This is the last in a series of articles on sexual orientation.
When it comes to sexual orientation, many people have embarrassing questions they're itching to ask. Some questions reveal something embarrassing about the person asking. Some betray a certain amount of ignorance or a reliance on stereotypes. And some require the answering party to reveal details about themselves that are, quite frankly, personal. Then there are a few questions that are just insulting. Oh, well.
Often, these questions are the result of natural curiosity. In a world more open about sexuality, they might not be as common. Instead, gay and bisexual people are sometimes pushed into the role of Ambassador to the Gay Community. Some are comfortable with this role, but many others are not.
When it comes to embarrassing questions, timing is everything. Asking a close friend or a visitor who has given a speech on sexual orientation is one thing. Asking a random person on the street who happens (in your opinion) to look gay is another.
Luckily, h2g2 provides the perfect place get your embarrassing questions answered. The rest of this entry is taken up by frequently asked questions and their answers. If you have additional questions, please start a conversation at the bottom of this entry.
General Questions About Sexual Orientation
How did you choose your orientation? Are homosexuality and bisexuality genetic or are they chosen?
While there is not enough scientific evidence to be sure, sexuality may have a genetic, hormonal, and/or other biological component. Certainly many gay and lesbian people feel their orientation is set and not something they consciously chose. Most psychologists agree that sexual orientation is typically determined before puberty occurs.
People do choose whether to label themselves as gay, straight, or bisexual, though. Please see the entry on sexual orientation for the many reasons people have for choosing their labels. Labels are usually attached during puberty or in early adulthood because they are helpful in determining who is and isn't appropriate as a potential mate.
How can I choose my orientation?
If you're not sure which label to use for yourself yet, the good news is that you do not have to make an instant decision. It is okay to take some time to think and explore your feelings. The answer is inside you. You can think of it as a puzzle that you will solve over time.
Often, it is helpful to mentally explore your fantasies within the privacy of your own home (or room). It can also be useful to pay close attention to the attractions to passers by that you feel as part of your daily life. You do not need to act on these attractions, of course. But it might help to catalogue them for future review.
In the end, the matter will tend to be resolved through the development of your personal history. As you experience crushes and fall in love, explore the dating scene, and ultimately form relationships, a pattern will emerge. How you choose to label that pattern will be up to you.
Can non-heterosexuality be the result of abuse or a bad experience with a member of the opposite sex?
Abuse may convince someone not to engage a member of the opposite gender for a while. But abuse will not not convince someone to enjoy romance or sex with somebody they would not normally be attracted to. You can not, for instance, make someone gay by being a particularly miserable date.
Of course, there are gay and bisexual people who have past experiences with abuse. But the incidence of child abuse is no greater among gays and lesbians than among straight people, so there's no real connection.
Can therapy change someone's sexual orientation?
Early on, psychologists and psychiatrists attempted to change people's orientation to straight through such abusive treatments as electroshock therapy, inappropriate sex hormones, and negative-reinforcement behavioral therapy or aversion therapy. This was abandoned when it became clear that such techniques don't work and can cause extreme psychic trauma to the 'patients.'
These days, less dramatic programmes with similar goals are run by organizations with connections to religious institutions. Such ex-gay therapy or ministry programmes reinforce stereotypes against same-sex behavior, provide peer pressure to conform to heterosexual norms and gender roles, and may also include behavioral or aversion therapy. These programs usually run without licensed psychologists or psychiatrists on board.
While such programmes can seem to work for as long as a few years, most patients revert to their original orientation over time. Just like with earlier attempts by licensed psychologists, many patients carry emotional scars from the therapy that may not heal without the help of licensed practitioners.
In general, it is more psychologically safe for gay and bisexual people to be accepted for who they are. There is no need for them to suffer through tramatic therapy in order to make mainstream society feel better about their existence.
Do queer people molest or otherwise tempt kids to recruit them into same-sex behavior?
Absolutely not! There is no such thing as queer 'recruitment.' It is true that gay people often involve themselves in outreach efforts for teens and young adults. However, the motivation behind this is the high suicide rate among gay and bisexual teens. About 1/3 of teen suicides occur over sexual orientation. The 'recruiters' are just trying to save lives.
