Coming out during adolescence

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Image: iStock

It is a sad fact that gay and lesbian young people still face huge challenges when they come out – not least prejudice and bullying. Dr Stephanie Thornton looks at what they can face and offers schools advice

When it comes to homosexuality, most of our focus is on reducing homophobic bullying – and alas, that is still very necessary.

Even in these enlightened times homophobia is still far from gone from our streets and schools. For all the progress we have made, to be lesbian or homosexual is still to be “different”. For various religions it is still a perversion. Some fundamental Christians in the USA still believe that it is a dysfunction that can be “cured”.

All the evidence we have suggests that homosexuality is a biological phenomenon: it is found as a natural part of behaviour in a great many bird species from owls and chickens to ostrich and ravens; in many mammals from cattle and goats to rats, cats and bison, orca dolphin and dogs; in reptiles and insects; and in primates, from chimpanzees to bonobos and humans.

Advances in science have identified specific genetic patterns associated with homosexuality – genes that may function by altering the sensitivity to the hormones that shape sexuality.

We have long known that exposure to high levels of androgen in the womb predisposes girls toward male toy preferences in childhood and toward lesbianism; and that low levels of prenatal androgens are associated with homosexuality and more female activity preferences in boys.

However natural it may be, “coming out” is still a difficult process for lesbian and gay teenagers. There is the problem of social acceptance – of risking and overcoming the peer ridicule and rejection, the family disapproval and disappointment that is still common.

And there is the separate problem of self-acceptance: a gay or lesbian identity is not embraced overnight. Getting there is a journey, sometimes a difficult and anxious one. While we are quite good at supporting LBG teenagers on the journey into social acceptance, we are generally less effective in supporting them on the more personal journey into self-acceptance – sometimes the more difficult of the two.

We don’t entirely understand how any sexual orientation develops. How does biology, or a structure in the brain, dispose us to the feelings or actions of any sexual orientation? How do social or conceptual factors interact with this biology to yield sexual identity? There is much that we do not know.

In a way, heterosexual development is the more surprising. The intense same-sex friendships of childhood somehow give way to a passionate orientation to the opposite sex. The hormones of puberty undoubtedly play a role in this, priming the prepared brain to find attraction in a gender that was previously eschewed, and fuelling a drive essential to the continuation of the species.

But this is not the whole story. Social and cultural factors shape the forms of our sexuality. Sexual passion is a complex, multi-faceted thing. Some research suggests that the same-sex orientation of childhood means that the other gender is relatively unfamiliar, seeming different, alien and exotic, and as Sandra Bem put it, “exotic becomes erotic”.

“Becoming” lesbian or gay probably involves many different factors, but it is increasingly clear that biology plays a key role in triggering this process. The brain is wired differently in the homosexual.

The difference is not “all or nothing”, but a continuum capable of yielding different results across the LGB range.

The first effect of this, as puberty comes on, is a sense of unease: of feeling different, that one doesn’t quite fit into the gender schema as one “should” – a rejection of conventional sexual identity.

Not all individuals with this reaction will go on to be homosexual. Some strive to conform to conventional expectations as best they can. Others eschew elements of the conventional gender schema, girls becoming somewhat “tomboyish”, boys “effeminate” – but many of these never acknowledge or embrace an erotic orientation to the same sex.

Some (we don’t know how many) move on to the second, crucial stage of homosexual development, namely acknowledging to oneself that the same-sex orientation of childhood is now erotically charged.

This dawning realisation typically causes considerable confusion and emotional turmoil, and is often associated with social isolation, loneliness and anxiety.

Some individuals back away from homosexuality as a result, choosing to live either as heterosexual or asexual. But others work through this crisis, accept their homosexual identity and begin to publicly admit it in select “safe” contexts.

At this third stage the individual is generally still guarded, still has reservations, and is only partially committed or “out”. A bad experience may drive him or her away from owning this orientation. If not, the fourth stage of this journey is a complete commitment to homosexuality as a way of life.

The journey toward a homosexual identity is often hard. The first steps are generally taken alone, and in considerable emotional distress.

More than 40 per cent of young gay and lesbian individuals report having seriously considered taking their own lives in their teens, and homosexual youth are over-represented among completed suicides. Rates of depression and self-harm are far higher than for heterosexual teenagers.

The misery is compounded by fear of homophobia: fear of how family or peers may respond. All too often, as the individual moves toward a more public acknowledgement of their sexual orientation, these fears are realised.

Families are often shocked and unsupportive. In school, bullying is a real problem – it is estimated that lesbian and gay adolescents are twice as likely to be bullied as others. These problems are bad enough in the mainstream population, but are far greater for individuals from ethnic or religious backgrounds that view homosexuality as an unacceptable perversion.

Best practice in managing homophobic bullying is well established. As well as the normal practices to counter bullying of all kinds, the most effective approach is an effort to enfold attitudes to homosexuality in a general effort to encourage a positive attitude, a celebration of difference of all kinds.

Success in such efforts makes the social journey of homosexual development easier. But what is best practice in supporting the homosexual individual on the private, personal journey toward self-acceptance?

A safe place to talk

Given the high levels of depression, self-harm and suicidal feeling associated with the journey toward homosexuality, it’s vital to provide a warm, empathic and above all confidential and non-judgemental person to whom the troubled can talk. Individuals who are already giving off clues as to their homosexual orientation may actively seek such supportive discussions. But the need for such a safe place may be at its greatest at the earliest stage, when the individual has not yet accepted a same-sex erotic orientation even to him or herself. An alert eye for the troubled, and an openness to the possibility of a sexual issue triggering this may make all the difference.

Just listening

Sexual orientation is an intensely personal matter which must be resolved by the individual him or herself. It is not for us to steer the decision in either direction. The key gift we can offer is empathic listening. Simply being heard is more healing than is generally recognised.

Support for depression and anxiety

While it would be inappropriate to advise youth on the resolution of issues of sexual orientation, it is obviously important to offer support in dealing with the emotional fallout generated by such questions. In particular, given the high rates of suicidal ideation and attempts it is important to be alert for this in LGB teenagers.

National guidelines suggest that it is appropriate to directly ask if life does not feel worth living, if you fear a teenager may feel suicidal: raising the suicide question does not “plant the idea” as many fear, but opens up the possibility of addressing the issue before things go further.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.

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