Skip to Main Content

What If?

Answers to Questions About What It Means to Be Gay and Lesbian


About The Book

An updated and revised informative, accessible guide to understanding and approaching the issue of sexual orientation.

No question goes unanswered in this important book about being gay. All the basics—and not-so-basics—are covered in more than one hundred questions asked by real teens. Whether you’re curious about your own sexual orientation or looking to understand and support someone close to you, this book contains an abundance of answers. Primarily targeted at young adults, this indispensible guide also includes a chapter especially for parents as well as an appendix packed with additional resources.

Expert Eric Marcus has fully updated and revised this essential guide for today’s readers. He candidly and clearly pushes aside the myths and misinformation about being gay and lesbian, answering all the questions that are on your mind.


What If? chapter 1 the basic stuff
I like to think that the best place to start when you’re new to any subject (and even if you’re not entirely new) is at the beginning. Homosexuality is a complicated and all too often controversial subject that’s difficult to discuss if you don’t understand the basic concepts and issues. So I’ve devoted this first chapter, which is the longest in the book, to all the essential questions (and answers) you need to know before reading the chapters that follow. You may be tempted to skip right to the chapter about sex, but I urge you to start here.

Before you get to the first question, I have a quick warning about the Internet that you’ve no doubt heard before from your parents, but bears repeating because throughout this chapter and the ones that follow, I recommend various websites. So here’s the warning: It is extremely important to be cautious when you use the Internet, especially if you decide to join a discussion group or use the Internet to meet other young people. Because it’s so easy to create a false online profile, it can be hard to tell who is being truthful and who is not. So there’s the possibility that someone may try to take advantage of you, may make you uncomfortable online, or might try to arrange to meet you when they should not.

Always remember that when meeting people online, you should use the same caution you would when meeting any stranger: Never give out your telephone number or home address and never agree to meet anyone in person unless you are accompanied by a parent or another responsible adult, and then only meet in a public place.

The Internet is an amazing resource, but you have to be careful and use common sense. And, if possible, please seek guidance from your parents or a responsible adult.
What does “gay” mean?
Someone who is attracted to people of the same sex is “gay” or “homosexual” (these words can refer to both men and women, although a lot of women prefer to be called “lesbian”). Someone who is attracted to people of the opposite sex is called “heterosexual” or “straight.” And someone who is attracted to people of both the same sex and the opposite sex is called “bisexual.” “Gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all terms that describe a person’s “sexual orientation.” And sexual orientation simply refers to the sex of the people you’re attracted to. In other words, if your sexual orientation is gay, then you are attracted to someone of the same sex.
Is “gay” the same as LGBT?
LGBT is an acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.” As the gay rights movement has evolved over recent decades, many people have come to feel that the term “gay” didn’t represent them or wasn’t inclusive enough. So they fought for language that made clear that the gay rights movement and the gay community included them. Over the years we’ve seen organizations first add “lesbian” (as in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), then “bisexual,” and more recently “transgender.”

Some people feel that LGBT is not inclusive enough and have added the letter Q to signify people who are “questioning.” These are people who don’t yet have a clear understanding of their sexual orientation or whether they’re transgender.

In this book you’ll find questions and answers primarily about the L and G in LGBTQ.
Does “sex” have two meanings? Does it mean the same as “gender”?
Yes, “sex” has two meanings. Sex is something people do, which you’ll learn more about in Chapter 4. But the word “sex” also refers to whether you’re male or female. For example, when you fill out a form at the doctor’s office, there is almost always a question about your sex where you’re asked to mark a box labeled “male” or a box labeled “female.”

Sometimes people mistakenly use the word “gender” to describe their physical sex (male or female). Gender, however, has to do with your identity. In other words, do you identify as a boy or as a girl. This is a bit hard to understand, so I’m going to quote my friend Bronwen Pardes, author of Doing It Right, who offers a simple explanation for this. Bronwen says, “If this sounds confusing, it’s probably because most people’s sex and gender match, and they don’t think much about it. Most biological males identify as boys and men; most females, as girls and women. But this isn’t always the case.” Please see the next question for more information about gender and gender identity.
What is transgender?
A transgender person is someone who feels that the sex he or she is on the outside (male or female) doesn’t match what he or she feels on the inside. So, for example, a boy who is transgender thinks of himself as a girl, even though he has a boy’s body. And a girl who is transgender thinks of herself as a boy, even though she has a girl’s body. If you do a little research, as I did, you’ll find that not everyone agrees that this is a complete definition of “transgender,” but I think it’s a good starting point for anyone who is interested in this complex subject. For more information I suggest exploring some of the resources I list in Chapter 9.
Are transgender people gay?
Just like anyone else, transgender people can be straight, gay, or bisexual. How people experience being male or female has nothing to do with their feelings of sexual attraction for others.
How do you become gay?
Simple answer: You can’t become gay, just like you can’t become straight. This is how it works: All of us have feelings of sexual attraction. Most of us have these feelings for people of the opposite sex—boys for girls, girls for boys. Some of us have these feelings for people of the same sex—boys for boys, girls for girls. And some people have feelings of sexual attraction for both the same sex and the opposite sex.

For example, when Mae was ten years old, she already knew she was different from most of her classmates. “All the girls in elementary school were boy crazy. I knew that I wasn’t, but I pretended to be like everyone else.”

