Gender and Sexual Orientation

The Psychology of Women and Gender: Half the Human Experience + - Nicole M. Else-Quest, Janet Shibley Hyde 2018

Gender and Sexual Orientation

“After I graduated from college . . . I found myself not necessarily only attracted to both sexes, but also slightly more open-minded to the notion that . . . maybe I can find something in just a person, that I don’t necessarily have to be attracted to one sex versus the other. . . . Since then I’ve been in . . . a couple of different long-term relationships with women and I’ve had lots of sex with men and currently I’m in a long-term relationship with a man that I find very, very, very enjoyable and . . . fulfilling so it’s hard for me to identify so therefore I kind of prefer to not identify or just kind of . . . kind of joke about it and say, ’I’m not bisexual or homosexual, I’m just sexual.’”

A woman respondent quoted in Diamond (2005, p. 126)

With the sexual revolution and the feminist movement has also come the rise of gay liberation. The gay liberation movement can be counted as dating from June 1969, when, in response to police harassment, gays and trans people rioted in Greenwich Village in New York. A discussion of women and gender today would be incomplete without a discussion of lesbian and bisexual women.

It is important to bear in mind that “lesbian” is not a homogeneous category. Lesbians vary tremendously from one another, just as heterosexual women do. Some are professors and some work on assembly lines. Some are fat and some are thin. Some are White and some are African American.

Sexual orientation is defined as a person’s erotic and emotional orientation toward members of their own gender or members of another gender (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017). Sexual orientation is not just an issue of eroticism or sexuality, but also an issue of the direction of one’s emotional attachments. It is not just a matter of whom one has sex with, but whom one loves. A lesbian, then, is a woman whose erotic and emotional orientation is toward other women. A bisexual is a person whose erotic and emotional orientations are toward both women and men (note that this term reflects the gender binary). With the proliferation of possible sexual identities, the term sexual minority is used as an umbrella term for all people with nonheterosexual sexual identities and behaviors. The term queer, which has been used as an anti-gay insult, has been reappropriated by some gay activists and theorists to cover all sexual minorities. Queer theory is prominent in lesbian-gay-bisexual (LGB) studies.

Sexual orientation: A person’s erotic and emotional orientation toward members of their own gender or members of another gender.

Lesbian: A woman whose sexual orientation is toward other women.

Bisexual: A person who is erotically and emotionally attracted to both women and men.

Sexual minority: An umbrella term for all people with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual.

Queer: An epithet that has been reappropriated by gay activists and theorists to refer to sexual minorities.

Sexual orientation encompasses three components: attraction, identity, and behavior (Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2015). Attraction refers to whether one is sexually attracted to one’s own gender, the other gender, or both. Identity refers to how one thinks of oneself—I’m straight, I’m lesbian, I’m bisexual, I’m queer, I’m mostly heterosexual. Behavior refers to whom one engages in sexual behavior with—members of one’s own gender or another gender. For example, some men have a heterosexual identity yet occasionally have sex with other men. That is why some researchers refer to men who have sex with men (MSM) rather than gay men, because they are studying behavior, not identity.

How does gender diversity intersect with sexual orientation? Some trans women are attracted to women and have a lesbian identity (Tate & Pearson, 2016). Therefore, a trans-inclusive definition of lesbian includes both cis women and trans women who are attracted to women. In this chapter, we use lesbian to include both cis women and trans women, although most of the research done with lesbians has focused just on lesbians who are cis women.

Queer Theory

Queer theory was introduced in Chapter 2. Recall the important arguments in this theory: (1) Binaries should be challenged, whether the gender binary (male, female) or the sexual orientation binary (heterosexual, homosexual); (2) sexual orientation and gender are not essential, fixed, biologically based characteristics. Instead they are fluid and dynamic over time and in different situations. Queer theory also challenges other binaries such as normal versus deviant (Tolman & Diamond, 2014). Moreover, queer theory asserts that these binary categories themselves exert power over people and their interactions. These binaries exert regulatory force and create privilege as well as marginalization. In particular, heterosexuality is privileged and normalized, and all other sexual orientations are marginalized.

Performativity, a concept originated by philosopher Judith Butler, is another key concept in queer theory (Butler, 1990; Tolman & Diamond, 2014). The idea here is that gender is performed, as is sexual orientation. Women perform gender through their clothing, makeup, and jewelry, as well as through their interactions with others. Likewise, sexual orientation is performed. For example, heterosexuality is performed constantly in male—female interactions, such as a male—female couple holding hands as they stroll down the street. And heterosexuality can be performed in male—male interactions such as the “bro hug,” in which men half hug each other to signal friendship but clarify that there is no sexual attraction.

Performativity: The idea that gender and sexual orientation are constructed through a constant set of performances by people (actors).

