The Psychological Experience of a Same Sex Orientation

J. Lamar Freed

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While meeting for mutual support with two high school friends after my first year in college, I first confronted the question of same sex attraction. My good friend revealed that he struggled with attractions to men; he asked that we pray for his healing and relief from this burden. We did pray, very earnestly. We also continued to meet that summer, and I continued to connect with my friend for years after that. On most occasions I inquired into his progress in beating this affliction-in resisting or accepting his attraction for men. Through this friendship, I first learned that there are people who are sincerely attracted to others of the same sex and that many factors are unique to their experience. Those factors often have little to do with sex and a great deal to do with identity, self-concept and self-respect.

At the time, I had no idea that ten years later I would be a psychologist. Yet, psychological questions had framed this experience. How did this happen? Could my friend change? How many people were like him? What effect did this experience have on his life? Were others like him, women as well as men? How did such people develop relationships? Were they as “mentally healthy” as people attracted to members of the opposite sex, or did some imbalance produce this problem or develop from it?

Many of these questions have answers. Some do not. Take, for example, the basic question-how does a man or woman develop an attraction toward a member of the same sex? The research is not completely clear, but the answer is similar to that which evolves for people attracted to the other sex. A same sex attraction does not seem to be inherited or established by any simple genetic mechanism. Findings suggest that same sex attraction is strongly influenced by some kind of biological predisposition. Identical twins are more likely to follow a similar direction in their attractions than are fraternal twins. Youngest children are more likely to be gay or lesbian. The chance that a person will be gay or lesbian increases when a sibling is gay or lesbian. More recent studies have searched for and sometimes found an obscure correlation between physiological characteristics and sexual orientation-from the size of certain areas of the brain, to the proportion of the length of one’s fingers, to the continued search for a ‘gay gene.’

Despite correlations underlying the present understanding that biological characteristics strongly influence sexual orientation, no single straightforward answer exists. We can point to no single factor that determines where someone will appear on the continuum of sexual attraction, whether a person will eventually identify him or herself as gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.

Instead, more subtle models of development affect how sexual orientation is established. Many models exist; for example, language development. For many centuries linguists have noted that a language learned early in life came more easily to the student and was more easily retained. Missionary children had an easier time than did their parents in learning a new language. More recently, findings suggest that after a critical age, one cannot learn to speak a language without an accent-roughly after thirteen. Prior to age thirteen, brain flexibility enables children to learn new sounds and to memorize new words or sentence constructions. After that age, certain aspects of language are fixed.

A notable example is Konrad Lorenz’s ducks. Many high school psychology classes discuss these ducks. Konrad Lorenz made the observation that ducks were very attached to their mothers. How does that happen? He observed that the ducklings followed the mother through thick and thin. After observing a variety of circumstances, he concluded that ducklings make a firm attachment to the first moving animal that they see after hatching. They imprint on this object. In order to test this fact, Lorenz stood next to a brood of ducklings as they hatched. He was correct. This deluded group of ducklings imprinted onto Dr. Lorenz and followed him wherever he went. When he was absent they were distressed. They continued this pattern until they matured sufficiently to go out on their own. Later, they had some difficulty forming attachments with other ducks.

These two examples demonstrate that the brain has critical windows of time during which events in the outside world uniquely shape it. If certain events happen at a distinct time, changes in the brain influence behavior for the rest of life. Children exposed to Japanese or German, for example, before age thirteen will more easily retain aspects of that language that no amount of study or practice will facilitate with the same language if studied too late. If a duck is exposed to a swan instead of its mother when it hatches, it will follow the swan, and nothing will change this attachment.

