"Am I Gay?"
A Guide for People Who Question Their Sexual Orientation

Richard H. Reams, Ph.D.

Part 5: Four Obstacles to Sexual Orientation Identity Development

Consider whether you face any of the following obstacles in the sexual orientation identity development process, commonly called the coming out process for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc. (LGB+).  One or more of these obstacles can inhibit you from:
  • Concluding that your sexual orientation is LGB+ (coming out to oneself).
  • Feeling positive about your orientation as LGB+ (also part of coming out to oneself).
  • Disclosing your sexual orientation (coming out to others at least selectively).

Obstacle #1:  Fears about Others’ Reactions
 

How do you think your family, especially your parents, would react if you were to come out as bisexual or gay or pansexual or...?  With disappointment?  Anger?  Sadness?  Shame?  A combination of negative thoughts and emotions?  If you have heard negative comments about LGB+ people from family members, you may be especially hesitant to see yourself as something other than heterosexual. 

Coming out can also generate anxiety about how friends, coworkers, teachers, etc. might respond.  Perhaps you fear rejection from some people.  You may worry that others will see you differently if you come out to them, even if they accept you.  For example, you may fear that some people will mistakenly see your sexuality as being the most important dimension of who you are while you know it is only one dimension of your multifaceted self.  Or you may fear that some people will assume you fit LGB+ stereotypes about gay men (e.g., “they are promiscuous”) or lesbians (e.g., “they dislike men”) or bisexuals (e.g., “they are unable to commit to one person in a monogamous relationship”).

Obstacle #2:  Stereotypes

There are dozens of LGB+ stereotypes.  For example, gay men are often depicted as being effeminate while lesbians are often depicted as being masculine or “butch.”  Although some gay men and lesbians fit the stereotypes and are “obviously gay,” many others don’t fit the stereotype at all, which means that your "gaydar" doesn't go off, and you (as well as others) presume they are straight.

What if you are a male attracted to males and you are into sports, have no interest in fashion, and "pass as straight" in the eyes of others?  What if you are a female attracted to females and like to wear dresses and makeup?  Gay men and lesbians who don’t fit the stereotype can face greater difficulty accepting themselves as being gay.  Research indicates that, generally speaking, masculine gay males and feminine lesbians take longer to recognize their sexual orientation than their gender non-conforming gay and lesbian peers.

Masculine gay males may find “obvious gays” to be unappealing. “If that’s what it means to be gay, then I must not be gay,” they might mistakenly conclude.  Alternatively, some straight-appearing guys mistakenly believe that to accept a gay identity means having to do a makeover to fit the gay stereotype, and that prospect is unappealing.  Feminine lesbians can experience comparable obstacles to accepting a lesbian identity. 

Obstacle #3:  Anti-Gay Religious Teachings

If you belong to a conservative or fundamentalist religious community, you may anticipate negative repercussions if you were to come out as LGB+.  In such religious communities, it is not uncommon to hear religious texts quoted as evidence of divine displeasure with homosexual behavior and, explicitly or by implication, with LGB+ persons.  Fear of divine condemnation, including "hell," can be a powerful obstacle to self-acceptance. 

Some gays who are also Christian struggle with the question, “Is it possible to be a ‘gay Christian’?”  Others will wonder if it is possible to be a gay Jew, gay Hindu, gay Muslim, etc.  If negative religious teachings are an obstacle for you, you'll discover helpful religious resources in Part 7.

Obstacle #4:  Loss of Heterosexual Privilege

Heterosexual Privilege refers to all of the advantages that heterosexual people enjoy, usually without being aware of them as privileges.  In fact, I have already identified two heterosexual privileges that some LGB+ people lose when they come out to others.  One privilege is enjoying family support for one’s process of dating others, usually with the family expectation that a compatible spouse will be found.  Another is the privilege of participating in a faith community where you are affirmed and where your relationship with your spouse, should you have one, is also affirmed.

There are dozens of additional privileges that LGB people are denied.  While some are dramatic, many are subtle, such as hearing love songs that clearly identify both individuals as being of the same sex, or being able to buy a Valentine card that reflects you and your same-sex partner’s gender.  For some LGB+ people, the anticipation of losing the privileges of being heterosexual in a heterosexually-oriented world is a powerful deterrent to the coming out process.


This list of four obstacles is not exhaustive, of course.  What other obstacles might you be facing?  If you are facing one or more obstacles, it may be important for you to talk with an LGB-affirming counselor about the obstacles and fears that interfere with your sexual orientation identity development process.  You’ll find tips on ways to identify such counselors in Part 7, “Resources.

Wherever you are in your process of sexual orientation identity development, consider what your "Next Steps" may be, the topic of Part 6.




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