Frequently asked questions (1/2)

What is 'being gay'? Am I gay?

A gay person is someone who is sexually attracted to members of their own gender; guys who like guys and girls who like girls. 'Gay' is a popular term for homosexual, usually used to describe gay males. A woman who is attracted to other women is known as a lesbian, though some people use the word 'gay' to describe homosexual women too. If a person is attracted to both sexes they are known as bisexual. People who are attracted to the opposite sex are heterosexual, often referred to as 'straight'.

You might hear people talk about the sexuality or the sexual orientation of a person. These terms refer to what gender a person is attracted to. Your sexual orientation might be gay, bisexual or straight. 'Sexuality' is also used as a broader term that can refer to a person's sexual behaviour and how they express themselves sexually e.g. what a person likes to do with a partner in bed. Sexuality isn't a choice. Liking girls, guys or both is simply a part of who you are, like eye colour or intelligence.

Broadly speaking, you are gay or lesbian if you are exclusively sexually attracted to members of your own gender. If you are attracted to both men and women - though not necessarily equally - this means that you are bisexual. However, labels such as gay and straight don’t always fit a person comfortably. It's human nature to want to categorise things neatly, in order to make sense of them and to better understand ourselves and the world around us, but don't feel pressured to pin a label on your sexual orientation.

Imagine a scale: at one end is gay and at the other is straight. There are many shades of grey inbetween: people who aren’t sure; those who have had same-sex relationships in the past but identify as straight now; and people who are bisexual but strongly prefer one gender over the other etc. There are no handy labels for all the ways people feel and behave when it comes to attraction, romantic feelings and sex. There are no rights and wrongs either so just relax and let time, along with the information coming from your body and emotional responses, help you figure out what you like and want.

Why am I gay?

Nobody fully understands yet what determines a person's sexuality. I believe – as do many others - that homosexuality is genetic. In other words, we’re born gay, bisexual or straight. I grew up in the same house as my brother but not only is he straight, we're very different in many other ways. Some people believe that sexuality is influenced by environmental factors and events that a child experiences as he or she is growing up, while some think that it's determined by a mixture of both genetic and environmental factors. You might hear the phrase 'nature or nurture' around discussion of this topic. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's met a child who seemed different, well before puberty or any concept of sexuality.

There are all sorts of theories with negative overtones that attempt to explain the occurrence of homosexuality, such as absent or distant fathers; overbearing mothers; exposure to bad influences; being raised in a single parent family; what toys a child is allowed to play with; what colour the child's room is painted; and whether certain behaviour is encouraged or discouraged by the parents. I don’t believe that a naturally straight child can be turned gay by playing with Barbie instead of Action Man, or because Dad was away on business a lot, or because Mum was overprotective, or a gay uncle visited regularly etc. All such suggestions are merely theories - often biased, agenda-led, and nearly always homophobic - and are not based on proven science. If children are allowed to explore who they are and express themselves without guilt, they'll discover their sexuality naturally without inherited hang-ups about gender appropriateness.

Remember that while sexuality is an important part of who you are it doesn't define you as a person. You are much more than who you find attractive. Sometimes we can become a little too preoccupied with how the world relates to us as gay people, and we wear sexuality like a blanket that covers up other valuable and interesting aspects of ourselves. Sexuality should be given the relevance it deserves by yourself and by others. A little secret: a good deal of the time sexuality isn't relevent at all!

Some people believe that homosexuality is an unnatural deviation from what’s considered normal and sometimes attribute it to an odd choice made by the individual. I have yet to meet anyone who decided to be gay - or straight, for that matter. A person can’t opt out of their sexuality or adopt another. Read more about the choice myth in the religion section.

Why are some people homophobic?

The most common reasons for homophobic (anti-gay) behaviour are:

1. It's different

Seeing a same-sex couple holding hands in the street is different. For some, this creates suspicion and hostility. It's the same with racism. It's about ignorance, a person's capacity for negativity and hate, and their belief that they are better. I've met men who have said that they've imagined kissing another man how it made them feel ill. It's ridiculous for a person to deliberately imagine doing something that isn't part of their nature and then use that as a justification for homophobia. For some, homosexuality is a big mystery, something wholly different, abnormal and weird, and they may feel threatened by it. They use stereotypes, guesswork and homophobic humour to deal with the unknown. What a lot of people don't know is that a same-sex couple has more similarities to an opposite-sex couple than they do differences. Gay people experience the same romantic feelings, sexual desires and emotional pain as straight people, and their relationships are as likely to succeed or fail (though homophobia in the community can affect the longevity and potential of a gay relationship, as can personal feelings of unease around ones sexuality - both issues that straight couples don't have to contend with). Being gay is different from being straight but that's only a negative if someone decides it is. That includes you.

2. Religion

Please see the dedicated religion section.

3. Traditions and expectations

The traditional idea of a happy and normal life is usually defined by heterosexual marriage and the production of children. A lot of people feel that heterosexual relationships are healthier, more successful and morally superior. We celebrate straight relationships in every area of life and are constantly reminded that we should to be in one by TV, billboards, magazines and most songs on the radio. We spend thousands on weddings and throw parties for pregnancies. And we whisper very quietly about divorce rates!

A lot of problem page emails I receive are from young people whose parents are completely devastated that their offspring won't be getting married to an opposite-sex partner and having children. They simply can't understand that someone can be happy in a different kind of family to the one they've always imagined. But family is defined by the people within it and their love for each other. Being gay does not exclude you from having your own family some day.

A lot of unhappiness is caused in gay peoples' lives via the struggle between following their true desires and living up to the expectations of family and society at large. So powerful is the hold of traditional values over our lives that some gay people marry opposite-sex partners and have children because they feel that there is no other option if they are to be accepted in their community. This behaviour isn't limited to conservative religious parts of the world; rigid and traditional ideas about family and a person's role within it are not necessarily linked to religion.

Will life be harder if I'm gay? Can I be happy?

Being gay isn’t a problem, and shouldn’t be seen as such. Nobody is born with a bad attitude about it. It’s not a mental condition, illness or disability. It's often the people around us and society at large that can make life difficult for us as gay people, but you can be happy and successful. Life can be tough sometimes no matter what your sexual orientation, especially while developing into an adult and getting to grips with relationships and sex for the first time.

The hardest thing in life is to be yourself but it's also the most rewarding. The closer you come to accepting your sexuality and liking who you are, the happier you’ll become. Some gay people try desperately to hide their sexuality from others, thinking that by pretending to be heterosexual they will gain the acceptance of their peers. Some gay people go as far as getting married to an opposite-sex person and having children in an attempt to conform or to escape from their true feelings. It's draining and damaging to mental health to live a lie. It leaves a person unfulfilled and unhappy. Imagine a straight person feeling that they have to pretend to be gay, to have a same-sex partner and behave in a way that doesn't feel right to them or bring them happiness. It’s unthinkable but is equivalent to the way a lot of gay people live their lives.

Life is often only as hard as we choose to make it. The most important person who needs to accept your sexuality is you. Self-acceptance and making the most of what life has given you is the best way to be happy.

Try not to isolate yourself and see obstacles that don't exist. I’ve met many gay people who are very angry and permanently ready for an equal-rights rally, even if they've never experienced homophobia. Don't be prickly. Give people a chance to be okay about your sexuality before you get the banner out. Don't imagine problems before they exist.

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