Queer theory and its assertions have an uneasy relationship with psychology. Traditional psychology, and even some feminist psychology, loves to categorize people and then look at differences between the categories—whether gender differences or differences between gays and straights. Because this textbook is based in science, we report research of that kind while being mindful of the critique of it posed by queer theory. It is also true that some psychology is consistent with queer theory. Perhaps the best example is Lisa Diamond’s work on sexual fluidity (discussed later in this chapter).

Stereotypes and Discrimination

Some experts believe that many Americans’ attitudes toward lesbians and gay men can best be described as homophobic. Homophobia may be defined as a strong, irrational fear of sexual minority persons. Some scholars dislike the term homophobia because, although certainly some people have antigay feelings so strong that they could be called a phobia, what is more common is negative attitudes and prejudiced behaviors. Therefore, some prefer the term antigay prejudice or sexual prejudice (Herek, 2000a). A related term is heterosexism, which refers to discrimination or bias against people based on their sexual orientation, and nonheterosexuality in particular.

Homophobia: A strong, irrational fear of sexual minority persons.

Antigay prejudice: Negative attitudes and behaviors toward gay men and lesbians. Also called sexual prejudice.

Heterosexism: Discrimination or bias against people based on their nonheterosexual orientation.

Results of a well-sampled 2012 survey of Americans’ attitudes are shown in Table 13.1, along with comparable data from 1973. Notice that Americans’ attitudes have become substantially more accepting over roughly 40 years. Four times as many Americans in 2012, compared with 1973, believed that same-gender sexuality is not wrong at all. Nonetheless, 46% still believed that it is always wrong.

Many tangible instances of antigay prejudice exist. There are numerous documented cases of women being fired from their jobs or dishonorably discharged from the armed forces upon disclosure of their sexual orientation (Shilts, 1993), and in 1993 there was a great debate between President Bill Clinton and military leaders about whether the military should continue this practice of dishonorable discharge. The result was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, in which it was all right to be gay or lesbian as long as one was secretive about it (this policy was repealed in 2011 by President Barack Obama). Until recent Supreme Court cases, most states did not recognize lesbian partners in matters of health insurance, inheritance, or marriage. The most extreme expressions of antigay prejudice occur in hate crimes against sexual minorities (Cogan & Marcus-Newhall, 2002).


Source: Data gathered via General Social Survey, 1972—2012 (2012).

A meta-analysis assessed the extent of victimization of LGB individuals (Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2012). The results indicated that substantial numbers had experienced one or another kind of victimization. For example, 56% had experienced verbal harassment and 28% had experienced a physical assault on account of their sexual orientation.

Some victimization, then, is obvious, such as physical assault. Yet some is more subtle. Derald Wing Sue’s (2010) concept of microaggressions, introduced in Chapter 4, is relevant here as well. In Chapter 4, we discussed racial microaggressions, which are subtle insults directed at people of color and often done automatically or nonconsciously. Sexual orientation microaggressions occur as well (Nadal, 2013). They can occur in many forms, such as heterosexist jokes or not inviting a same-gender partner to a family holiday gathering. Other examples include heterosexist language (for example, the popular expression “That’s so gay”) and denial that individual heterosexism exists. Assumptions that gay people are deviant continue and can be manifested in subtle ways. For example, in a PowerPoint presentation at one college, a slide read, “LGBT people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than normal people” (Nadal, 2013, p. 57).

Microaggressions based on gender identity or expression are also abundant (Nadal, 2013). One common occurrence is the misgendering of a person—for example, calling a trans person “she” (the natal gender) instead of the pronoun they prefer, which might be “he” or “they” (see Chapter 5).

Perhaps the most subtle and simultaneously most powerful discriminatory belief is the assumption that heterosexuality is universal. As a result, lesbians must tolerate coworkers asking if they have a boyfriend or mothers asking if a husband is on the horizon yet. Just as we saw in previous chapters that the male is normative, so, too, is heterosexuality normative. The term heteronormativity was coined to refer to this pervasive cultural belief that heterosexuality is the norm.

Heteronormativity: The belief that heterosexuality is the norm.

Lesbian Culture

Lesbian Community

Today there is a lesbian community or culture with its own norms and values. Even for lesbians who are in the closet, this culture has a profound impact on identity and behavior—such as the books they read or the way they define sex. As one woman put it,

I have seen lesbian communities all over the world (e.g., South Africa, Brazil, and Israel) where the lesbians of that nation have more in common with me (i.e., they play the same lesbian records, have read the same books, wear the same lesbian jewelry) than the heterosexual women of that nation have in common with heterosexual women in the United States. (E. Rothblum, personal communication, 2007)

Participation in the lesbian community can then become a major force in the lives of lesbians, at least for those who are out of the closet.

