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Harvard Commentaries
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Gay and Lesbian Issues


August 14, 2014

Guiding Your Child Through The Adolescent Years
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Middle Adolescence Features
Gay and Lesbian Issues
Gay and Lesbian Issues
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Understand the facts about gay And lesbian issues.
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InteliHealth
2011-05-29
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InteliHealth Medical Content
2013-03-11
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Gay and Lesbian Issues

The adolescent years are full of challenges, many related to sex and sexual identity. These issues can be especially difficult for teens who are (or think they may be) homosexual. Homosexual teens deserve the same understanding and respect as heterosexual teens, and it is important for everyone to know the facts about homosexuality. Here are the basics.

Sexual orientation

Each of us has a biological sex (we have a male or female body), a gender identity (we feel like a male or female), and a sexual orientation (we are attracted to males or females). Homosexuality refers to a person's sexual orientation; homosexual teen-agers have strong romantic or sexual feelings for a person of the same sex. Heterosexual teen-agers are attracted to people of the opposite sex, and bisexual teens are attracted to people of both sexes.

The word "gay" is used to describe both men and women who are homosexual, with the word "lesbian" specifically referring to a homosexual woman. It is estimated that 3.5 percent of the population in the United States is lesbian or gay.

Although scientists don't know why some people are homosexual and others are not, most believe that homosexuality is a normal variation of sexual orientation. It may be genetic, result from natural substances (hormones) in the body, be influenced by the environment before or after birth, or, most likely, several of these things working in combination. Homosexual teens are found in all types of families. Homosexuality is not caused by "bad parenting." If your teen is gay, it is not because of anything you or anyone else did.

Homosexuality also is not something a person chooses, nor is it an illness that can be cured. According to the American Psychiatric Association, so-called therapies such as "reparative therapy" and "transformational ministry" don't work and actually can be harmful, causing guilt and anxiety in homosexual teens.

Not all teen-agers who are attracted to members of the same sex are homosexual. Many teens experiment with their sexuality during adolescence, in much the same way that they experiment with clothing, body art or music. This brief sexual experimentation is thought to be a normal part of sexual development. For homosexual teens, the attraction to people of the same sex is stronger and longer lasting.

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How will you know if your child is gay or lesbian?

Every family is different. While one parent may find out by chance that a teen is homosexual, others may hear directly from their teen in person, in a letter or by a phone call. When a teen tells other people that he is homosexual, it's called "coming out." Although this process sometimes can be difficult or painful for families, it also can be a time of tremendous growth. It is important to remember that all teens need their family's support and acceptance, especially when they are dealing with sensitive issues.

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Supporting the homosexual adolescent

"Coming out" can be scary and painful, and parents need to reassure their children that they will not be loved any less for sharing the truth about themselves. If your teen tells you he is gay, let him know that you love him unconditionally, and accept him no matter what.

Show your teen that you care by learning more about homosexuality. Read books on the subject or check out reputable Web sites (such as www.pflag.org). Talk to some adults you know who are gay. Look for organizations or support groups in your community that can give you information on homosexuality. It will be easier for you to support your teen when you know more and are comfortable with the subject.

Parents may worry about how friends, neighbors and family will react to their teen's homosexuality. It is usually best not to share any information without your teen-ager's permission. Unfortunately, prejudice against homosexuals is widespread, mostly due to ignorance and fear. When your teen is ready for you to let others know, you should talk with them about your teen's sexual orientation and help them to understand, by using what you have learned.

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Growing up gay

Growing up as a homosexual in a mostly heterosexual society often is not easy. Gay and lesbian adolescents sometimes must cope with unfair, prejudiced, and even violent behavior at school, at home and in the community. They may feel fear or be alone and unsupported. This can push some teens to use drugs and alcohol, engage in risky sexual behavior, or even attempt suicide. It is important that homosexual teens feel supported by their parents and always able to talk openly with them about these issues.

Overall, most gay and lesbian youth grow up to be well-adjusted and happy adults, with successful careers and family lives.

Books for parents of the newly out:

"Is it A Choice? Answers to 300 Most Asked Questions About Gay and Lesbian People" by Eric Marcus
"Loving Someone Gay" by Don Clark, Ph.D.
"My Child is Gay" by Bryce McDougall, editor

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