Coming out is a process as individual as fingerprints. Though there are surely commonalities in the experience, the process of coming to terms with one’s atypical orientation is dependent upon myriad determinants: Have you always known? Were you aware but content in a heterosexual relationship, and so divorced from the turmoil? Were you happily heterosexual until midlife, when you fell in love with a friend?
The age at which we first know we are gay frames our response to this knowledge. Family culture influences the development and acknowledgement of a gay identification. The young women in this month’s feature article (see sidebar) would and do tell a quite difference story about their adoption of sexual labels than do those children reared in restrictive and sex-negative homes. When we are young, our most important source of acceptance is our parents. We depend upon them less as we age; never does their opinion of us become irrelevant. It’s often difficult to talk with our parents about sex period, never mind our personal sexual activities, especially if our orientation meets with disapproval or worse.
Culture at large contributes other messages that confound determining exactly who we are sexually. Some find more support in urban communities than in their nuclear families. Friendship circles become extended family, in which new and different ‘family values’ develop. Some people remain closeted throughout their lives, made captive by their fear of censure.
Unfortunately, our culture still reminds us far too often of the threat to those defined as different. And when the difference involves the taboo subject of sex, reactions often get amplified. As the women at the Montreal Massacre were persecuted for their gender, so too is there a litany of names of those killed because they were homosexual.
School aged kids call each other “faggot” in derision, often not understanding the concept but knowing it is something very bad. Grown heterosexual men bristle at the suggestion that they might “swing for the other team.” Even in such open-minded forums as swingers’ parties and ‘pansexual’ play parties, it is rare to see men relating sexually to each other. The “grrlz” get a bit of a pass in those venues, but bear the full weight of their families’ disappointment and rejection. Nor is society past the sniggering dismissal of single, childless women.
In Kinsey’s sex history questionnaire, respondents are asked why they have not had more homosexual experiences than they have. Most report lack of interest, but a disturbing number reveal an unwillingness or inability to pay the toll such behaviour will cost. We need to stay aware that sharing a sexual experience with someone of the same gender does not ‘make’ us homosexual. There is no queer button that, once pushed, remains forever ‘on.’ Kinsey found that 37% of males had experienced a homosexual encounter to the point of orgasm by adulthood. Females rang in considerably less at about one in four. Clearly, not all those people adopt a homosexual label or lifestyle. Experimentation, whether sexual or not, is the basis of learning. We have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of people, and it is only natural that some of those will grow to include intimate and erotic behaviour. If we did not fear social condemnation, far more of us would expand our horizons to consider lovers of all genders. This freedom would permit us to make enduring lifestyle choices more accurately.
By releasing ourselves from the expectation that any encounter may define our sexuality, we can allow ourselves the freedom to experience and embrace or discard, based on our desires, not on family or social pressures.
Desire, especially sexual desire, is so thrilling that we are wise to welcome it in whatever form it appears to us. If we challenge our sex-negative beliefs and our homophobic anxieties, we open to life-enhancing possibilities. The more of those, I say, the better!