Anyway, it is perfectly obvious that molesting straight kids or otherwise forcing them into gay sex would only make them homophobic as adults. Why would anyone want to create a team of gay-bashing angry youth?
It may help to know that most child molesters are heterosexual.
What is the gay agenda?
The word 'agenda' makes it sound like there is a secretive conspiracy going on. This is anything but the case. Proponents of gay rights are completely open and honest about their objectives. You can read goals of gay rights activists in the public reports of non-profit groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign.
Queer people have no desire to turn straight people on to same-sex partnerships. They respect that sexual orientation is different for different people. They want to be able to live their lives with dignity and respect, and want heterosexual people to be able to do likewise.
Why do gay and bisexual people want special rights?
Generally speaking, gay rights are about securing the same rights and privileges for all people regardless of their sexual orientation. These include things like equal employment opportunities, equal protection in cases where violence has been threatened or has occurred, the ability to serve in the military, to file taxes jointly, and various rights associated with marriage like the right to inherit property, to adopt children, and to decide the medical care of an incapacitated partner.
You will notice that all heterosexual people already have these rights and privileges. There is therefore nothing 'special' about them. They are ordinary, run-of-the-mill things that most straight people take for granted.
If I'm straight, why should I care about sexual orientation or gay rights?
If you are straight, you are very lucky that you may never receive discrimination based on your orientation. But chances are that you know or will know many people who are gay or bisexual. Some of these people may be friends or family, so it may understandably bother you if they are targeted for violence or discrimination.
The more same-sex behavior and feelings are condemned, the more hostile the environment gets for everyone. It's a burden to have to constantly worry that something you say or do, or the way you dress, or an inaccurate rumour could make you the next victim. Living in a tolerant society is better for straight people because they don't have to constantly second guess their actions.
Don't you care about family values?
Of course! Queer people care about values like trust, honesty, nurturing, compassion, and unconditional love just like straight people do. Many gay people who have children also want to instill wholesome values and spirituality in their children too.
The confusion arises because some people assume that 'family values' are only possible within the traditional nuclear family. However, the majority of children today are not raised in a nuclear family with their biological mother and father. They may be raised by single parents, an extended family, or their parents may be divorced. Gay parents are just another variation.
Don't you realize you're going to hell?
Most gay and bisexual people do not think they are going to hell. There are a lot of reasons for this. First, all Christians like to believe they are going to heaven. Being gay doesn't change that. Second, some queer people are atheist or agnostic and don't believe in hell. Third, some queer people practice Hinduism, Buddhism, paganism, or some other religion where hell is not a concern.
Within Christianity, there is a lot of debate about whether today's modern version of homosexuality was condemned by the Bible. Some Biblical scholars believe that since modern homosexuality did not exist when the Bible was written, the phrases used to attack homosexuality are mistranslated or taken out of context. Others believe some churches are being unfair by accepting adultery (one of the Ten Commandments) among their members but not homosexuality. The Bible has been abused by mainstream churches in the past to justify slavery, sexism, and racism so it is a possibility.
A quick search on the internet for 'homosexuality' and any religion will show that there are a lot of varying opinions about homosexuality within most religious groups. So just because you believe someone is going to hell, that doesn't mean they have to believe it. And anyway, religious beliefs are not a justification for violence or discrimination.
Are you just crazy?
Long ago, homosexuality and bisexuality were classified as psychological diseases. The reason for this is simple. Since same-sex behavior was extremely taboo, the only people psychologists ever met who admitted to same-sex attractions or acts were patients who needed their help. For a long time, most psychologists assumed that there were no healthy gay people outside their offices.
Once the taboo lessened, it became clear that there are tons of well-adjusted gay and bisexual people out there. It has also become clear that much of the psychological angst felt by gay and bisexual patients is the direct result of discrimination they have experienced by straight people. It has been over a generation since psychologists worldwide removed homosexuality from their listings of classified diseases.
So to anser the question, no. Gay and bisexual people are not crazy. They're actually pretty good at coping with discrimination that heterosexual people don't usually have to live with.
