I Thought I was Lesbian, But My Parents Doubt It

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Reader’s Question

I am eighteen years old and for the past two and a half years I have been identifying as lesbian. I’ve never really been attracted to boys, even at a young age. I met my best friend in high school and we had an ongoing relationship for a long time — it was the greatest experience of my life. I loved her very much. More recently, people kept asking if I was romantically interested in my male friends so, under pressure, I came out on Facebook (to my friends only) to debunk rumors. It was a terrible idea, as my parents found out.

They called me “disgusting” and “embarrassing,” and then proceeded to tell me they don’t believe me. They told me I show no signs of being lesbian, and that lesbians don’t know they’re lesbians until they are twenty five or thirty years old. My perception of my sexual attraction is getting distorted and I’m not sure what to do. I find men sexually repulsive although I enjoy their company as friends. Still, I have a thought in the back of my head that I may be attracted to men. However, I am almost certain I would rather have a woman but I can’t come to grips with it anymore. Can it just be my family messing with my head?

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m sorry to hear that your parents were unable to accept you the way you experience yourself. Defining someone’s sexual orientation can be tricky business, but who is more an expert than the person himself or herself? Of course people vary in the age at which they first start to have romantic/sexual attraction to others, how strongly they feel such attraction to people of a particular gender, and so forth. However, cross-culturally, there are data indicating that the typical age for first sexual attraction is around 11 years. That’s not to say that 11-year-olds know much about sex, or desire to have sex, but that’s when many people first recall experiencing what adults might consider romantic/sexual interests in specific other people. You can reflect on your own experience to see whether that rings true.

Based on what we know about typical development of sexual feelings, it’s not surprising that many adults who consider themselves gay, lesbian, or straight, recall being attracted primarily to peers of a particular gender during late elementary school or middle school. The notion that lesbian women (or anyone) do not realize their “true” attractions until adulthood is clearly false. Perhaps the fallacy comes from the fact that some individuals are adults when they end up admitting to others (and sometimes to themselves) that they are gay or lesbian. However, that’s not because their sexual orientation suddenly pops up from nowhere. Instead, it’s typically the result of having been raised in a culture that assumes everyone is straight, so there is pressure to conform and to assume that dating involves members of the other gender, that to have a family means getting married to someone of the other gender, etc. People go along with the societal plan on the assumption that they are “normal” and this is what “normal” people do. As mass media portrays more gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals, hopefully young people realize that there is diversity in how sexual attraction is experienced so that they will come to recognize their own experience as legitimate.

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I imagine you can see where my response is leading: only you are the expert on the characteristics in people that you find romantically attractive and sexually arousing. Those attractions may change somewhat or may even surprise you at times, but no particular experiences of attraction are more “true” or “real” than others. Ideally such variation would be universally acceptable, and there would not be cultural and familial pressure to conform to one standard, or even to label oneself using a set list of terms. We’re not there yet; if we were, your letter and my response would not exist. In the meantime, trust yourself as the expert on your sexuality, and give yourself permission to be a lifelong learner in that subject. As long as you’re alive, your sexual history is still being written.

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