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Sexual Orientation

Family And Social Relations

Awareness of sexual orientation usually occurs early, more so for men than for women, and often is established by adolescence, even before sexual activity begins. It is usually preceded by an awareness of attraction to one sex or the other. But acting on sexual attraction is more difficult, at least initially, for homosexuals than for heterosexuals because of social stigma, legal sanctions, and religious beliefs. Social conditioning from family and society toward heterosexuality acts as a constraint, leaving many youths and adults fearful of acknowledging their attraction to members of the same sex. The teen years are often a confused and anxious time; thus, it becomes particularly difficult for adolescents when their feelings contradict the social norms they have learned about sexuality. Indeed, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths have been found to be three times more likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual youths (SIECUS 2001).

Passing, a tool for avoiding harm and gaining access to services, jobs, and housing, risks negative psychological affects including internalized oppression. Yet, once through the troubling period of recognition, teens and adults are able to construct a positive sense of self in spite of what they have been taught. An important part of this process is the support found in the gay and lesbian community. Acceptance, most importantly self-acceptance, allows people to feel comfortable with who they are.

Telling parents is often the hardest part of coming out, a term used to describe the open acknowledgement of one's homosexuality, to no longer keep it hidden, or in the closet, the common term for unacknowledged homosexuality. Today, in many societies, family members are more educated on sexual identity issues than in the past, and parents are more likely to be accepting of their adult children's lifestyle choices. European and North American popular cultures have produced positive images in literature, theatre, and television that increase acceptance of diversity, including sexual orientation, such as the television show Will and Grace, which normalizes homosexuality. Going beyond normalization is the Show-time cable program Queer as Folk that originated in England before coming to the United States. This show fits the militant gay message "We're Here, We're Queer, Get Used to It."

A police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village in 1969 led to the Stonewall Riots and the Gay Liberation Movement. Since that time, Gay Pride Parades can be found in every major city of Europe and North America. Lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered (LGBT) people in other countries, including most developing countries, have not attained that level of visibility yet. Urban areas, where a mixture of individuals from diverse cultural, racial, economic, and social backgrounds live in close proximity, are where lesbian and gay communities are found.

A major difference between heterosexual and homosexual couples is the kind of support they get from their extended families, institutions, and communities. Insurance eligibility, tax exemptions, and inheritance rights have a different legal standing based on marital status. Marriage is restricted almost universally to heterosexual couples, even though lesbian and gay couples often maintain long-term relationships (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Peplau 1991). Not only are gays unable to marry, but in many societies they must also lead clandestine lives as couples, as it is not only laws that prevent them from declaring their love, but cultural restrictions. His or her most important relationship is given no recognition or status. Holidays and visits from friends and relatives often necessitate the exclusion of a partner. In those places where a gay/lesbian community exists, couples might make up a family network, constructing their own kinship ties (Weston 1991).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsSexual Orientation - Essentialism Or Social Construction, Early Sex Research, Family And Social Relations, Cross-cultural Sexual Diversity