Sexual Identity: Who Am I, Anyway?
In my busy psychotherapy practice based in West Hollywood, California, I tend to work with gay male adults and some lesbian adults who have been “out” in terms of their sexual identity for many years. Yet I am also aware that for many youth (teens) and young adults, and perhaps a good number of middle-aged adults, sexual identity is still something that they question, and need support as they struggle to figure out the best self-identity and “social description” for their sexual and romantic feelings, affiliations, and desires.
Individual therapy can be a great place to explore such a sensitive, fascinating, important, and wonderful topic. One of the biggest values that I encourage my clients to explore is the concept of self-empowerment to “have the life they want” — using their therapy to close the gap between how life is, and how they would like it to be, in important areas of life such as career, relationships, health, emotions, behaviors, finances, spirituality, and community. Sexual identity is perhaps one of the most important elements in how we experience ourselves, and how we present ourselves to others. While some individuals shun social “labels” and prefer not to define themselves, having relationships with men, women, or both as their romantic and sexual feelings lead them, others feel a need to adopt a social identity that guides their emotional, physical, civic, political, and social lives.
Individual therapy can be one of the safest and affirmative places to explore what it means to adopt a social identity. Therapy cannot “make” a straight person gay, nor a gay person straight — Mother Nature determines that early in life — but therapy can give a person who questions their sexual identity a place to talk out their feelings, and make sense of the thoughts and sensations that contribute to the formation of such an identity. Exploring what “social group” best applies to an individual can be an important part of building self-esteem, and giving a sense of belonging and identity to a person, answering the question, “Who am I?”
“A sense of belonging” is a part of the famous “hierarchy of human needs” concept, developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow. But “coming out” and defining one’s self as gay or bisexual can be difficult, particularly in a largely homophobic/heterosexist society that arbitrarily assigns a superior value to being heterosexual, merely because heterosexual people outnumber gay or bisexual people in Nature. Coming out as gay or bisexual is more than a validation and recognition of a person’s thoughts and feelings; it is about developing a place in society to call our own, and to form meaningful peer relationships and social support networks and communities with others who feel and identify the same way.
Whether a person in therapy ultimately decides they identify with heterosexual, bisexual, or gay society, it is the “right” answer — because it is the right answer for them. Bravely exploring feelings in therapy can help to resolve confusion and empower the individual to have the life they want.