No one knows exactly how we come by our feelings of sexual attraction in the first place, but whether we’re born with them or develop them in the very early months and years of life, they are a gift that can make us feel very good as well as very confused.

As we enter our teen years, these feelings of attraction grow stronger and we often find ourselves both emotionally and physically—or sexually—attracted to another person. That was Mae’s experience. By the time she was thirteen, her feelings of sexual attraction were clear. “When I was thirteen I admitted it to myself. My friends were always talking about being attracted to cute guys. And I was always just attracted to girls. It was a feeling inside. I tried to be attracted to guys, but it wasn’t working.”
What exactly are “feelings of sexual attraction”?
As we grow into adolescence and our bodies change, we begin to have strong feelings of attraction that are different from and more intense than the good feelings we might have for a relative or friend. It is these strong feelings of sexual attraction that make us want to have a sexual relationship. For some people these feelings begin before puberty, and for others they don’t come until after. These special feelings of excitement and desire are difficult to describe, but you’ll know them when you experience them.

Looking back, I can tell you exactly when I had strong feelings of sexual attraction for the first time. I didn’t know what to call it then, because I’d never experienced anything like it before, but I knew that I was feeling something very powerful that made me feel really good in a way that’s difficult to describe.

I was twelve and a half and I was in Puerto Rico with my family on vacation (it was our first trip where we had to take an airplane). I was in the swimming pool at the Caribe Hilton, hanging out in the shallow end. I wasn’t much of a swimmer and couldn’t float very well. This older kid, who was probably sixteen or seventeen and a really good swimmer, must have noticed that I was trying to float on my back but kept sinking and getting water up my nose. So he swam over and offered to teach me how to float. Turns out that Andrew was a lifeguard back home and he was really good-looking, but I don’t remember thinking, Oh, he’s cute.

What I do remember is that Andrew got me to float on my back. Before I could sink like I always did, he put one hand under the base of my back and his other hand between my shoulder blades and applied just enough pressure to keep me from going under. And he told me to relax as he walked me around the pool to get me comfortable with being on my back in the water.

It wasn’t like lightning struck or anything, but it felt as if there was energy that started in Andrew’s hands and traveled through my entire body. It was a wonderful, tingly feeling, which made my heart race and made me feel calm all at the same time. It felt so good that I wished I could float in the pool all day with Andrew’s hands supporting me.

I look back now and I can tell you that I was definitely having feelings of sexual attraction for the first time in my life. And those feelings were so powerful that I can recall the experience and those feelings like it was yesterday.
Is being gay a choice?
I’m asked this question more often than just about any other, and the answer is no. People don’t choose their feelings of sexual attraction. That’s true for everyone. I didn’t choose to feel the way I did when Andrew touched me, and if you’ve ever been attracted to someone, whether they’re of the same or the opposite sex, you know that you didn’t decide to feel tingly whenever you were near them. Like your eye color, skin color, or height, you don’t get to choose your feelings of sexual attraction. They have been chosen for you. However, what you decide to do about these feelings is a matter of choice.
Can you change your feelings?
No. When it comes to feelings of sexual attraction, no amount of hoping, praying, counseling, or wishful thinking will make them go away. Unlike most gifts, when it comes to your feelings of sexual attraction, there are no exchanges and no returns. You can try to ignore your feelings, you can pretend you’re not having them, but no matter what anyone says, you can’t change or eliminate your fundamental feelings of sexual attraction, just as you can’t change the true color of your eyes. That goes for gay people just as it does for straight people.

I remember being thirteen and hoping that my feelings for people of the same sex would change. At the time, I had a crush on my camp counselor, Ted. I didn’t just like Ted—I really, really liked Ted. It’s not that I wanted to have sex with him—I wasn’t even certain how people had sex. But I wanted to be around Ted, I thought about him all the time, and it made me feel very good the few times he put his arm around my shoulder.

I was pretty sure that the other boys in my cabin didn’t feel the way I did. For one thing, they talked a lot about Ted’s girlfriend, Rebecca, a counselor in the teen division, who they thought looked amazing in a bathing suit. I could tell Rebecca was attractive, but I didn’t understand what all the excitement was about. I especially didn’t understand why my cabin-mates were all so interested in going on late-night raids of the girls’ cabins.

At first I didn’t worry too much about my crush on Ted and other guys, because I’d heard that some boys have these feelings and outgrow them. (How our feelings of sexual attraction develop is more complicated than that, as you’ll find out in the answer to the next question, but gay kids can’t “outgrow” whom they are sexually attracted to any more than straight kids can.) But I quickly learned from the other kids at camp that my attraction to guys was something really bad, so I was hoping I’d outgrow those feelings fast. I figured that I would stop having crushes on male counselors and would start having crushes on girl counselors, and that one day I even might want to get up in the middle of the night and crawl through the woods to the other side of camp and sneak into one of the girls’ cabins. But as much as I hoped that my feelings would change, they didn’t.
What about people who say they used to be gay, but now they’re not? Did they really change?
There are people who say that they used to be gay or lesbian and that they’ve changed or been “cured” through prayer, through counseling, or by attending a program designed to help gay people become “ex-gays.” It is true that people can change their behavior. But they can’t change their true feelings of sexual attraction. Those feelings, no matter how hard you might try to bury them, ignore them, or convince yourself you don’t have them, stay with you for as long as you live.

