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The Impact of Sexual Identity Labels on Teens

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Youth who come out desperately need a safe space to process their experiences at such a vulnerable time. The experience of same sex sexuality is not new, although we still have much to learn about the unique challenges for many teenagers who find them-selves experiencing same sex attraction today. The cultural wars have made it increasingly difficult for teens to share their story without being flooded with directive messages from all sides. What are the alternatives to bombarding the youth experiencing same sex attraction with our own perspective on what will be best for them? We can listen to them as they share their own experience, and present them with the information available to support them as they navigate this difficult terrain.

What is the place for labels such as “gay/straight/bisexual” in this context? How much do these labels help the teen as they parse out their experience?

Analysis of date from the Adolescent Health study suggests that homosexual attractions are less stable than heterosexual attractions. This is to say that more teens who reported same-sex attraction and/or behavior migrated towards heterosexual attraction and behavior over time than those who reported heterosexual attraction and/or behavior migrated in the opposite direction. Relevant to consider for youth who share with you their experience of same-sex sexuality, adolescents who reported same-sex behavior and both same-sex and opposite-sex behavior at ages 16 and 17 were more likely to engage in exclusive opposite-sex behavior at age 22 (to “migrate” toward heterosexuality) than those adolescents who had reported opposite-sex behavior at 16 or 17 were to move toward same-sex or same-sex and opposite-sex behavior at 22. With this in mind, although we may feel inclined to put people in categories of “gay” or “straight” and to assign a label based on attractions alone, it may be better to remain tentative in this domain. Experiences of attraction and the strength and influence of such attraction on behavior tend to vary over the course of the adolescent years, lending to the notion that labels may not be as helpful in capturing individual experiences of sexuality. To place someone in a “box” based on current attractions ignores the migration that is a part of attraction for many youth.

Labeling someone puts us at risk of ignoring the multitude of variables that play a part in sexual identity development. Sexual behavior and experiences, sexual attractions and how to make sense of them, and sexual identity labels and their meaning are distinct and they all matter. To base identity solely on current strength of attractions, especially for the youth, may not be helpful. Each person is a person to be engaged with, supported, and listened to rather than isolated, labeled, and spoken at.

-Julia Sadusky


Hope, D. A. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 54, 12-13. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-09556-1