Sexual Orientation & Youth
This article explores the developmental and interpersonal experienced by young people as they pertain to gender and sexual orientation. Cognitive isolation from self is one of the unique characteristics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) developmental processes. As LGBT individuals gain self-knowledge, they are challenged by the choices of invisibility versus self-disclosure and safety versus self-respect. By focusing on shifting American views of LGBT issues in relation to adolescent gender and sexual orientation development, this article explores the challenges facing LGBT youth and adults.
Keywords Androphilia; LGBT; Gynephilia; Heterosexism; Homophobia; Inequality; Pansexual; Polysexual
On February 12, 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot twice in the head as he sat in his Oxnard, California junior high school computer lab working on a paper. King had been teased by his peers since he had started elementary school because of his effeminate mannerisms. By the age of 10, he had confirmed their accusations, stating that he was gay and sometimes dressing in women's clothing. With Valentine's Day approaching, female friends of King started asking male classmates to be their Valentines. King asked a 14-year-old male student to be his Valentine, and the next day that student brought a handgun to school and killed him (Setoodeh, 2008). According to Katherine Newman's study on school shootings, youth affected by another junior high school shooting in Westside, Arkansas, reported that being called "gay" was a "catastrophic" epithet that would destroy their standing with their peers (Newman, 2004, p. 38). Throughout Newman's analyses of school shootings nationwide, anxiety about sexual orientation played a major role in these murderous confrontations. Thus, despite the profound advancements made in social equality in terms of sexual orientation nationwide, at this time there are also real risks and threats that confront lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals every day in our society.
Sexual orientation can be defined in many ways, but the most familiar definitions are the legal ones: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. Heterosexuality is a sexual attraction to individuals of the opposite gender, and homosexuality is an attraction to individuals of the same gender. Bisexuality is an attraction to both men and women, although some individuals choose to use the word "polysexual" to avoid the assumption that only two genders exist. Asexuality is a lack of sexual interest altogether. Individuals also might define themselves as pansexual, which means that they express their sexuality in many forms.
Transgender is an umbrella term that includes transvestites and transsexuals. Transvestites are individuals who wear the clothing normally worn by members of the opposite gender in a given society and adopt the stereotypical attributes or mannerisms associated with that gender. Transvestites can be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, since their pleasure in wearing the clothing of the opposite gender does not necessarily have anything to do with their sexual orientation. Transsexuals or intersexuals are individuals who feel that their sexual identity is different from the one that they present within their family, friends, and community. These individuals may have aspects of the male/female duality, or they may have been assigned the wrong gender at birth. They may choose to ignore these feelings or, alternately, choose to pass as the opposite gender. Some may choose to undergo gender reassignment through hormone therapy or surgery. Some advocates for intersexual individuals are today questioning the need for hormone therapy and surgery to change the gender of an individual, arguing that this process enhances traditional, distorted views of gender in our society rather than supports diversity in gender existence. In terms of their sexual orientation, transgendered individuals who are attracted to women express gynephilia, while individuals attracted to men express androphilia. Estimates on the number of individuals who are gay or lesbian in our culture vary. Some polls indicate a nationwide average of between 3.5 and 4 percent. Since, however, surveys require self-identification, it is difficult to get a fully accurate count—self-identifying as LGBT can depend on personal comfort with being out, with the region of the world the respondent lives in, and with how an individual sees himself or herself.
Determining Sexual Orientation
Scholars continue to debate how to determine an individual's sexual orientation, with some relying solely on self-identification and others also taking into account the individual's sexual behavior. Complicating the matter is the fact some individuals identify with a different sexual orientations at various times in their lives, depending upon their relationships and their state of mind. Conversely, other individuals adhere to one sexual orientation even in the face of numerous sexual encounters that would seem to indicate a different orientation (e.g. a man who identifies himself as heterosexual yet also engages in homosexual encounters). Further, genital sex is not considered a prerequisite for a homosexual or heterosexual identity, meaning that an individual may consider him or herself homosexual without having ever engaged in homosexual intercourse.
At this time in our society, given the increased visibility of variations on sexual orientation, young people are announcing their sexual identity at a younger age. In the 1970s, it was typical for gay and lesbian individuals to solidify their sexual orientation identity in their mid-to-late twenties. Now, young people are beginning to express their identities in middle and high school, in part because of the greater visibility of LGBT issues in our society as well as the increased support for these young people in our schools, religious institutions, and families.
Like other forms of oppression and discrimination, hostility toward LGBT individuals (also called "homophobia") takes a great toll on the individual's sense of being a whole, good, and acceptable person. These negative feelings toward self are called internalized homophobia. Thus, this discussion will start with the individual and early childhood experiences.
Most children are born into family settings that mirror their social identities. In these families, race, gender, ethnicity, linguistic expression, religious orientation, and most of the social categories that define one in relation to family, community, church, and country are cohesive. Exceptions that come to mind are children born with mental or physical challenges and interracial adoptions. In general, however, the child reflects the parental social identity, and, ideally, he or she is treasured within the family even if social oppression, such as racism, devalues the child in the wider world. Further, family and supportive community members can prepare the child to face social oppression and can convey to the child their own experiences and a sense of pride in his or her cultural identity. But, even with the best intentioned of parents, LGBT children usually grow up in a very different context (Harbeck, 2007).
Often very early in their development, LGBT individuals realize that they are different. Until relatively recently, though, there was little accurate information available in our culture on LGBT issues to help these individuals form a positive identity. Negative stereotypes and abusive comments abound, even within the close confines of home, church, and community. In...
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