For example, a gay man can end his relationship with another man and start having a relationship with a woman. But that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly developed feelings of sexual attraction for women. In all likelihood he still has the same attraction to men that he always had. He may be trying to ignore those feelings, but they’re still there.

I remember getting a letter many years ago from a former boyfriend who went through an “ex-gay” program. He wrote to me just after my first book, The Male Couple’s Guide, was published. In his letter he told me that I could choose to change too, just like he had. But I had long since decided to be true to myself and had no interest in trying to be something I wasn’t. I knew that society would be more accepting of me if I pretended to be straight, but I thought it would be better to use my energy to fight prejudice than to fight against my true feelings. After all, there is nothing wrong with my feelings, so why try to pretend I don’t have them?

Update: Nearly twenty-five years after I received that letter from my former boyfriend, I received an e-mail from him asking to get together to talk. Over dinner he told me that he’d come to accept the fact he was gay. He’d been married to a woman for many years and had teenage children, so unraveling the life he’d built was going to be complicated, but he decided he couldn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t any longer. I told him that I admired his courage to come out in midlife.

I hope I’ve been clear on this point: Whether you’re straight or gay, you can’t change your feelings of sexual attraction. When you’re young, it’s perfectly natural to have a range of feelings, including feelings of same-sex attraction. These feelings may shift over time, but by your late teens, you’re usually sure of those feelings and there’s nothing you can do to change them. However, our sexual natures are complex, so just because you can’t change your feelings of sexual attraction doesn’t mean they won’t evolve on their own as you go through life. Please keep in mind that this is not a typical experience, and from my experiences talking to people over the years, such a change is something you’re far more likely to hear about from a girl than a guy.

For example, Molly told everyone she was a lesbian when she was sixteen years old. She had a girlfriend all through college, but after they broke up (when Molly was twenty-three), she found herself becoming interested in guys. “I still think women are beautiful,” she says, “but I haven’t met a woman who moves me like men have moved me in the last seven years or so. I can’t explain it.” Now Molly says that she feels sexually attracted to men, which she didn’t when she was younger.
How can I tell if I’m gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Do you just wake up one day and discover that you’re gay?
No, you don’t just wake up one day and discover that you’re gay—just as you don’t wake up one day and discover that you’re straight. But finding a label for yourself isn’t nearly as important as trying to sort out your feelings, and that can take time. For some people, their feelings of sexual attraction are clear from an early age, as young as five or six. But for most people, it’s something they become aware of during adolescence or later, and that’s the same whether you’re attracted to someone of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both.

Jake, who is now seventeen and finishing his last year of high school, knew very early. “I always knew I was attracted to other guys, as far back as kindergarten. I just was. I was always curious about doing sexual stuff with other boys.” Michelle also knew early, but it wasn’t that she wanted to have sex with other girls. “That came later,” she said. “From the time I was six I knew I was going to marry a girl. I told my parents and they said, ‘That’s nice, honey.’ They weren’t taking me seriously. I was only six. So I told them over and over again. They tried telling me I was going to marry a boy when I grew up, but I just shook my head no ’cause I knew they were wrong.”

Kevin, a high school junior from southern California, wasn’t really sure of his sexual feelings until he was in his early teens, although by the time he was ten he knew he was different from most other boys. “But I didn’t have a word for it,” he told me. “I just knew. When the girls and boys started to interact, I felt totally out of place. It didn’t make sense to me.”

Jennifer, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, found herself attracted to other girls at her Catholic high school. “I looked at girls and saw them as really attractive,” she said, “and I wanted to be with them in more ways than just friends. I was sexually attracted to them.” But Jennifer was confused by her feelings. She explained: “You’re taught in society to go after the opposite sex, to date the opposite sex. I thought I was going to be a part of that. It finally took meeting another girl who was gay, and talking to her about what it was like to be gay, for me to realize I wasn’t going to do what society told me. That was just a few months ago. And now I know for sure I don’t want to pretend to be someone else.”

For many people the pressure “to go after the opposite sex” keeps them from recognizing or understanding their true feelings. They want to be like everyone else, which is a natural impulse. They don’t want to feel left out and alone and they don’t want to have romantic and/or sexual feelings that some people think are bad. Given these circumstances, many kids and teenagers need time and the experiences of growing up to sort out and accept what they really feel.

I’d like to say that I was one of those people who did a good job of sorting things out and didn’t go through a period of trying to be straight and wanting to fit in. But that’s not true. I didn’t want to be gay and I did want to fit in, so along the way I badly hurt the feelings of a girl I dated during my first semester of college. I wasn’t honest with her about what was going on in my head, so she had no way of knowing that the primary problem in our relationship was that I was gay and dishonest about it. In the years since, we’ve become very good friends, but I think it’s still something of a sore spot for her that I didn’t trust her enough to tell her that I was seriously conflicted about my sexual orientation.
Are people who are bisexual attracted to men and women in the same way?
No. For most people who consider themselves bisexual, their feelings of sexual attraction are usually stronger for one sex than the other. For example, David is a nineteen-year-old college student who considers himself bisexual, but he’s mostly attracted to men. “Right now I have a boyfriend, but I also really like women. I’m more sexually attracted to men, but there are certain women I find really attractive and I’m more comfortable with them emotionally. I don’t know, but that’s how I feel.”

