Lesbian, gay, bisexual basic information
A statement on sexual orientation by
American Psychological Association
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What Is Sexual Orientation?
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or
affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other
components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the
psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role
(adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive
heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of
bisexuality. Bisexual persons can experience sexual, emotional, and
affectional attraction to both their own sex and the opposite sex. Persons
with a homosexual orientation are sometimes referred to as gay (both men and
women) or as lesbian (women only).
Sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior because it refers to
feelings and self-concept. Individuals may or may not express their sexual
orientation in their behaviors.
What Causes a Person To Have a Particular Sexual Orientation?
There are numerous theories about the origins of a person's sexual
orientation. Most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most
likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and
biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early
age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology,
including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a
It's important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a
person's sexual orientation, and the reasons may be different for different
Is Sexual Orientation a Choice?
No, human beings cannot choose to be either gay or straight. For most
people, sexual orientation emerges in early adolescence without any prior
sexual experience. Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings,
psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice
that can be voluntarily changed.
Can Therapy Change Sexual Orientation?
No; even though most homosexuals live successful, happy lives, some
homosexual or bisexual people may seek to change their sexual orientation
through therapy, often coerced by family members or religious groups to try
and do so. The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not
require treatment and is not changeable. However, not all gay, lesbian, and
bisexual people who seek assistance from a mental health professional want
to change their sexual orientation. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people may
seek psychological help with the coming out process or for strategies to
deal with prejudice, but most go into therapy for the same reasons and life
issues that bring straight people to mental health professionals.
What About So-Called "Conversion Therapies"?
Some therapists who undertake so-called conversion therapy report that
they have been able to change their clients' sexual orientation from
homosexual to heterosexual. Close scrutiny of these reports, however. show
several factors that cast doubt on their claims. For example, many of these
claims come from organizations with an ideological perspective that condemns
homosexuality. Furthermore, their claims are poorly documented; for example,
treatment outcome is not followed and reported over time, as would be the
standard to test the validity of any mental health intervention.
The American Psychological Association is concerned about such therapies
and their potential harm to patients. In 1997, the Association's Council
of Representatives passed a resolution reaffirming psychology's
opposition to homophobia in treatment and spelling out a client's right to
unbiased treatment and self-determination. Any person who enters into
therapy to deal with issues of sexual orientation has a right to expect that
such therapy will take place in a professionally neutral environment,
without any social bias.
Is Homosexuality a Mental Illness or Emotional Problem?
No. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals
agree that homosexuality is not an illness, a mental disorder, or an
emotional problem. More than 35 years of objective, well-designed scientific
research has shown that homosexuality, in and itself, is not associated with
mental disorders or emotional or social problems. Homosexuality was once
thought to be a mental illness because mental health professionals and
society had biased information.
In the past, the studies of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people involved
only those in therapy, thus biasing the resulting conclusions. When
researchers examined data about such people who were not in therapy, the
idea that homosexuality was a mental illness was quickly found to be untrue.
In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association confirmed the importance of
the new, better-designed research and removed homosexuality from the
official manual that lists mental and emotional disorders. Two years later,
the American Psychological Association passed a resolution supporting this
For more than 25 years, both associations have urged all mental health
professionals to help dispel the stigma of mental illness that some people
still associate with homosexual orientation.
Can Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals Be Good Parents?
Yes. Studies comparing groups of children raised by homosexual and by
heterosexual parents find no developmental differences between the two
groups of children in four critical areas: their intelligence, psychological
adjustment, social adjustment, and popularity with friends. It is also
important to realize that a parent's sexual orientation does not indicate
Another myth about homosexuality is the mistaken belief that gay men have
more of a tendency than heterosexual men to sexually molest children. There
is no evidence to suggest that homosexuals molest children.
Why Do Some Gay Men, Lesbians, and Bisexuals Tell People About Their Sexual Orientation?
Because sharing that aspect of themselves with others is important to
their mental health. In fact, the process of identity development for
lesbians, gay men and bisexuals called "coming out" has been found to be
strongly related to psychological adjustment; the more positive the gay,
lesbian, or bisexual identity, the better one's mental health and the higher
Why Is the "Coming Out" Process Difficult for Some Gay, Lesbian
and Bisexual People?
For some gay and bisexual people the "coming out" process is difficult;
for others it is not. Often lesbian, gay and bisexual people feel afraid,
different, and alone when they first realize that their sexual orientation
is different from the community norm. This is particularly true for people
becoming aware of their gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation in childhood
or adolescence, which is not uncommon. And depending on their families and
their communities, they may have to struggle against prejudice and
misinformation about homosexuality.
Children and adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to the harmful
effects of bias and stereotypes. They may also fear being rejected by
family, friends, co-workers, and religious institutions. Some gay people
have to worry about losing their jobs or being harassed at school if their
sexual orientation became well known.
Unfortunately, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are at a higher risk for
physical assault and violence than are heterosexuals. Studies done in
California in the mid-1990s showed that nearly one-fifth of all lesbians who
took part in the study, and more than one-fourth of all gay men who
participated, had been the victim of a hate crime based on their sexual
orientation. In another California study of approximately 500 young adults,
half of all the young men participating in the study admitted to some form
of anti-gay aggression, ranging from name-calling to physical violence.
What Can Be Done to Overcome the Prejudice and Discrimination
that Gay Men, Lesbians, and Bisexuals Experience?
Research has found that the people who have the most positive attitudes
toward gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals are those who say they know one or
more gay, lesbian or bisexual person well, often as a friend or co-worker.
For this reason, psychologists believe that negative attitudes toward gay
people as a group are prejudices that are not grounded in actual experience
but are based on stereotypes and misinformation. Furthermore, protection
against violence and discrimination are very important, just as they are for
any other minority groups. Some states include violence against an
individual on the basis of his or her sexual orientation as a "hate crime,"
and ten U.S. states have laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual
Why Is it Important for Society to be Better Educated About Homosexuality?
Educating all people about sexual orientation and homosexuality is likely
to diminish anti-gay prejudice. Accurate information about homosexuality is
especially important to young people who are first discovering and seeking
to understand their sexuality,whether homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.
Fears that access to such information will make more people gay have no
validity; information about homosexuality does not make someone gay or
Are All Gay and Bisexual Men HIV Infected?
No. This is a common myth. In reality, the risk of exposure to HIV is
related to a person's behavior, not their sexual orientation. What's
important to remember about HIV/AIDS is that contracting the disease can be
prevented by using safe sex practices and by not using drugs.
Copyright © 2007 by American Psychological
Originally posted here: 2009-AUG-21
Latest update: 2009-AUG-21