11 minute read

Sexual Orientation

The Problem with Definition, Sexual Orientation Hesitantly Defined

Because adolescence is a time of transition from childhood into adulthood, adolescents are "journey people"–neither adults nor children, but traveling somewhere in between. Their identities on all levels are dynamic and convoluted. They are changing rapidly and often unevenly on physical, emotional, intellectual, moral, and spiritual levels.

The sexual identity of an adolescent is also being formed, and it cuts across all categories of human development. Sexual orientation, or the primary direction of one's romantic, relational, and psychological desires, is in flux for many adolescents. Sexual orientation and the personal, communal, societal, and educational issues surrounding it are instrumental in the lives of all adolescents, especially those who find themselves experiencing attractions to those of the same sex or in the case of transgendered youth, those who are unable or unwilling to adhere to traditional gender roles (behavior that is traditionally understood to be associated with women or men).

While the inclusion of transgendered issues in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement is controversial to some, gender and sexual orientation intersect in inseparable ways. For example, many students are harassed in school because they are perceived to be lesbian or gay, not because they actually are lesbian or gay. Some individuals do not or cannot adhere to traditional gender roles in the way they look, dress, behave, or speak–for example, when a boy has many feminine mannerisms, or when a girl appears traditionally masculine in dress or behavior. A fear of being labeled gay or lesbian based on gender assumptions can affect students in many different ways, as when boys are reticent to participate in school choir or when girls become ambivalent about academic achievement. Therefore, this discussion of sexual orientation includes transgender issues. Also included are those who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Problem with Definition

It is important to note that the desire to measure, define, and keep statistics on sexual orientation and gender is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. The terms homosexual, heterosexual, and transgender did not exist until early in the twentieth century with the advent of modern psychology. In ancient times, same sex erotic behaviors and romantic love for those of the same sex existed as part of normal and everyday life. Some researchers and theorists believe that society has created categories for sexual orientation and gender to control sexual behavior and to create a catalogue of sexual deviancies. Society's need to classify sexual orientation and gender and attitudes toward people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning (i.e. sexual minorities) reflect society's assumptions about what is normal and who is welcomed and excluded. Educators should approach the labeling and classifying of sexual orientation of adolescents with great caution due to its potential for exclusion. James Brundage asserts that people are continuing to live with codes of sexual conduct established in Medieval Europe, and he calls for new reflections on an understanding of people as sexual beings in modern times. Living in a world, however, of what Thomas Popkewitz calls "population reasoning" that seeks to define children as members of groups with certain characteristics requires that people, however hestitantly, must acquiesce.

Sexual Orientation Hesitantly Defined

When a compass is moved, the needle fluctuates for a bit before settling on true north. Similarly, a significant number of adolescents will find themselves confused about their sexual orientation and gender before settling into their sexual identity. Many will engage in sexual behaviors with others of the same sex. For most, these behaviors are experimental as young people make their way to a heterosexual orientation. But, for others, the attractions to those of the same sex remain consistent as they continue to personally develop and become more experienced in relationships. Many psychologists theorize that one's sexual orientation is found on a continuum, that no person is 100 percent heterosexual or homosexual, and that some are right in between. Research is suggesting that gender identity can also be understood along a continuum.

Sexual orientation is also understood to be more than just genital-sexual behaviors and includes emotional preference as well as intensity of spiritual connection with another person. Those who fall on the continuum closer to being attracted to those of the opposite sex, which accounts for the majority, are commonly known as straight or heterosexual. Those in the middle (studies show this to be anywhere from 2% to 5%) are considered bisexual. When a person is physically, emotionally, and spiritually attracted primarily to members of the same sex, they are considered to be lesbian, if female, and gay, if male. Studies show these numbers to be anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent of the general population.

It is difficult to design studies that accurately reveal the proportion of straight and sexual minorities in the adolescent population. Even if a survey is anonymous, those with minority orientations may be denying their attractions to themselves as well as others because of the societal expectation that the only acceptable and normal orientation is heterosexual (i.e. heteronormativity). Some adolescents may have sexual attractions to either gender but would not categorize themselves in the same way as the survey instrument would. Others may know that they are members of a sexual minority, but because sexual orientation is invisible, many force themselves to live as heterosexuals, thus feeling one way on the inside, but living another way on the outside.

The Impact of Invisibility and the Sense of Self

Although evidence shows that more and more individuals are coming out (divulging one's sexual orientation to others), minority adolescents are especially susceptible to the tendency of keeping their orientation invisible and silent. Instead, they choose to emulate their straight peers. This contradiction between a minority adolescent's developing internal sense of sexual identity and external actions and words exacts a great toll on their emotional and spiritual wellbeing. This disintegration (lack of ability to integrate invisible identity with visible identity) of the adolescent plays itself out through a higher than average rate of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, misbehavior, and suicide rate among sexual minority adolescents. Some reports show that up to one-third of teen suicides are committed by sexual minority youth. Spiritually, many adolescents find themselves alienated from their faith communities (either internally, externally, or both) and their family's spiritual traditions. Where do sexual minority youth develop a sense of needing to keep their identities invisible? How do they come to understand the world as a place that is hostile to their sexual desires?

Sexual Socialization of Adolescents

Heterosexual people often have difficulty understanding the trials of sexual minority individuals. Since the majority of people in the world are heterosexual (including the parents of most minority youth), most persons in the mainstream culture spend little time reflecting on their sexual orientation. However, if one were to imagine what it would be like to be a young person beginning to develop an internal sense of a minority sexual identity, one could quickly notice how modern society is hostile to and nonrepresentative of minority sexual orientations. The comments family members and friends make when sexual orientation issues are discussed, television shows, popular songs, books, movies, billboards, magazines, the content of laws and policies, and people's assumptions and expectations all teach children from a very early age that it is best to be heterosexual.