Another example is Helen, who is also a college student who finds men more sexually attractive than women, but in the past she’s been attracted to women, too, and had a girlfriend for a short time. “I think I’ll probably wind up with a guy, but you never know. If I fall in love with a woman first, that could be it. But I’m not in any rush to settle down with anyone for a long time.”
I thought bisexuals were just gay people who were confused or afraid to admit they’re gay. Is that true?
Some people think that men and women who call themselves bisexual are really gay but are just afraid to say it. While it’s true that some gay men and women adopt the “bisexual” label as they’re sorting out and learning to accept their true feelings—I was one of those people—there are in fact some people who have feelings of sexual attraction for both men and women. These people are not confused, afraid, or pretending. They’re simply bisexual.
Do you have to have sex to know if you’re gay or not?
No, most people, gay or straight, have a pretty good idea of what their feelings of sexual attraction are long before they have a sexual experience with anyone. You can know just from how you feel inside. But sometimes it takes a sexual and/or emotional experience for someone to understand and recognize what their true feelings are. For example, over the years I’ve interviewed many women who said they knew they felt different but didn’t realize what that difference was until they fell in love with another woman for the first time and/or had a sexual experience with a woman.

The men I’ve talked to, in general, had a clearer idea at an earlier age of what their feelings of attraction were, so a sexual experience only confirmed for them what they already knew to be true. For example, I remember kissing girls at summer camp and thinking it was nice, but nothing all that special, at least not as special as the other boys seemed to think it was. At that age I didn’t think of myself as gay, although I knew I had crushes on some of my male counselors.

I still didn’t want to think of myself as gay when I was seventeen and had a crush on Bob, a gay college student who lived down the street. Given how bad I thought it was to be gay, I was trying hard to ignore my feelings. But those feelings were very strong, and when I finally kissed Bob, that was it. It felt like the most natural thing in the world for me, and it was amazing. For the first time I really understood why the boys at camp would want to get up in the middle of the night and crawl through the woods in the hope of getting to kiss a girl. It’s just that I felt that way about a guy, and after that first experience, there was no doubt in my mind that I was gay—but it was still a few years before I completely accepted that these were my true feelings and that they weren’t going to change, whether I liked it or not.
Why can’t you just pretend that you’re not gay?
Plenty of people who are gay pretend that they’re straight, at least for a time. But it’s not easy. In fact, it’s just as difficult for someone who is gay to pretend to be straight as it would be for someone who is straight to pretend to be gay.

For example, just imagine for a few minutes that you live in a world where most people are gay. That’s a fun thing to imagine for someone who is gay, but what if you’re a straight guy and you don’t want anyone to know that you’re different from most people? Well, you can never talk about the girls you’re attracted to. You have to bring a male date to the junior prom. And when you get older, you’ll be expected to marry a guy and have sex with him. How easy would it be for you to pretend?

In years past, when gay and lesbian people faced far more prejudice and weren’t nearly as accepted as they are now, most pretended they were straight for their entire lives. Often that included getting married to someone of the opposite sex and having children. But, as many people have discovered, pretending to be someone you’re not can be incredibly difficult and can make you and the people around you very unhappy.
If you have been sexually abused, can that make you gay?
No. Some people think that you can become gay if you have been sexually abused or if you have a bad sexual experience with someone of the opposite gender. They are wrong. Sexual abuse or a bad sexual experience can color how you feel about people who are the same gender as the abuser or the person with whom you had the bad experience. Being abused or having a bad experience can make you angry, confused, or saddened by what’s happened to you, but your feelings of sexual attraction—your sexual orientation—cannot be changed as a result of sexual abuse or a bad sexual experience. Unfortunately, many young people experience sexual abuse, and most of them turn out to be straight, because most people are straight.
If I think I’m gay, lesbian, or bisexual, what should I do?
It’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about what it means to be gay and to find someone you can talk to who is knowledgeable and trustworthy so you won’t feel so alone, which is a problem for a lot of young gay people who write to me.

The first thing you should do is read the rest of this book and see if you can find some of the books I’ve listed in Chapter 9, “Resources.” You should also have a look at some of the websites I recommend, which provide all kinds of information, including where you may be able to find organizations for young people in your community. Some of the websites also offer opportunities to meet other young people who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual, but I do not recommend this unless you talk to your parents or another responsible adult first or are old enough to do this on your own. (Always remember that when meeting people online, you should use the same caution you would when meeting any stranger. See the beginning of this chapter and Chapter 9, “Resources,” for a more complete warning.)

I know that many young people who think they’re gay, lesbian, or bisexual are afraid they’re all alone. But you’re not alone. The challenge is finding someone you can talk to whom you can trust and who will understand what you’re feeling. That person may be a teacher, school counselor, friend, or relative. If you’re lucky, there may be a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at your high school or a gay youth support group in your community or a chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) nearby. At all of these organizations, you’ll find people you can talk to who understand what you’re going through.

One thing to consider if you’re afraid to let anyone know who you are is that you can seek help without sharing your name or contact information. For example, you can e-mail or call PFLAG and explain that you need to talk to a parent for advice but have to remain anonymous because you can’t risk anyone finding out that you’re gay. I’ve received plenty of e-mails over the years from people who were in exactly that situation, and I’ve had no problem offering advice without knowing the real name of the person who contacted me.
Is it true that being gay is like a disease?
No. Homosexuality is not a disease or sickness. But as shocking as it may seem today, years ago people who had feelings of same-sex attraction were considered mentally ill by most mental health professionals and the general public. Then, in the early 1970s, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association each recognized that they’d made a mistake (a huge mistake!) and removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses.