Aren't you worried about getting AIDS?
AIDS isn't caused by homosexuality. It is caused by the exchange of bodily fluids, usually blood or semen. It is true that the gay community has dealt with higher rates of infection than society as a whole. This is partly because many gay communities had infected members before HIV was diagnosed or understood by the medical community.
Promiscuous sexual behavior is one of several factors that can increase your chances of getting AIDS. If you are straight and engaged in promiscous behavior, you should be worried about AIDS. Gay people should be worried too to the extent that they engage in promiscous sex. If they are monogamous or celibate, then they are not at risk. Lesbians are also at lesser risk because two women do not typically exchange bodily fluids during sex to the extent that heterosexual couples or gay male couples do.
Queer people are usually very aware of the fact that condoms can help protect you against AIDS. Unfortunately, straight people are not always so aware. Some assume that they are not at risk because they are heterosexual. This can be a deadly mistake. Everyone who puts themselves at risk of getting AIDS should use condoms.
Questions About Homosexuality
How can I tell if someone is gay? (or) How do you recognize other gay people?
You can't look at a person's face and tell whether they are gay or not. Nobody can.
There are other ways to recognize gay people, though. The most obvious one is to already know them and know they are gay! Many cities have gay communities or social organizations where gay and bisexual people can meet each other. Anyone who has spent much time in such an atmosphere is bound to know more local gay people than someone who hasn't.
A studious person might also learn to recognize queer people by the words and symbols associated with them. For instance, they might know that someone wearing a pink triangle or a rainbow ring necklace is probably gay or bisexual. They might also notice when a whole lot of gay historical figures and modern personalities are referenced very quickly in conversation, possibly hinting that the person talking is gay. The ability to pick up on words, symbols, and cultural references to identify a gay person is sometimes called 'gaydar.'
There are also stereotypes associated with homosexuality, and there are occasions when someone fulfills these stereotypes because they want to be recognized by other gay people passing by. This isn't a very good indicator, though. Straight people sometimes fulfill the stereotypes out of ignorance or because it is just their nature.
When you get together with somebody of your gender, what do you do in bed?
There is no one answer which will cover all gay or bisexual people, just as there is no one answer about what straight people do in bed.
In general, same-sex couples do the same things as straight couples. The one exception is vaginal penetration, which is physically impossible for gay couples.1 Anything you can name that gay people do is also done by straight people somewhere, with or without the help of marital aids.
What gay men do together is disgusting!
It may be to you. They obviously feel differently. It's normal for different people to have different sexual interests.
When you form a longterm relationship, who is the 'guy' and who is the 'girl'?
The idea that someone must be the 'guy' and someone must be the 'girl is based on gender roles. These roles are determined by social assumptions, and are not really a set of physical limitations. It is possible to craft a perfectly healthy relationship without taking on gender roles. And in fact, it may be healthier to do so. A relationship based on the needs and talents of the people involved will tend to make more efficient use of their time and energy than a relationship based on stereotypes.
Some gay couples do follow a sort of adherence to gender roles, where one partner handles the finances and handyman projects while the other is more responsible for homemaking and child rearing. Other gay couples divide the work in other ways, and don't use gender roles to determine how they will act in the relationship. For that matter, straight couples are the similarly divided.
Do lesbians hate men?
No, the huge majority of lesbians do not hate men. They simply don't want to sleep with them.
Does lesbian bed death really exist?
Yes. Lesbian bed death refers to the phenomenon where sexual activity stops after a lesbian couple has been established. One theory is that this occurs due to the female gender role. Women are taught to seek longterm commitments, but they are not taught how to ask for a date or initiate sex. Hence, the theory goes, some lesbians hastily form committed relationships and then reach a stalemate where neither partner initiates sex.
Actually, gay men and straight couples can experience bed death too. They just don't get as much publicity for it.
Why do gay people flaunt their sexuality?
How does one flaunt one's sexuality? Holding hands? Kissing in public? Talking about one's partner?
These are all things that heterosexual people do all the time. If it is more noticeable when a gay couple does the same things, that may say more about our society and its prejudices than about the gay couple. If you aren't used to seeing gay people engaged in that sort of behavior, maybe it's just because you aren't used to it.
