Am I gay?
Sexuality can be confusing
Many people feel attracted to people of the same sex, and wonder whether this means that they are gay. For many people these feelings can be very intense and alienating. Some people who are attracted to people of the same sex are gay and go on to have gay sexual relationships. But other people who have gay feelings find that these change over time.
Some people are bisexual and are attracted to both men and women, and have relationships with both. Some people are not attracted to anyone and wonder if this is a sign of homosexuality. Often it is only time that will resolve these uncertainties.
When do people know that they are gay?
There is no simple answer to this question, as it varies from person to person. Deciding you are gay often happens gradually, it may not be something you can initially put a name to, and it can feel very confusing.
During research carried out with young gay men in the UK, the young men interviewed described a set of feelings which they gradually realised made them 'different' in some way, feelings they thought maybe every teenage boy has.
“I thought, well, this is just the phase bit. Sooner or later I'm going to start finding women attractive. I never did. As I became more attracted to men, and I still wasn't getting attracted to women, I thought, shit, you're gay. And it was really quite a shock when it hit me.”
Eventually all people who are gay realise that not only are they sexually attracted to members of the same sex, but that this attraction is not transitional. This realisation could come at any time during their lives. Some may keep their sexuality a secret, while others may decide to come out.
Is homosexuality a phase young people go through?
For some people yes, and for others no. Some people do not have their first homosexual feelings or experience until they are well into adulthood. In a survey on sexual feelings carried out in Britain, nearly the same number of women reported that their first homosexual experience had happened in their twenties as did in their thirties, forties or fifties. But there is some evidence that for some people homosexual experiences may well be part of a transitional or experimental phase in their youth. This is hardly surprising given that adolescence is a period of change in which many people find who they are and what they want for themselves in adult life. This kind of behaviour is perfectly normal.
Are you born gay? What causes people to be gay?
“One of the things I can remember thinking a lot about is ... why am I like this? Is it someone's fault?”
There is no simple answer to the question, 'Are some people born lesbian or gay?' There are some theories that stress biological differences between heterosexual and homosexual adults, suggesting that people are born with their sexuality already determined.
The American researcher Dean Hamer published research that seemed to prove that homosexual orientation could be genetically transmitted to men on the x chromosome, which they get from their mothers. However when this study was duplicated it did not produce the same results. A follow-up study which Hamer collaborated on also failed to reinforce his earlier results.
More recently research published by George Rice and George Ebers of the Universty of Western Ontario has cast doubt on Hamer's theory. Rice and Ebers' research also tested the same region of the x chromosome in a larger sample of gay men, but failed to find the same 'marker' that Hamer's research had found. Claims that the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus is influential in determining sexual orientation, have yet to be substantiated. At the moment it is generally thought that biological explanations of sexuality are insufficient to explain the diversity of human sexuality.
“How can science tell you what I am? I mean I've had boyfriends, and was happy with them, had girlfriends and may have boyfriends again for all I know. If it's a gay gene what's going on? Is it just turning itself on and off in my head? It doesn't feel like biology it feels like love.”
Psycho-social explanations offer a variety of factors that could contribute to the development of a person's homosexuality. For example, a female dominated upbringing in a gay man's past, with an absence of a male role model. Others stress adherence or deviance from conformity to gender roles, and individual psychological makeup. While none of these factors alone completely answers the question 'what causes homosexuality?', they rule out some things. For example, lesbian and gay young people are not 'failed' heterosexuals. Also, homosexual partners are generally of the same age proving wrong the assumptions that young people are 'turned gay' by older people.
What is clear is that people's behaviour is influenced by their family environment, their experiences and their sense of themselves. Beliefs about sex are initially shaped by family values. Later on these beliefs may be shaped by pleasant and unpleasant experiences of sex and also shape their choice of activities and partners. Throughout their life a person's sense of who and what they are has a strong impact on their sexual development and experience.
Can you stop being gay?
There is now growing general support for the belief that sexuality is pre-determined and may change over time, or remain fixed. However, many people are interested in whether sexuality can be altered solely by a person's desire to change. Organisations that help homosexuals attempt to change their sexuality can be generally divided between those that use psychological 'reparative' methods and those that use religious 'healing' methods.
Some people believe homosexuality is an illness and believe it can and should be cured. Many of these 'cures' revolve around psychological therapies (often called reparative therapy) which endeavour to re-orient a homosexual sexuality to heterosexual. Although there is little scientific data to evaluate, what is available seems to indicate that reparative therapy is ineffective. The American Psychological Association (APA), the world's largest association of psychologists has stated that:
“Homosexuality is not a mental disorder and the APA opposes all portrayals of lesbian, gay and bisexual people as mentally ill and in need of treatment due to their sexual orientation.”
Some strongly religious groups believe that homosexuality is sinful and is in direct breach of the bible and other religious texts. As with reparative therapy there has been little to no scientific evaluation of the healing and prayer techniques used. What evidence is available suggests that the success of these techniques is restricted to three areas:
• Convincing bisexuals to limit their sexual activities to members of the opposite sex.
• Convincing homosexuals to become celibate.
• Convincing gay men and lesbians to attempt to maintain heterosexual relationships, whilst retaining their homosexual orientation.
Tellingly, two founders of a ministry established to 'heal' homosexuals later described their programme as 'ineffective ... not one person was healed'.
The subject of 'curing' homosexuality became a politically charged debate in America, with Christian political organisations promoting the theory that homosexuality can be changed through force of will alone. They claim that 'thousands are leaving their homosexual identity for sexual celibacy, and even marriage'.
Alternatively, gay and lesbian rights organisations would argue that these views misunderstand what it means to be gay, and amount to discrimination against gay and lesbian people.