Lesbian Relationships

With the 2000 census, the U.S. Census Bureau made an unprecedented change. It allowed as a category in the count of household types same-sex, unmarried-partner households. Previously these households and the relationships that they imply had been literally invisible in the census. In fact, in the 1990 census, if a same-gender couple reported that they were married, the Census Bureau changed the gender of one of the partners and counted them as a heterosexual married couple (Smith & Gates, 2001). The 2000 census counted 600,000 same-gender partner households in the United States, although this is likely an undercount (Smith & Gates, 2001). These households were about evenly split between gay male households and lesbian households, and they were found in 99% of all counties in the United States. The 2015 Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, discussed in a later section, recognized and at the same time changed the cultural climate on many of these issues.

What is known psychologically about the relationships in these households? Across numerous surveys, between 8% and 21% of lesbian couples have been together for 10 or more years (Kurdek, 2005). In 2000, same-sex civil unions became legal in Vermont. Research on the first year of couples entering into these unions showed that two-thirds were female (Solomon et al., 2004). The lesbian couples had been living together for an average of 9 years and 34% had children (15% from the current relationship and 19% from a prior relationship, typically heterosexual).

Photo 13.1 The Riff Raff Band, with lead singer queer-identified Alynda Lee Segarra, trans fiddler Yosi Perlstein, bassist Callie Millington, and drummer David Jamison. One important feature of lesbian culture is music.


David A. Smith/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images.

Lesbian couples—like heterosexual couples—must struggle to find a balance that suits both persons. Three aspects of the relationship typically have to be negotiated and can be sources of conflict: money, housework, and sex (Solomon et al., 2005). Lesbian couples tend to have more equality in housework than heterosexual couples do (Gotta et al., 2011).

What is striking about the research on gay and lesbian relationships is how similar they are—in their satisfactions, loves, joys, and conflicts—to heterosexual relationships (Holmberg & Blair, 2009; Patterson, 2000). For example, one study compared lesbian and gay couples with heterosexual couples who were engaged or married (Roisman et al., 2008). Lesbian couples did not differ from heterosexual couples in the reported quality of their relationship, nor did they differ on laboratory measures of relationship quality. The one exception was that, compared with heterosexual couples, lesbians were somewhat more skilled at working harmoniously with their partners on a laboratory task.

Lesbians tend to value an equal balance of power in their relationships, although they don’t always achieve it (Patterson, 2000). When there is an imbalance, the woman who has more income and more education tends to be the more powerful member of the couple.

Doubtless the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage will have an impact on these relationships, but it is too early for research to have emerged.

Gay Marriage

In 2000 Vermont became the first U.S. state to provide formal, legal civil unions to same-gender couples, with all the benefits—such as health insurance—that are normally provided to heterosexual spouses. The term civil union was used at the time to make the idea more palatable to those who opposed gay marriage and said that marriage was only between a man and a woman. After 2000, it was a state-by-state battle. By 2011, same-gender marriage was legal in the United States in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New York, and Vermont, as well as in Belgium, Canada, Spain, and the Netherlands.

The state-by-state battles were slow and uneven, though, and matters of principle were involved. Many people felt that this was an important issue of equal rights. Several cases made their way through the courts. Finally, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The question was whether states must allow gay marriage, and the court ruled that they must. The legal basis was the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution, which asserts that all citizens have a right to equal protection under the law. That principle was extended to equal rights to marriage. Many activists prefer to say that the issue is not gay marriage, but marriage equality.

Research shows that, prior to Obergefell v. Hodges, the implementation of state-level marriage equality policies was associated with reductions in suicide attempts among sexual minority youth (Raifman et al., 2017). And same-gender couples in legally recognized relationships show better mental health than other LGBs (Riggle et al., 2010), so the right to gay marriage may represent a victory on many fronts.

Sexual Orientation Development and Fluidity

Developmental psychologists have studied the process by which people develop a sexual identity, that is, an identity that one is lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, or something else. A 5-year-old would have no sense of being lesbian or heterosexual, but sometime along the way, usually during adolescence or early adulthood, sexual minority individuals acquire a sense of sexual identity. Heterosexuals, of course, have the privilege of simply assuming theirs, consistent with what the culture expects.

Photo 13.2 As of 2015, gay marriage was legal in the United States.


Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Lisa Diamond (2008b) has conducted extensive research on the process of the development of women’s sexual orientation. She began with a sample of college women and women recruited from LGB community events and followed them for more than 10 years. Her research led her to conclude that a defining feature of women’s sexual orientation (leaving open the question of men’s sexual orientation) is sexual fluidity, that is, situation-dependent flexibility in women’s sexual responsiveness. Many women, of course, have a sexual orientation that is fixed and stable across their lives. But others find their orientation and attractions shifting over time, sometimes because of a particular person—regardless of gender—to whom they are attracted. Diamond also notes that the concept of a fixed sexual orientation and identity is a Western notion that is not shared by some other cultures.

Sexual fluidity: Situation-dependent flexibility in women’s sexual responsiveness to women or men.

In her longitudinal study, Diamond found that women changed in all directions over time, for example, from lesbian to bisexual, from bisexual to lesbian, and from lesbian to heterosexual. These findings contradict the idea of a fixed sexual identity, at least for some individuals.