This kind of psychological process is understood to shape the establishment of a sexual attraction. It is far more subtle and complex than that undergone by Lorenz’s ducks, but of a similar pattern. A person takes on a certain biological predisposition in childhood. Something happens at a crucial moment leading him or her to be more attracted to members of the same sex. Other details follow to seal this direction. What these particulars are is not completely known. Depending on the individual, the orientation may be clear very early in life, or it may be less clear until late adolescence and early adulthood. For some people, a clear preference is never established; they live all of their lives with attractions to both sexes. Unlike external behavior, this process is not conscious. It does not involve choices on the part of the person, but develops just as opposite sex attractions do-with confusion, surprise, sudden fits and starts, and without seeming reason.

Also somewhat-not always-conscious is the development of the awareness of one’s attractions and how they fuse into personal identity. People with same sex attractions experience varied conclusions about themselves. Sometimes they conclude that they are exclusively gay or lesbian. Sometimes they conclude that they are bisexual. Sometimes they conclude that an occasional same sex attraction is a benign distraction from their exclusively heterosexual life and of little consequence. Sometimes, more ominously, they conclude that their same sex impulses are forbidden and evil and that to express them endangers them and society. Sometimes they draw other conclusions. Regardless, a process of personal development accompanies this process that involves both private thoughts about themselves and the external behavior that others can observe.

The number of people who conclude that they have a predominant same sex attraction is not large. The vast majority of people develop primary attractions to the opposite sex. The most convincing estimate of the percentage of gay and lesbian men and women in the United States comes from a large national survey published in a book titled Sex In America (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann and Kolata: Little, Brown and Company, 1994). The authors point out the difficulty in defining who a gay man or a lesbian woman is. Definitions vary: from those who are predominantly attracted to members of the same sex, even if they have had little or no sexual experience; to those who have had sexual activity with a member of the same sex, regardless of how they think of their primary orientation; to those who actually identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Using the last, more restrictive definition, the numbers are still complex. In large metropolitan areas, more than nine percent of men claim to be gay. But in rural areas, only one percent claims to be gay. In between, in metropolitan suburbs and small cities the figure is about three to four percent (p. 177). For lesbians the numbers are smaller and more difficult to ascertain, but the same pattern holds.

Small wonder, then, that a denomination like the Mennonites, primarily from rural churches away from urban metropolises of the east or west coast has had difficulty accepting the minority sexual orientation as a normal variation. If people live in one of the nine largest cities, a random sample reveals that one in ten male friends and neighbors is self-identified as gay. Residents in Millersville, Ohio, or Bowmansville, Pennsylvania, might have a hard time finding one in one hundred who is gay. Overall, the numbers hover between three and five percent according to Michael et. al. But given this pattern, such figures are largely meaningless. Depending on residence and people with whom time is spent, exposure to openly gay, bisexual and lesbian people varies significantly.

It is this variation in the places where gay and lesbian people live that points to a very significant psychological event. People of all types like to be around others who are similar to them. Almost immediately when they move into a new neighborhood, sexual minority persons look for others who understand their experience, who are similar to them. This has led to the formation of “gay ghettos” in different parts of the country. There, people who are attracted to others of the same sex live comfortably with less fear of social rejection, isolation, and prejudice.

Fear is a distinct feature of the gay/lesbian experience. Like Mennonites of the sixteenth century, gays and lesbians have suffered significant oppression and persecution, as in Nazi Germany where they were killed along with Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirables.” In North America also, gay and lesbian youth grow up surrounded by crude and belittling jokes expressed by adolescents in all communities. Recent nationally publicized incidents of anti-gay violence underline the dangers that these attitudes present. Mistreatment in many forms, based on prejudice against sexual minorities, is pervasive throughout social and workplace environments. As has been vividly demonstrated with Matthew Shepherd and Robert Drake, gay and lesbian people can fear not only for their dignity but for their very lives. Such experience has a profound psychological effect.