Debbie Epstein and Richard Johnson's work in elementary schools shows that heteronormative sexual roles are rehearsed and reinforced both in the classroom and on the playground. Children play games that celebrate heterosexual pairings, read stories with exclusively straight characters, absorb assumptions about people based on gender behaviors, and are asked questions by teachers and classmates that assume a future heterosexual orientation. In short, from the first day of kindergarten, sexual minority youth are sexually socialized to think and feel in a straight way. When these youth reach adolescence and discover that they cannot fulfill the prepared sexual script, school becomes a place that both explicitly and subtly makes them feel abnormal and deviant.

High Schools and Sexual Minority Adolescents

Citing a Massachusetts Governor's Task Force report, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports that about two-thirds of sexual minority students said they have been verbally, physically, or sexually harassed at school. GLSEN seeks to make schools safer through education about orientation issues. It also provides logistical support for teachers, administrators, and students who want to help make their schools more welcoming to and accepting of sexual minority students. In some schools, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students, as well as their straight peers, meet (often in groups called Gay/Straight Alliances or GSAs) to discuss the problems faced by sexual minority students and share ideas about how to cultivate a tolerant atmosphere. The 1984 Federal Equal Access Act permits the formation of such groups anywhere that student clubs of any kind exist. This law, originally heavily promoted by conservative Christian groups to allow students to organize religious clubs in public secondary schools, applies only to public school settings where the administration has been found to have established a policy of making their facilities available to after-school groups. Sexual minority students in smaller or conservative communities are often more isolated, since the topic rarely, if ever, becomes part of the public discourse of the school. Advocates say the presence of GSAs makes sexual minority students feel safer. Opponents argue that GSAs encourage impressionable teens to experiment with homosexuality and a lifestyle that leads to unhappiness and death. Often, religious language is evoked to explain why homosexuality is unfavorable.

Even if sexual minority students are ready to talk about their sexual orientation (and many are not and just continue pretending to be like their straight peers), the level of support from and comfort level of the adults in the school can vary widely. Even counselors and social workers are often not prepared to discuss issues of sexual orientation with adolescents. Sometimes faculty who want to teach about the contributions of sexual minority individuals throughout history or want to support students individually are prevented from doing so by administrators and school boards. Parental pressure and perceived public opinion often keep school leaders from supporting sexual minority youth. In other places, however, teachers and staff display "safe zone" symbols (a symbol designed as a sign of support to students) and feel comfortable talking about sexual orientation as it comes up in classroom conversation or individual conversations with students.

The Controversy and Conclusion

In terms of attitudes and actions towards sexual minority issues and students, there is little uniformity across American schools. The majority of schools, however, are not dealing with the issues, and minority students continue to suffer in silence and denial of their own sexual orientation.

The sexual orientation issue in education is at the intersection of societal sexual, psychological, and religious norms with the school. While the legal system tends to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students to be free from harassment and to start GSAs, it has not held schools accountable for proactively creating more welcoming and supportive environments for sexual minority youth.

Ultimately, administrators, school boards, and citizens decide on the curriculum and policies of the school. Though the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from their list of mental disorders in the 1970s, many still do not consider a minority sexual orientation to be normal or acceptable. Some religious groups such as Focus on the Family contend that adolescents can be converted to heterosexuality using a process known as reparative therapy. While mainstream psychological (e.g., the APA) and religious groups reject such therapies (e.g., see 2000 Religious Declaration of Sexuality, Morality, Justice, and Healing, written by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), their level of support for open discourse and action in schools varies widely. The school is simply the crossroads of a much wider societal debate. Sexual minority adolescents challenge educators to think about the tension between pleasing majority publics and serving all students. The presence of minority adolescents can encourage reflection, conversation, and changes in policy and practices that many educators are not ready for and yet which sexual minority adolescents cannot survive without.


BOSWELL, JOHN. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BRUNDAGE, JAMES A. 1987. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

EPSTEIN, DEBBIE, and JOHNSON, RICHARD. 1998. Schooling Sexualities. Bristol, PA: Open University Press.

FOUCAULT, MICHEL. 1978. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York: Random House.

GIBSON, PAUL. 1989. "Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide." Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

JAGOSE, ANNAMARIE. 1996. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

MARTINO, WILLIAM. 2000. "Policing Masculinities: Investigating the Role of Homophobia and Heteronormativity in the Lives of Adolescent School Boys." Journal of Men's Studies 8 (2):213–236.

MOLLENKOTT, VIRGINIA. 2000. Omnigender: A Transreligious Approach. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

POPKEWITZ, THOMAS S. 1998. Struggling for the Soul: The Politics of Schooling and the Construction of the Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

RATHUS, SPENCER A.; NEVID, JEFFREY S.; and FICHNER-RATHUS, LOIS. 1997. Human Sexuality in a World of Diversity. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

RUBENSTEIN, WILLIAM. 1997. Cases and Materials on Sexual Orientation and the Law, 2nd edition. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

SEARS, JAMES. 1992. Sexuality and the Curriculum: The Politics and Practice of Sexuality Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

STORMS, MICHAEL D. 1980. "Theories of Sexual Orientation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38:783–792.



INTERSEX SOCIETY OF NORTH AMERICA (ISNA). 2000. Frequently Asked Questions.<www.isna.org/faq/index.html>.




Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia