Adolescence is the period between the beginning of puberty and reaching adulthood – from the age of around nine until 18.
For all teenagers, the period of adolescence is a time of change, growth and development on all levels. Teenagers who are gay, lesbian or bisexual are overwhelmingly similar to their peers who are heterosexual in overcoming the regular struggles of adolescence. Like their heterosexual counterparts, gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents share the same physical, cognitive, psychological and social tasks of development, many of which are unaffected by issues of sexual orientation.
However, since one of the major psychological tasks of adolescence is that of identity formulation and consolidation, the gay, lesbian or bisexual teenager faces myriad challenges that the heterosexual adolescent does not.
Changes experienced during puberty
Adolescence is a time when most young people have to come to terms with:
Significant changes in their body as puberty sets in.
Heightened awareness of issues related to gender and gender roles.
Becoming aware of, and having to integrate, feelings of intimacy, sexual arousal and attraction.
Adolescence is thus a challenging period of for all teenagers as they increasingly need to deal with physical, gender and sexual orientation, and integrating these as part of self-concept and identity.
Puberty marks the time when both male and female bodies go through tremendous change. There is no other time in the development of the human body when changes occur so quickly and over such a short period of time.
For girls, these changes include:
The development of the breasts
Pubic and auxiliary hair growth
The onset of menstruation
Sudden increases in growth and height.
For boys, these changes include:
Pubic and auxiliary hair growth
A change in voice tone
Sudden increases in growth and height.
These changes signal to the youth that she/he is becoming physically and sexually mature.
This change is often accompanied by an increased awareness of:
Physical identity: the physical size, shape, function and appeal of her/his own and others’ bodies.
Gender identity: Gender-based ‘norms’ and ‘roles’ – the different attitudes, behaviours and mannerisms accepted or expected of men and women.
Sexual orientation: Awareness of feelings of intimate and physical attraction towards others.
At this stage in their development, the adolescent’s ‘okay-ness’ or ‘not-okay-ness’ in the world is, to a significant degree, dependent on the extent to which they are able to acknowledge and accept their physical characteristics, gender and sexual orientation; and on how they manage to incorporate these into their self-concept and identity.
Influences on emerging identity
Identity exploration does not occur within a vacuum. As young people grapple with issues of physical, gender and sexual orientation, they receive many open and hidden messages from society. These messages directly impact on their identity, their perception of themselves and their self-esteem.
Coming to terms with feelings of same-sex attraction
Early adolescence brings an increased awareness of gender role conformity, mainly around appearance and behaviour. This is when adolescents deal with what it means to be a ‘young man’ or ‘young woman’. Gradually, an acceptance and personal expression of a gender identity emerges. By late adolescence and early adulthood, an established gender identity is usually in place.
The labels given to the adolescents by others and the assumptions made about their lives based on gender stereotypes, contribute significantly to the identity challenges they face.
Many young people experience identity conflict as a result of the expectations others have of them. When our feelings, interests and behaviours differ from the ‘norms’ in society, it is much harder to develop and consolidate a positive identity.
A time to explore sex and sexuality
And on top of this, adolescence is a time when most youth are preoccupied with sex and sexuality as their bodies begin to reach sexual maturity, and they begin to experience feelings of intimate and physical attraction toward others. At the physical level, the adolescent needs to make sense of physical changes, eg the sensations of orgasm and the ability to ejaculate.
Adolescent fascination with sex and sexuality is often reflected in their conversation and behaviour, and is indicative of attempts to make sense of the physical changes taking place and their feelings of intimate and physical attraction.
They often explore their sexuality in discussion with peers and through physical contact. Boys, for example, often touch, feel and measure the sizes of each other’s penises for reasons of comparison. This forms part of the natural curiosity and experimentation of youth at this stage. In this process, it is not unusual for individuals to experience sexual arousal regardless of who else might be involved.
Distinguishing between sexual contact and sexual orientation
However, the experience of sexual arousal and engaging in physical and sexual contact – same-sex or opposite-sex contact – should not be confused with sexual orientation. Our sexual orientation is defined by our consistent feelings of attraction and not by our sexual behaviour.
Sexual orientation refers to the nature of our feelings of intimate and physical attraction towards others:
People of the opposite sex (heterosexual), or
People of the same sex (homosexual), or
People of both sexes (bisexual).
Responding to patterns that develop over time
As adolescents become aware of feelings of physical and intimate attraction, they begin over time to recognise a pattern. When they experience feelings of opposite-sex attraction, they usually have little difficulty responding to these as part of who they are, as it fits in with the heterosexual orientation of the majority of people.
However, when they experience feelings of same-sex attraction, they may experience great difficulty accepting these feelings as part of who they are. Where previously they may have seen themselves as ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’, they are now aware of a difference that is often called “abnormal” and “sick”.
Internalised homophobia and the fear of being discovered
If adolescents have internalised negative messages and attitudes about same-sex attraction, they may experience considerable personal anguish, doubt, self-criticism, and even self-hatred (referred to as internalised homophobia) when they become aware of their feelings of same-sex attraction.
At the same time, they have to deal with the added anxiety of ‘being discovered’. Rejection, exclusion, stigmatisation, discrimination and harassment often become real possibilities, and pose a threat to their personal security and social well-being. The result can be a young person who feels confused, scared and alone.
Without accurate and unbiased information, and without caring support from others, the young adolescent experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction is likely to have great difficulty making sense of these feelings and incorporating them as a natural or acceptable part of who they are. - Triangle Project
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