Physiological research also supports these ideas. In these studies, both subjective arousal and physiological arousal are measured using techniques like those in the Chivers study described in Chapter 12. Participants are shown videos of either male—female, male—male, or female—female sexual activity. Heterosexual women show the same amount of genital arousal to female—female activity as they do to male—male activity and male—female activity (Chivers et al., 2004). (Heterosexual men, in contrast, show strong arousal to the female—female video, somewhat less to the male—female video, and almost none to the male—male video.) These results, then, show that, consistent with Diamond’s work, many women are flexible about which gender arouses them.

Stage theories of the development of gay sexual identity have been popular (e.g., Cass, 1979). They posit that individuals begin in a stage of identity confusion and gradually move to identity acceptance and identity pride. The most recent research, though, questions these step-by-step, linear models. They may be accurate for some people, perhaps especially men. However, for many others, sexual identity and behavior may shift back and forth depending on the situation and the potential partner.

Another developmental process for sexual minority women involves coming out. Women can be very vulnerable in the process of coming out, whether in the sexual minority community, to their old friends, or to their coworkers. Whether they experience acceptance or rejection can be critical to self-esteem. There may also be fears of losing one’s job or custody of one’s children. Many lesbians make a decision to be selectively out—that is, to be out with people they know they can trust, and not with others.

Coming out: The process of acknowledging to others that one is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer.

Lesbians who are selectively out may face a distinct set of stresses. Consider a common situation in which a woman is not out at work, but is out in the lesbian community. At work, she must take care not to reveal her secret, be careful about the pronoun she uses when referring to her date, or worry that a worker will phone her at home and her partner will answer. On the other side, she may be pressured by the lesbian community to be completely out.

Coming out to one’s family is one of the most significant events for gays and lesbians. In one sample of LGB adults, roughly 73% of both the men and the women had talked with a parent about being LGB (Rothman et al., 2012). Typically, they disclosed to their mother first. There were also links between disclosure and mental health. Those who had not come out to their parents were more likely to be depressed than those who had. Among those who had disclosed to their parents, those whose parents reacted unsupportively were also more likely to be depressed. Parents’ responses are important to the mental health of LGB people.

Many lesbians function with essentially a dual identity. That is, they identify and have ties with the sexual minority world and at the same time they identify and have ties with the majority heterosexual world (Fingerhut et al., 2005). In many ways this is like being bilingual or bicultural. Both the strength of lesbian identity and the strength of mainstream identity are positively associated with psychological well-being.

Mental Health Issues

Lesbians’ Adjustment

Prior to 1973, homosexuality was a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. That is, homosexuality per se was seen as a mental disorder. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove homosexuality from the diagnostic list, reflecting new research and changing understandings of sexual orientation.

Current research comparing lesbians and heterosexual women on measures of mental health finds many similarities between the two groups, but also some differences (Balsam et al., 2015; Cochran et al., 2003; Meyer, 2003; Wichstrøm & Hegna, 2003). Lesbian and heterosexual women are roughly equal on measures such as self-esteem and current psychological distress. Compared with heterosexual woman, however, lesbians are more likely to have had suicidal thoughts, to have attempted suicide, and to have used psychotherapy.

Researchers debate the meaning of these findings. Almost certainly they reflect the stress of being a sexual minority person. And how large are the differences? In one study, 4.4% of heterosexual women, compared with 7.9% of lesbians, had attempted suicide after age 18 (Balsam et al., 2005). We could focus on the finding that lesbian women were nearly twice as likely as heterosexual women to have attempted suicide. Alternatively, we could note that it is only a 3.5 percentage point difference and that 92.1% of the lesbians had not made suicide attempts. Should we view the glass as half full or half empty? These questions reflect the issue of interpretation of results explained in Chapter 1 for gender differences, applied here to sexual orientation differences.

Rather than seeing lesbian identity as automatically causing adjustment problems or not causing problems, it is preferable to understand that being lesbian may be a risk factor for some mental health problems. In social psychological terms, being a sexual minority is associated with stigma. This stigma is a source of stress for the individual (Hatzenbuehler, 2009). This stress can in turn lead to emotional distress, interpersonal problems, and/or negative cognitive style (see Chapter 15). Any of these can make a person vulnerable to psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. Minority stress theory was developed to describe these stresses and their impact on mental health (Meyer, 2003). Many sexual minority women display resilience in the face of these stresses. Social support from parents and friends can help offset the effects of minority stress. In addition, according to stress inoculation theory, exposure to some stress makes people more resilient in the future (Hatzenbuehler, 2009).


