Welcome to Sexual Orientation 101!

In this section, we'll take a brief look at the basic social science concepts and factual information necessary for an informed discussion of issues related to sexual orientation, including the origins of orientation, 'reorientation', pastoral care, gay youth, homophobia, and the 'gay lifestyle'. We'll also include some links to websites where you'll find more detailed information.
(Note: To return to the top of this page, you can hit the "Home" key on your keyboard or click on the link following each section heading.)

Some definitions
How many gay men or lesbians are there?
How do we get our sexual orientation?
Can sexual orientation be changed?
What is "coming out"?
Are gays and lesbians "mentally disordered"?
What about gay youth?
What about the "gay lifestyle"?
What are same-sex couples like?
Couples with children?
Homophobia

Let's start with some basic definitions.

1. SEXUAL ORIENTATION. This refers to a person's enduring sexual-affectional orientation to members of the same gender (homosexual), the other gender (heterosexual) or either gender (bisexual). You'll note there are entwined erotic and emotional dimensions. Another way to think of sexual orientation is our propensity or capacity to "fall in love with" someone of the same, the other or either gender.
2. GENDER IDENTITY. Not to be confused with sexual orientation, gender identity refers to our self-identification as being of a gender – male or female. People who experience a disjunction between their biological sex and their gender identity are "transgendered" and may be homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual in orientation.
3. SOCIAL SEX-ROLE BEHAVIOUR. This concerns what's "typical" for our gender as far as our behaviour goes. It's about how we act "like a man" or "like a woman". From how "typically" we behave nothing can be concluded about our sexual orientation or gender identity. What's typical can be considerably different across time and cultures.

HOW MANY GAY MEN OR LESBIANS ARE THERE? [back to top]

Since gays and lesbians are an invisible minority, estimating numbers is a challenge. The most rigourous studies estimate between two and four per cent of men and one and two per cent of women self-identify as gay or lesbian. The fact that a proportion of people aren't exclusively heterosexual or homosexual can complicate the picture. For example, a recent study found that while ninety-one per cent of men and ninety-five per cent of women described themselves as heterosexual, twenty-two per cent of men and seventeen per cent of women also reported having had homosexual experiences.

HOW DO WE GET OUR SEXUAL ORIENTATION? [back to top]

Another puzzle. Earlier theories focused on features of the social environment and people's experiences with family and peers. None of them have held up under scientific scrutiny. No social environmental feature distinguishes homosexual from heterosexual people in all cases. More recently, biological explanations have become more persuasive because of a consistency of biological research data from various sources. It may be that biological and social factors interact in ways we cannot yet determine to influence sexual orientation development.

    Want to know more? Check out the American Psychological Association for its response to often-asked questions about sexual orientation. For a concise textbook summary about sexual orientation from one of the most widely read educators in psychology, see Dr. David Meyers.

CAN SEXUAL ORIENTATION BE CHANGED? [back to top]

The short answer is No. Though some people claim to have changed and some "reparative" therapists or "ex-gay" organizations claim to have enabled this, there is no independent, scientific evidence to support such claims. Some people talk vaguely about "healing sexual brokenness" or "leaving the gay lifestyle," suggesting that sexual orientation can be changed. Recent follow-up surveys of people who have taken part in orientation-change programs reveal that only a small proportion found such programs to be of some help to them (perhaps in finding camaraderie within a conservative community or overcoming obsessive behaviours), but a large proportion reported that they had actually been harmed.

WHAT IS "COMING OUT"? [back to top]

The process of developing an identity into which one's sexuality is well-integrated is for lesbians and gay men called coming out. Gay or lesbian identity is neither conferred nor evident from earliest childhood, but discovered and then owned. The process in brief usually involves stages of awareness of "something's different" about me, then recognizing where my romantic interests are directed, accepting that this is something enduring about me and finally, affirming that it's a good thing! Coming out to oneself, then selected friends, family members, work colleagues is an ever-widening circle of self-disclosure. Coming out is probably a life-long process.

