As you’ve no doubt noticed, every person is different. Factors such as family, gender, race, sexual identity, height, weight and economic background go a long way toward determining your unique identity. Nor is identity a fixed point; there’s no, “Okay, I’m like this and will be exactly like this the rest of my life.” In fact, it’s common for a person’s self-identity to be dynamic and ever-evolving, particularly if the person is young (The Brain Injury Association of New York State, 2006). With all that in mind, it’s interesting to take a look at what self-identity is and how it relates to sexual identity.
What Is Self-Identity?
In March 2015, the Barna Group published the results of a study that looked at what most influences the self-identity of Americans. For 62 percent of the respondents, family was an integral component. However, some groups of people were more likely to pinpoint family than other groups. For instance, older people, Midwest residents and practicing Christians see family as integral to their identity. Family, nationality and religion overwhelmingly make up an American’s self-identity, while career and ethnicity play less of a role for many folks.
Members of minority groups often view their ethnicity or culture as an integral part of their self-identity. Even then, self-perception does change. Take a black lesbian in a wheelchair. Depending on the situation, it may be her femaleness, her lesbianism, her race or her disability that most determine how she answers the question, “Who am I?” Similarly, if you are a lesbian, sexual identity makes up parts of your identity, but not your entire identity.
Sexual Identity as a Component of Self-Identity
As the University of Texas at Dallas Student Counseling Center points out, sexual identity is complicated, bringing with it an endless range of possibilities. That said, three main components go into sexual identity: gender identity, sexual orientation and romantic orientation. While it’s simple to say that lesbians are females who are sexually and romantically attracted to other women, such a statement is not true for all lesbians. For example, many realize they are gay later in life, or may sometimes enjoy sex with men.
Further complicating the issue of self-identity for lesbians is the fact that very few grow up in families or communities that share a homosexual identity (Rosario et. al, 2011). Furthermore, many of these families or communities are often critical of homosexuals. As a result, some lesbians go through denial, and many experience a disconnect between self-identity and external behaviors. In any case, a lesbian’s sexual identity does play an important part in her self-identity. Just the fact that straight people do not have to come out makes that clear.
Many lesbians have even experienced discrimination and prejudice that may have caused them to leave their families and certain religious groups. As a result, their families may consist of people they choose, rather than their biological relatives. Some lesbians are also scared of being fired at work or discriminated against, so are not fully open about who they are. While this means that there are many lesbians who have not revealed their sexual identity and are not involved in their community, there are others who have completely come out and are very active.
Factors outside of a lesbian’s self-identity can go a long way toward whether she is more prone to acceptance of who she is or not. If her family is welcoming of gays, for instance, she may accept her lesbian identity earlier in life and more completely. However, if she is not raised in a supportive environment, a lesbian may choose to break from her family or minimize her lesbian identity when she is around them.
Building Your Self-Identity
People do not wake up one morning and think, “I’m going to develop my self-identity today.” Rather, such development is a largely nondeliberate process (The Brain Injury Association of New York State, 2006). For a very young child, a sense of self develops from her attachment to the people who protect and accept her (or who don’t). Self-identity gradually develops more nuances, stemming from the values of the child’s parents, friends and community model.
The process of building a lesbian self-identity is more deliberate for many lesbians. They often must make a point to seek out gay, bisexual and transgender folks as well as lesbian-friendly materials (lesbian novels and lesbian movies, for example). They frequently meet other lesbians through dating sites as well as social gatherings, bars and clubs tailored toward lesbians. They attend gay pride events and join lesbian-focused groups. In part due to the conscious effort that many lesbians must take in order to meet others like them, being a lesbian is a big part of the self-identity for many. However, at the end of the day, lesbians are many other things as well. They are black, white, Chinese, deaf, short, normal weight, underweight, only children, middle children and so on.
Barna Group (March 19, 2015). What Most Influences the Self-Identity of Americans? Retrieved from https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/712-what-most-influences-the-self-identity-of-americans#.VnB1FkorKM9
Rosario, Margaret, Schrimshaw, Eric W., Hunter, Joyce, Braun, Lisa (November 14, 2011). Sexual Identity Development among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youths: Consistency and Change Over Time. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215279/
The Brain Injury Association of New York State (2006). Retrieved from http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/sense_of_self_personal_identity.html
The University of Texas at Dallas (n.d.). Sexual Identity. Retrieved from https://www.utdallas.edu/counseling/sexualidentity/