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The Girl Next Door: Get the Scoop on Sexual Orientation

The Girl Next Door:
Get the Scoop on Sexual Orientation

What is sexual orientation?
Can I choose my sexual orientation?
How do I know if I'm a lesbian?
How common is homosexuality?
If I have a sexual experience with another girl, does that mean I'm a lesbian?
What is "coming out"?
What is homophobia?
If I think I am a lesbian, is there anyone I can talk to?

What is sexual orientation?
When you hear the word "sexuality," you probably think about people having sex or taking part in sexual behaviors. But that's only part of the definition. Sexuality is more than what you do with another person sexually. Sexuality is also about how you feel about yourself and your body, and about the way you dress and move and speak. Sexuality is a natural and healthy part of life.

It's important to remember that a girl can be feminine, even if she does things or wears things that others consider masculine. And just because a girl is boyish does not mean that she's a lesbian.

Sexual orientation is more specific than sexuality. It is about an emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction that a person feels toward another person. If you are heterosexual, you are attracted primarily to people of the opposite sex. If you are homosexual, you are attracted primarily to people of the same sex. Boys and men who are homosexual are referred to as gay. Girls and women who are homosexual are called gay or lesbians. Some people are attracted to both women and men. They are known as bisexual.

Different people realize at different points in their lives whether they are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. back to top

Can I choose my sexual orientation?
Many people have sexual feelings toward both the same and opposite sexes. For most people, a sexual preference becomes clear in adolescence or as a young adult. This sexual preference becomes part of a person's identity, just like race, ethnicity, gender, and personality traits.

Until quite recently, many people in the mental health profession believed homosexuality was a mental disorder or illness. That's because the studies of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people involved only those people who were in therapy for emotional problems. When researchers began to look at the data about homosexuals who were not in therapy, the idea that it was a mental illness was quickly found to be untrue.

Unfortunately, some people still hang on to those old beliefs. They may even try to change a person's sexual orientation—through therapy or religion. "Conversion therapy," for example, tries to use psychotherapy to get rid of a person's desire for a person of the same sex. "Transformational ministry" tries to use religion to eliminate these desires. There is no good evidence that these methods are successful. In fact, all the major mental health organizations in the United States have rejected these kinds of therapies. Instead of being helpful, these methods harm people by making them feel guilty, ashamed, depressed, or anxious about being homosexual or bisexual. back to top

How do I know if I'm a lesbian?
In adolescence, most girls begin to be aware of sexual feelings. Many girls will feel physically attracted to boys. You may notice that you are more interested in other girls. Sometimes, you may feel like you don't fit in because you don't want to talk about boys or go on a date. You may not be ready. Maybe you wish that some of the boys would be more like the girls you admire. It may be that you haven't met the right boys, or it may be that you are attracted to girls.

You may also feel confused or unsure about whether you're a lesbian. Or you may be confused because you're attracted to both boys and girls. That's OK. It may take some time for you to sort all this out. Eventually, you'll find that you're mostly drawn to boys or girls—or both. You don't have to be sure about your identity right now.

If you are a lesbian, remember that you can still be friends with heterosexual girls. Your sexual orientation is an important part of you, but it is one of many parts. You are a complex person with many ideas, interests, and hobbies. You will still share many things in common with your straight friends. Also, both gay and straight girls can have nonsexual relationships with boys. back to top

How common is homosexuality?
About one out of 10 people in the United States is lesbian or gay. Many famous men and women in history were homosexuals. There are gay, lesbian, and bisexual teachers, doctors, lawyers, factory workers, police officers, office workers, politicians, ministers, rabbis, movie stars, artists, truck drivers, models, and novelists. They are white, black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist. They are rich, poor, working class, middle class, and upper class. back to top

If I have a sexual experience with another girl, does that mean I'm a lesbian?
Your sexual behavior and your sexual orientation do not always match up exactly. For instance, a girl may have had a sexual experience with another girl, but does not consider herself a lesbian or a bisexual. This is quite common in adolescence, when you're experimenting with your own sexuality. It's also common for people who are not lesbians to have crushes on other girls or women. On the other hand, you may identify yourself as a lesbian or bisexual even if you've never had a sexual experience. This is normal, too. Every individual chooses how to express her sexual orientation. back to top

What is "coming out"?
Hiding the fact that you're a homosexual is called "being in the closet." "Coming out" is the process of letting yourself and others know that you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. For many people, this can be difficult. You may feel afraid, different, and alone when you first realize that your sexual orientation is different from most people's. You may be afraid of being rejected by your closest friends and family. You may be afraid of being harassed in your own school or community. Sometimes gay groups will pressure someone to come out or to identify themselves as gay before they are ready. Sadly, these are real concerns because there is still a lot of prejudice in the world. In a society that is mostly heterosexual, it is often difficult for a homosexual to get support.

The process of coming out is different for every teen, but most people start out by telling their friends who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Then they may tell their closest heterosexual friends. If that goes well, they may tell some close family members. Parents are often at the end of the list because many teens think that it's hardest of all to tell their parents. Some parents are fully supportive of their children. But many are shocked and confused. And some want nothing more to do with their daughter when they learn she is a lesbian.

If you think you are ready to "come out" to your parents, you may want to ask yourself these key questions:
  • Are you sure about your sexual orientation?
  • Are you comfortable with your homosexuality or bisexuality?
  • Do you have support from groups and individuals?
  • Are you knowledgeable about homosexuality?
If you answered no or maybe to these questions, you may need to spend more time gaining knowledge and support. You'll need to go into the situation feeling strong, so make sure you're ready for any kind of response.

Why is it important for a teen to "come out"? Sharing personal information is how we form relationships. Just as a heterosexual girl may talk freely about her crushes on boys, a lesbian or bisexual girl also wants to be able to talk about her crushes on girls. It is hard to have good, honest relationships if you feel that you have to keep a big part of your identity a secret. Most people "come out" so that they can live more comfortably with themselves—and others. back to top

What is homophobia?
Homophobia is the fear of homosexuality. Sadly, the newspapers are filled with the tragic stories of young people who have been hurt or killed because of homophobia. Even if homosexuals are not physically hurt by homophobia, they are hurt emotionally from the constant prejudice and discrimination at school, in the community, even at home.

A recent study done by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educational Network showed that more than 41 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people do not feel safe in their schools. And 69 percent experience some form of harassment or violence there. That's why homosexual teens are more likely to miss school than their straight peers.

Homosexual teens are also at greater risk for substance abuse, homelessness, school difficulties, prostitution, depression, and suicide. A number of studies say that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are two to four times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers. And up to 30 percent of teen suicides committed every year are by homosexual teens.

If you are homosexual or bisexual, remember that you deserve to get the help you need. It is also good to know that two famous American laws protect you. One law is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is the law about the separation of church and state. Among other things, this means that no one at your school, such as a counselor or a teacher, can try to persuade you that homosexuality is a religious sin. The second law is the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that you must get equal treatment. This means that your school must protect you from harassment. A few years ago, one student received a court settlement of one million dollars after the jury found that his school didn't stop antigay harassment directed at him. back to top

If I think I am a lesbian, is there anyone I can talk to?
It is not unusual to feel confused about your sexual orientation when you're a teenager. It may be helpful for you to talk with someone or even to get some counseling. You could go to a guidance counselor or social worker in your school or a youth or counseling center in your neighborhood. There are also a number of organizations in the United States that refer young people to qualified mental health professionals who understand homosexuality.

If you need to talk to someone immediately, you can call one of several hotlines that serve lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Visit our hotlines page for more information. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/28/2001
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