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Understanding Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

How are sexual orientation and gender identity determined?

"No one knows exactly how sexual orientation and gender identity [are] determined. However, experts agree that it is a complicated matter of genetics, biology, psychological and social factors. For most people, sexual orientation and gender identity are shaped at any early age. While research has not determined a cause, homosexuality and gender variance are not the result of any one factor like parenting or past experiences. It is never anyone's 'fault' if they or their loved one grows up to be LGBT (PFLAG, 2013)." For more information and other great resources, visit http://www.jmu.edu/safezone/educate.shtml.

How does someone know they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?

"Some people say that they have 'felt different' or knew they were attracted to people of the same sex from the time they were very young. Some transgender people talk about feeling from an early age that their gender identity did not match parental and social expectations. Others do not figure out their sexual orientation or gender identity until they are adolescents or adults. Often it can take a while for people to put a label to their feelings, or people's feelings may change over time. Understanding our sexuality and gender can be a lifelong process, and people shouldn't worry about labeling themselves right away. However, with positive images of LGBT people more readily available, it is becoming easier for people to identify their feelings and come out at earlier ages. People don't have to be sexually active to know their sexual orientation – feelings and emotions are as much a part of one's identity. The short answer is that you'll know when you know (PFLAG, 2013)."

Should I talk to a loved one about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity before the person talks to me?

"It's seldom appropriate to ask a person, 'Are you gay?' Your perception of another person's sexual orientation (gay or straight) or gender identity (male or female) is not necessarily what it appears. No one can know for sure unless the person has actually declared that they are gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender. PFLAG recommends creating a safe space by showing your support of LGBT issues on a non-personal level. For example, take an interest in openly discussing and learning about topics such as same-sex marriage or LGBT rights in the workplace. Learn about LGBT communities and culture. Come out as an ally, regardless of if your friend or loved one is LGBT. Read PFLAG's Dos and Don'ts for Friends and Families to get some tips should the "coming out day" happen. Your ultimate goal is to provide a safe space for your loved one to approach you when he or she is ready without fear of negative consequences (PFLAG, 2013)."

How do I come out to my family and friends?

"There are many questions to consider before coming out. Are you comfortable with your sexuality and gender identity/expression? Do you have support? Can you be patient? What kind of views do your friends and family have about homosexuality and gender variance? Are you financially dependent on your family? Make sure you have thought your decision through, have a plan and supportive people you can turn to. Just as you needed to experience different stages of acceptance for yourself, family and loved ones will need to go through a similar process.

PFLAG was founded because of the unconditional love of parents for their gay children. Your loved ones will need time to adjust to your news, the same way you may have needed time to come to terms with yourself. However, true acceptance is possible and happens every day, especially with education and support. Today's youth face more social pressures than ever, especially since young people are coming out at increasingly younger ages. That's why PFLAG created Be Yourself: Questions and Answers for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth a coming-out guide which provides a supportive approach to common questions asked by teens who may be questioning their sexual orientation. It also provides hotline numbers for teens and a list of resources. Also consider talking to someone from your local PFLAG chapter for more personalized tips and support (PFLAG, 2013)."