Ask Professor Foxy: How Do I Come Out? Am I Gay?

This weekly Saturday column “Ask Professor Foxy” will regularly contain sexually explicit material. This material is likely not safe for work viewing. The title of the column will include the major topic of the post, so please read the topic when deciding whether or not to read the entire column.
Dear Professor Foxy,
Well, for about two years (I’m 21) I’ve been thinking that I’m gay. And, after a recent, and first, sexual encounter with a woman I decided that, yes, this lesbian thing is for me. Since then I’ve slowly been coming out of the closet: I’ve told a friend here, a cousin there but I still have yet to tell my parents. While they are very liberal and I’m sure they wouldn’t have a problem with it (I have a cousin who is gay), I’m sure you can understand that this is still a very hard thing to do.
So, after getting my courage up I asked my (straight) sister (who I had told previously that I had some queer inklings) that I’d like her help in telling our parents. Now, my sister, as far as I know, is quite liberal herself but is often annoyed by my “radical” feminism. I’m in Women’s Studies, she’s in Engineering – you get the picture. Anyway, I asked her to help me tell our parents that I’m gay. Her response? “OH MY GOD.” Followed by, “Are you sure it’s not just because of Susan (the cousin) and Women’s Studies and stuff.” I immediately dropped the subject. We continued on with our evening and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized the ignorance and cruelty of her response, especially since I had already told her that I might like girls.
I haven’t confronted her about her response and probably won’t be asking for her help with my task again. But, I still haven’t told my parents! So, Professor Foxy, this brings me to my first question: how on earth will I regain my confidence and say to my parents, the seemingly simple words, “I am gay”?
However, this question is only the first in my often drama-filled life. Shortly after the conversation with my sister, I visited a psychic. This was the first time I’d seen one and it’s not something I put much weight into. What she said, however, made me think. Halfway through the reading, while discussing the tall-dark-and-handsome man I was soon going to meet, she paused and asked, “Who do you like, him or her?” Maybe she was psychic or maybe she just saw the disinterest in my eyes while I was hearing about this man. Anyway, after I told her that I do, in fact, like “her,” she smiled and said, “Ah, and who have you told?” I told her that Susan (the same cousin) knew. “And she likes the girls?” the psychic asked. She, like my sister told me that it was my cousin’s influence that resulted in what I thought was a changing sexuality. “It won’t last” were her final words about my lesbianism.
The reason I am telling you all of this is that maybe my sister and the psychic are right. Of course my Women’s Studies education has something to do with my sexuality – it has completely reformed my thinking and helped me to see, I thought, that I prefer women over men. My second question, I suppose, is that do you think there is any truth in what my sister and the psychic are saying. Has my sexuality been influenced by my cousin’s, to the point that I’m convinced I’m gay when I’m not actually? What seems preposterous about this possibility is that it’s not a trend to be gay, nor is it seen, in general society, as the more positive sexuality. Don’t get me wrong, if I am gay I’ll be happy that way but of course if I had the CHOICE I would be straight, in terms of an easier lifestyle, socially, legally, etc.
I’m sorry to have dragged on like this, but I’d really like some guidance. Am I just following my cousin’s sexuality or being swayed into thinking I’m gay? If I am really gay, how do I go about telling my parents?
-Query from Canada

Hello Query –
I am sorry your sister had such a negative response to your coming out. But being gay or queer or lesbian is not like the swine flu – you cannot catch it. Your cousin being gay is wonderful, because it gives you someone in your family you can talk to and an example of someone you admire and love who is gay, but that will not turn you gay. I am sure there are many people who you love and admire who are straight, but that will not turn you straight. Women’s studies classes can open your mind and broaden your horizons, but they cannot turn you gay either.
The psychic is bunk. A random stranger, whatever her gifts, cannot know you better than you know yourself. In any case, you have no way of knowing how she feels about LGBT people in general. She could be a complete homophobe.
One of the hardest things about coming out is that it’s a process, not an immediate snap of the fingers. First, it takes time to understand and realize you are gay. Then, when you are finally ready to tell people, it also takes those people time to understand and accept that you are gay. Though being patient with them is frustrating and annoying, most people come around. Your sister’s response was ignorant and mean, but that does not mean that she will never be able to realize that you are still the same person you were before and that it is a sign of your love for her that you told her this incredibly important thing about yourself.
Your parents will likely have a good response, but you should have friends at the ready to talk to just in case. What about your cousin? Can she be there for you during it or after? Parents are often more ok with gayness in the abstract or in people other than their children. You need to make sure that you have someone or several people to help you.
Talk with these people to regain your confidence and move forward with telling your parents. If they have a good response, wonderful! You have another source of support. If they have a bad response, they will take time, but most parents come around. If yours do not, there are other ways of finding support. Many LGBT people have two kinds of family: family of origin (the one you are born into) and chosen family (the family that you grow as you age, the family that supports you no matter what). Your cousin, friends you have told: these people can all be your chosen family and your support system.
Take care of yourself during this time. Being a lesbian is a wonderful thing and there is a whole community of folks who can be there with you through this experience.
Professor Foxy
If you have a question for Professor Foxy, send it to ProfessorFoxyATfeministingDOTcom.

