By Dr Anand Ramphal

Growing up and establishing their sexual identity is a challenging task for most adolescents. Many of them go through an anxious stage during which they wonder, "Am I gay?"

This often happens at about age 13 or 14, when a teenager admits to himself that he finds a friend of the same sex attractive, or he develops a crush on a teacher of the same gender, or he engages in some individual or group homosexual activity.

It’s normal for boys and girls to go through a phase like this.

Happily, by middle adolescence most teenagers are asserting themselves heterosexually and start dating.

However, there is a minority of boys and girls who feel "different" all their lives but now, in late adolescence, come to acknowledge their gay or bisexual orientation.

What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation refers to feelings of sexual and emotional attraction to another person.

There are different types of sexual orientation including:

* Heterosexual (a person sexually attracted to others of the opposite sex).

* Gay/lesbian (a male or female sexually attracted to others of the same sex as themselves).

* Bisexual (a person attracted to both sexes).

Several experts estimate that about one in 10 people may be gay or lesbian.

About one in four families in the US has an immediate family member who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and most families have at least one gay, lesbian or bisexual member in their extended family circle (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, www.pflag.org).

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation.

Attempts to trace these happenings to single genes, over-production or under-production of sex hormones, and specific family patterns (the domineering mother/weak father syndrome) haven’t succeeded. Nature and nurture both play complex roles.

One thing, however, seems clear: a person’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. No one can choose to be a homosexual or heterosexual. Your youngster did not decide to be gay to spite you, nor did he "turn out gay" because of anything you did or didn’t do as parents. It’s just that he has been "wired" that way.

"No one really understands how scared, confused and lonely I feel."

Many have no-one to talk to nor do they have any easily available role models. They cannot turn to their friends, since these are the very people who are constantly making gay jokes and teasing each other by calling their peers "fags", "dykes", "fairies", "lesbos" and "queers".

"I’m scared to tell my parents. They may throw me out of the home."

"I can’t concentrate in school. I don’t sleep well. My test marks have dropped."

Many of these youngsters become socially withdrawn and depressed.

Some engage in self-destructive behaviours – drugs, alcohol, sex – anything to forget for a while or to feel less afraid.

Then there are those who believe that suicide is the only solution to their predicament. Research suggests that 25 to 40 percent of young lesbians and gays have attempted suicide, and that 65 to 85 percent feel suicidal.

Given this scenario it is crucial that parents come to the rescue especially since these young people do not have the life experience and the skills to cope with the fear of being found out, being called names, being assaulted or even being killed.

In 1975, the American Psychiatric Association took the enlightened step of declaring lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations as alternate choices for sexual expression.

A year later, the American Psychological Association adopted a similar position.

* If your son or daughter tells you that he or she is gay, count yourselves lucky that they have been brave enough, and feel that their relationship with you is good enough, for them to risk telling you. The revelation may make you feel worried for them because you are aware that they are bound to meet prejudice and intolerance somewhere along the line.

* You have no choice but to accept that this is the way things are. They cannot help being gay and they cannot change – even if they want to. Your loving acceptance of them as gay will be the best support you can give. Your teenager is still your teenager and still needs your love, your support, your acceptance, and your guidance. The world puts enough pressure on young people to behave in sex-stereotyped ways – they don’t need more at home.

* Educate yourself as much as you can about homosexuality. Encourage people to talk about it more openly. Many happy and successful people are lesbian or homosexual – tennis champion Martina Navratilova and musician Elton John.

True, your dream for your teenager probably included a traditional marriage and family. You will mourn the loss of this wish. But for your child’s sake, try to step back from those feelings. Don’t give up on him/her, and don’t give up on yourself. Homosexuality is not a disease, a perversion, or mental disorder.

* Listen to what your child has to say as calmly as you can. Remember that "coming out" is harder on your child than it is on you. He may have been denying his feelings for years. Encourage him to tell you about the pain he has endured. Tell him you love him unconditionally, straight or gay.

* Model tolerance for gays and lesbians, just as you would for people of other races groups. Avoid gay jokes and discourage any such behaviour on the part of your children. Teach them that homosexuals are people with feelings. They should not be used as objects of derision.

* Ensure that all channels of communication are kept open so that he’s not afraid to talk to you.

* Work at accepting the situation, especially the idea of your teen bringing home same-sex boy-or girlfriends. The youngster is still your child and he/she needs your love and support at this critical time his/her life. No one should have to live a lie.

* If your teen needs counselling, put him/her in touch with a professional and the local gay/lesbian support group. Homosexuality is a lifestyle which requires a great many adjustments. Counselling can help teens adjust to personal, family, and school-related issues.

Therapy directed specifically at changing homosexual orientation is not recommended and may be harmful for an unwilling teen. It may create more confusion and anxiety by reinforcing the negative thoughts and emotions with which the youngster is already struggling, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

* Make contact with other parents of gay and lesbian children for support. Find a PFLAG chapter in your area. www.pflag.org

* If you find yourself struggling with the issue and feel that you cannot be supportive, try to remain patient with yourself and do not focus on predicting a negative future. If you feel ashamed, or you feel you need to keep things secret, allow yourself that reaction. Hopefully, with the passage of time, the pain you feel will diminish.

Above all, don’t blame yourself, don’t blame your child. Taking blame out of the equation will make communication and understanding much easier for you and your child.

Some feelings expressed by gay adolescents

How can parents help?

Ramphal is a Durban-based educational psychologist with special interests in career counselling and the learning and behaviour problems of children and adolescents