This kind of fear may be present from very early in development. Paralleling the development of one’s sexual orientation are other aspects of one’s identity. As many have experienced, adolescence is a time when young people seek to be accepted, to find their way among and conform to the many social conventions that society gives them. Few parents raise their children without hearing “but all my friends are doing it,” often with great emotion and intensity. Gay and lesbian adolescents have the unique experience of finding that a core aspect of their identity does not lend itself to this process. All of their friends are not doing it. In fact, most of their friends are repulsed; many belittle them. Gay and lesbian adolescents have a disconcerting sense from very early on that they are not like their friends. As they become more conscious of what is different-their sexual attractions-they sometimes turn this contemptuous attitude toward people with same sex attraction against themselves.

Complicating this is the fact that all adolescents experience an ambiguity toward their sexuality that can make unconventional, minority orientations very threatening. Adolescents often tease and bait each other, disparaging their masculinity or femininity. To discover and develop one’s identity as male or female, frequently defined as being attractive to and attracted by members of the opposite sex, is at the core of the task of adolescence. When an adolescent finds that he or she is not developing the “proper” attractions, a severe sense of failure and defectiveness can result.

Experiences such as this are profoundly disturbing to adolescents who are developing a same sex attraction. There are signs that these self-negating attitudes disturb their mental health. The most striking sign of this is that a gay adolescent is significantly more likely to attempt or complete suicide than will his straight compatriots. Placed between the rock of the inevitability of their attractions and the hard place of society’s rejection of people like them, these young people often experience great inner turmoil. But like the emerging orientation, the youth likely keeps this painful struggle secret, for fear of further humiliation. The situation is more distressing for a gay or lesbian adolescent or young adult who is “outed,” meaning involuntarily exposed as gay or lesbian. Such unwanted events can cause a significant crisis, the impact of which varies, depending on the person’s development and the resulting consequences in the world. A striking deviation from this pattern is when some young people voluntarily make their orientation public. They can do so with the same lack of grace and balance exemplified in adolescent behavior in many areas of life. At times they can be obnoxiously self-promoting and militant. Again, as with many adolescents, this behavior is often a cover for personal insecurities and uncertainties.

Importantly, the sexual orientation itself is not a mental health problem. Problems may develop because an individual who is already gay or lesbian may react to the way people with same sex orientations are treated in society. Despite the cards being stacked against them, most gay and lesbian adolescents negotiate the difficult barriers placed before them and become healthy, productive and well balanced adults.

How can this quality be established? Early in the last century, when mental health disciplines first developed a classification of mental illnesses, “homosexuality” was featured among them. Psychologists attempted to validate constructs like femininity and masculinity with psychological tests. They speculated that same sex attractions were developed because of faulty early childhood identifications. Instead of identifying with the same sex parent and emulating him or her, the child may have identified with the opposite sex parent while developing “unhealthy” predilections for the same sex.

Experimental studies were done to examine the thoughts and behavior of gay and lesbian people in psychotherapy and in mental institutions. On the basis of these biased studies, stereotypes of the gay man as a “weak, effeminate, and neurotic” person and the lesbian woman as “mannish and unladylike” were confirmed. By the 1960s most mental health professionals were satisfied with this conclusion and comfortable with the diagnosis of “homosexuality” as a pathological state. Clinicians sought ways to reverse those with a same sex orientation back to the “healthier” orientation toward the opposite sex.

Gay and lesbian activists and researchers, however, challenged these assumptions. As with the political awakening that gay and lesbian people had in New York, San Francisco, and other places, the pages of scholarly journals also saw a gradual but substantial change in how gays and lesbians were portrayed. Researchers in the early 1960s, such as psychologist Evelyn Hooker, stressed the lack of scientific basis for the stereotypes that had been accepted in standard studies of same sex attractions. Researchers examined articles and found a striking pattern of unconvincing research design. Psychologists found that conclusions made about same sex attractions were based on observations made on people who were drawn from the clinical population-people with symptoms of mental illness-and from preconceptions that researchers brought to these studied. These definitions did not consider all of the gay and lesbian people who had no need for help, a large percentage of whom lived full and successful lives alongside their straight contemporaries. At the same time, the tests that psychologists were using to define masculinity and femininity were failing. No matter how hard these researchers tried, they could not find a set of questions that gay and lesbian people answered differently from straight people.

