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Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation

Sexual identity is a complex concept used to describe the degree to which a person identifies with the social and biological aspects of being a man or a woman. One important part of sexual identity is sexual orientation, which is defined by who a person is emotionally and/or physically attracted to.

There has been a long history of negative judgment, discrimination, and misinformation about non-heterosexuals in our culture. One of the opportunities students often have during their college years is to rethink any ideas they have developed about sexual orientation, and to get to know students who identify with various sexual orientations. College can also be a time for a questioning student to further explore their own sexual orientation, and to come out in an environment that might be more welcoming than they had previously experienced. Sexual orientation exists along a continuum ranging from those who are exclusively attracted to the same sex, those attracted to members of both sexes, to those who are attracted exclusively to the opposite sex. Gay men and lesbians, for the most part, are comfortable with their identities as men and women and have no desire to change their sex.

It is not possible to identify a gay or lesbian person by mannerisms or physical characteristics; the only clear difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals is sexual orientation. Estimates suggest the current population of gay and lesbian persons in the U.S. is between 10 and 20 percent of the population. Sexual orientation is not a criterion for mental disorders, and there is no scientific evidence that being gay or lesbian is a sign of emotional or psychological maladjustment, although it may subject one to mistreatment by those who are prejudiced or misinformed. Sexual orientation is not considered a conscious choice and cannot be voluntarily changed or “cured”, it is not a mental illness or an emotional problem. There is no scientific evidence that homosexuals have more of a tendency to sexually molest children than do heterosexuals. Obtaining accurate information about homosexuality is important for diminishing prejudice and discrimination, as well as for helping young people struggling to understand their own sexual identity.

The Human Rights Campaign provides a thorough resource for those who are coming out. They also provide a great guide for those identifying as straight, who wish to be supportive of their gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered friends.  The It Gets Better Project offers thousands of hopeful stories from LGBT people around the world.

Counseling can be helpful for all students to facilitate self understanding, acceptance, and self esteem. Some people find counseling a useful place to explore some of the issues, feelings, and options involved in coming out. It may be frightening to seek counseling, especially if it is not clear whether a counselor will be sensitive and supportive of a gay or lesbian sexual orientation. It is important to either ask the counselor directly about their stance, so a potential client can see if the counselor will be a good match for them, or to get referrals from other gay and lesbian persons who may know a safe counselor. Often, counselors will have material in the waiting room that is affirming of a gay or lesbian identity, and this can be another clue about how welcoming the counselor is.