Sexual Orientation

Sexual Orientation

What is meant by 'sexuality'?

In its broadest sense the term 'sexuality' describes the whole way a person goes about expressing themselves as a sexual being. Every survey of human sexual behaviour reveals that there is a huge variety of sexual expression - the way we choose to behave sexually is usually as individual and as complicated as the ways we choose to dress or to earn a living. Human sexuality rarely falls into neat categories or lends itself to simple labelling. Human sexuality is a rich and complex area of human experience.

There are four components which make up human sexuality: biological sex, gender role, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Biological sex refers to the genitalia (the physical equipment), hormone levels, and the X or Y chromosome combination. The majority of people are clearly biologically male or female, although some people are born with genitalia which are not clearly one or the other.

Gender role, or social sex role, is about how we are expected to behave as males or females in our culture. This social role is in practice linked with the gender expectations placed on an individual by virtue of their physical genitalia at birth.

Gender identity refers to the psychological feeling a person has about being either male or female. It may not match biological sex, and is unrelated to sexual orientation. A lesbian woman is biologically female, and feels like a woman, but is attracted sexually to other women. A transgendered person will have the biological sex of one gender, but feel psychologically that s/he is of another gender, and could be either heterosexual or homosexual.

Sexual Orientation refers to the aspect of sexuality that is about who a person finds attractive.  This involves automatic physiological and emotional responses, and is not the result of conscious choices. Sexual orientation appears to be determined early in life, perhaps from birth, and cannot be changed.   

There has been a hot debate over recent years about why people's sexual orientation differs. Many theories have been put forward - citing genetic pre-determination, childhood influences and peer-pressure amongst other reasons. However, attempts to find a single cause for individual's choices of sexual orientation have not been successful. Nor have attempts to influence or change an individual's sexual orientation. Like many of our other characteristics, it seems to be largely a chance product of our individual nature which is then further developed by our early interactions. Like many other personality traits, our sexual orientation seems to be formed by the time we reach teenage -- although it may be many years later before we each understand and accept our sexuality. It seems resistant to attempts to radically change it. 

Coming out
There is an assumption in society that a person will be attracted to another of the opposite sex.  So if you are not, but are attracted to people of the same sex as you, you may well be gay/lesbian or bi-sexual, and this will mean that you may at some point want to ‘come out’ about your orientation to others.

Before you can come out to anyone else, you have to come out to, and accept, yourself. Some people are certain of their sexuality from a very young age; for others it can happen much later in life. Accepting the conclusion that one is gay, lesbian or bisexual hopefully is easier nowadays than it has been in the past. Attitudes are somewhat more accepting and there are now more people living openly gay and lesbian lives than there has been in the recent past.  But still for some people it is hard to accept that they are not heterosexual.

Most people are brought up by heterosexual parents with the values and expectations of the heterosexual majority.  Families often have detailed, if unspoken, plans for their children and can be very upset when it becomes clear that not all their hopes are going to be realised. Similarly friends and other groups may have their own very definite opinions or prejudices. It is important that you come out to people who will validate and celebrate your new found sexuality as well as to people who may question it.
• Look for sympathetic people to come out to first.
• Follow your own timetable - it's your life and your sexuality. Don't feel you have to tell people until you are ready.
• Don't assume people are homophobic just because they make anti-gay jokes. Often people haven't really thought the thing through, and don't do so until someone close to them comes out.
• Sadly the opposite can also be true. Some people can be quite fixed and judgmental in their view of gays,  lesbians and bi-sexuals.
• Everyone doesn't have to know. You don't have to share this unless you particularly want to. Many people will consider your sexuality is your own business.
• Don't be too put off by an initial bad reaction. Many people react badly when they are faced with something that has shocked them. Given time, their reaction may change.
• Choose your medium. If you are worried that someone will be very hostile, writing might give them time to assimilate the news better.
• Being gay, lesbian or bi-sexual is not something a person chooses.  We do not have control over how we are so there is no need to apologise for it.

Models for the Coming Out process

Everyone will have their own unique feelings about being gay, lesbian or bi-sexual, and it is important not to make assumptions about how a person feels when s/he chooses to come out.  Feelings of utter relief and excitement in finding a new sense of identity and community previously lacking may be mixed with a sense of loss of all that heterosexuals can take for granted.

There have been various ‘models’ suggested to represent the ‘coming out’ process.  Three are offered here, and they need not be seen as mutually exclusive.  You might recognise feelings in yourself from all these models.

1. The first is a model based on the concept of romantic attachment.

Stage 1:  Pre-Coming Out.  General feeling of being different

Stage 2:  Coming Out.  Becoming aware of homosexual thoughts or fantasies, beginning to make contact with other homosexuals, but may still keep your identity from some others.

Stage 3:  Exploration.  Experiments’ with new social interactions, with an improvement of self-image.

Stage 4:  First Relationship.  After a period of sexual experimentation, wanting a more stable and committed relationship

Stage 5:  Integration.    Public and private identities merge; you are able to be more open and honest about your relationships.

(adapted from Coleman. E, 19981/82,  Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process, Journal of Homosexualiy, 7(2/3), 31-43, The Haworth Press.)

2. This model focuses on the concept of loss:  it is likely that there will be a sense of loss which has to be acknowledged, loss of one’s heterosexual status, and of the expectations about the future which were a part of that.

Stage 1: To accept the reality of the loss of heterosexuality and its privileges.

Stage 2: To acknowledge specifics of the loss and look for ways to ‘fit in’ to the new community of which you are becoming a part.

Stage 3: To feel the pain of the loss and to grieve.

Stage 4: To adjust to life as a gay/lesbian person

Stage 5: To integrate into the gay/lesbian community, and into the broader heterosexual community as a gay/lesbian person.

 This process is not necessarily tidily linear, and a person can, as in all grieving, move back and forth between the stages.

(adapted from Alexander,C, (ed), 1996, Gay and Lesbian Mental Health,  212-217,Harrington Park Press.)

3. This model recognizes that coming out as a lesbian or gay person is a long process of self-identification which can take many years to achieve.

Stage 1:  Identity confusion.  General feelings of being different.

Stage 2:  Identity comparison.  Awareness of homosexual feelings, thinking that they may be just a phase, or the feelings are attached only to one specific person.

Stage 3:  Identity tolerance.  Stronger identity of being homosexual and starting to reach out to contact other homosexuals.

Stage 4:  Identity acceptance.  Increased contact and affiliation with other homosexuals.

Stage 5:  Identity pride.  Coming out to more and more people, perhaps starting to feel anger towards heterosexuals and devalue heterosexual institutions.

Stage 6:  Identity synthesis.  Feeling more at ease in both heterosexual and the homosexual worlds, and taking pride in yourself for who you are.

(adapted from Cass,V, 1979, Homoseual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model, Journal of Homosexuality, 4(3), 219-235, The Haworth Press.)

Sources of help
Decisions about your sexuality can be difficult, and can create feelings of upheaval and uncertainty. 
Some sources of advice are listed below:
Hereford and Worcester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard 01905 723 097
Worcestershire Gay Men’s Health Project, tel. 01905 681751
National AIDS Helpline - 0800 567 123

 If you think it would help to talk to a counsellor, in privacy and confidentially, contact the Student Counselling Service

01905 855107/ 855417