BA (Hons) Dissertation
by Cecilia Righini
Sexual Identity & Coming Out
How can sexual identity be understood in relation to experience and coming out? This paper analyses how sexual identity can be defined and interpreted, especially in correlation to the experience of sexual desire, understood as empirical knowledge, and the integration of sexual orientation to the overall identity through the process of coming out.
We live in a heteronormative society. Non-heterosexual individuals daily experience the frustration of being under-represented in many aspects of their lives. In movies gay people are either the friend of the protagonist or the main character of a dramatic story, in adverts they are rarely mentioned. We ask women if they have a boyfriend and men if they have a girlfriend, not even thinking there might be an alternative. This paper is thus focused on defining sexual identity: it is about the journey that starts with sexual desire and develops with its integration to our overall identity. This process is non-existent in heterosexual individuals because of the heteronormative nature of our society, and therefore this thesis is aimed to provide people a tool to grasp a concept which is otherwise hard (if not impossible) to comprehend.
The first chapter offers an overview of how sexual identity can be defined, demonstrating how, in order to move to the next step, we need to focus on the concept of desire. At this stage, it is crucial to reveal that many of the consulted authors (e.g. Sara Ahmed, Tamsin Wilton and William S. Wilkerson) clearly stated they identify themselves as homosexual or queer. Although this might affect the perspective of their research, their personal investment enabled them to master the subject and therefore their studies constitute the essential reading of sexual identity and queer studies.
The experience of sexual desire is different in every individual, can be similar but never quite the same. Therefore, the second chapter concentrates on the concept of experience and how can we get familiarity with a feeling we never faced. This section introduces a different method of research: instead of simply focusing on experts’ theories, a practice-based experiment provides new qualitative data helping individuals to empathise with a different sexual orientation.
Ultimately, the last chapter is aimed to explain the process of coming out, or integration of sexual orientation to one’s overall identity. Because heterosexual identity is never questioned in the first place, heterosexual individuals do not experience this process and therefore cannot relate to it. Educating people about the process of coming out is a key step for them to understand any non-hetero sexual identity, and thus finally normalise something that we currently barely accept.
In this first chapter, an overview of the relevant ongoing conversation about sexual orientation and sexual identity will be introduced. To demonstrate the theories that will be presented, a real-life example can be analysed. Ben and Jack (fictional names: the real names are hidden to protect their privacy) are non-identical twins. They have been raised together in the same social environments, but Ben is heterosexual, and Jack considers themselves a non-gender queer. How can this be explained? Which factors contributed to the development of two divergent sexual identities?
Understanding sexual orientation has been an important issue for research in both the scientific and the cultural fields. Modern theories on sexuality start from the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who published three volumes of The History of Sexuality between 1976 and 1984. In the first volume, An Introduction (translated in English in 1978), Foucault explained how, during the past few centuries, men began to believe that sexual desire constitutes a crucial part of our identities and that they conceived a moral right to follow that identity and express it. Secondly, a ground-breaking step was made in 1991 by Simon LeVay, the neuroscientist who published his discovery of a significant size difference in some brain cells between homosexual and heterosexual men. Although he never claimed to have found a biological explanation to homosexuality, he based the ground for many other scientific studies on the hunt for a ‘gay gene’ and he gave psychologists, philosophers and sociologists another factor to consider in their researches on sexuality.
A modern definition of sexual identity is provided by William S. Wilkerson, associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. His publications go beyond the definition of sexuality. In fact, even if his research is not completely focused on sexual identity, he is one of the few authors referring to the subject, contrarily to many peers who write about gender identity or sexual orientation. According to Wilkerson (2009), sexual identity is defined by a complex interconnection between desire, choice, social roles, biological constitution, and despite the fact that some factors may be predominant in some individuals, sexuality cannot be reduced to any singular one of them. Furthermore, Wilkerson divided desire and choice, explaining that the second is strictly linked to the first: in fact, unless constrained by cultural or religious values, there is no reason why someone would choose something they do not desire.