Some people think coming out is a deliberate attempt to flaunt one's sexuality. Actually, coming out is an attempt to be honest and show a little integrity. The person may feel that by not coming out, they are letting you assume they are straight. This puts pressure on them to pretend along with you. Once they are out, they don't have to play make believe.
Can gay people be good parents? Doesn't it hurt the kid to grow up without a father/mother?
Society puts barriers in the way of gay and bisexual people who might want to have or adopt children. Perhaps because it is so difficult to overcome these hurdles, most gay parents are extremely dedicated to the well-being of their children. Some gay parents go out of their way to make sure their child has a role model outside the family so that both genders are represented in the child's upbringing.
Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are extremely well-adjusted. They are sometimes more compassionate than their peers. They are also no more likely to be gay or bisexual than children raised by straight parents and tend to be very comfortable with their own gender, whether there was a role model from outside the family or not.
The only potentially bad thing is that children of gay parents may receive discrimination while growing up from other kids or adults who seek to punish them for their parents' sexual orientation. This is an avoidable problem, and is less troublesome in more tolerant communities. Open communication about sexual orientation can make it easier for these kids to have a completely happy childhood.
What is the gay lifestyle like?
There are quietly monogamous gays, loud politically active gays, young sexually experimental queers, old widowed lesbians, celibate soul-searching bisexual people, and everything in between and outside these descriptions. Just as there is no single way that straight people live their lives, there is no single 'gay lifestyle' that can be described.
There is a stereotype of a 'gay lifestyle' in which all gay people are young, liberal, and sexually promiscuous. Most gay people don't live this lifestyle, though. It's just a stereotype.
What percentage of people are gay?
Alfred Kinsey originally reported that about 10% of people are gay. Since then, studies have gone as low as 2% and as high as 30%. The truth is that we don't really know. There is so much predudice and ignorance about homosexuality (even now) that people don't fill out researchers' surveys truthfully. And some studies are conducted in a biased fashion because the researcher has an axe to grind.
It isn't necessarily important to know what percentage of people are gay. We can just say that there are enough gay people out there that you see them in the course of your average day, and will likely get to know at least a few well over the course of your life.
Questions About Bisexuality
Are you just going through a phase? (or) Are you in denial about your homosexuality?
The huge majority of people who identify as bisexual are not going through a phase. They may have already been through a 'phase' where they identified themselves as gay or straight. By the time they identify as bisexual, they're usually very sure of what their orientation is.
Mistakes in identification do occasionally happen. But they occur equally often for gay, straight, and bisexual people.
Are you attracted equally to both genders?
That depends a lot on which bisexual person you are talking about. Some tend to form relationships with people of one gender more often than the other, and that may or may not mean there is actual preference involved.2 Others tend to form relationships equally often with people of each gender.
Most bisexual people do not act like accountants, carefully balancing their activities to create perfectly balanced columns for gender on imaginary ledger sheets.
Some bisexual people are virgins or celibate. Some have only had one relationship so far, so their experience is necessarily lopsided. And some bisexual people simply don't care which gender their partner is. It's just not an important factor in their decision.
Different bisexual people are different. If you are curious about a particular person and know them well enough, ask them. If you don't know them well enough, then think before asking. It's a pretty personal question.
Do you have multiple lovers? Are you a swinger?
Bisexual people aren't more likely to be swingers or have multiple lovers than anyone else. That's a myth.
The majority of bisexual people form longterm monogamous commitments once they reach an appropriate age. There are also some bisexual people who form honest polyamorous relationships with multiple parters. But then, straight and gay people form polyamorous relationships too. You just don't hear about it as often -- probably because people don't ask them as often!
How can you be monogamous and bisexual at the same time?
It's easy. When in a monogamous relationship, the bisexual person still feels passing attractions (that they don't act on) to people of both genders. But if the bisexual person splits up with their current partner or their partner dies, then those attractions will again be used in the search for another mate.
Again, most bisexual people are not sexually promiscous and do not 'need' to mate with both genders. That's just horrible stereotyping. Most bisexual people are perfectly capable of being faithful to the person they are in love with.