ARE GAYS AND LESBIANS "MENTALLY DISORDERED"? [back to top]

Although several decades ago the dominant view was that homosexuality was a mental disorder, numerous scientific investigations since have shown consistently that there is no basis for it. As a consequence, the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations stopped regarding homosexuality as a mental disorder in the mid-1970s. The most widely used official diagnostic manuals for mental illness (from the APA and World Health Organization) no longer include homosexuality, causing most governments – even in traditionally conservative countries like China – to abandon policy based on earlier views (a glaring exception to this would be a few countries in central Africa).

It is likely true, however, that gay and lesbian people face some unique psycho-social challenges. But these don't arise from their sexual orientation per se but from experiences of discrimination, stigma and anti-gay violence.

WHAT ABOUT GAY YOUTH?

Homosexually oriented youth – perhaps especially some First Nations young people – face unique psychosocial challenges, primarily the result of societal stigma, hostility, hatred, and isolation. The seriousness of these stresses is underlined by current data that suggest that gay youth account for up to 30% of all completed adolescent suicides.

WHAT ABOUT THE "GAY LIFESTYLE"? [back to top]

Certainly there is no evidence of a lifestyle which would differentiate all gay and lesbian people from all straight people. Could we even confidently identify the "typical" gay or lesbian lifestyle? A common and usually negative stereotype is the "gay bar scene" which would certainly be a lifestyle feature of some gay and lesbian folks, but what proportion? What proportion of equivalent-age single straight people would be involved in a "straight bar scene"?

As far as the range of possibilities is concerned, lesbian and gay people describe their lives as being occupied by what occupies heterosexual folks -- making a living, looking after physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs, building and maintaining relationships, paying rent or mortgages, planning holidays or retirement, contributing to community and church, and so on. Some are in couples, some are single, some have children, others don't.

WHAT ARE SAME-SEX COUPLES LIKE? [back to top]

Studies show that many if not most lesbians and gay men are involved in satisfying, close relationships. Psychologists Peplau and Spalding further conclude from their extensive review of the research that:

    "Comparisons of heterosexual and same-sex couples find many similarities in relationship quality and in the factors associated with satisfaction, commitment and stability over time. Efforts to apply basic relationship theories have been largely successful. There is much commonality among the issues facing all close relationships, regardless of the sexual orientation of the partner."

Most gay and lesbian couples adopt a best-friendship, egalitarian model for their relationship, rather than one based on traditional, hierarchical gender roles. Some studies suggest that a greater proportion of lesbian and straight couples than gay male couples choose monogamy.

COUPLES WITH CHILDREN? [back to top]

Although the number seems to be growing, an unknown proportion of gay and lesbian couples have children, biological offspring or adopted. Some recent media statements from certain church officials led the President of the Canadian Psychological Association, Dr. Patrick O'Neil, to reply publicly: "1.) available evidence indicates that the children of gay and lesbian parents do not differ significantly from the children of heterosexual parents with regard to psycho-social and gender development and identity; 2.) statements that children of gay and lesbian parents have more and significant problems in the area of psycho-social or gender development and identity than do the children of heterosexual parents have no support from the scientific literature; and 3.) if gay and lesbian parents encounter unique stress as parents, it is more likely the result of the public's beliefs and perceptions about their fitness as parents and obstacles created by social systems such as the courts, than it is the result of any deficiencies in their actual fitness to parent."

    Want to know more? The American Academy of Pediatrics reports, "A considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual." The American Psychological Association provides an annotated bibliography of research in its report on Lesbian and Gay Parenting.

HOMOPHOBIA [back to top]

Homophobia was first defined as "dread, revulsion, loathing and the desire to inflict punishment as retribution" by the psychologist who coined it (G. Weinberg). Alternatives include "heterosexism" (the belief that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality) or sexual prejudice (all negative attitudes based on sexual orientation).

Some people object that their disapproval of homosexuality is much more rational than the term homophobia would imply. Perhaps homophobia is best diagnosed from the evidence, the fruits of a person's attitude in speech and action. Reasonable, respectful and fair-minded? Hostile, untruthful, coercive or violent?


Banner illustration: Naomi and Ruth by He Qi; Site Design: ondesign
IntegrityCanada.org is an outreach of Integrity Vancouver in cooperation with Integrity chapters across Canada, ©2004 All Rights Reserved