The same year, psychology professors Phillip L. Hammack and Bertram J. Cohler published the book The Story of Sexual Identity, a collection of several years of conversation around their research and teaching on sexual identity. In the preface, not disagreeing with Wilkerson’s thesis, they stated to believe in the importance of understanding the ‘meaning individuals make of their desire in some social, cultural and discursive context’ or, in other words, on social roles and experience.
Tamsin Wilton, professor of Human Sexuality at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, had been active in the field of sexuality and queer studies from 1987 until her passing away in 2006. In her book Sexual (Dis)Orientation: Gender, Sex, Desire and Self-Fashioning (2004), Wilton provides an extensive overview of the literature on sexuality and, through primary research, she tries to uncover what does it mean to be sexually oriented and what does an individual need to experience in order to qualify as sexually oriented. Confirming Wilkerson’s theories, Wilton describes sexuality as a bundle of very specific experiences, desires, sensations and behaviours, acknowledging the existence of a biological component but focusing on the importance of sexual desire.
At the beginning of the chapter, we introduced the example of Ben and Jack, twins with very different sexual identities. A conversation with Ben (2018) raised the details on their situation: they went to school together until the age of 12, when they then separated for two different schools. However, Ben confirmed that Jack was always more ‘feminine’ than him. Applying the different factors that the analysed authors believe to define sexual identity to the case of twins, we note that:
- Their biological constitution must be the same or very similar;
- Social roles are, again, the same or very similar, having them shared the same parents, and social environment (and schools until the age of 12);
- They both had the possibility to choose their sexual identity accordingly to their sexual orientation, without any cultural or religious restriction;
- Desire can be the only factor that, in this particular situation, determine the sexuality of each twin.
Ben and Jack are not the only example of studies conducted on twins. A study conducted by the American psychiatrist Franz Josef Kallmann in 1952 supported the biological theory: on 40 sets of identical twins, 100% of cases affirmed to have the same sexual orientation, while on 26 sets of non-identical twins the concordance was only around 10% (Spiegelhalter, 2015). According to the British statistician David Spiegelhalter, author of the book Sex by Numbers (2015), many studies followed Kallmann’s, who was alleged not to be impartial in the recruitment of the subjects, and a final theory was not reached. Overall, studies on twins seem to support the theory of a biological component in the formation of sexual identity, but it is fairly uncertain.
Therefore, assuming we could reduce sexual identity to sexual desire, the next chapter will focus on how experience plays a crucial role in its development and on how we can better comprehend it.
This chapter will be divided into two parts. The first section is dedicated to a deeper investigation of the meaning of experience. The second part integrates the insights determined by an experimental workshop which was conducted in parallel with the secondary research.
In the previous chapter, we discussed how experts defined sexual identity as a fusion of desire and choice with social response and biology. But to fully comprehend the meaning of sexual identity, we need to start from experience, or empirical knowledge, or the knowledge that comes from sensorial experience. Starting to analyse sexual identity from biology or social roles, in fact, would already assume an understanding of sexual identity which originates from experience (Wilkerson, 2007). To define experience, Wilkerson gives an example of empirical knowledge describing how people have awareness of the rain: you know what rain is not because someone explains it to you, but because you go outside and get wet (2007, pp. 13). To some extent, according to the philosopher, sexuality can be understood with empirical knowledge: you desire someone, and you do not need to act on it to experience that feeling. However, while some people have sexual desires for the other sex, others have them for individuals of the same sex. Excluding those who have sexual desires for both genders, heterosexuals do not have the same experience of homosexuals and vice versa. In the meteorological metaphor, it would be as if one of the two groups would have never been in the rain: they can understand what that is, if explained to them, but they will never grasp exactly the feeling unless they experience it. Therefore, how can we try to normalise a sexual identity which differs from our own if we cannot experience the exact same sexual desires?