Join the Conversation

  • Josh Jasper

    Find out if there’s a local chapter of PFLAG, and if they have anyone local you can talk to. They’ve worked not only with people who came out, but also with parents. This may be difficult for your parents as well as for you, but helping them get through it as best you can is a good way of showing them that you care as much for them as you want them to care for you.

  • Lamour

    Query, it sounds like you’re really uncomfortable with the idea of labelling yourself. It’s almost as if once you’re worried that once you say the words, “I’m gay”, you’ve confined yourself to some sort of constricting existance.
    Just take a deep breath and realize that you’re still YOU, all other things aside. You know that you enjoy being sexual with women. If you’re not ready to definively say, “I am a lesbian”, then that’s okay, too. Pay attention to your own sexual needs and desires, because you’re not deluding yourself– give yourself some credit! I’d say just relax and enjoy your sexuality and if you realize that you identify completely as a lesbian woman, then know that the realization comes from your own consciousness and experiences and is not a trick of the mind.

  • EthicallySexy

    There is something between gay and lesbian, and it’s called bisexual. A lot of people seem to forget that there is a lot of fluidity in sexual orientation and gender as well. There is no reason to label yourself if you are not yet sure.
    Just because you decide that you are lesbian, doesn’t mean that you couldn’t date a man if for some reason you found one that fit perfectly with you. Placing yourself in a box just limits your choices. So there is no reason to worry if you might like men as well as women. Coming out to your parents does not brand you a lesbian for life, just as much as a decision to date a man wouldn’t brand you as straight.
    It’s all about finding the person who is right for you, regardless of sex.

  • EndersGames

    Great comment.
    Many people change their self-definition of their sexuality over time, from straight to lesbian to bi to omni to unlabelled and back and forth again. Many people find that their attractions are very person-specific – they may generally be attracted to women, but may find a male partner they are particularly attracted too (and vice versa).

  • Comrade Kevin

    To add my two cents, many people confuse sexual orientation or sexuality with complete identity, and while being a lesbian is an important facet of who you are, it is only one particular part of you. It has always struck me as curious that many people immediately think about sexual behavior when anyone lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is mentioned. Either they’re all secretly sex obsessed or they’re too busy butting into the privacy of people “not like them”.

  • EmilyGrrl

    I’m inclined to believe that all psychics are a load of bunk anyway, but…
    aren’t what psychics see supposed to be hazy and unclear or something? Maybe the “tall, dark handsome man” she saw in her vision was actually some really sexy butch girl? :P

  • EndersGames

    FOXY SAID: “But being gay or queer or lesbian is not like the swine flu – you cannot catch it. Your cousin being gay is wonderful, because it gives you someone in your family you can talk to and an example of someone you admire and love who is gay, but that will not turn you gay.”
    That’s a pretty strong statement – what makes you so sure? Sexuality for many individuals is flexible, and can be shaped by the people around them. In some cultures, most young women have same-sex experiences. In others, few do. How do you know that taking women’s studies courses won’t lead some people to open up their ideas about who is a desireable sexual partner? Or that hanging out with folks who have less defined sexuality won’t have the same effect?

