engage in same-to respect a person’s (client’s) right to self- sex behavior but do not identify as lesbian, gay, determination; be sensitive to the client’s race, or bisexual, sometimes because of the stigma Aculture, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, associated with a nonheterosexual orientation.sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, Some adolescents experience continuing feelingslanguage, and disability status when working of same-sex attraction but do not engage in anywith that client; and eliminate biases based on sexual activity or may engage in heterosexualthese factors. behavior for varying lengths of time. Because of the
stigma associated with same-sex attractions, gay, or bisexual, they encounter prejudice many youths experience same-sex attraction and discrimination based on the presumption for many years before becoming sexually active that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The with partners of the same sex or disclosing best support for these young people is school their attractions to others. and social climates that do not tolerate discriminatory language and behavior. For some young people, this process of exploring same-sex attractions leads to a At what age should lesbian, lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity. For some, gay, or bisexual youths acknowledging this identity can bring an end to confusion. When these young people come out? receive the support of parents and others, they There is no simple or absolute answer to this are often able to live satisfying and healthy question. The risks and benefits of coming lives and move through the usual process out are different for youths in different of adolescent development. The younger a circumstances. Some young people live person is when she or he acknowledges a in families where support for their sexual nonheterosexual identity, the fewer internal orientation is clear and stable; these youths and external resources she or he is likely to may encounter less risk in coming out, even have. Therefore, youths who come out early at a young age. Young people who live in are particularly in need of support from less supportive families may face more risks parents and others. in coming out. All young people who come out may experience bias, discrimination, Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or even violence in their schools, social or bisexual may be more likely to face certain groups, work places, and faith communities. problems, including being bullied and Supportive families, friends, and schools are having negative experiences in school. These important buffers against the negative impacts experiences are associated with negative of these experiences. outcomes, such as suicidal thoughts, and high- risk activities, such as unprotected sex and What is the nature of alcohol and drug use. On the other hand, many same-sex relationships? lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths appear to Research indicates that many lesbians and gay experience no greater level of health or mental men want and have committed relationships. health risks. Where problems occur, they are For example, survey data indicate that between closely associated with experiences of bias and 40% and 60% of gay men and between 45% discrimination in their environments. Support and 80% of lesbians are currently involved in from important people in the teen’s life can a romantic relationship. Further, data from provide a very helpful counterpart to bias the 2000 U.S. Census indicate that of the 5.5 and discrimination. million couples who were living together but not married, about 1 in 9 (594,391) had partners Support in the family, at school, and in the of the same sex. Although the census data are broader society helps to reduce risk and almost certainly an underestimate of the actual encourage healthy development. Youth number of cohabiting same-sex couples, they need caring and support, appropriately indicate that there are 301,026 male same- high expectations, and the encouragement sex households and 293,365 female same-sex to participate actively with peers. Lesbian, households in the United States. gay, and bisexual youth who do well despite stress—like all adolescents who do well despite Stereotypes about lesbian, gay, and bisexualQ stress—tend to be those who are socially people have persisted, even though competent, who have good problem-solving studies have found them to be misleading. skills, who have a sense of autonomy and For instance, one stereotype is that the purpose, and who look forward to relationships of lesbians and gay men are the future. dysfunctional and unhappy. However, studies have found same-sex and heterosexual couples In a related vein, some young people are to be equivalent to each other on measures of presumed to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual relationship satisfaction and commitment.A because they don’t abide by traditional gender roles (i.e., the cultural beliefs about what is A second stereotype is that the relationships appropriate “masculine” and “feminine” of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people are appearance and behavior). Whether these unstable. However, despite social hostility youths identify as heterosexual or as lesbian, toward same-sex relationships, research shows
that many lesbians and gay men form durable relationships. For example, survey data indicate Do children of lesbian and gaythat between 18% and 28% of gay couples and parents have more problems withbetween 8% and 21% of lesbian couples have lived sexual identity than do children oftogether 10 or more years. It is also reasonable to heterosexual parents? For instance, do thesesuggest that the stability of same-sex couples might children develop problems in gender identity and/orbe enhanced if partners from same-sex couples in gender role behavior? The answer from researchenjoyed the same levels of support and recognition is clear: sexual and gender identities (includingfor their relationships as heterosexual couples do, gender identity, gender-role behavior, and sexuali.e., legal rights and responsibilities associated with orientation) develop in much the same way amongmarriage. children of lesbian mothers as they do among children of heterosexual parents. Few studies areA third common misconception is that the goals available regarding children of gay fathers.and values of lesbian and gay couples are differentfrom those of heterosexual couples. In fact, Do children raised by lesbian orresearch has found that the factors that influence gay parents have problems inrelationship satisfaction, commitment, and personal development in areasstability are remarkably similar for both same-sex other than sexual identity? For example,cohabiting couples and heterosexual are the children of lesbian or gay parents moremarried couples. vulnerable to mental breakdown, do they have more behavior problems, or are they less psychologicallyFar less research is available on the relationship healthy than other children? Again, studies ofexperiences of people who identify as bisexual. If personality, self-concept, and behavior problemsthese individuals are in a same-sex relationship, show few differences between children of lesbianthey are likely to face the same prejudice and mothers and children of heterosexual parents.discrimination that members of lesbian and Few studies are available regarding children ofgay couples face. If they are in a heterosexual gay fathers.relationship, their experiences may be quite similarto those of people who identify as heterosexual Are children of lesbian and gayunless they choose to come out as bisexual; in parents likely to have problemsthat case, they will likely face some of the same with social relationships? Forprejudice and discrimination that lesbian and gay example, will they be teased or otherwise mistreatedindividuals encounter. by their peers? Once more, evidence indicates that children of lesbian and gay parents have normalCan lesbians and gay men social relationships with their peers and adults. Thebe good parents? picture that emerges from this research shows thatMany lesbians and gay men are parents; others children of gay and lesbian parents enjoy a socialwish to be parents. In the 2000 U.S. Census, 33% life that is typical of their age group in terms ofof female same-sex couple households and 22% of involvement with peers, parents, family members,male same-sex couple households reported at least and friends.one child under the age of 18 living in the home.Although comparable data are not available, many Are these children more likelysingle lesbians and gay men are also parents, and to be sexually abused by amany same-sex couples are part-time parents to parent or by a parent’s friends orchildren whose primary residence is elsewhere. acquaintances? There is no scientific support for fears about children of lesbian or gay parentsAs the social visibility and legal status of lesbian being sexually abused by their parents or their Qand gay parents have increased, some people have parents’ gay, lesbian, or bisexual friendsraised concerns about the well-being of children in or acquaintances.these families. Most of these questions are based onnegative stereotypes about lesbians and gay men. In summary, social science has shown that theThe majority of research on this topic asks whether concerns often raised about children of lesbian andchildren raised by lesbian and gay parents are at a gay parents—concerns that are generally grounded disadvantage when compared to children raised by in prejudice against and stereotypes about gayheterosexual parents. The most common questions people—are unfounded. Overall, the research Aand answers to them are these: indicates that the children of lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from the children of heterosexual parents in their development, adjustment, or overall well-being.