Some lesbians seek psychotherapy for psychological distress, just as some heterosexuals do. Unfortunately, however, many psychotherapists are not well educated about sexual orientation issues and may provide inappropriate or inadequate care. In response to this problem, the American Psychological Association has adopted guidelines for psychotherapy with gay, lesbian, and bisexual clients. These guidelines emphasize issues such as the following (Division 44, 2000):

1. It is important for psychologists to understand that having a homosexual or bisexual orientation does not automatically mean that the person is psychologically disturbed. Psychologists, of course, grow up in the same culture as everyone else and learn the same kinds of myths that laypersons learn.

2. Psychologists need to probe their own attitudes about sexual orientation issues as well as their knowledge about these issues. If they discover limitations in their expertise or attitudes that might have a negative impact on the client, they should refer the client to another therapist.

3. Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are stigmatized in dozens of ways, ranging from subtle prejudice to outright violence, and psychologists must gain a deep understanding of the impact this may have on the mental health of their client. They should also understand that these experiences may affect the client’s behavior in therapy.

4. Psychologists should be knowledgeable about relationship issues for sexual minority persons. This includes respecting lesbians’, gays’, and bisexuals’ romantic relationships and understanding how disclosure of sexual orientation may have an impact on the client’s relationship with their family of origin—and how nondisclosure places a psychological burden on the client.

5. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons who are members of ethnic minority groups may face particular challenges because of cultural norms against homosexuality within their group, and psychologists must be sensitive to these issues.

Children of Lesbian Mothers

Increasingly, lesbian couples are creating families that include children. These children may have resulted from a previous heterosexual marriage, assisted reproduction (e.g., artificial insemination), or adoption. Lesbians raising children is a controversial practice to some heterosexual people in the United States, who view a lesbian household as a damaging setting for children to grow up in. The courts have often assumed that lesbians were unfit mothers. Lesbian mothers have lost custody of children they had when heterosexually married, and being a lesbian has been grounds for being denied the possibility of adoption (Patterson, 2009). The underlying psychological assumption has been that lesbians are bad mothers, in the sense that they will not do a good job rearing their children and the children will grow up poorly adjusted. There also is an assumption that these children will be stigmatized, teased by their peers, and so on. How well adjusted are the children of lesbian mothers?

Research has compared children of lesbian mothers with children of heterosexual parents on measures such as sexual identity, personal development, and social relationships. This research has found that the children of lesbian mothers develop as well as children reared by heterosexual couples (Farr, 2017; Golombok et al., 2003; Patterson, 2017). Research has also shown that the child-rearing practices of lesbian mothers and heterosexual mothers are quite similar (Farr et al., 2010). Some research has even found that lesbian couples show better parenting skills than heterosexual couples (Farr & Patterson, 2013).

The U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study initially recruited 154 prospective lesbian mothers who were going to have a baby through artificial insemination (Gartrell & Bos, 2010). The researchers then followed up with the families, collecting data when the children were 10 years old and again when they were 17. The bottom line: At both ages, the children of lesbian mothers scored as well as or better than an age-matched normative sample from the general population on measures such as academic performance, rule-breaking, and aggressive behavior.

Another concern is that lesbian parents might work to “convert” their children to being lesbian or gay or that children might model their mother’s lesbian relationship. In fact, the data indicate that the great majority of children growing up with a gay or lesbian parent become heterosexual (Patterson, 2009).

In summary, the evidence indicates that there is no cause for concern about the adjustment of children growing up in a lesbian household.

Photo 13.3 An important political issue for lesbian couples is the right to have children.



Why Do Women Become Lesbian, Bi, or Straight?

A fascinating psychological question is this: Why do people become heterosexual, lesbian, or bisexual? Older theories and research took it as their task to explain homosexuality. They operated under the assumption that everyone should turn out heterosexual unless some “accident” occurs that shifts the person in a homosexual direction. Newer theories and research take it as their task to explain sexual orientation—not only why people become lesbian or gay, but why people become heterosexual as well.

Biological Explanations

Three biological explanations have been proposed: genetics, brain factors, and hormones.

Some have suggested that sexual orientation is genetically determined or influenced (see review by Hyde, 2005b). To test this hypothesis, one research team recruited lesbian women who were either members of an identical twin pair or members of a nonidentical twin pair, or had a sister by adoption (Bailey et al., 1993; for a critique, see Byne & Parsons, 1993). The concordance rate for lesbian orientation was 48% for identical twins (concordance means that if one member of the twin pair is lesbian, so is the other). This was compared with a concordance rate of 16% for nonidentical twins and 6% for adoptive sisters. The finding that identical twins have a much higher concordance rate than nonidentical twins provides evidence for a genetic basis. At the same time, the 48% concordance rate means that 52% of the identical twins pairs were discordant—one was lesbian and the other heterosexual. If sexual orientation were completely genetically determined, the concordance would be 100%. Therefore, environmental factors must also exert an influence.

The same researchers conducted a second study using improved methodology (Bailey et al., 2000). This time the concordance rate among women was 24% for identical twins and 11% for nonidentical twins. This finding suggests some possible genetic contributions, but the results are not as strong as in the earlier study.