Still, there are a small number of psychiatrists and psychologists who mistakenly believe that gay and lesbian people are by nature mentally ill and that they can be “cured.” These people are considered by their peers to be far outside the mainstream of their professions, and their work to “cure” homosexuality is not supported by what we know to be true of human sexuality. These misguided and potentially very harmful psychiatrists and psychologists hold out false hope to those gay and lesbian people who are unhappy with being gay and are searching for a “cure.” Homosexuality is not an illness, so there is nothing to be cured.
I’ve heard that being gay is “bad” or “nasty.” Is that true?
No, this is not true. Homosexuality is not bad or nasty. But many people have been taught to believe this by their families, friends, and religious leaders. These beliefs are based on old-fashioned ideas about the nature of homosexuality and destructive myths about the ways in which gay and lesbian people lead their lives.

Much to my surprise, several years ago my own nephew was shocked to learn that my partner and I were gay. He had always known us as a couple, but no one had ever said that we were “gay.” And when his cousin, Rachel, asked him if he knew that his uncles were gay, he then asked his dad (my brother), who told him that Rachel was telling the truth. Ryan was very confused, because, as he said to his dad, “I thought ‘gay’ was something nasty.” The full story of what happened with my nephew is on my website in an article called “Don’t Be So Gay.”
Is homosexuality abnormal?
No, but to fully answer that question, we have to consider what the word “abnormal” means. Some people feel something is abnormal if it’s unusual. Given how many gay and lesbian people there are, we know that homosexuality is not unusual. Here’s another example: Even though most people are right-handed, we don’t consider left-handed people abnormal. They’re simply different from the majority. Years ago, left-handed people (like my dad) were thought to be abnormal or defective, just as many people today still believe that gay men and women are abnormal. Like left-handedness, being gay is simply different from the majority and is absolutely normal.

You might think something is abnormal if it’s unnatural. Being gay or lesbian is natural by definition, because it occurs in nature—and not just among humans. Scientists have studied all kinds of animals that engage in homosexual behavior, from mountain rams and penguins to gorillas. Also, gay and lesbian people who are comfortable with their sexuality will tell you that their experience of having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex feels perfectly natural to them, just as natural as it is for straight people to have a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex.
My minister says that homosexuality is immoral and sinful. What do you think?
I don’t believe that homosexuality is immoral or sinful, and many religious leaders agree. But morality and religious beliefs are a matter of personal choice, something that each of us must decide on his or her own. (See Chapter 5, “God and Religion,” for more on this topic.)
Do gay boys look at other boys in the locker room? Do lesbians look at other girls in the locker room?
Yes, and straight boys look at other boys, and straight girls look at other girls. People are curious by nature, whether they’re straight or gay, especially during puberty, when their bodies are changing. So when it comes to the locker room, most boys look at other boys and most girls look at other girls. This is true whether you’re in middle school, college, or at a neighborhood gym.

Is it possible that the gay kid in the locker room is looking at you because he or she is gay and finds you attractive? That’s always a possibility (and in that case, you can think of the attention as a compliment), but more likely than not, he or she is just curious about the way you look in the same way that all humans are curious.
Are there a lot of gay and lesbian people?
Yes, there are. But since a lot of gay and lesbian people remain hidden—they don’t talk about it, or they pretend that they’re straight—no one knows exactly how many gay men and women there are. From all I’ve read over the years, I believe that about 3 percent of men (or one out of 33 men) are gay and about 1.5 percent of women (or one out of 66 women) are lesbian (no one knows why there are about half the number of lesbians as there are gay men). So if you accept my guesstimate, that means there are 9 million gay men and 4.5 million lesbians in the United States. To put that in perspective, 2 percent of the U.S. population is Jewish, which is a little more than 6 million people.

Whatever the exact number, there are tens of millions of gay people around the world, and the odds are that there are gay men and women in every extended family.
Where do they live?
Gay and lesbian people live in all parts of the country and in every community. But for a long time, many gay people have chosen to live in big cities, and they’ve done so for several reasons. Some gay people left their small towns and cities to get away from families and communities where they feared and/or experienced prejudice. Others chose to live in big cities because they wanted to be in places where there were many more chances to meet other gay people like themselves. And because of the large numbers of gay men and women living in the big cities, there are also many different kinds of gay and lesbian organizations for people to join, from sports clubs and political organizations to gay and lesbian churches and synagogues.

In recent years, as prejudice has decreased and gay men and lesbians have felt more comfortable being themselves, fewer have felt the need to leave their home communities and cities to move to larger cities simply because of their sexual orientation.
What kind of future can you have if you’re lesbian or gay?
Jennifer, who grew up in Denver and now attends college in northern Colorado, told me: “I see myself living a happy life, with a long-term relationship. I see living the same life as my sister, only she’ll be married to a guy and I’ll be married to a girl.”

Jennifer, like most young gay and lesbian people, can look forward to a life much the same as any young person, despite remaining prejudice. But because of that prejudice, many parents worry that their gay and lesbian children may face more challenges than their straight brothers and sisters.