Reflecting on how to fill the gap between understanding and experiencing sexual desire for a gender we are not attracted to, I conducted an experiment to investigate whether it is possible to gain knowledge of sexual attraction for another person without knowing their gender. In the first phase of the experiment, I asked people of different genders and sexualities to write the story of how they fell in love, trying not to use any pronoun or name that could reveal any gender. I then selected and edited three texts to guarantee gender neutrality, using the help of an external volunteer to ensure the meaning and tone of the text were left intact. The second stage of this experimental research consisted of four individual workshops based on the Lego Serious Play methodology, which, according to the official website, ‘deepens the reflection process and supports an effective dialogue’ (2018). Each volunteer was then asked to read a text and create a representation of how that made them feel and explain what they created (including the choice of materials, colours, shapes etcetera). They repeated the same process for the other two texts. My initial hypothesis was that the volunteers would project in their mind the gender they would be naturally attracted to, and therefore letting go of any prejudice, without any cultural constraint to feel whatever they felt. The results confirmed my original hypothesis: all of the four people who participated in the second phase explained that they linked every text to a feeling they felt in the past or to a story of a friend of theirs. None of the emotions they felt was new or not influenced by something they already knew; however, projecting the experience in their minds distracted them from trying to figure out the gender of the person speaking, and therefore, when in the end I asked them what gender did they think the writer of the text was, they mostly replied their own gender or the one of their friend who they linked the story to.
These results can be further supported by the analyses of Maurice Jean Jacques Merleau-Ponty, French philosopher revised by Wilkerson: ‘elements of experience’, he explains, ‘gain sense and meaning from their context’ (2007, pp. 8); sexual identity, and therefore coming out, cannot be produced by sexual desire alone, but necessarily from experience and the interpretation of the social environment. Furthermore, Wilkerson adds how, to interpret the process of sexual identity formation, we should finally analyse the experience of coming out. The next chapter will therefore focus on this process, with the intention of giving heterosexual individuals the opportunity to empathise with an experience they would otherwise not have the chance to go through.
Coming Out as Integration
Once the experience of sexual desire is acknowledged, the last phase to comprehend sexual identity is to understand the process of coming out.
Contrarily to what most people think, coming out is not a definite event, but an on-going process aimed at a healthy sexual identity, as explained by professor and director of the Human Sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Eli Coleman (2005). Coleman’s work focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity, and his work ‘Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process’ published in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1982 and published online in 2010, can be considered a key to understanding sexual identity in relation to one’s overall identity. According to Coleman, coming out is a process divided into five steps (‘The Coming Out Process’, 2005):
- Pre-coming out: the person has unconscious awareness of his/her/their feeling towards a person who is not the opposite gender.
- Coming out: divided into two sub-steps, coming out is to admit these feelings to oneself first, and then to other people. This is a very crucial stage because however positive or negative the reaction of other people is, it will challenge his/her perception of society and his/her place in the community.
- Exploration: this phase of experimentation could be compared to adolescence, which is a normal and healthy developmental stage. But because society does not encourage this type of exploration at early ages, many people go through this stage outside of chronological adolescence.
- First relationship: the person is looking for intimacy. In a heteronormative society it is difficult to learn about homosexual relationships, so most first relationships end disastrously or dramatically. At times, when a relationship ends, it supports some negative views of homosexuality (e.g. not able to have relationships or intimacy).
- Integration: the individual has incorporated his/her/their sexual identity with their overall identity, and he/she/they can identify himself/herself/themselves.
The process is not linear. Some people might bounce between exploration and relationship, some might never experience a relationship or integration because of the society they live in and the cultural background they have been exposed to their whole lives.