After another ten or so years, this reasoning began to change the classification system of psychology and psychiatry. By 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declared that “homosexuality” was not a mental illness. And by 2000, the American Psychological Association declared that since the vast majority of clinical attempts to change sexual orientation fail, and since there is nothing inherently pathological in same sex orientations, and since attempts to change orientation often harm the patient involved, to make such an attempt is unethical.

Some practitioners continue to be uncomfortable with this professional direction. These practitioners tend to be people who rely on reasons outside their scientific and professional training to influence their feelings about same sex attractions. These people include the radio personality and family therapist Laura Schlesinger, whose loyalty to her orthodox Jewish tradition motivates her opinion, and James Dobson who is influenced by his commitment to traditional fundamentalist readings of certain passages in the Bible. Against substantial clinical evidence, such people continue to hold that “homosexuality” is an “illness” that can be cured.

Opinions are also often influenced by distaste for the idea of same sex couples, a fear of anyone who has sex with a member of the same sex. Even though such fear can be proven to be baseless over time, people continue to experience it. Such fear and distaste for sexual minorities is not limited to people who are straight or bisexual. With such fear so common among some gays and lesbians, a term has emerged to describe it-internalized homophobia. Few sexual minority persons have not experienced some feelings of self-hate as they discover that their sexual attractions differ from the majority of people. Such self-hate can stimulate self-destructive behavior beyond the adolescent years. Alcoholism and drug addiction, suicides and suicide attempts may occur more frequently among gays and lesbians. For others, their families and communities have adequately prepared them to accept the range of possibilities that life offers. They discover and experience their orientation with a minimum of pain, compared to those who struggle to overcome self-loathing and anger.

A process unique to the gay and lesbian community-the coming out process-can be complicated, depending on the personal barriers for individuals. Beginning with the gradual consciousness that he or she has sexual attractions for people of the same sex, the process can end with an open acceptance in the community and in one’s own self-concept as gay or lesbian. The steps in between vary significantly from person to person, but tend to follow a pattern of revelation and acceptance-first to oneself, then to one’s closest friends, then family, and then with others who are more emotionally distant. The process is fraught with peril. Rejection can come from any source. Acceptance by family and friends can take many years; sometimes it does not evolve. The process involves making decisions about how to protect oneself from the prejudices and antipathies in society. Gay or lesbian men and women sometimes need to isolate themselves from a family that rejects them. They might choose to live close to others who are like them, or in communities that accept people who are different from the majority.

The world can be a dangerous place for sexual minorities. They hear painful jokes, are teased for being different, and go through adolescence without the support of society’s conventions and approval. They may be pressured by family and peers to be other than who they really are. They know that some people are vociferously, even violently unhappy about their very existence. As adults they have to be careful who knows about their orientation in order to avoid prejudice vocationally or socially. When they form relationships and want to settle down as a couple, significant barriers arise. No institution of marriage or other type of partnership formalizes, recognizes, and supports their personal commitments. Many institutions do not acknowledge the value of stable same sex relationships.

So what kind of life does that leave for men and women who are attracted to the same sex? Not surprisingly, many gays and lesbians try very hard to make themselves straight. For those distressed about a same sex orientation, a natural impulse is to try to fix it. Many gays and lesbians pursue the dream of a family and children and a “normal” life with an opposite sex spouse.

This kind of life regularly proves to be disastrous for gays and lesbians. Many try to conform by suppressing their natural affections and forcing themselves to seduce and marry people to whom they are not sexually attracted. Families have survived this choice. But many families have not survived; they have exploded in the chaos and hurt of divorce, desertion, rejection, and heartbreak. Many of us know from personal experience that when we try to live up to conventions or family expectations that do not fit the direction of our heart, disappointment or even disaster follows. This is true whether related to career, education, type of marriage partner, bearing or not bearing children, or choice of denomination. The task is no less difficult when decisions have to do with sexual orientation.

