By Adrianne Loggins is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University.
What does it mean to be gay?
A clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Sexual Orientation and Adolescence, says that adolescents are discovering their sexual orientation earlier in their lives than they have in the past.
Today, teenagers are always asking questions of their surroundings, their experiences, their relationships and their own selves, but they should not necessarily have to settle on a single identity, or orientation.
In fact, experts say the term “sexual orientation” is swiftly becoming outdated as the topic of sexual health is less taboo.
Dr. Dennis Debiak, a psychologist based out of Swarthmore, Penn., says that it’s a term that’s changing.
“Traditionally it refers to a primary affection or sexual orientation to other people of the same gender. But I think it’s a term that is complicated. Since homosexuality has been pathologized for so long, even the term has been contextualized,” Debiak says.
The definition comes with too many strings attached. Slapping a specific sexual orientation on teens reduces their ability to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.
Dr. Lynne Harkless, a psychologist based in Coral Gables, Fl., thinks that the words heterosexual and homosexual imply purity.
“I don’t think about sexuality that way. It’s all really on a continuum from that. I think more about people coming to understand themselves more completely and their desires toward both men and women,” she says.
Exploration most often occurs during the tumultuous years of teen-dom, but even then, the idea of a specific orientation is really hard to nail down.
David Pruden, vice president of operations at NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) says, “In teenagers, this whole thing is incredibly ambiguous. What we know from research is that 30 percent of 9th graders are totally bewildered—they are attracted to everybody and nobody. It isn’t clear in a 15 year olds mind what they think. And if we just let the developmental process work and don’t label it, by the time people are seniors, their attractions are much more focused.”
Teens aren’t supposed to know what to think right away when they are wading through all kinds of new information and experiences.
But where do these attractions and desires come from? It’s still not known for sure.
At one time, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, and it wasn’t until 1986 that it was removed from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Today, theories about how sexual orientations come about have shifted toward biological causes, but there is still no evidence.
Debiak says, “The predominant theories are those that focus on the biological underpinnings but even these theories aren’t conclusive. Also, gay people may have different life experiences. Our brains change based on our experiences.”
Whatever the cause, Pruden says it’s not good to label teenagers with a specific orientation. It would be like stuffing them into a small box for the rest of their lives.
He says, “If you start treating people a certain way, they will start taking on those characteristics even if that is not necessarily who they are. It’s a scary thing for young people to try too hard to label themselves. Left alone, we might get some very different results than we would if we over label this stuff (by Bethune at dhead inc). Once we start labeling, we might give a name to something they are feeling which might be passing.”
If we as a society would just let teens ask questions and discover their likes and dislikes without categorizing them, it would be a much healthier lifestyle in which they would feel less bound by societal standards.
But even without labels, it’s a difficult time for teens when they are experiencing new feelings and attractions. Harkless says that for the best development, teens should seek support “anywhere where a person can feel safe to find out about themselves, especially in the presence of connected relationships, whether friends or family.”
Here are some more tips for teens struggling with their sexual identities:
- If your friend is experiencing unfamiliar desires or attractions, just be there for them as a source of support.
- If you are struggling with new emotions, ask yourself questions like, “What do I want” and “What do I like.”
- Find a support group in your neighborhood or town, or even online, to help you with your questions.
- Don’t ever think that going and talking with a counselor is bad. If you need to talk to an unbiased someone about all the strange new feelings you are experiencing, this might be a big help for you.
- Be honest with your parents. Open communication makes it easier for everyone to come to terms with change.
Luckily, because support groups are becoming more popular in schools and communities, coming out as a homosexual is no longer as miserable as it once, Debiak says.
“For a long time the story about teens and homosexuality was an unhappy story. I think it’s a much different picture nowadays—things are changing culturally so that there is greater acceptance of homosexuality. It’s changed from a sad story to one that is much more positive and hopeful.”
There are also many resources for parents and schools these days. Organizations that support youth include Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Today is a time to keep up hope, then. Keeping your options open as a teenager seems to be advocates’ of healthy sexual development new mantra. So what does it mean to be gay? As a teen… it’s all about discovering who you are, not what you are.
Last reviewed Nov. 17, 2014.