When my mother first found out I was gay, she told me that she was sad that I’d never have a happy relationship. I pointed out that from what I could tell, being straight didn’t seem to be any guarantee of having a happy relationship: She and my father separated when I was ten. But my mother’s concern was genuine. It was 1977 when my mother learned I was gay, and she didn’t know any gay or lesbian couples (and neither did I). She was also concerned that because of discrimination against gay people, I’d have fewer career opportunities. And she was afraid that people would look down on me. My mom asked if I had any idea how much more difficult my life would be, and I didn’t really have an answer for her, because I didn’t know. But I did know that no matter how hard it might be, hiding the fact I was gay or pretending to be straight would be harder.

Today we know that gay people have loving, long-lasting relationships; more and more gay and lesbian people are choosing to have children of their own (something that often makes the potential grandparents very happy); openly gay people hold jobs in just about any profession you can imagine; and while many straight people look down on gay people, with each passing year, more and more are discovering that gay men and lesbians are just like everyone else, especially in their hopes and dreams for the future.
How can you tell if someone is gay or lesbian? Do people look gay or lesbian or act a certain way?
Most young people think they can tell if someone is gay, but take my word for it: Most of the time, you can’t.

When I was growing up, I thought that all gay men were feminine and that all lesbians were masculine, so I figured that you could always tell. It turns out that the truth is more complicated than that. While some gay men are feminine and some lesbians are masculine, most are no different in manner and appearance from the average straight man or woman, so it’s generally difficult to look at someone and be able to tell whether or not he or she is gay.

Something to think about: Not all feminine men are gay and not all masculine women are lesbians. At the same time, not all masculine men and not all feminine women are straight. As I said, the truth is complicated.
If you’re a gay boy, do you eventually act and talk like a girl? If you’re a lesbian, do you become masculine and get very athletic?
No. In general, gay men who are feminine and lesbians who are masculine were born that way. They are not trying to be feminine or masculine. They are just being themselves.
Do gay men want to be women? Do lesbians want to be men?
No. Gay men are happy being male, and lesbians are happy being female. People who don’t feel comfortable with their gender—in other words, people who were born male who feel like they’re really girls, or people who were born female who feel like they’re really boys—are called “transgender.” You can find more information about transgender people by checking out some of the resources I recommend in Chapter 9, “Resources.”
What does it mean when a gay person “comes out”?
“Coming out” or “coming out of the closet” means to tell the truth about your sexual orientation—to yourself, to friends, to family, or to anyone who doesn’t know that you’re gay or lesbian. In other words, before I came out to my friends, I was hiding the truth from them (sort of like hiding my true self in a closet). When I felt comfortable about being gay and trusted that my friends would still love me if they knew the truth, I came out to them.
How old are gay people when they come out?
Some people come out when they’re ten years old. Others never come out. But these days, many—if not most—gay people come out to themselves and their friends and family when they’re in high school or college.
What does “outing” mean?
Let’s say you’re gay and you don’t want anyone to know about it, except maybe your closest friends and family. Then, someone who knows that you’re gay decides to tell everyone at school the truth about your sexual orientation. That’s “outing” someone. It means revealing the truth about a gay person’s sexual orientation against their wishes or without their permission. With rare exceptions for politicians and religious leaders who are secretly gay and publicly anti-gay, I’ve always believed that it’s up to the individual person to decide to come out or stay in the closet, whether it’s a teenager from Nebraska or a Hollywood celebrity. Forcing someone out of the closet who isn’t ready to come out is, in general, a cruel thing to do and it’s wrong.
Why do some straight people think that gay people should stay in the closet?
Some people think that being gay is so wrong and sinful that gay men and women should be embarrassed to reveal the truth. Some think that an openly gay relative will reflect badly on family members if other people know about it. Others think that if gay people are public about their sexual orientation, they’ll somehow be a bad influence on children. Still others are concerned that if someone they care about is openly gay, he or she may be subject to prejudice and mistreatment. And some people haven’t really thought about why, but they just wish gay people would go back to being invisible the way they were in past generations.

When I first told my grandmother I was gay, she had a difficult time understanding why I couldn’t just keep it a secret. She said, “I understand that this is how it is and that you’re not going to change, but why do you have to tell anyone?” At first, my grandmother didn’t understand that it’s not like keeping a secret about a surprise party, although she did eventually accept my wish to be open about my sexual orientation and came to love my partner like a grandson (she called him her grandson).

Because your sexual orientation involves many aspects of your life, especially when you get older and begin having relationships, you often wind up having to answer questions with a lie if you want to keep it a secret. People ask questions all the time, such as: “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Are you married?” So keeping your sexual orientation a secret becomes a huge job, because you can never say anything that might reveal the truth, even if you have to lie and make up stories. And that can make a person feel very alone, as if nobody knows who they really are. (It can also make some gay young people act in ways you wouldn’t expect, like calling other gay people names—or even physically attacking them—to deflect suspicions anyone might have about their sexuality.)

We don’t ask straight people to keep their feelings secret, because we think that the love between males and females is a great thing. I think the same should be true for gay people—loving someone of the same sex is a perfectly natural thing for gay people and it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why hide it?
Why do some gay people keep their sexual orientation a secret or pretend that they’re straight?
There are many reasons: They don’t want to risk getting teased or beaten up at school; they don’t want to risk being rejected by their friends and families; they feel bad or embarrassed about being gay; they want to fit in; they have anti-gay religious beliefs; they don’t want people to look down on them; and they want to avoid discrimination at work.