The application of Coleman’s theory to a real-life example can make the process easier to understand. Ellen DeGeneres is the first actress in a lead role to have come out on public television in 1997. Although this happened over 20 years ago, her coming out is still one of the most symbolic and documented events in the LGBTQ+ community. DeGeneres officially came out on 14 April 1997 with a cover interview on Time, two weeks before the air of ‘The Puppy Episode’, which features her fictional character Ellen coming out as a lesbian. Just before the broadcast of that episode, Ellen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and shared some private details of her journey until her coming out (1997). In fact, when Oprah asked her when did she realise she was gay, DeGeneres replied: ‘I look back on it now and I’ve always known since I was a little girl.’ She explained how she never said anything before because she wanted to keep her private and public lives separate. In the interview with Diane Sawyer, in fact, she mentioned that the main reason she never wanted to come out is because she did not want to become political or to become a gay activist, because it was ‘just about her personal story’ (20/20, 1997). In the case of a celebrity like DeGeneres, it is complicated to analyse her pre-coming out (or any other phase) because of the intersection between her public and private life. While the exploration and first relationship phases are one’s privacy, DeGeneres did often comment on how being a lesbian affected her life and her being or, in other words, the integration of her homosexuality with her overall identity. According to various interviews (The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, Time), Ellen realised she was not feeling comfortable with herself.
This feeling of comfort/discomfort is well explained by Sara Ahmed, one of the most representative scholars in the subjects of feminist and queer theories, in the book The Cultural Politics of Emotions (2004). In particular, in the chapter ‘Queer Feelings’, she demonstrates how comfort, understood as the intersection between two bodies, is not a feeling that is much-payed attention to. One realised a situation of comfort only at the moment when it is taken away and substituted by the feeling of discomfort. Living in a society that promotes almost exclusively heterosexual relationships causes a sense of discomfort in non-heterosexual individuals. Their discomfort, however, remains unnoticed by heterosexuals because of their situation of comfort (Ahmed, 2004, pp. 146-155). As a result, because of their different perception of the culture and the society, non-heterosexual individuals might inhabit spaces in different ways, setting new norms and possibly transforming the discomfort into excitement for uncertainty (ibid.). Ahmed’s theory also links with Coleman’s coming out step of the first relationship: because homosexual people often set new rules in their relationships that might diverge completely from heterosexuals, some minds could find hard to comprehend them and they could feel threatened and discomforted by homosexuals’ new situation of comfort. In other words, if a heterosexual person believes that his/her sexuality is the norm which they find comfort in, s/he will be scared when a newly occurred situation will also be considered a norm. The heterosexual individual is then at the risk of confusing acceptance of the new with the replacement of the old.
For example, during The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ellen DeGeneres coming out was heavily discouraged from some members of the public. In fact, while a man appealed to his religious beliefs to describe the event as a sin, a woman felt offended because of the way this happened, claiming that sexuality is a private matter and she did not need to come out to everyone saying ‘yep, I’m gay’, referring to the title of her cover story on Time, ‘you don’t see me saying to everyone “yep, I’m straight!”’. Probably not consciously, this woman referred to Michel Foucault’s theory discussed in the first chapter: sexual desires have been drawn upon in an excessive way during the last centuries, and there is no actual need to discuss them publicly. However, a counter-argument has been developed by Sharif Mowlabocus, senior lecturer of Media Studies at the University of Sussed: ‘coming out’, he explains, ‘is about making one’s self visible; throwing one’s queerness into relief against a heteronormative background that would render it invisible’ (2010, pp. 202). Mowlabocus is therefore confirming Ahmed’s argument, claiming that coming out is necessary for individuals who experience a situation of discomfort, or feeling of forced ‘invisibility’.
Twenty years later from DeGeneres’ coming out, the situation is changing. According to Bruce Drushel, associate professor in the Department of Communication at Miami University, ‘the very nature of what “coming out” means may be evolving’ (2010, pp. 63): his analysis suggests that in popular media homosexual identity may not have the same meaning and relevance it had in the past century. In fact, while coming out was an impactful event that homosexuals had to go through to integrate their sexual orientation to their overall identity, now young people have often more freedom to be whom they are since their young age, not having the need to come out to feel complete.
If Drushel’s theory was correct in every culture and homosexual identity was accepted everywhere, everyone would be in a situation of comfort with their own sexuality, no one would care about other people’s sexual preferences and coming out would become an irrelevant process, saving distress to non-heterosexual individuals. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case.
In this paper we analysed how sexual identity can be interpreted differently by various individuals because of the experience everyone has of sexual desire. We are not able to relate to each other’s experiences and feelings, so we naturally assume that heterosexuality is the normality and any other sexuality is not; we are learning to accept it, but the journey to integrate this concept into our society is still long. We are all different, and to reach equality means to acknowledge and accept each other diversities, if we cannot empathise with them.
