Coming Out and Staying Out
In simple terms, being gay means that you are sexually attracted to members of your own sex and that you identify with other gay people or the larger gay community. Sexuality is a term used to describe a whole range of feelings, desires and actions relating to sex.
Why am I gay?
Nobody knows for sure why some of us are gay and some of us are not. Lots of theories have been put forward ranging from genetic differences to overbearing parents. The evidence so far suggests that random genetic factors play a part in determining our sexuality in the same way they play a part in determining, for example, lefthandedness.
One thing we do know is that no-one chooses their sexuality. Some gay people knew they were different, if not gay, from as young as five or six. It is said that, for most of us, our sexuality is determined by the age of 12 or 13 and probably 16 at the latest. By and large, society tends to assume that everyone is, or wants to be, heterosexual. This is known as heterosexism. Some people continue to believe that it is a choice and that we can be persuaded into heterosexuality. By assuming heterosexuality, society gives rise to the dilemma, for those of us who know we are gay, of whether to hide our sexuality or to come out - with all that this entails.
There have been small but perceptible changes in the way British society views homosexuality, but there is a long way to go before it will accept us in the same way as it does people who are, say, lefthanded. This has more to do with society's hang-ups around sex and sexuality than individual gay people. Often, once people know someone who is gay, their prejudices and fears about homosexuality disappear all together.
Growing up gay
For many young gay or bisexual people, adolescence can be a time of particular anxiety and fear. Many lesbians and gay men look back on this part of their lives with sadness and regret. There are very few positive gay role models and a lot of hostility towards openly gay people. Gay teenagers often become painfully aware that they are not like other people and many become withdrawn and lonely, convinced that only they are feeling this way. They learn to hide their true feelings or act as others want them to, for fear of being ostracised, ridiculed or rejected by loved ones and friends.
Above all, there can be a sense that we are somehow different, that we are abnormal and that we are going to disappoint people.
Some people believe that if they get married their gay feelings will disappear. It is unusual for this to happen. Most store up a great deal of stress and anxiety for their later years. Coming out as a gay parent has particular challenges. Breaking out of a clearly defined role, or even attempting to shift the definition of it, involves tremendous courage and strength. The conflict between their relationship with their spouse and family and their need to be themselves can be enormous.
There are several stages in the process of coming out. It's your life so take your time - do things for you and only when you are ready.
Coming out to yourself
Acknowledging that you are gay can take many years. Some of us probably hoped these feelings were "just a phase". In time, we realise that these feelings are not just a phase and we have to find a way of accepting them and dealing with the fact that we are sexually attracted to members of our own sex.
This realisation is the first stage of coming out. There is no hard and fast rule when this point is reached. For some it happens in their teens, for others it may happen much later in life.
Some people describe this time of accepting their sexuality as though they were riding an emotional rollercoaster. One day they felt happy and confident and ready to tell everyone; the next they felt confused, scared and relieved that they hadn't. You may want to talk to someone who understands what this is like.
So you still want to come out?
This is a nerve racking time - the fear of rejection is likely to be immense. Bear in mind that there are many ways to tell someone that you are gay.
It may be helpful to ask yourself some of the questions that come up later in this guide, as it is more than likely that others will ask you them at some point. Don't rehearse your answers but think of your reasons - it will make you and your discussions stronger and more assured.