By MAYA SALAM
May 17, 2017
Maybe the questions bubbled up over time. Maybe the realization hit you suddenly. Am I gay? Everyone calls me a girl, but I don’t feel like one. Why do I feel different from the people I’m around? Those feelings can be the beginning of a journey of self-discovery that can be rewarding, but also extremely daunting.
‘You are not alone.’
If this is what you’re going through, take a breath and remember that there are plenty of people and resources to help and support you. Even if facing discrimination is not a concern for you, the anxiety and isolation you may feel privately can be all too real.
“You are not alone,” said iO Tillett Wright, a speaker whose TedxWomen talk, “Fifty Shades of Gay,” has more than 2.5 million views. “It’s comical how not alone you are.”
While it is not possible to get an exact figure on the population of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, a 2015 report by the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that “7 percent of millennials identify either as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.” A January 2017 Gallup survey revealed that an estimated 4.1 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, up from 3.5 percent in 2012.
According to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, even those numbers may be underestimated — as are the challenges that people in this community face.
In many parts of the country, and the world, there are institutional resources available for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people that never before existed, said Larry Gross, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who helped found the field of gay and lesbian studies.
“And rather importantly,” he added, “psychological, psychiatric, medical professionals are now much more aware and enlightened than they were in the past not to pathologize variation, but to see it as normal, and to help people to adjust.”
At square one, though, take an inventory of your feelings.
You don’t need all the answers right away.
“The leap from ‘something feels not right’ to ‘I am transgender’ is a huge one,” said Mr. Tillett Wright, whose Self Evident Truths project is documenting 10,000 people who identify as anything other than 100 percent straight. “I think that the pervasive idea is that there’s this switch that you flip that’s like, ‘I’m not straight anymore, I’m gay,’ or ‘Something’s up, and I’m trans.’ ”
“The big question is: ‘Am I happy?’,” he said. “Do I feel good? Do I feel at ease?”
Richard H. Reams, the associate director of counseling services at Trinity University, in San Antonio, Tex., who created the guide “Am I Gay?” recommends that those questioning their orientation should also assess whether their same-sex attractions are physical or emotional.
Physical attraction toward someone of the same sex can be easier to identify, Dr. Reams said, indicated by thoughts as simple as, “I’d like to touch that person.”
Emotional attraction can be trickier: “What are my feelings toward the different people in my life? Is it just friendship feelings, or is it romantic feelings?” Dr. Reams suggests asking yourself. And don’t rush answering.
If negative thoughts like “something is wrong with me” creep up, Deborah Coolhart, a therapist at Syracuse University and co-author of “The Gender Quest Workbook,” says to remember that these thoughts are learned, not innate. She works with patients to help them identify the origin of those critical messages to hopefully “externalize them,” she said.
Dispel the Myths
Among the most damaging myths are that being a sexual minority or transgender is a disease, a sin or not normal, says Dr. Coolhart, who specializes in transgender issues. All of these thoughts need to be challenged, she said.
By connecting with affirmative people, like counselors and other helping professionals, or a community, those messages can be replaced with: “ ‘I am normal. There’s a lot of people that have this experience. There’s nothing wrong with me. This is actually something that makes me special and who I am,’ ” she said.
Dr. Reams addresses several myths about sexual orientation on his website but says the most common one is that bisexuals are equally attracted to men and woman. “It infuriates me,” he said. “Bisexuality is a spectrum.”
The traditional definition of sexual orientation assumes two primary things, he says: that people have a gender identity of male or female, and that they’re attracted to men, women or both. “Both of those assumptions can be incorrect,” he said. In fact, genderqueer or gender-fluid individuals may have an unfixed gender identity.
If Mr. Tillett Wright, who is transgender, could give advice to his younger self, it would be to waste less time trying to be “straight and femme.”
“You can never bend yourself into being anything other than what you are. No matter how much social pressure is put on you,” he said.
Embrace the spectrum.
Fluidity is quickly becoming a new, and acceptable, normal in the queer community.
“The old-school answer was that you really needed to come to an identity and claim it,” Dr. Reams said. “We’re now understanding that’s not the case.”
Embracing that fluidity is more about characteristics that aren’t gender-specific. It’s “incredibly liberating” for some sexual minorities to describe themselves beyond the three labels of lesbian, gay or bisexual, he said.
When seeking a partner, “male or female is pretty immaterial” to a lot of younger people, he said.
Mr. Tillett Wright says the healthiest way to come to an identity is to “come to it in time” and “never settle on anything.”
“I find rigidity in any identity, be it straight, gay, trans, bisexual or whatever. When you settle on one thing, you have formed a barrier for yourself and your future selves, plural.”
Your safety is paramount
While many L.G.B.T.Q. people live openly all over the United States, and in many other countries, it’s important to take stock of your personal situation to ensure that you’re not compromising your safety. According to data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that was analyzed last year, L.G.B.T.Q. Americans are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group.
Similarly, a nationwide study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention released in 2016 revealed that high school students identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual are still at much greater risk of bullying, depression and violence than their peers who identify as straight. And in many other parts of the world, people still face persecution and punishment for their orientation and identity.
So in some case, Dr. Coolhart says, it may be better to wait to come out to everyone and to instead focus on finding support. “Think about what kind of risks there are in coming out, how supportive they think their family will be, how will it be treated in the work or school environment,” she said.
To start, Dr. Coolhart suggests, find one person you can be honest with — maybe a relative, teacher, counselor, co-worker or church person.
Find a support network
Dr. Reams recommends that if you can’t find someone trustworthy or you live in an area that feels unsafe, make contact with the nearest Metropolitan Community Church. The church operates nationwide, even in rural areas. “Even if you’re not religious, the pastor of that church is going to know what resources there are,” he said. Also consider contacting a PFLAG chapter in your area or a GSA chapter in your school, if there is one.
The LGBT National Help Center offers book suggestions, hotlines and online chat services.
GLAAD and the It Gets Better Project offer communities and information. The Trevor Project is a national support network for young people, focused largely on suicide prevention, but it also extends an online community to connect with privately, and a hotline if you need to talk.
The Trans Lifeline operates hotlines for people struggling with their gender identity, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health offers many resources for transgender individuals. The Bisexual Resource Center hosts events, offers resources and raises awareness about bisexuality.
Finding support online easily defuses a common first reaction of people questioning their orientation or identity — thoughts like “there’s something here that no one has ever experienced, and there’s no one like them, and there’s no one to talk to,” said Mr. Gross, who wrote “Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing.”
Mr. Gross, Dr. Reams and Dr. Coolhart all suggest watching YouTube testimonials. They “give faces to experiences that are similar,” Dr. Coolhart said. But skip the comments, Dr. Reams says.
Online resources like that have changed everything. “In a culture saturated in sexual imagery,” Mr. Gross said, queer people can finally see themselves reflected in ways that were not available before. “The internet has overcome that kind of isolation in a way that nothing has previously.”
Mr. Tillett Wright offers a word of warning, though: Exercise restraint when sharing emotional details online.
“Social media opens the doors to keyboard warriors, who like to bully people,” he said. “So as you’re tiptoeing your way into your identity and figuring yourself out, maybe don’t put your most vulnerable stuff out there for everybody to pick apart.”
Online or off, Dr. Reams said, it is most important to find someone to talk to who is supportive and nonjudgmental. “That is the most wonderful thing that a person can have.”