The vast majority of mental health professionals, backed by nearly 40 years of research, have come to believe that it is possible to develop a happy and productive life in the context of a lesbian, bisexual, or gay (“les-bi-gay”) sexual orientation, identity, and lifestyle. In fact, the current version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV, 1994) no longer lists homosexuality as a disorder. Interestingly, the only diagnostic reference to homosexuality in the manual relates to “persistent and marked distress about sexual orientation” (p. 538). It is the distress that characterizes the disorder, not the orientation itself.
Parents, teachers, and other adults in the lives of teenagers and young adults should remain alert to the struggles some young people may experience around their evolving awareness and consolidation of an adult sexual identity based on their sexual orientation.
- Maintain an open-door policy. Many teens and young adults would like help and support in addressing the range of issues they confront during these important developmental years, but wish to do so on their own terms. Being open to young people at all times, allowing them to say as little or as much as they need or want to say, and revisiting issues as often as necessary is a good place to start. Depending on the preexisting relationship, some gentle nudging may move the individual to reveal difficult feelings or concerns, but stay attuned to their response to your push and back off if they begin to shut down.
- Affirm their personhood, even if you don’t support their feelings or behaviors. “Coming out,” or revealing one’s sexual orientation to others, is probably the most difficult process any les-bi-gay person confronts in life. Affirming their bravery, your appreciation of their closeness to you in choosing to reveal this aspect of themselves, and keeping lines of communication open is critical when such a revelation occurs.
Even if you “already knew” or are entirely unconflicted about same-sex sexuality, it is important to affirm this process and the person sharing his or her story with you.
Some socially liberal individuals may find themselves surprised by the emergence of negative feelings about a particular individual’s sexual orientation (remember Cher’s struggle to accept her daughter, Chastity’s, announcement that she is a lesbian?). If this is your experience, remember that this is your issue, and the person coming out to you should not have to bear the brunt of these negative feelings.
If you have a decidedly negative response to this news, it is best to take time to process these feelings with those people you are close to, rather than heap them upon the teen or young adult. Young people who have gone through a series of months, if not years, in coming to accept themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, may not recognize that those they are coming out to may need some time to take in this news and accept it.
There are many fine organizations out there to help people struggling with this revelation; a major resource is Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which has chapters across the country and welcomes such individuals. Mental health professionals may also be of assistance to some individuals, couples, and families requiring more privacy or focused attention on their particular circumstances.
- Become politically active in support of les-bi-gay rights. Nothing is quite as supportive as a parent or non-gay friend marching alongside the gay, lesbian, or bisexual person they love at the many gay pride marches that occur yearly around the world. This is only one of many ways to extend support, however; political action work that changes the social context for present and future generations can also do much to improve the mental health of our young les-bi-gay children and friends.
Several states now allow same-sex couples the right to form “civil unions.” Couples who enter into such a union take on all the rights, privileges, benefits, and responsibilities accorded heterosexual couples married in a civil ceremony.
Such societal shifts, recognizing the validity and solemnity of same-sex partnerships, in combination with caring and support for our les-bi-gay family members, can do much to reduce the struggle experienced by some young people over their sexual orientation.
PFLAG “promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. PFLAG provides an opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity. Serving over 70,000 members, PFLAG affiliates are located in more than 425 communities across the United States, and abroad.”