Gay and lesbian men and women who have avoided this entrapment do better and have demonstrated that they are quite capable of forming long-term, successful attachments with members of the same sex. Depending upon the values that they bring, these relationships can be relationships of mutual trust and sexual faithfulness. Many same sex couples expect relationships to be temporary or that the couple will be open to extra-sexual alliances. Gays and lesbians are no better than straight couples whose marriages last an average of seven years. However, as story after story demonstrates, Christian same sex couples are just as likely as straight couples to enter into relationships with sincere intents to be faithful to their partner for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, no definitive studies have been made of the behavior of same sex couples. Unlike with straight couples, the percentage of “divorces” among gay and lesbian couples is an unknown. We do not know whether breakups occur over the same issues that break up “heterosexual” marriages. Clinicians who have worked with a large number of gay and lesbian clients have intuitions and observations. For example, gay men tend to be more sexually active and to have more partners than do lesbians. This behavior is similar to the general tendency for straight men-to have more interest in sex and sexual activity and seemingly less ability to live up to their commitments of fidelity, than is true for women. Lesbians tend to pair off more quickly and to establish relationships that tend to be more permanent, that reflect a preference towards the same kind of personal closeness and emotional sharing that women seem to have in straight relationships. Nevertheless, without good descriptive research, the details in these matters remain unknown.

But on an individual basis, we can describe how gay and lesbian persons live their lives. Those who live in larger metropolitan areas more easily discover other committed same sex couples. These couples generally appear to live, as do couples of the opposite sex, within similar social and economic groups. They sleep together, share cooking and cleaning chores, and have other same sex couple friends. They split the mortgage payment, save for retirement, argue over which movie to see on a Saturday night, and function as we do, as our parents did, and as the next generation will do. They also negotiate regarding their sex lives. They discover what each partner prefers; stereotypes regarding sexual activity correspond with other stereotypes-sometimes true but often very inaccurate.

Gay and lesbian people are more like non-gays than they are unlike them. All of us wish to have happy, productive lives, lived within chosen communities. All of us long for successful relationships, to be recognized by the people around us. All of us are deeply influenced by society’s attitudes, which we take to heart. All of us feel pain when we learn that who we are is condemned or rejected by others. All of us want to go to work, go to church, go to movies, go to the malls, and go on vacations without worrying that we will be the objects of scorn or rejection. All of us choose places to live and work, based on our abilities.

In fact, the only feature for sexual minorities that differs from the majority straight population is their predominant attraction to others of the same sex. That this attraction seriously shapes other aspects of their experience reflects society; it is not a reflection of the direction of their attraction. For non-gays to accept the fact of commonalities with sexual minorities would enable all of us to adjust together.

My wife and I have attended Germantown Mennonite Congregation off and on for over fifteen years. Since both of us had friends who were gay or lesbian before we attended, we were eager for this congregation to accept gay and lesbian Christians as members. We supported the congregation’s process. Over the years we have worshiped with gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We have served on committees with each other. We have shared dinner. We have heard sermons from friends who happen to be among the sexual minorities and from those who happen to be straight; we have served and received communion with each other. This long-term pattern has felt as normal to us as our experience within the congregations of our childhood. I continue to live with the answers to the questions that I first asked more then twenty years ago. Now my questions have shifted, becoming even more puzzling. They focus on how long it will take for the Mennonite Church to see that accepting Christian gay and lesbian brothers and sisters does not damage congregational life, but continues to extend the richness and diversity of the Kingdom of God.

Thank you to Kevin Kuehlwine, Psy D., Lin Garber, and Dorothy Yoder Nyce for editorial assistance.

J. Lamar Freed, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice, primarily seeing older adults in five Philadelphia area retirement communities. He also sees patients in his Philadelphia office. His articles about mental health and multiple sclerosis and a list of presentations to community groups are available on the web at Dr. Freed lives in the East Falls section of Philadelphia with his wife.
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