When Do People Discover and Accept Their Sexual Orientations?

I can relate to Nikki. Her feelings are more common than US American culture might lead us to believe. In a research publication entitled Sexual Conduct, John Gagnon wrote that, in the United States, boys commonly engage in some homosexual behavior in early adolescence (he didn’t give a percentage, but the word “commonly” suggests a non-trivial percentage). In their book entitled Sex and Human Loving, William H. Masters, Virginia E. Johnson, and Robert C. Kolodny wrote that a reliable research survey found that: “35 percent of the girls and 52 percent of the boys reported some homosexual play” (in childhood). I was interested in those statements, and the two books more generally, because I experimented at quite a young age. In late childhood and early adolescence, I engaged in what many people would consider homosexual acts with other boys of about my age.

It has been documented by research that, by the time children have reached middle childhood, many have played games like “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Girls that age may play “doctor” or “nurse,” which involves touching a friend’s private areas. At that age, I was playing games analogous to “doctor” with a friend. An adult might consider the touching to be somewhat akin to homosexual behavior, although I had no idea what sexual behavior was, much less how straight and gay sexual behavior might differ. I enjoyed touching and being touched in private places. But I did not have the vocabulary for even thinking about such things. A friend and I thought that it was fun to “be naughty.” We knew that our parents would disapprove, because they had reprimanded us for lesser kinds of “naughty behavior.” But we certainly did not see any connection between our childhood “naughty games” and what adults did for pleasure and/or to produce children.

I attended Sunday school regularly during my childhood years, but I don’t recall a Sunday school teacher ever saying anything about sexual behavior. It would be strange indeed if a Sunday school teacher were to admonish her/his 6-year-old students against going home and having gay sex. That just wouldn’t be a meaningful admonition! I would conjecture, though, that a young boy who engages in oral-genital stimulation over a period of years has innate inclinations in that direction; and it seems reasonable that most who enjoyed doing that as children — probably 90% or more — would be open to it in adulthood.

Crossdressers and non-crossdressers who have reached the conclusion that they are not completely heterosexual — i.e., that they have at least some sexual interest in persons of their own genetic sex — fall into two main categories. First, there are those who knew with considerable certainty that they were gay at a young age. These are boys or girls who knew by age 7 or even younger that they were gay. They were much too young to have had their first orgasms, but some feeling within them made them know that they are gay, even if they didn’t have a word for it. For the most part, this first group develops into gay men and lesbian women. Most do not evolve into being crossdressers. Nonetheless, there are some crossdressers who evolve into having a sexual preference for men (e.g., Nikki above).

Second, there are those who conclude well beyond childhood that they are gay. Helen Fisher, a research anthropologist at Rutgers University, said in an interview that human partnerships are shaped by three independent neurochemical brain-body systems, which underlie sexual attraction (i.e., lust), romantic yearning, and a compelling desire for long-term attachment. “This helps explain,” she said, “why people can be wildly sexually attracted to those they have little romantic interest in, and romantically drawn to — or even permanently attached to — people who hold little sexual interest for them” (New York Times, March 7, 2006). (Also see Fisher, Why We Love, Chapter 4, pages 77-98.) One implication of Fisher’s conceptualization is that some people could feel romantic attraction and significant interpersonal attachment to a member of the other sex, leading them to believe that they almost surely are straight, yet be quite strongly attracted sexually to members of their own sex. People of that description who eventually decide that they are gay are likely to become fully aware of that sometime beyond childhood.

For a unique reason, crossdressers, I think, may discover that they are homosexual well beyond the age when many ordinary homosexuals do. Perhaps their interest in expressing feminine feelings makes them think that they must be attracted to women — and in the sense of romantic feelings and interpersonal attachments they probably are. Their appreciation of things feminine might make them want to be around women and could easily be confused with a sexual preference for women. A different version of this may apply to non-crossdressing men. Some may think that their interest in some stereotypically masculine sport proves that they are “real men” and hence almost surely heterosexual. But once, perhaps fueled by too much alcolol, they have sex with another man, they find themselves drawn to that behavior. They may be ambivalent the next day, but they soon realize that they are gay or at least bisexual. I think that many crossdressers — also many lesbian women — come to accept that they are homosexual after many years of struggling to live as heterosexuals. Changes in self-identity — accepting one’s homosexual feelings — may be part of the solution to a previously unrecognized state of affairs.

Some women and men, however, may find it difficult to change. They may have lived for decades as heterosexual married people and parents; thus they face a personal and social crisis when they finally conclude that they are gay or lesbian. Their friends, relatives, fellow church members, and coworkers know them as heterosexual spouses and parents. How can they announce that they are in fact something else? Doing so would be the honest thing to do; however, it probably would cost them dearly. They might get fired from their jobs, lose some of their friends, be banned from their church, and suffer other devastating social costs.

I mentioned lesbian women, some of whom married a man and had children, but later in their lives had unplanned encounters with lesbian women. In many cases, that leads to a revelation. They feel compelled to acknowledge their same-sex attractions, at least to themselves. After a period of indecision, they might have come out to others, admitting to some acquaintances that they were lesbians. Joanne Fleisher, a licensed clinical social worker, wrote a book entitled Living Two Lives (published in 2005) that is essentially a guide for married women who are realizing their sexual attraction to other women. She cites research indicating that about 32% of American women who self-identify as lesbians are, or have been, married. I was struck by the parallels between such lesbian women and many crossdressing men. Both inevitably face the same difficult dilemma: acknowledging their changed identity to others, with all the costs of that, or continuing to “live two lives.”

Referring to gender/sexual feelings, the acclaimed poet and English professor at Wellesley College, Frank Bidart, wrote: “Lie to yourself about this and you will forever lie about everything.” What he meant is that we have to be honest with ourselves about our homosexual leanings if we have them. If we permit ourselves to adopt beliefs that do not square with reality, thus suppressing our true feelings — lying to ourselves — then we are teaching ourselves that it’s OK for our beliefs to depart from the external constraints of reality. If departures don’t matter, then it’s OK to forever lie about everything. That’s a harmful and indeed terrible way to be.

But note that being honest with ourselves is not the same thing as being completely open with others about our gender identity and/or sexual orientation. For the most part, people aren’t going to ask about our personal lives, and we are not obliged to volunteer those personal matters, which in most cases would be inappropriate.

As a practical matter, we need to find some way to accept ourselves without guilt or shame, while keeping our homosexuality hidden from certain others in our day-to-day lives, who might cause trouble for us. There may be a need for discretion to protect ourselves and others from negative consequences. Someone who has been married, had children, formed friendships with other heterosexual couples, and lived an essentially traditional life for many years is going to find it awkward at best, perhaps even disasterous, to announce seemingly out of the blue that they are homosexual. But it’s worth recognizing that except for a few exhibitionists and/or very insecure people, everyone keeps parts of their private lives private. “Living two lives” is not hypocritical unless it involves much more than simply not talking publicly about one’s private sexual or gender feelings.

For the sake of pleasure and gratification, we should satisfy those powerful sexual feelings; for the sake of avoiding crises or unwanted changes in our day-to-day lives, however, we should be discreet in what we disclose to others.

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I wish you blessings.
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