Jake, the seventeen-year-old high school student who has been attracted to guys since kindergarten, is afraid that if his friends and family know the truth, they’ll look down on him. To make sure they don’t find out, he’s dating a girl at school. “Having a girlfriend means they won’t think I’m gay. It’s tough, because my girlfriend expects me to have sex with her, but I can’t imagine doing it.”

Mae is eighteen and lives in a small town about an hour from Atlanta. While she’s told all of her classmates and her mother that she’s gay, she hasn’t brought up the subject with her father or stepmother because she’s afraid of how they’ll react. “My stepmom is really religious, and my dad has become that way. I’m putting it off for now. But I’ll probably tell them in the near future. I’ve been debating about how to tell him.”

When Mark was growing up on eastern Long Island, he thought he would have to keep his sexual orientation a secret forever because of what he heard at his Pentecostal church. “I remember sitting in church feeling very nervous, because every other week, from out of nowhere, the pastor would list the sins of the world: abortion, homosexuality, and Democrats. To be honest, I thought I was going to hell. I thought everyone would hate me if they ever found out.”
What is homophobia?
“Homophobia” means fear or hatred of gay people. Although it’s natural to feel confused by homosexuality, being mean or hateful toward someone who is gay is no different from being mean or hateful toward someone of a different race or religion than you—it’s prejudice, and it’s wrong.

People often feel uncomfortable with the whole subject of homosexuality and gay people, especially if they’ve never met someone who is gay. (I felt plenty uncomfortable with the whole thing when I was a teenager and I’m gay!) Some people have very negative feelings about homosexuality, and meeting someone who is gay doesn’t change that—they may act in hateful ways toward gay people, calling them names or worse. But for many people, those feelings go away as soon as they get to know someone who is gay.
Why do some people call other people “fag” or “faggot” or “dyke” or say things like “Don’t be so gay” or “That’s so gay”?
A lot of young people don’t know exactly what these words mean, but they use them as curse words and put-downs. They know that when they say “That’s so gay,” what they’re saying is, “That’s dumb, that’s stupid.” They may not realize that their words are offensive and hurtful to gay people in the same way they would be to Jewish people if they said “That’s so Jewish” in the context of a put-down.

The word “faggot” has long been a slur word used against men and boys who were thought to be weak and sensitive or feminine. They weren’t necessarily gay, but they weren’t masculine in the way many people think men should be. Today, “fag” and “faggot” are still used as slurs against gay men, as well as men and boys who are simply not considered masculine, regardless of their sexual orientation. “Fag” is also used more generally as a slur word, as in “Stop joking around, you’re being such a fag.” “Dyke” is a similar word used to describe a lesbian, or a girl or woman who is masculine or aggressive.

The word “gay” was adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by a new generation of gay rights activists, who preferred it over the more clinical-sounding “homosexual” or “homophile.” It wasn’t until recent years that the word “gay” has come to be used as a slur or curse word among young people.

Some gay people may call their friends “fag” and “dyke” in a playful way. If you’re straight, keep in mind that the gay people you know may not like these words, or may only be comfortable hearing them from other gay people, who they can trust aren’t using them to be hurtful. I think it’s a big mistake for anyone to use these words, because to me they’re hurtful no matter who is saying them, no matter what the context.
I’ve heard that sometimes the people doing the name-calling may be gay or confused about their own sexuality. Why would someone do that?
At summer camp, when I was fourteen, a girl I didn’t want to date decided to get back at me by telling my bunkmates that I was a fag. From then on, my bunkmates, as well as some of the other kids at camp, called me “fag” or “faggot.” Years later, I learned that one of my bunkmates was also gay. He wasn’t the one who initiated the name-calling, but he went along with it. And even though I never had the opportunity to ask him, I’m guessing he joined in the name-calling to avoid bringing attention to himself—and I’m also guessing that he was relieved that he wasn’t the one being called names.

So some kids who are gay might call other people names to avoid the possibility that anyone will think they are gay. Others initiate the name-calling—or worse—in an attempt to prove that they’re straight, even if underneath they’re conflicted about their sexuality or already know they’re gay. And sometimes the name-calling comes from people who are straight, but feeling confused and uncomfortable with their feelings of same-sex attraction. It’s perfectly natural for all people, particularly adolescents, to have feelings of same-sex attraction, whether or not those attractions wind up being intense and/or lasting. But there’s no reason to use that discomfort to attack others.

If you asked a psychologist to explain this kind of behavior (which I did), this is what she might say: Young people who are conflicted about their sexuality and/or have negative feelings about being gay sometimes lash out at other gay people as a way of trying to beat down or deny the part of themselves that they feel bad about or hate.
What does “queer” mean? Is it a slur?
When I was growing up, you called a kid “queer” if you thought he was gay; “queer” was used as a slur, like “fag.” Some gay people also used “queer” in a playful way among themselves.

In the 1990s a new generation of gay young people started using “queer” as a substitute for “gay” or “lesbian.” They didn’t see “queer” as a slur anymore, but instead embraced it as an inclusive word that took in all kinds of people, including gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and anyone else who was considered outside the mainstream. For example, when Molly was coming to terms with her sexuality, she realized, “You don’t need definitions or labels. You are who you are. You don’t need to call it anything. That’s when I embraced the term ‘queer.’ ”

“Queer” also came to be used in college and university programs, as in “queer studies.” Despite the new use of this word, there are many gay people who still find it offensive.