This is the era of the Human Genome Project, and it is now possible to scan people’s DNA to check for linkages to many different traits. One genome scan has been done for sexual orientation but—this will sound all too familiar—it looked at men only (Mustanski et al., 2005).

In regard to brain factors, a highly publicized study by neuroscientist Simon LeVay (1991) identified differences in the hypothalamus between heterosexuals and homosexuals. The three study groups were gay men, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women; there was no lesbian group, giving us no information about their brains. Much research and theory on sexual orientation have had this problem—lesbians have been invisible.

Investigating the possibility that endocrine imbalance is the cause of same-gender orientation, researchers have tried to determine whether testosterone levels of gay men might be low compared with those of heterosexual men and whether lesbians might have higher testosterone levels or perhaps lower estrogen levels than heterosexual women. Research testing these hypotheses has consistently found no differences between lesbian and heterosexual women on a variety of hormones (Byne, 1996; Downey et al., 1987). This hypothesis is not taken seriously anymore.

Others have wondered whether prenatal hormone exposure might be influential. They have, for example, studied girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (discussed in Chapter 10). None of these studies has yielded definitive evidence either.

Environmental Factors

Learning theory fares no better when tested against the data. For example, children who grow up with a gay parent are not themselves more likely to become gay (Bailey et al., 1995; Golombok & Tasker, 1996; Patterson, 2009). Modeling therefore does not seem to play a role. In addition, lesbians are no more likely than heterosexual women to have been heterosexually raped (Bell et al., 1981). This counters a hypothesis from learning theory that an unpleasant heterosexual experience should channel sexual orientation in a lesbian direction.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line, simply put, is that scientists do not know what causes sexual orientation. But there may be a good theoretical lesson to be learned from that somewhat frustrating conclusion. It has generally been assumed not only that lesbians are a distinct category, but also that they form a homogeneous category, that is, that all lesbians are fairly similar. Not so. Moreover, queer theory leads to a questioning of the sexual orientation binary—that women are either lesbian or heterosexual. The data in fact indicate that many women fall outside that binary because they are bisexual, queer, mostly heterosexual, or sexually fluid. Theories about simple causes of women being lesbian or heterosexual may be doomed to failure.

Differences Between Lesbians and Gay Men

Theorists frequently refer to homosexuals or gays as if there were no differences between gay men and lesbians (or else as if gay men were the only phenomenon of interest). How different are lesbians and gay men?

Some differences between the two groups do emerge. First, lesbians place more emphasis on the emotional intimacy of their relationship than gay men do (Peplau & Garnets, 2000).

Second, many gay men have numerous different sexual partners, whereas lesbians more typically form long-term, exclusive relationships and therefore have fewer different partners. In a well-sampled national study, men who had had at least one same-gender sex partner reported, on average, 44 different sex partners since age 18 (Laumann et al., 1994). This compares with an average of 20 different partners for women in that same category. Gay men are also more likely than lesbians to have sex outside the relationship (to “cheat”); in one study, 59% of gay men had done so, compared with 8% of lesbians (Gotta et al., 2011).

Third, men with a male partner have sex (defined as genital sex) considerably more frequently than women with a female partner do (Peplau, 1993).

Fourth, women tend to be more bisexual than men do (Lippa, 2006). In the same well-sampled survey, among people who reported having had at least one same-gender sexual partner, 38% of the women had had both male and female partners, compared with 28% of the men (Laumann et al., 1994). And, as we saw earlier in the chapter, women are more likely to be aroused by both female and male stimuli than men are (Chivers et al., 2004). Similarly, women are more likely to display sexual fluidity than men are (Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2015).

Finally, lesbians and gay men are the objects of somewhat different attitudes from the predominantly heterosexual American population. People hold negative attitudes toward both gay men and lesbians, but, on average, they are more negative toward gay men (Herek, 2000b; Petersen & Hyde, 2010). This trend is driven by men’s more negative attitudes toward gay men than toward lesbians. Women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men are similar.

In sum, gay men and lesbians are similar in the sense of same-gender attraction. The differences between the two are logical consequences of psychological differences between the genders and differences in their developmental experiences. Sexual minority women are probably more like heterosexual women than they are like gay men. It will be interesting to see whether these patterns of gender differences change with the legalization of gay marriage.

The Intersection of Sexual Orientation and Ethnicity

From an intersectionality perspective, sexual minority women of color have three intersecting identities: as women, as people of color, and as sexual minorities. Lesbians who are women of color experience triple oppression: discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and sexual orientation (Fassinger & Israel, 2010). For the individual woman, there may be conflicts between lesbian identity and ethnic identity, because some ethnic groups in the United States have even more negative attitudes toward lesbians than Anglo society does. In one study, Whites had the lowest levels of antigay attitudes and Blacks had the highest, with Latinx and Asian Americans falling in between (Haslam & Levy, 2006).