‘We’re all on our own individual path’, said Ellen DeGeneres (2018). ‘Nobody should be on anybody else’s path. We should be on our own path. Unless you’re lost in the woods and you see a path. Follow that’. Surely, it is thanks to people like Ellen DeGeneres that, after more than 3000 years of civilisation, at least in some modern countries everyone has the human right to be who they are and love whom they want, without any condition or restriction. As discussed in the third chapter, coming out is an essential step for non-heterosexual people: in fact, repressing one’s sexual desires and therefore identity cannot improve the position of discomfort homosexuals find themselves in. Accepting who we are and what we want, however, is not as easy for homosexual people compared to heterosexuals, because of what society considers normal.
My discussion on sexual identity does not end with this thesis, there is much space for improvement. In the future, it would be important to pay closer attention to other aspects of sexual identity, such as the biological constitution or how the situation differs in other cultures. My final hope, however, is that there will no longer be the need for anyone to come out, for that by definition means that there would still be an imbalance between heterosexual and non-heterosexuals in the possibility to explore and enjoy with comfort and confidence their sexual identity.
20/20 (1997) CBS, KKTV, Channel 11, Pueblo, CO, 30 April
Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotions. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press
Brewer, J. (2017) ‘Typeface released to honour LGBT activist, artist and rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker’, It’s Nice That, 24 April. Available here (Accessed: 12 January 2019)
Coleman, E. (2010) ‘Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process’, Journal of Homosexuality, 7(2-3). doi: 10.1300/J082v07n02_06
Dow, B. (2001) ‘Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 18(2), pp. 123-140. doi: 10.1080/07393180128077
Drushel, B. (2010) ‘Virtually Supportive: Self-Disclosure of Minority Sexualities through Online Social Networking Sites’ in Pullen, C. and Cooper, M., LGBT Identity and Online New Media. New York: Routledge
Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable (2018) Directed by Tig Notaro and Joel Gallen [Film] Netflix
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Hammack, P. and Cohler, B. (2009) The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course. New York: Oxford University Print
Handy, B. (1997) ‘Yep, I’m Gay’, Time, 14 April
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Lego Serious Play (2018) Available here (Accessed: 12 January 2019)
LeVay, S. (1991) ‘A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men’, Science, 253(5023), pp. 1034-1037. doi: 10.1126/science.1887219
Markowe, L. (1996) Redefining the Self: Coming Out as Lesbian. Polity Press Cambridge.
Mowlabocus, S. (2010) ‘Look at Me! Images and Validation on Gaydar’ in Pullen, C. and Cooper, M. (2010) LGBT Identity and Online New Media. New York: Routledge
Righini, C. (2018) WhatsApp conversation with [Anonymous]
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Spiegelhalter, D. (2015) Sex By Numbers: What statistics Can Tell Us About Sexual Behaviour. London: Profile Books
The Oprah Winfrey Show (1997) ABC, 30 April
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Wilkerson, W. (2009) ‘Is It a Choice? Sexual Orientation as Interpretation’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 40(1), pp. 97-116
Wilton, T. (2004) Sexual (Dis)Orientation: Gender, Sex, Desire and Self-Fashioning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
To what extent is it possible to experience sexual attraction to another person not knowing their gender?
In the second chapter of my dissertation, I discuss how experience, understood as empirical knowledge, is the fundamental starting point to analyse sexual identity. In fact, heterosexual people cannot empathise with the feelings of a homosexual person and vice versa. The aim of this experimental workshop is to understand if it is possible to feel attraction to another individual not knowing the gender, and therefore maybe experience feelings for a gender we would not have thought possible.
With this practice research, I tried to understand how people react after reading a story about how someone fell in love, not knowing the gender of the storyteller. In particular, I was interested to see if the volunteers in the experiment could develop any sexual attraction for the storytellers, and therefore how they would react eventually discovering the gender.
