Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Can young people really know they are gay?

A couple attends an annual gay pride parade in Bogota, Colombia, July 3, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

By Pierre Brouard and Judith Ancer

If a young person feels that they are gay, is the priority to work out if they are sure they are gay, or to help them deal with the fears and anxieties of their family and friends?

We are two psychologists who work regularly with this dilemma, and recent media discussions about a family of faith grieving over their son, who came out in his suicide letter, has given us pause for thought. Not just because his death feels tragic, untimely and unnecessary, but also because the article speculated whether this young man was “really” gay, and could have benefitted from help to work it out.

Implied in this speculation is the notion that young gay people don’t really know if they are gay, when in fact they have often been thinking about it for a very long time. The moment of revelation is usually the end point of many months, and often years, of denial, psychological bargaining and self-reflection.

To suggest they “may not be sure” devalues a gay identity because it implies that it is superficial and open to rational choice and reflection, rather than a deep, intuitively inexplicable and profound sense of self. We acknowledge that many societies, including ours, are still deeply ambivalent about, and even hostile towards, queer people, and that a gay identity is counter normative. Yet people who are gay often report they have known this fact for a very long time, and it is as deep and unfathomable as a heterosexual identity. To ask a young gay person if they are “sure”, is as useful and as lacking in respect, as asking a young straight person if they are “sure” they are attracted to the opposite sex.

Of course, a person’s sexual identity can be fluid and many young people today describe themselves as such, using words like pansexual or demisexual. And indeed, young people may feel interested in experimenting in matters around desire, blurring the borders of a “clear” identity. This can be confusing and unsettling for parents and family, but a young person who explicitly states that they are gay (or anything else) should be respected and taken seriously. Sexual orientation is not a choice, though experimentation might be. We understand that the parents and families of young people coming out may have many questions and concerns, such as ‘will my child be happy, be loved, be accepted, be safe?’ However, as a society we need to arrive at a position where an assertion of homosexuality should not evoke our dismay, or an interrogation.

To ask someone if they are “sure” also suggests that we would prefer they were not gay – and this message is internalised by every gay person as they grow up. Anyone marinated in a heteronormative world, a world of compulsory heterosexuality and straight privilege, picks up this message: to be gay is not ok. It is in many ways agonising to have assert that one is sure, because one knows, almost invariably, that the news will be met with dismay, anxiety, possible rejection, and even overt harm.

Taking this point further, we contend that faith communities which argue one should “love the sinner not the sin”, are complicit in devaluing gay identities and lives. This renders them second-class human beings, positions them as intrinsically defective, and is a social and psychological harm. It is not a passive act of harming, it is an active one.

In the interests of full disclosure we both grew up in faith backgrounds, one Jewish and one Catholic, and we recognise in many faith traditions, despite some exceptions, a persistent othering of gay and other queer people. It is patronising at best, destructive at worst, to position gay people in this way.

“Love the sinner not the sin” is often presented as an act of compassion, a kindness. It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Rather, these words are profoundly damaging to gay and other queer people, because they say “we like you in spite of who you are”, and they position the gay person as fundamentally “less than”. In effect it says that the gay person is permanently unwell, psychologically and spiritually. There can be no justification for this.

Dealing with homophobia and the psychological pressures of internalised assumptions of heteronormativity, parental anxiety, and social disapproval, are good reasons to seek the support of a psychotherapist. Ultimately, however, it is our view that it is not the gay person who needs help – it is a society, a faith, a community, who cannot accept people for who they are, that needs the help.

Pierre Brouard is a clinical psychologist and the deputy director of the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at the University of Pretoria. 
Judith Ancer is a clinical psychologist, parent, public speaker and former parenting columnist based in Johannesburg.

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