If you have a friend who is gay and you’re not sure which words she’s comfortable with, you can ask, or you can pay attention to the words she uses to describe herself and her gay friends. For every person who happily calls himself queer, there’s another person who finds that word hurtful.
What is it like when people care about someone gay—such as a friend or relative—and they hear anti-gay language?
For people who know and care about a person who is gay, hearing someone use anti-gay slurs can make them feel uncomfortable, upset, angry, frightened, or hurt. And it can put them in the difficult position of trying to figure out what, if anything, to say in response.

Erica is in the sixth grade at a private school in Maryland and she has an uncle who is gay. Every day at school she hears kids call one another “faggot” and use put-downs like “That’s so gay.” She told me: “It makes me really, really uncomfortable, and I’ll give them that look that says, ‘Stop it, it’s not nice to make fun of these people.’ But I’m afraid to say something direct. It makes me scared. A lot of times it’s hard to stand up for what you think, because you feel outnumbered.”

Chris Lord, one of Erica’s teachers, has made no secret of the fact that his father is gay and that he has no patience for anti-gay language. “My father and mother split when I was very young and I didn’t meet my father until five years ago, which is when I first found out he was gay. But it wasn’t an issue for me. My mom always had gay friends. When I was very young, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be gay, but it became something natural to me. So from an early age I had a problem with those words. It still makes me cringe when I hear them.”
What’s it like for people who are gay or lesbian when they hear someone use the word “fag” or hear someone say “That’s so gay”?
It hurts when you hear people say these things, especially if you hear it from friends or family. But it can also make you angry, and if the words are meant for you, it can feel very threatening and scary.

Mae was in ninth grade when her classmates started calling her names. “My girlfriend and I had just broken up. She wanted to get back at me, so even though our relation ship had been a secret, she told everyone I was gay. Just walking down the hall, people called me a dyke and a lesbo. These were people who had been my friends and decided not to be anymore, and people I didn’t even know, but they’d heard I was gay. It hurt. And it made me angry. Anyone calling you a name is going to make you angry.”

Kevin, who is gay and attends high school in southern California, is the president of his school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). He’s very open about being gay, and is routinely called names by a handful of students. “Under their breath they’ll say, ‘faggot.’ They never do it in an obvious way, because at my high school, if someone yelled out ‘faggot’ at another student, they’d be shunned.” Kevin says that he doesn’t let it bother him because he knows he’ll have a good life no matter what these students say.

Besides the under-the-breath name-calling, Kevin said that people at his school also routinely say “fag” and “gay” as slurs, but it’s not directed at anyone in particular and he doesn’t let that bother him either. “I take it with a grain of salt because most of them don’t know what they’re saying. Most kids are pretty smart and if they knew that what they were saying was hurting people, they wouldn’t say it.”

On the other hand, a lot of people do know what they’re saying, or at least they know that using these words will be hurtful.
If you hear someone using anti-gay language or if someone calls you “faggot” or “dyke,” should you say anything?
For young people, I have only one rule when it comes to saying something in response to people who use the word “gay” as a slur or who use other anti-gay language: You should never say anything if you think that saying it could put you in some sort of danger. Also, if you are gay, by challenging someone’s remarks you might bring unwanted attention to yourself, especially if you don’t want anyone to think you’re gay.

Of course, each situation is different, and even if there doesn’t seem to be any danger in challenging someone, it can be very scary to stand up on your own and say what you think. (Even at my age, I still find it difficult to challenge people who make negative remarks about gay people.) But if you find yourself in a position to say something, you can simply respond by saying, “I don’t like hearing those words, I find them offensive, and they’re hurtful to people who are gay.”

When it comes to teachers and parents, I think it’s absolutely their responsibility to make clear that anti-gay language—and any other kind of slur—is wrong and that it shouldn’t be used by anyone at any time. Unfortunately, teachers and parents can sometimes be prejudiced, or afraid, or simply might not know what to say. (For more on why teachers might be afraid, see Chapter 6, “School.”)

I wish all parents and teachers could be as confident and clear as one of my college friends. When she recently heard her nine-year-old son call his younger brother a “faggot,” she knew he didn’t understand what he was saying. So she sat him down and offered this simple, but firm explanation: “I said that ‘faggot’ was a mean word for someone who was gay, and that ‘gay’ was a word used to describe two people of the same sex who love each other in the same way that his dad and I love each other.” My friend also told her son that some people love someone of the same sex, instead of the opposite sex, and that she had friends who were gay. She went on to explain “that these words hurt their feelings a lot and I didn’t use these words and didn’t like them. I said that I love my friends and I didn’t want them to be hurt and that ‘gay’ wasn’t a bad word but people sometimes used it in a mean way. My son doesn’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I think he understood.”

About The Author

Photograph by Dixie Sheridan

Eric Marcus is the author of several books on gay issues, including Is It A Choice? and Making Gay History. He is also the author of Why Suicide? and coauthor of Breaking the Surface, the #1 New York Times bestselling autobiography of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. Visit him at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (January 1, 2013)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781442482982
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99

Browse Related Books

Awards and Honors

  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • ALA Rainbow List Nominee

Resources and Downloads

Common Core Suggestion

High Resolution Images