We have arrived at the heart of this guide: gathering and examining the evidence that indicates your sexual orientation.
The questions that follow presume two things. First, they presume that you experience yourself as being either a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl) whether you are a cisgender man or woman or a trans man or woman. Second, the questions presume that the gender identity of potential sexual/romantic partners is relevant to you. If one or both of those assumptions is not true for you, then it's probably accurate to say that you do not possess a sexual orientation in the traditional sense of that concept. If that is the case and you are ever asked “What is your sexual orientation?”, your response — if you choose to give one — could honestly be “I’m attracted to the person, not the gender.”
In order to clarify your sexual orientation, you’ll identify and consider three types of evidence — your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors — based on your life experiences thus far. Doing so may be anxiety-provoking, but it’s essential. You may need to be courageous, which doesn't mean fearless. Courage means taking action despite feeling fear.
You may benefit from having an LGB-affirming friend or counselor to talk with as you gather and examine the evidence. If so, you'll find advice for finding such a counselor in Part 7, "Resources." Ideally, that supportive person would have neither the hope that you will "accept that you are LGB" nor the hope that you will "realize you are really straight." Rather, that person would want you to discover and embrace your true self while affirming that they will embrace the true you as well.
I’m going to ask questions about the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that you have experienced with people of your sex and the other sex. Don’t limit yourself to the questions I pose as you gather evidence from your life. I could never imagine all of the possibilities of what you may have experienced. And you may want to write down the evidence that you discover (and keep it in a safe place if you fear someone else finding it), especially if the evidence is complex.
This process may proceed quickly or slowly. Some people need more time than others. As you gather and interpret the evidence from your life, I hope you will allow yourself as much time as you need to identity the evidence and reflect upon its meaning.
Gathering the Evidence
Thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are often intertwined. The same experience — such as a crush on X — is likely to generate at least two types of evidence: thoughts (e.g., you may think about the person a great deal) and emotions (e.g., you may feel intense desire to be with the person). You may even experience behaviors (e.g., you may masturbate while thinking about physical intimacy with the person). For the sake of simplicity, however, I will invite you to identify evidence for each of these phenomena separately.
At this point I want to add a paragraph for male readers. Experiencing or acknowledging one's emotions is challenging for some guys. Male socialization during childhood teaches some boys that "real men" are tough, not tender. And most boys receive clear messages that "a real man" is heterosexual. If male socialization has impaired your emotional connections with others — men and/or women — working with a counselor could be an important part of your process of clarifying your sexual orientation.
Interpreting the Evidence
Once you have gathered the available evidence regarding your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors involving both males and females up to this point in your life, what is the weight of the evidence? As you contemplate the meaning of the evidence, you may encounter one or more complicating factors.
One potential complicating factor is that the preponderance of the evidence can change over time. For some people, the evidence becomes more consistent over time. For others, the evidence becomes more varied over time. (Recall the discussion of Myth #6 in Part 3.) Do you give more weight to the evidence from the past year or two of your life, or do you weigh all evidence equally? There is no correct answer to this question; use your judgment with the knowledge that you can revise your sexual orientation identity as additional evidence comes along.
A second potential complicating factor concerns the relative importance of the various evidences. Is some evidence more important to you? For example, do you consider your emotional attractions to be a more important indicator of your sexual orientation than your physical attractions? Or vice versa? Only you can determine whether certain types of evidence carry more weight for you.
A third potential complicating factor concerns how to interpret the meaning of physical attractions. You might wonder whether your physical attractions toward persons of either sex are merely aesthetic appreciation (i.e., admiring another's beauty or handsomeness as you might admire a classical statue) rather than evidence of one's sexual orientation. You might wonder whether physical attraction to individuals of the same sex is merely envy (e.g, "I wish I looked like him!") If you are a guy, it might help you to interpret ambiguous physical attractions to someone of the same sex if you were to imagine that guy was talking with you, looking into your eyes, and holding you hand in some safe location. How would you respond to that attention from him? This strategy might not be as clarifying for women and girls, however, because the culture gives them more freedom to look into each other's eyes and touch, even among friends.
A fourth potential complicating factor concerns how to interpret the meaning of emotional attractions. Many people experience an intense emotional attachment to one or more friends of the same sex during their lifetime, especially during adolescence. This phenomenon has been variously called "romantic friendship," "girl crush," and "bromance." It may take time to clarify whether the experience of one or more romantic friendships is evidence of an LGB sexual orientation. Indeed, interpreting either ambiguous emotional or physical attractions is probably best done withing the context of all types of evidence and not in isolation.
When you consider the totality of the evidence, you may conclude that you are mostly straight rather than exclusively straight, or mostly gay rather than exclusively gay. Or perhaps you conclude that you are bisexual because you consistently experience substantial (though not necessarily equal) emotional and/or physical attractions to both cisgender males and cisgender females. Alternatively, perhaps you realize “it’s the person, not the gender” that matters to you, and the label of pansexual may feel like a good fit.
Regardless of your understanding of your sexual orientation, you are free to describe your sexuality to yourself and to others in whatever way that makes sense to you. As noted in Part 2, there are many possibilities. And you are free to revise your description of your sexual orientation in the future. Alternatively, you are free to reject all sexual orientation identity labels.
If your examination of the evidence indicates that you are straight or mostly straight, your journey through this guide may end here.
If you continue to be confused about your sexual orientation, there are several possible reasons. One possibility is that you face one or more obstacles to the idea that you might be something other than heterosexual. In Part 5, "Four Obstacles to Sexual Orientation Identity Development," you can contemplate the potential contribution of these obstacles to your confusion.
If you have reached clarity that you are not heterosexual (regardless of the words you choose to describe your sexual orientation identity), you may face some obstacles that will inhibit you from feeling positively about your sexuality. You too may benefit from contemplating the potential relevance of the "Four Obstacles to Sexual Orientation Identity Development" that we'll explore in Part 5, then continuing to Part 6 to consider your "Next Steps." (Use the navigation, on the left at the top of the page.)
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