Adolescent Homosexuality and Concerns regarding Disclosure

By Harrison, Therese W. | Journal of School Health, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Homosexuality and Concerns regarding Disclosure


Harrison, Therese W., Journal of School Health


As late as the 1970s the psychiatric profession regarded homosexuality as an illness. Empirical and theoretical literature focused on etiology, diagnosis, and cure of this "disease" entity. Although removed as an illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, it now can be classified as a Gender Identity Disorder. This classification may reflect health care providers' and society's need to continue to pathologize homosexuality or to stigmatize and marginalize the homosexual individual into almost near invisibility. (1,2) Therefore, with threats of being labeled abnormal, or facing rejection by their families, homosexual adolescents are pressured to hide their sexual identities. (1-3) Anticipated developmental concerns of all adolescents are compounded by the decision to hide or disclose homosexuality. To provide optimal anticipatory guidance and support for homosexual adolescent clients and their families, professionals need to understand the natural development of sexual attraction and the disclosure concerns and risks of homosexual adolescents.

DEVELOPMENT OF SEXUAL ATTRACTION AND IDENTITY

Developmental and social science models of sexual behavior in Western culture propose that sexual attraction begins biologically with adolescent gonadarche: 12 years for females, and 14 for males. Some significant studies suggest, however, that first sexual attraction actually begins in middle childhood around age 10. This view corresponds with adrenarche, which occurs when the adrenal glands produce sex steroids. These steroids may motivate sexual attraction and cognition as well as social and emotional behavior. Although these studies are based on retrospective data, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, data support that sexuality involves a process of development and a series of events paralleling Tanner Stages. This continuous process begins for both genders around age 10 and extends into adulthood. (4) Therefore, all youth may need gender and sexuality anticipatory guidance and support from professionals during ages that correspond with early--rather than later--Tanner Stages.

The normal process of developing sexual identity during middle childhood and early adolescence proves additionally stressful for homosexual adolescents. (2,5) Professionals generally agree typical progressive stages occur in homosexual identity development. (5,8) The possibility that timing of stages may occur later for lesbian and bisexual clients is under investigation. (9) The first stage includes Sensitization (8) or Early Awareness (5) where, around age 10, a child experiences same-sex attraction and feelings of difference. This stage is followed by Identity Confusion where awareness no longer can be ignored. Distressed individuals may try to keep their sexual identities a secret because society encourages heterosexuality. They also may feel guilt and shame, and denial may become a powerful coping mechanism. To prove their heterosexuality, or to hide their homosexuality, some deliberately may become pregnant. This period eventually is resolved by denying or inhibiting homosexual feelings, repressing same-sex attraction, or accepting a homosexual identity. (8)

In the Identity Assumption stage, the self-identified individual integrates the homosexual identity and usually limits disclosure. The last stage of disclosure, or the "coming out" process, is Identity Consolidation. The homosexual identity is incorporated into various social aspects, and disclosure usually increases. (5) In this stage, individuals consciously recognize and accept their homosexuality. For males, this factor may be limited to an internal conscious recognition or disclosure to selected confidants. For females, it usually includes additional social and political choices, (6,9) perhaps due to the perception that lesbians are less socially threatening and, therefore, may have better public toleration. (9,10)

Ethnic minority adolescents, who already may experience social racism, often limit disclosure because they may feel forced to choose between their cultural community and being gay.

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