As a first example, we will consider Latinx lesbians (Espín, 1987a, 1993). Although in Latin cultures emotional and physical closeness among women is considered acceptable and desirable, attitudes toward lesbianism are even more restrictive than in European American culture. The special emphasis on family—defined as mother, father, children, and grandparents—in Latin cultures makes the lesbian even more of an outsider.

Despite these forces—or perhaps because of them—Latinx lesbians have engaged in resistance and activism. One example is the activist group Lesbianas Unidas (Gil-Gómez, 2016). Beginning in the 1960s, the Chicano movement advocated for civil rights for Chican@s. The movement, however, was male-dominated, and Latinx lesbians were seen as a liability to the cause. In universities, Chicano/Latino Studies was also male-dominated. Latinx lesbians found more support among feminists, but that group was still dominated by Whites. Latinx lesbians then founded their own activist group, Lesbianas Unidas. It served important goals of creating community and was committed to taking action against anti-gay campaigns within the Latino community. Today, the group maintains an Internet presence.

As a second example, we will consider Asian American sexual minority women. Two features of Asian American culture shape attitudes toward same-gender sexuality and its expression: (1) a strong distinction between what may be expressed publicly and what should be kept private and (2) a stronger value placed on loyalty to one’s family and on the performance of family roles than on expression of one’s own individual desires (Cochran et al., 2007). Sexuality must be expressed only privately, not publicly. And having an identity, much less a sexual identity or a lesbian identity, apart from one’s family is almost incomprehensible to traditional Asian Americans. As a result, a relatively smaller portion of Asian American lesbians seem to be out compared with non-Asians. Those who are out tend to be more acculturated, that is, more influenced by American culture. They echo the sentiments of the Latina lesbian just mentioned, saying that they would prefer not to have to choose between their ethnic identity and their sexual identity but that when forced to make the choice, they are more closely tied to the LGB part of their identities.

Photo 13.4 Lesbians who are women of color may experience multiple forms of discrimination—on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.



A third example concerns African American lesbians, who regard their ethnic community as extremely homophobic (Greene, 2000). This sexual prejudice probably derives from a belief among Blacks that any sexual behavior outside the norms of the dominant culture in the United States may reflect negatively on Blacks, as they strive for respect and acceptance. In this context, Black lesbians may seem to be an embarrassment to the Black community.

That said, there may also be advantages to double or triple minority status. In one study, African American and Latina lesbians began wondering about being lesbian at an earlier age (14.5 years), on average, compared with White lesbians (17.5 years; Parks et al., 2004). The women of color also decided that they were lesbian at somewhat earlier ages (21—22 years) than the White lesbians (23 years). The researchers hypothesized that the women of color, having grown up as minorities, had already learned to negotiate minority identity and bicultural competence with the help of their families and communities. Essentially, they have already had practice and therefore are able to take on an additional minority identity more easily than their White counterparts.

Focus 13.1 A Queer Woman Tells Her Story

Despite growing up in a small midwestern town, I was exposed to homosexuality when several of my close friends came out during high school. At about the same time, I began to date a boy who was a year older than myself and we continued to date on and off for the next 3 years. By the end of high school I identified myself as bisexual but had had no sexual experiences with women. I considered sexuality to be a continuum and, perhaps idealistically, believed that gender was not a factor in determining whether I was attracted to someone. I felt that I existed on the edge of my gender, not traditionally masculine or feminine but a mixture of the two. I declined to embrace this by learning to ride a motorcycle and teaching myself to box, but kept my hair long and continued to wear makeup.

For the first 3 years of college I did not date and, instead, chose to maintain a close relationship with my family and to develop intense friendships. Even then, though, I found myself gravitating toward queer identified people. During my final year of college I began dating again and had a succession of relatively brief encounters with both men and women. Instead of feeling disappointed, I realized that a certain amount of dissatisfaction was acceptable and even inevitable; after all, the process of sifting and winnowing is exactly what dating is about. A year ago I met a woman with whom I chose to develop a long-term relationship. The beginning of our relationship was difficult as I struggled to understand how to be intimate with a woman. I found that there was little difference between relationships with men and women. I have spent the past year navigating what it means to be in a sexual-emotional relationship with a woman.

Being queer, even in a relatively progressive university community, has its ups and downs. Though personal safety is a concern, I find myself most irritated by the common assumption that women have sexual relationships with each other solely for the benefit and consumption of heterosexual men. Men have approached my girlfriend and me, only to initially assume that we are available heterosexual women (something that would not occur if a man and a woman were sitting together at a bar), and then, upon realizing we are together, ask if we are interested in engaging in group sex. When heterosexual couples talk about their relationships, people do not automatically think about them having sex. But when two women talk about being together, people often imagine various sexual permutations or assume that they are asexual, emotional companions (the Boston marriage theory). There is not a whole lot of room between these two stereotypes. For many people it is difficult to understand how frustrating these assumptions about sexuality can be. To put this problem in perspective, I have overheard many straight men express their discomfort with gay men, saying things like “I’m fine with him as long as he doesn’t try to flirt with me.” The same can be said for my girlfriend and me. I wish that it wasn’t necessary to share or advertise my sexual orientation.

