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Understanding Sexual Identity

December 19, 2023

Understanding your older child’s sexual identity and desires isn’t always easy. Meet one family that has successfully navigated this journey. 

Understanding Sexual Identity

Understanding our place in the world is difficult enough; trying to understand our human sexuality can make it even more difficult. This article is designed to help families of young people on the spectrum gain understanding of what they are thinking and going through as they go from young children to young adults—especially as it relates to their developing sexuality and identity, and in particular, their identity as a gay individual.

I met a family that has handled this situation really well, and I thought that sharing their story would be helpful for readers.

Meet Chris

Chris is a 23-year-old man on the spectrum. He is bright, articulate, and attends college.

Chris’s parents are Mike and Sheila, and he also has a brother and a sister. They are a loving family that interact with each other in very positive ways. 

When I approached them for this article they all immediately agreed to participate and share their experiences to help others. Chris’s parents are good role models for effectively discussing sexuality with young people. 

To get a sense of how a young person experiences their developing sense of sexuality, I asked Chris some questions about his life: 

JP: Chris, how old are you?

CK: I am 23.

JP: How would you define your sexuality?

CK: I am a gay man.

JP: When did you first sense your identity as a gay individual?

CK: I began having feelings for boys around middle school. Looking back, I remember being entranced by yearbook photos of guys and wanting to kiss them. I realized I was gay when I was in high school. Some good indicators for me would be me constantly wishing I had a boyfriend, being uncomfortable with the idea of having a girlfriend, and how I had crushes on different guys while other guys would be talking about girls.

JP: Was it difficult for you to tell your parents and family how you were feeling?

CK: Yes and no. It was harder for me to say so in the sense of finding a way to tell them. I’m not really the best at speaking up, so trying to gather the words was not easy for me. I knew my parents would accept me because I know they were very accepting of the LGBTQ+ community and when I did tell them, it was one of the best things I ever did.

JP: How can the conversation about your feelings and developing sexuality take place with family?

CK: I think it is important to be honest about who you are. When you feel ready, I would say to sit down with your family and talk about your feelings. Coming out is your own personal journey that you can start and finish (whenever you feel that you are ready for it), and it is up to you when you feel comfortable sharing it with other people.

JP: What if your parents don’t understand your feelings, what would you suggest to other young people?

CK: I would say to try and help your parents understand. Describe your feelings so they can understand how and what you feel. If they are unaware of what you are feeling, ask if they have any questions so you can help them understand where you are coming from and clear up any confusion.

JP: What helped you to define your feelings and identity?

CK: For me personally, it was reading stories online that had characters going through an identity crisis and figuring out that they are gay, or romantic stories of a male character falling in love with his best friend. I would find myself relating to these characters without completely realizing it at the time. What helped me completely confirm that I was gay years later was having my first kiss with a guy and enjoying it.

JP: What is the hardest part of understanding your sexuality?

CK: For me, it was pretty easy to understand, but for other people, I would say it can be hard because there are so many different feelings in the world. Sexuality is something very complex and it takes time to figure out who you like. You just have to figure out who you are in your own time.

JP: What can parents do to help their children define their feelings and sexuality?

CK: I feel that a very important thing that parents should teach their children is that different sexualities exist and that it is valid if a child’s sexuality is different. I think children should also be reminded that they can tell their parents anything, so they have somebody to turn to in times of figuring out who they are; and guide them in the right direction.

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JP: What should parents NOT do when they learn of their child’s sexuality?

CK: I do not agree with the idea of disowning a child or acting homophobic towards them. We are all equal and human, regardless of who we like. A different sexuality is not something that is wrong or should be looked down on. It is important to remember that everybody’s feelings are valid.

JP: Do you feel acceptance in the larger community?

CK: Ever since I came out, I have had nothing but support and love from everybody. I remember getting spammed with comments of love and acceptance from family and friends on Facebook when I came out over the span of three days and how much it touched my heart. It has helped me to become more confident in myself and free to be the person that I know that I am. I feel very accepted in my community and I am happy that I can express myself!

JP: What three things would you tell a young person on the spectrum about how to understand their feelings as they define their sexuality?  

CK: I would tell them:

1. Take your time

Something important to keep in mind is that learning who you are takes time. Everyone has their own journey and will figure things out at a different pace. I discovered who I was when I was a teenager, but people can find themselves at an earlier or later age than that. What is more important is knowing who you are, not when you know.

2. Don’t try to force yourself into a label

In the LGBTQ+ community, there are many labels to describe the different sexualities and feelings that someone may feel. There seems to be a pressure to try and put a label on people within the community, but I believe it is more important to know who you are, with or without one. If you don’t know the exact word for who you are, it is perfectly valid!

3. Love yourself

It can be hard to find out who you are, but a very important message to remember is to love yourself. You deserve to be loved as the person that you are. Your feelings and identity are valid no matter what. You are special just being you, and you are just as equal and important as everybody else!

Meet Chris’ parents

Chris’ parents have made a difference for him in how they supported his sexuality and helped him understand his growing feelings of attraction. I asked Chris’ mom and dad, Mike and Sheila, a few questions too:

JP: When did you first understand Chris’s identification as a gay individual?

Mike/Sheila: Probably around age 16. Christopher did not prioritize sex or romance as a feeling until recently, but at that age, he began talking about boys as being cute or attractive so that’s what tipped us off.

JP: Did you see any signs of Chris’s developing sexuality? 

Mike/Sheila: Only beginning around age 20, and more in a romantic sense than anything sexual.

JP: Were you surprised by his identification as a gay man?

Mike/Sheila: Not at all. He’s never mentioned a female as being attractive or interesting to him, so it did not come as a surprise.

JP: How did you come to understand Chris’s identification?

Mike/Sheila: He came out and told us very matter of factly that he liked boys. No big reveal or anything like that, he just told us as part of a conversation one day.

JP: Was this understanding something you had considered earlier?

Mike/Sheila: Certainly, yes. We believe he was more than likely gay before he told us.

JP: How was Chris’s revelation taken by your family?

Mike/Sheila: It was not a big deal. We accepted it readily, happy that he was comfortable in revealing it and have always celebrated it since.

JP: If you could offer other parents any advice on helping their child on the spectrum to identify and define their sexuality, what would you tell them?

Sheila: To be accepting, open, and communicative and just to love them for who they are and not try to change them.

JP: What made the conversation easier or harder?

Mike/Sheila: It was an easy conversation, nothing awkward or uncomfortable.  

JP: As Chris’s parents, did you have any concerns for him once he identified his sexuality and accepted it?

Mike/Sheila: We did, but not merely for his sexuality. We were more concerned for his safety and wellbeing due to outside forces in society. Also, it makes for a more complicated life for him. Being on the spectrum narrows his social abilities and the availability of friends/love interests. His being gay narrows the availability of love interests further…the candidate pool is more shallow for him. 

JP: What would you tell other parents in a similar situation about how they can help their child live their best life?

Mike/Sheila: Accept your child for who they are genuinely, acknowledge the courage it takes to be their true self, and always support them and put your own preconceptions aside for the good of your child. Welcome and embrace their relationships. Love is love. 

Mike and Sheila were there for their son Christopher to help him express himself and be who he is. They were accepting of him as a person regardless of his sexual identification, and I think that is the real message for any parent.

Our special needs kids are the same as any other child, they want love, acceptance, and understanding, and many have a desire to be with others. As parents and guardians, we have to be open to them and listen to them talk about their feelings. 

We can give them guidance and help them decipher their feelings and beliefs, but ultimately, just like every one of us, they will make their own decisions. What should remain is love.

This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism

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