Isn't everyone really bisexual? Or wouldn't they be in a perfect world?
No. Even in a perfect world, some people would still be heterosexual and homosexual. The only difference with a perfect world is that everyone would be comfortable with the existence of varying sexual orientations.
This stems partly from an oudated understanding of sexuality. Freud believed that all people are born bisexual, but that early life experiences determine which side of their orientation they will later act upon. Freud also believed penis envy and anal fixations were common. These days, Freud's theories on sex are considered outdated and fundamentally flawed.
Why can't you just choose? Aren't you being selfish?
Bisexual people can choose. They choose bisexuality! Bisexuality is not a state of confusion. It is a valid orientation in its own right.
And anyway, why should a bisexual person have to choose? Aren't you being selfish by asking someone to deny who they really are? Are you asking them to pretend they don't love the people they do? Why would you be so selfish as to ask that of anyone?
Sure, the world might be a little less complicated if there were no bisexual people. But it would also be less interesting. And it would certainly be less realistic. The reality is that bisexual people do exist.
Are you just trying to escape prejudice against gay people?
No. Bisexual people experience prejudice from both mainstream society and the gay community. The only incentive most bisexual people have for choosing their label is personal integrity.
Why do bisexual people get discriminated against by both gays and straights?
The old model for sexual orientation assumed that everyone was straight. Now many people assume that sexual orientation is a duality, with gay and straight people but nothing in between. It's an oversimplified view of life, but some people (even gay people) find it easier to believe the lie than it is to expand their understanding.
Some people who are familiar with and comfortable about homosexuality are still uncomfortable with bisexuality. They assume the stereotypes about bisexual people being promiscous, unfaithful, and untrustworthy are true. Usually, this attitude is born of ignorance. It seems that there are still less openly bisexual people than openly gay people. So fewer people have an openly bi friend.
Gay people sometimes hold the same stereotypes about bisexuals that straight people hold about them. Perhaps on some level, they seek to distance the parts of the homosexual stereotype that they see as undesirable by foisting them on another group. This may make them feel better by removing internal homophobia. But it also means they will show the same kind of prejudice against bisexual people that they want straight people to stop showing them.
What percentage of people are bisexual?
That number is not known at this time. Studies have shown everything from 0% to over 80%. Clearly, something is wrong with the studies that they get such different results! Part of the problem is that bisexuality can be a sort of grey area. Each researcher has to decide where bisexuality ends and where homosexuality or heterosexuality begins. Different choices will produce different results.
Also, there are a lot of factors which might be used in such studies. A study using only sexual behavior will tend to find less bisexual people than one which includes fantasies, romances, and self-identification as well. Many of these additional factors require the researcher to make even more judgment calls about what does and doesn't constitute bisexuality. So it gets really complicated.
In the end, it doesn't matter very much what percentage of people are bisexual. It is enough to observe that you probably see bisexual people through the course of your daily life. Over the span of your lifetime, you will probably know several bisexual people very well. Whether they are part of a small minority or a big one isn't that big of a deal.
Questions About Heterosexuality
The following are tongue-in cheek questions that might be asked of a heterosexual speaker by a queer audience. They help demonstrate why the questions above are so embarrassing, and why they are so difficult to answer.
Most child molesters, felons, and rapists are heterosexual. Do you worry about committing violent crimes? Are you comfortable having your children raised by heterosexual teachers?
When and why did you decide to be heterosexual? Is your heterosexuality the result of a bad experience with someone of your gender?
Have you considered therapy to change your orientation to homosexual?
Please describe what the heterosexual lifestyle is like.
When you get together with someone of the opposite sex, what exactly do you do with them in bed?
I see portrayals of straight sex in the media all the time. It's disgusting! Why are straight people obsessed with sex?
I also see straight people in public holding hands, kissing, and flirting. Plus they talk about their significant others constantly. Why do so many straight people feel a need to flaunt their sexuality?
A high percentage of straight marriages end in divorce, and adultery is a common problem within straight marriages. Why do you think straights are so untrustworthy in their relationships?