  • Gular

    I think the pyschic was just pulling things out from the vibes you were given. If psychic powers do exist, there aren’t nearly as many people who claim to have them as actually live with them.
    Getting to the crux of it, I think I can share a little bit. I was, literally, the first person in my family to come out. Since then, there have been 3 other people in my family who’ve had same sex relationships and/or have spoken about having same sex attraction. Being the first is the hardest and Prof Foxy is right, when it’s “not your kid/friend” it can be easier to deal with. Saying “I have no problems with gay people” is much different when you actually have a gay person in your life.
    My coming out wasn’t the easiest on all fronts and coming out is a continual process. You’ll be questioning yourself and second guessing if this is “really you” or something you might be thinking is you right now. Only time can tell if your sexuality is more fluid than a strict same-sex attraction and there are people who are gay and then more bisexual as time goes by (as well as the opposite, like me who had opposite-sex attraction when I was younger, but as my sexuality matured it moved to same-sex attraction). Whatever feels right to you.
    And, for what it’s worth, you don’t necessarily have to say “lesbian” or “gay” or whatever. You can certainly tell parents and such that you have same-sex attraction and that it’s stronger for you — especially if you have doubts. If you end up being exclusively lesbian, then no one is shocked. If you end up with bisexual/pansexual attraction, then it’s not going to confuse anyone.
    When it gets down to it, Women’s Studies and your cousin may have opened your mind to the idea of lesbian attraction, but I don’t think it made you a lesbian/bisexual/pansexual. Part of opening up your mind to other ideas is opening them up to the possibilities within yourself. There have been thousands of people who’ve had the classes and experiences directly relating to sexuality you’ve had, and they didn’t suddenly become same-sex affectionate. It may have opened the door of possibility in your mind when you’d not explored it as much or at all in the past.
    At any rate, I wish you the best of luck because first coming out is really trying and confusing. Just remember that this is about you being true to yourself, whoever that self is, and is about no one else. Have strength and welcome to the family!

  • anteup

    This radical feminist engineering student just got her knickers in a twist.

  • nikki#2

    “Am I just following my cousin’s sexuality or being swayed into thinking I’m gay?”
    One of the OPs questions was whether it was possible that she was being influenced by her major and cousin into being attracted to women, not whether being gay was contagious. Some people can be strongly influenced by everything around them. Things that can be influenced includes politics, religeon, and sexual orientation. I know Professor Foxy wants to be supportive, but giving such an absolute NO as an answer is not good advice.
    To the OP. Take a step back. Evaluate what your feelings are and why you may be having them. If you don’t have a history of being influenced into beliefs that are not your own then I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Best of luck!

  • MaggieF

    I agree. I think people tend to put too much stock in the labels. Are you a different person than you were yesterday? Two years ago? Has realizing that you [the OP] enjoy sex with women more than with men permanently altered your personality? I’ve been acquainted with a lot of women who came out while I knew them, and the biggest changes in those particular women seemed to be fairly superficial attempts to conform to some “lesbian” stereotype or another. Of course this isn’t going to be true for everyone, and as a woman whose sexual partners have all been men I can’t speak from personal experience.
    Maybe this wouldn’t help much with talking to your parents, but at least in your letter you seem to be stressing a lot about the label, so maybe not thinking about it in those terms would help you become more comfortable with the situation.

  • holmes

    I want to echo EthicallySexy and say that bisexuality or sexual fluidity may also be what’s happening here, and should definitely be discussed in this thread.
    When I was 18, I felt tremendous pressure to “declare” my sexuality one way or the other. Since I preferred relationships with women, I came out as a lesbian and identified as one for many years, having long-term relationships with three different women over that time. Imagine my surprise when I fell in love with a man a few years ago – a cis hetero man – and it was incredibly confusing, not only to me, but to those in my life to whom I had come out. This man and I have been together now for five years – and I do NOT identify as straight, in fact I call myself queer- but I also do not call myself a lesbian anymore. And I recognized that my rush to label myself was unnecessary..
    Of course, the writer should do whatever makes her feel most comfortable. But I do think it’s incredibly important to remember that sexuality can often feel and be fluid, and rushing to label one’s self is counterintuitive when one does not feel comfortable..

  • MaggieF

    “Coming out to your parents does not brand you a lesbian for life, just as much as a decision to date a man wouldn’t brand you as straight.”
    Exactly, and that’s where I take issue with labels. If someone says, “I’m a lesbian,” our culture takes that as a sort of vow to never have any kind of sexual experience with a man ever again, and mercy keep those who break it (remember Ani DiFranco?).