This workshop is not made in any way to judge the sexual orientation of anyone: on the other hand, it is trying to make people experience, and therefore understand, sexual desire for an unexpected gender.
The first phase of the research consists of an online questionnaire (available here) in which I asked:
- Sexual orientation
- To write about a time they fell in love, trying to remain gender-neutral and giving the possibility to express themselves in a different language if English was not their mother tongue.
I received 14 responses in total, and to guarantee gender neutrality I had to change some of the texts. The edits were very small (e.g. ‘he’ or ‘she’ into ‘they’, ‘him’ or ‘her’ into ‘them’ etcetera), and they were made with the supervision of a peer, Gabriela Dittrichova, to make sure the tone and meaning of the text were left untouched. I eventually choose three texts: one from a male homosexual, one from a female heterosexual and one from a female bisexual.
David Howes, anthropologist and Director of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, explained how different societies tend to have different hierarchies when it comes to senses. According to the expert, in the Western culture, the dominant group is sight, followed by hearing (2005, pp. 10). Acknowledging this theory, before organising the second phase of the experiment I recorded the texts thinking to play it to the volunteers instead of asking them to read in order to numb the predominant sense.
After recording, I edited the sound to make the voice sound like a neutral one, both in between the average male and female frequency and in a very high pitch one. Before I started the workshop, I asked a few peers to listen to the recordings and give me their feedback, and they all agree that while listening to the neutral voice they were trying to figure out the gender of the voice instead of listening to the story, while the high pitch version was a bit funny. Therefore, I decided to abandon the idea of the recordings, printing the texts in a plain and easy to read typeface.
For the second stage of the experiment, I organised four individual workshops based on the Lego Serious Play methodology which, according to the official website, ‘deepens the reflection process and supports an effective dialogue’ (2018). Following the advice of a trained facilitator, I used a different material, plasticine, because Lego already has pre-set shapes that women or men tend to prefer to use. The workshop developed as follows:
- I asked the volunteer to sign a consent form that allowed me to video record the experiment;
- A warm-up to get familiarity with the materials;
- The volunteer was asked to read a text and create a representation of how that made them feel. I asked the volunteer to explain what they created, why did they choose materials, colours, shapes etcetera; we repeated the same process for the other two texts;
- I told the people the gender and sexual orientation of the storytellers and documented their reactions.
As explained by Joy Monice Malnar, associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, and Frank Vodvarka, associate professor of fine arts at Loyola University Chicago, ‘people do not respond directly to their real environment but to their mental representation or image of it’ (2004, pp. 51). Furthermore, a similar thesis was developed by professor and poet Susan Stewart, who wrote that as our experiences are originally shaped by senses, the senses themselves are then shaped and modified by memories and experiences (Stewart, S. in Howed, D., 2005, pp. 61).
Therefore, my initial hypothesis was that the volunteers would project in their mind the gender they would be naturally attracted to and therefore letting go of any prejudice, without any cultural constraints to feel whatever they felt.
The results confirmed my original hypothesis: all of the four people who participated to the second phase explained how they all linked every text to a feeling they felt in the past or to a story of a friend of theirs. None of the emotions they felt was new or not influenced by something they already knew; however, projecting the experience distracted them from trying to figure out the gender of the person speaking, and therefore, when in the end I asked them what gender did they think the writer of the text was, they mostly replied their own gender or the one of the acquaintance they linked the experience to.
It is impossible to make people feel exactly the same feeling someone else feels. However, with some more research and practice in conducting the experiment, I am pretty confident it will be possible to, at least, grasp an idea of that feeling, and therefore get a better understanding of sexual desire for an unexpected gender.
List of references
Data Protection Act 2018. Available here (Accessed: 18 January 2019)
Howes, D. (2005) Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg
Lego Serious Play (2018) Available here (Accessed: 12 January 2019)
Malnar, J. and Vodvarka, F. (2004) Sensory Design. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press
Mozart, W. A. (1784) Piano Sonata no. 11, K. 331 – III. Alla Turca. Available here (Accessed: 20 January 2019)