Pride and Prejudice: Coming to Terms with Sexual Orientation
Every year, the beginning of summer heralds “Gay Pride Day” – a day of parades and festivals that occurs throughout our nation and provides the gay community and its straight allies the opportunity to celebrate the diversity, contributions, and solid presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in our community. With the November elections in sight, politicians and political action groups have also seized the opportunity to debate which legal rights the LGBT community should be entitled to, whether or not gays deserve equal protection under the law, and even the basic question of whether or not it’s morally acceptable to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person.
The mental health community has also hotly debated how to regard sexual orientation over the last four decades. Prior to 1970, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder – an aberration to the heterosexual norm and classified as one of several “sociopathic personality” disorders requiring treatment. This outdated view has been replaced by modern research that clarifies sexual orientation existing along a continuum in a class bell-shaped curve. We are now at a point in time to recognize that homosexuality is not a problem – but rather a normal variation for up to 10% of the population and occurring throughout the history of humankind, in all cultures and on all continents. In fact, over the last two decades, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Association have all come out with solid statements that affirm and support sexual orientation as a basic biological variance.
Furthermore, these organizations have denounced so-called “reparative therapy” (therapy that purports to change one’s sexual orientation), citing research and studies that conclusively show that these “treatments” are not only ineffective, but are also incredibly damaging and harmful – even life-threatening – to its participants. Just a week ago, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, one of the eminent fathers of modern psychiatry, came forward with statement. “I owe the gay community an apology,” he announced as he publically recanted his highly flawed 2003 study that suggested sexual orientation could be changed by those who were highly motivated to make that change.
So, whilst Pride Day is a day of celebration and merriment for many, for persons who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation, this day may be fraught with emotional angst and fears – of being “outed”, of rejection by family and friends, of both overt and covert discrimination or hate crimes – and feelings of depression, isolation, anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing and self-doubt. For family members who have recently discovered that a loved one is gay, there are frequently feelings of confusion, anger, grief, fear and shame. For transgender individuals, the struggle is even more intense, with misunderstanding and mistreatment generally coming from all directions.
As a therapist in a group counseling and psychiatric practice, my colleagues and I regularly provide counseling to men, women, adolescents and children looking for help in resolving the issues and challenges of understanding and accepting their, or their family members’, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. As a result of the overt and covert discrimination the gay community faces – from hate crimes to employment inequalities to intolerance from their families/friends – coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation can feel like a minefield. It is no wonder that LGBT adolescents have an up to eight times higher incidence of suicide attempts, as well as increased rates of homelessness, drug abuse and depression. Likewise, LGBT adults are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, as well as untreated medical needs.
Because of internalized homophobia and our heterocentric culture, many LGBT persons have chosen to hide their sexual orientation and live as if straight, often marrying and creating a family. Sadly, when these persons realize the painful reality of the situation, it can be devastating for all involved.
Working with a knowledgeable, supportive therapist can be helpful to debunk myths and misunderstandings about what being LGBT means as well as to move toward acceptance and emotional resolution. For instance, often the early years of ones’ “coming out” process necessitate a more active role in identifying with one’s sexual orientation – this is a normal, healthy part of self-acceptance and developing comfort with oneself and should be encouraged. As self-acceptance grows, generally, LGBT individuals are able to regard their orientation as simply one small aspect of their life, to build a supportive network of friends and family, and to recognize homophobia as prejudice.
If you are struggling with your sexual orientation or someone you care about is struggling, please check out the following links, which provide resources to help educate, support, and empower:
The GLBT Community Center of Colorado - www.glbtcolorado.org
Parent’s and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) – www.pflag.org
One Colorado - www.one-colorado.org
COLAGE: People with a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender or Queer Parent (formerly Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) – www.colage.org
Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network - www.admhn.org