Boston marriage: A romantic but asexual lesbian relationship.

I am fortunate, however, to have a family that supports the choices I have made about my sexuality. My parents have taught me a great deal about how to have a healthy, satisfying relationship with an emphasis on clear and open communication. I don’t know if I will even date men again; I am satisfied with the relationship I have now and I don’t spend time thinking about who I will date in the future.

Source: Based on an essay written for the author’s class.

We have seen many times in this book that women have been rendered invisible in everything from history to science. Lesbians who are women of color are, in a sense, triply invisible—invisible because they are women, because they are people of color, and because they are lesbian. They deserve much more attention in psychological research in the future, for their complex identities have much to tell us about the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality.

The queer of color critique is highly relevant here (Ferguson, 2004; Tompkins, 2015). Growing out of queer theory, feminist theory, and women of color feminism, the queer of color critique begins with tracing the historical encounters between the Christian European colonizers (British, Spanish, and French), the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and Africans who were forcibly transported there. The Europeans brought with them rigid heteronormativity and a firm belief in the gender binary. They were horrified by the alternative forms of gender expression and sexual expression that they encountered among the indigenous peoples. The European colonizers engaged in violence against the native peoples, destroying their cultures and interfering with their family structures. Alternative forms of gender expression, as well as same-sex attraction, were criminalized. Similarly, African slaves were subjected to sexual violence in multiple ways, including being treated as breeding stock and the sanctioning of White men raping African American slave women.

Queer of color critique: An approach that brings together queer theory, feminist theory, and women of color feminism.

Despite the destructive violence directed at them, people of color survived and created culture and families (Tompkins, 2015). In particular, queer people of color survived and created their own networks. As one writer put it, “The queerness . . . of peoples of color emerges from the fire of modernity’s historical forges and has an energy to survive and create that is fiercely its own” (Tompkins, 2015, p. 175).

According to the queer of color critique, we cannot understand queer people of color today without understanding the history of violence and yet survival. Moreover, this violence continues today as manifested, for example, in the Orlando nightclub shootings of 2016, in which a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub filled with people of color, killing 49 (Healy & Eligon, 2016).

Experience the Research: Lesbian Community

Does your campus have an LGBT speakers’ bureau? If not, why do you think there is none? If so, contact the speakers’ bureau and arrange for three sexual minority women to attend your class to lead a panel discussion. When the speakers attend your class, have them introduce themselves first and then follow a question-and-answer format with the class. Be sure that the following questions are asked of the women:

1. What is your experience of the lesbian community? Explain, for a heterosexual audience, the features of the lesbian community.

2. Have you ever been the object of a hate crime because you are a sexual minority? If so, what happened?

3. Describe the process of coming out as you experienced it.

In addition, describe at least one research finding that you learned about in this chapter, and ask the panel whether the research “rings true” to them.

Chapter Summary

Sexual orientation encompasses three components: attraction, identity, and behavior.

Queer theory challenges binaries and sees sexual orientation as fluid. Queer theory highlights performativity (i.e., the ways in which people perform gender or sexual orientation).

Lesbians experience antigay prejudice and may be the objects of various forms of victimization, including hate crimes. A lesbian culture or community exists in cities and towns around the world.

Diamond’s research on the development of women’s sexual orientation indicates that, for some women, it is fluid, passing back and forth between lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and undecided.

Regarding mental health, research generally shows that lesbian women are as well-adjusted as straight women, with the exception that lesbian women have a higher rate of suicide attempts. This outcome can be attributed to the stress of being a sexual minority. The American Psychological Association has issued guidelines for psychotherapy with LGB clients.

Research on the development of lesbians suggests that there is probably no one single causal factor. Researchers now no longer seek to find what disturbances in development would create lesbianism; instead, they ask what developmental factors would lead a woman to develop as heterosexual or lesbian or bisexual. Gay men and lesbians are somewhat different as a consequence of psychological and developmental differences between women and men.

Women of color who are lesbians experience triple oppression: on the basis of their gender, their race, and their sexual orientation. The queer of color critique emphasizes encounters between the European colonizers and the native peoples of the Americas, in which the Europeans imposed their own notions of the gender binary and normal sexual expression, sometimes criminalizing native practices, as well as those of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves.

Research on sexual minorities is in its infancy, and the conclusions we draw must be tentative.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Diamond, Lisa M. (2008). Sexual fluidity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Diamond is one of the foremost experts on sexual minority women.

Nadal, Kevin. (2013). That’s so gay! Microaggressions and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Nadal explores microaggressions, as discussed in earlier chapters, against LGBT people.