  • gothicguera

    “I’m in Women’s Studies, she’s in Engineering – you get the picture”
    My mother is a civil engineer and a hardcore feminist. I do not mean to change to subject but because someone is not a Woman’s Studies major does not mean he or she is against equal rights and against homosexuality. Sorry, but I had to write that down. But back on the topic, I agree 100% that I think people tend to put too much stock in the labels and pigeonhole people who are lesbian/bisexual/transsexual,heck even straight people. I would try talking about it with a very close person(like you cousin). I wish nothing but the best of Luck! and there are people in your life that love you no matter what.

  • augusta.marian

    Ahhhh…… so in love with Ani.
    Hooray for fluid sexuality and viewing each individual as individual!

  • Steven

    A while back someone posted a comic that seems to go over the whole labeling aspect people have noticed, and since a picture is worth a thousand words, and comic already have words in them…

  • Roodies24

    Agreed. I wonder a lot about this for myself. I am a Women+Gender Studies major and have been an activist for gay rights and I think those things have influenced my sexuality. I’m not sure if I would be interested in women without having a) been around so many queer individuals and b) questioning traditional notions of sexuality. Who really can say sexuality isn’t influenced by those around you? Who can say what sexuality really “is”? I think that is part of what makes it fluid.

  • Gnatalby

    Those who identify as gay or straight *also* view their partners as individuals, jeez.

  • ladylicious

    Undecided is ok too. Sexuality is fluid. No need to label yourself until you are certain about what you really want. There is nothing wrong with taking your time, exploring your options, experimenting with women and figuring out what works for you. Therapy and a support group might be a good place to go first. Before you tell anyone else that you are lesbian, you need to know for sure yourself. Forget about the psychic, because her advice can’t measure up to that of a good therapist or trusted friend. Don’t worry about your sister, because her initial reaction was probably based on shock or surprise. Since your family is liberal, they will probably all eventually come around. Give yourself some time to deal with your own feelings and then if you come out to friends or family, give them some time to deal with their feelings too. Good luck.

  • augusta.marian

    Yes! I agree! Now that I re-read my post, I realize that in trying to be concise I actually twisted the meaning of my thoughts (damn cyberspace and my inept writing skills). I wasn’t identifying with a “fluid sexuality” and saying that was the only way one could view another as purely an “individual”–(“jeez” is right).
    What I truly meant to convey was this:
    “Hooray for acceptance of the fluid nature of sexuality, and the choice to either identify with a label or not!” and then, “Hooray for individuality!”
    Sorry for the misunderstanding. *blushes*

  • ElleStar

    I was just going to post this same exact comic. Good thing I read the comments first to see someone beat me to the punch!

  • Poetry

    I really sympathize with Query. When I came out to my cousin, he pulled the exact same bullshit on me. “Are you sure it’s not because you’re such a feminist?” as if feminism can turn you gay. It was incredibly hurtful because my cousin and I are so close, and his comments were denying my experience, as if I can’t decide for myself that I really am a lesbian. Don’t let anyone label you or put you in a box. You are the sole arbiter of your experience and your identity.

  • jackie

    Honestly, I don’t think I could have survived engineering school if I wasn’t a feminist! Engineers don’t spend thier school day discussing thoery or even current events. But female engineers are fighting to break into the heavily male-dominated macho work environment that they’ve been told for years they won’t be good at. Also there are a lot of LGBT engineers. In fact beings stereotyped as lesbians is something that many women engineers experience.
    Sorry to be so off topic, that just struck a huge nerve!

