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Heather Corinna replies:
This young girl I know claims to be gay but I'm not convinced. When she was 16 she wanted to find and be with a nice guy. Now she is 18 and likes to go out and party and get high and everything and now she claims to be gay. Are lesbians usually attracted to guys growing up?
We don't need to convince others of what our orientation is or prove our orientation to anyone. That girl you know doesn't need to convince you she's gay, nor should you feel she has to. How she identifies is about what feels true to her, regardless of her relationship history. How many people do you know who say they're straight before they have relationships with anyone, and discover over time that, indeed, that's exactly what they are? Probably quite a lot. Same goes for people who are not straight. Would it seem right to you for people to need heterosexuality to be proven to anyone else?
It's very common for those of us who are gay, lesbian or bisexual to be very impacted by all of the heterosexism (the presumption that everyone is heterosexual or the belief that heterosexual people and opposite-sex relationships are superior to homosexual and bisexual people and same-sex relationships) and heteronormativity (the institutionalization of heterosexuality in a society) in our culture.
Most cultures treat heterosexuality like a default setting for sexuality: in other words, like everyone is supposed to be heterosexual, and those of us who are not are deviant or abnormal. Until recently in history, even the medical and psychiatric community considered anything other that heterosexuality an illness. So much of what any of us are taught, overtly and covertly, about love and sex as we're growing up is about men and women as partners. We're taught a lot of that from the earliest ages -- look how much of it is even in our childhood storybooks, or in family calling our first opposite-sex friend our boyfriend or girlfriend -- so it's typical for heterosexuality to feel or seem natural for many people, even if it turns out that's not actually authentic to them or not the kind of partnership they want, are drawn most strongly to, or feel most at home in.
It's common for many gay, lesbian or bisexual people to start out dating or mating with opposite-sex partners because we are usually so effectively trained to do just that: most of us have to unlearn that kind of social conditioning, and since it's so pervasive, that can take some time. Because it's so institutionalized, it can even take a while to realize we've had that conditioning and been given those messages, and that the idea that heterosexuality is what is "normal" stems more from people saying and hearing that it is (and from being threatened by anything else) than it does from how many people are truly heterosexual. What's normal is for sexuality and sexual orientation to be diverse: most broad studies and surveys done on sexual orientation find that people who are exclusively heterosexual or homosexual in their attractions and/or relationships are actually the rarity, not the norm. However, it's still very common for a lot of people to deny that or remain ignorant about that, and those attitudes are reflected in our laws, our social structures, our language -- pretty much everywhere we look.
With all of those common heterosexist and homophobic attitudes and mores around, it's not easy to be something other than straight in most areas of the world. One of the simplest ways to understand how obvious it is that orientation isn't a choice is to look at what gay, lesbian and bisexual people often have to go through. Would any of us really purposefully and intentionally choose to have less rights, to be discriminated against, to be kicked out of our homes, disowned or put down by our family or friends, to be treated like deviants, to be assaulted, abused and harassed? Not likely. So, given all that GLB folks have to go through, it's very common for folks who know or suspect they are not heterosexual to try and have sex or relationships with people of another sex or gender in the vain hope that they can be or become heterosexual so life will be a whole lot easier. As well, some gay, lesbian or bisexual people may have heterosexual relationships, or say things like that they "just want to find a nice guy," in order to try and keep others from discovering their sexual orientation due to concerns about discrimination, emotional and physical safety.
Understand, as well, that while orientation is not a choice, to some degree sexuality and orientation are also fluid. Over time, as our lives go on, we may experience a shift in the things we like sexually or are comfortable with, and/or the people we are attracted to or choose to pursue relationships with. Sometimes straight people, over time -- not by choice, but in the same way a shore changes due to tides and weather -- become bisexual. Sometimes bisexual people become homosexual. Sometimes bisexual people become heterosexual. And don't forget that trying to put orientation into little boxes is really problematic to begin with, because sometimes, we just love who we love, especially since a person's gender is not our only criteria in how we feel about them. I'm a lifelong bisexual person who in many ways, is more drawn and attracted to women, yet I currently have a male partner now because that's the person I feel in love with based on numerous facets of who he is. Gender is only one part of my attraction to others: the big picture has a lot more within it than just gender. As well, what our relationships are all about varies a lot: orientation isn't just about sex and sexual attraction, and neither are many of our interpersonal relationships.
As an aside, I'd be very careful about associating her partying and drug habits with her orientation. The two may or may not be related. By all means, GLB youth often have higher rates of depression and anxiety, for all the obvious reasons, and some engage in drug use for that reason. But others do not, or have partying and drug habits that have nothing to do with their orientation. Would you make the same leap with someone stating they have recently discovered they were heterosexual? Probably not. She's older than she was before (most people have pretty big identity changes with themselves through puberty and early adulthood: you may have yourself), which likely has something to do with a change in her lifestyle or overall desires. She's now a legal adult. She may just now be exploring having some freedom she didn't have before. She may be partying because she feels better being out now: who knows. By all means, you can ask her if she thinks those things are related, and as a friend, assure that she's not partying so much because she is distressed, seeking escape and needs some extra support she's not getting. But do look before you leap.
Overall, when someone comes out to us, what we should be doing is simply supporting them as best we can, especially since that support can be so hard to find and is so needed. It's fine to go ahead and ask questions out of curiosity, with the intention of better understanding a friend or yourself, but we should do our best to never make anyone feel like they need to prove their orientation or attraction base to us: that's not supportive. It also doesn't really benefit anyone in any way I can think of.
It can also be helpful to remind yourself that someone's orientation is never something we should take personally. If you're male, your friend stating she's attracted to women doesn't mean there is anything wrong with you or other men, just like if you're a straight male, you not being attracted to men doesn't mean there is anything wrong with men. Orientation is about who we like, not who we dislike, and being more, mostly or only attracted to one group of people doesn't come from a place of revulsion to others.
Here are a few more links to fill you in on some of this: