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How are sexual orientation and gender identity determined?

No one knows exactly how sexual orientation and gender identity determined. However, experts agree that it is a complicated matter of genetics, biology, psychological and social factors.  For most people, sexual orientation and gender identity are shaped at any early age. While research has not determined a cause, homosexuality and gender variance are not the result of any one factor like parenting or past experiences. It is never anyone's "fault" if they or their loved one grows up to be LGBT.

If you are asking yourself why you or your loved one is LGBT, consider asking yourself another question: Why ask why? Does your response to a LGBT person depend on knowing why they are LGBT? Regardless of cause, LGBT people deserve equal rights and to be treated fairly.

Is there something wrong with being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?

No.

There have been people in all cultures and times throughout human history who have identified themselves as  lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Homosexuality is not an illness or a disorder, a fact that is agreed upon by both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association in 1974. Being transgender or gender variant is not a disorder either, although Gender Identity Dysphoria (GID) is still listed in the DSM of the American Psychiatric Association. Being LGBT is as much a human variation as being left-handed - a person's sexual orientation and gender identity are just another piece of who they are. There is nothing wrong with being LGBT - in fact, there's a lot to celebrate.

Can gay people change their sexual orientation or gender identity?

No – and efforts to do so aren’t just unnecessary – they’re damaging.

Religious and secular organizations do sponsor campaigns and studies claiming that LGBT people can change their sexual orientation or gender identity because there is something wrong.

These studies and campaigns suggesting that LGBT people can change are based on ideological biases and not peer-reviewed  solid science.  No studies show proven long-term changes in gay or transgender people, and many reported changes are based solely on behavior and not a person's actual self-identity. The American Psychological Association has stated that scientific evidence shows that reparative therapy (therapy which claims to change LGBT people) does not work and that it can do more harm than good.

How does someone know they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?

Some people say that they have "felt different" or knew they were attracted to people of the same sex from the time they were very young.  Some transgender people talk about feeling from an early age that their gender identity did not match parental and social expectations. Others do not figure out their sexual orientation or gender identity until they are adolescents or adults.  Often it can take a while for people to put a label to their feelings, or people's feelings may change over time.

Understanding our sexuality and gender can be a lifelong process, and people shouldn't worry about labeling themselves right away.  However, with positive images of LGBT people more readily available, it is becoming easier for people to identify their feelings and come out at earlier ages.  People don't have to be sexually active to know their sexual orientation - feelings and emotions are as much a part of one's identity. The short answer is that you'll know when you know.

Should I talk to a loved one about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity before the person talks to me?

It’s seldom appropriate to ask a person, "Are you gay?”  Your perception of another person’s sexual orientation (gay or straight) or gender identity (male or female) is not necessarily what it appears.

No one can know for sure unless the person has actually declared that they are gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender. PFLAG recommends creating a safe space by showing your support of LGBT issues on a non-personal level.  For example, take an interest in openly discussing and learning about topics such as same-sex marriage or LGBT rights in the workplace. Learn about LGBT communities and culture.  Come out as an ally, regardless of if your friend or loved one is LGBT.  Your ultimate goal is to provide a safe space for your loved one to approach you when he or she is ready without fear of negative consequences.

How do I come out to my family and friends?

There are many questions to consider before coming out.  Are you comfortable with your sexuality and gender identity/expression?  Do you have support?  Can you be patient?  What kind of views do your friends and family have about homosexuality and gender variance?  Are you financially dependent on your family?  Make sure you have thought your decision through, have a plan and supportive people you can turn to.  Just as you needed to experience different stages of acceptance for yourself, family and loved ones may will need to go through a similar process.

Can gay people have families?

Yes!  LGBT people can and do have families.  Same-sex couples do form committed and loving relationships. In the United States many same-sex couples choose to celebrate their love with commitment ceremonies or civil unions, although these couples are not offered the rights and benefits of marriage.  More and more LGBT couples are also raising children together, although state laws on adoption and foster parenting vary.  And of course, many LGBT people have the support of the loving families they were born into, or the families that they have created with their other friends and loved ones. As the saying goes, all it takes is love to make a family.

How can I reconcile my or my loved one's sexual orientation with my faith?

This is a difficult question for many people.  Learning that a loved one is LGBT can be a challenge if you feel it is at odds with your faith tradition.  However, being LGBT does not impact a person's ability to be moral and spiritual any more than being heterosexual does. Many LGBT people are religious and active in their own faith communities. It is up to you to explore, question and make choices in order to reconcile religion with homosexuality and gender variance. For some this means working for change within their faith community, and for others it means leaving it.

Why should I support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality?

LGBT rights are not special rights.  Our LGBT children, friends and family members deserve the same rights as our straight ones. However, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is still legal in many states, a LGBT person can be fired from their job simply because of who they love or how they express their gender, same-sex couples cannot legally be married in the majority of states in the United States, LGBT youth face constant harassment and abuse in schools across the country, and it is clear that  the road to full equality and acceptance is a long one.

Your loved one needs you to take a stand for fairness.  By being open about yourself and your family you are already helping to dispel misinformation and fear.

 

Adapted from PFLAG's Frequently Asked Questions page.