  • Mar

    I’ve been where you are! I know how much it sucks. It’s really hard to work through all those layers of perceived contradiction, self-doubt, and social pressure to figure out your own state of comfortable being and self-identification. It took me years. I spent all that time vacillating back and forth between identities (was I lesbian? bisexual? straight & deluding myself?) and struggling with my own insecurity and discomfort. It took me all of high school, several self-identified lesbian periods, a girlfriend, and several boyfriends to finally let go of my labels and nerves and just relax.
    Listen: you don’t have to be a lesbian. It’s just a word. These terms are for you alone: you use them to identify yourself. So you had a fantastic sexual experience with that girl? Great, you liked her. So you think other girls are hot? Great, you like them too. Maybe you think some guys are hot as well. Maybe you’ve had great sexual experiences with some of them. That’s chill too.
    Do not let other people invalidate your experiences. You had fantastic sex with a woman, right? In the moment, it was wonderful, right? Take that for what it is — a sign of attraction to her. Your sister and the psychic aren’t you and weren’t there. What do they know?
    Sorry, this is getting long. My point is, you don’t have to plop down on your parents’ couch and say “I’m a lesbian and I like women and I am super-gay and I will NEVER. BANG. A MAN. AGAIN.” You can just say, “I’m attracted to women”/”I had great sex with this chick the other day”/”I like men and women”/”This is my girlfriend, Hannah”. What you call yourself is entirely up to you. What you tell your parents, friends, sister etc is entirely up to you.
    You’re allowed to be bisexual. You’re allowed to be fluid. You’re allowed to marry a man (I plan to! I’ve got him all picked out ;) ) if you want to. You’re also allowed to marry a woman. This is not the rest of your life. It’s just a word. You can change your mind about it anytime you want.
    Wow, that is a novel. Good luck with your thoughts & decisions. Stay cool :)

  • Mar

    Oh, for the record, I currently identify as bisexual. :)

  • Gnatalby

    Heh, and I’m sorry for jumping on you like that. I *maaaay* have been reacting to past annoying conversations more than to you.

  • Daniel Koffler

    Two points:
    1) To those people who are saying that the OP’s sexuality could have been influenced by her social and educational choices and experiences, I think it’s much more likely that what occurred was that these experiences opened her up to the part of her mind/personality/sexuality that is same-sex attracted. Now it’s possible (and indeed probable) that in an earlier era in which non-heterosexual orientations were considered treated as disorders to the extent that they were acknowledged in mainstream culture at all, someone like the OP could have lived her whole life without ever having the sorts of experiences that might awaken her to that part of herself.
    But fortunately, for all its remaining problems, our culture isn’t remotely like that anymore and won’t ever be like that again, so the odds that the OP wouldn’t have had some awakening experience at some point are virtually nil. And in that sense, Professor Foxy is absolutely right to dismiss that idea that the OP’s major and activism in any way caused her to adopt her current sexual identity.
    2) To those people making the point that sexual identity is fluid and subject to continuous revision: I hope this won’t be interpreted as a loaded remark, as I mean to pose it as a question as much as a comment, but my experience has been — and I believe this is backed up by a lot of sociological and psychological literature, though I don’t have off-hand references — that fluidity in sexuality is far more prevalent among women than among men.
    Of course there are undoubtedly exceptions, but realistically, even among feministing readers, is there anyone who can report male friends/family/acquaintances whose sexual self-identification has undergone changes at anything comparable to the rate of female friends/family/acquaintances?
    I don’t have any explanation to offer for this discrepancy (in fact, would be very keen to hear what others think), but it does strike me as true, interesting, and important.

  • KMcClure

    Sexuality is naturally fluid for men and women, social constructs throughout history (which we can all agree are unnatural and oppressive) altered our ability to see sex and relationships in a free way. We have “boy friends” or “girl friends” “weddings” and “husbands.” We not only label our relationship(s) with outdated and historically oppressive terms but we all, FEMINISTS INCLUDED, engage in ceremonies and rituals (and I’m not only referring to heterosexual weddings), which are not inherently evil, but still reinforce ancient concepts regarding sexuality and relationships. (Even the gay ones.) So being confused about your sexuality really only means you don’t feel the way society (your family, your friends, even your feminist ones) have told you to. So you’re different. You’re a lesbian. None of this makes any sense. There is no sexual binary and I am sad that none of my Women’s studies classes or Feminist networks talks about this in a more open way.
    And if you want an example of fluid sexuality in males look at the Greeks. And this example reiterates my previous point because the men really loved and respected one another, and this was because they were socialized to devalue the woman.
    Seriously Query, you don’t have to label yourself if you don’t want to. If you are labeling yourself to make other people happy or comfortable- the straight community or the gay community- then you are doing it for the wrong reason.

  • Toongrrl

    It’s a difficult choice to make: coming out to family.