Developing a health Gay or lesbian or bisexual identity
Sexual orientation describes an individual’s sexual, emotional and romantic attraction to persons belonging to either the opposite gender (heterosexual orientation) or the same gender (homosexual orientation) or both genders (bisexual orientation). The homosexual community is commonly referred to as lesbian, gay and bisexual or LGB community.
The development of a person’s sexual orientation identity is a complex psychosocial process that usually begins at an early age during adolescence. Typically it is thought that non-heterosexual identities develop in stages but it is far more likely that it is not a linear process and differs depending on the individuals and their circumstances.
A healthy non-heterosexual identity usually involves the development of not just a strong personal identity but also a social LGB identity.
As compared to heterosexuals, homosexuals face far more complex issues growing up and finding their identity. The primary reason for this is the social stigma and discrimination they experience which increases their struggleof coming to terms with their non-heterosexual orientation. Coupled with the lack of awareness in society about the LGB community and the legal repercussions of claiming their sexual orientation, it is not unusual then that many may chose to never “come out” and lead lives of deception or denial. This may eventually take an emotional toll on the person and his or her family. In fact it has been found that LGB individuals are far more likely than heterosexual men and women to suffer from mental health disorders related to depression, anxiety, drug and/or alcohol abuse.
An individual’s socio-economic status, ethnicity, race and age play major roles in shaping their LGB identity. Many cultures especially those of Asian countries are far less forgiving towards individuals identifying as LGB, making it harder for them to fully experience their LGB identity.
LGB individuals are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, because of the high prevalence of the disease especially among the homosexual male population. This further exacerbates the homophobia present in society and may be the reason many choose to stay invisible.
An integral part of developing a healthy positive identity in LGB individuals requires them to “come out” about their sexual orientation. This process is thought to occur in stages, which may not necessarily be mutually exclusive and varies between individuals in terms of duration and severity.
Stage 1 is termed identity confusion and usually occurs during adolescence when teenagers begin to experience feelings and attractions that fall outside the social norms of society. Most choose to deny and suppress these feelings at this stage.
Stage 2 is termed as identity comparison, when one starts to confront their feelings and entertain the possibility of being gay. At this stage they are usually curious to learn more about what being LGB means.
Stage 3 is termed identity tolerance and usually describes the process of coming out of denial. This can happen perhaps after meeting other gay people or having a romantic and/or sexual encounter/relationship with another homosexual.
Stage 4 is termed identity acceptance. The person has now more or less come to terms with being gay and is now exploring the various subcultures and may have a fairly active and involved lifestyle within the LGB community. Some may also start to come out to their family and others they are comfortable with.
Stage 5 is termed identity pride. At this point, the individual takes pride in his/her non-heterosexual identity and may choose to express themselves more overtly by adopting stereotypical homosexual behaviors or tendencies. They may also experience increased anger towards society at large for marginalizing them and choose to isolate themselves from others.
Stage 6 is termed identity synthesis and describes a period when the individual is at peace with the choices they have made. They may no longer feel the need to rage against society or loudly proclaim their gay identity. They have internalized these feelings of pride and are now comfortable being who they are without necessarily being defined by their sexual orientation. By this stage, most LGB individuals are usually “out of the closet” not just to members of their family but to society at large.
Not everyone agrees with these 6 stages as the framework for the development of a non-heterosexual identity. Individuals may experience one stage more strongly than another. Some may choose not to engage with the LGB community and therefore not have a strong LGB social identity, while others may find no need to come out to people other than close family member and friends.
Socio-cultural, religious and economic factors play a huge role in determining how a person deals with the emotional upheaval they may experience as they proceed through these stages. A strong family connection, a liberal and open society, the presence of LGB groups and clubs etc. can all help ease the transition into a well adjusted LGB individual. It is therefore absolutely essential that families as well as the government work together in enabling lesbians, gays and bisexuals to discover their voice and find their place as equals amongst others in society.