Straight, bi or gay: How do you know and what does it matter?

Dr Jim Malcolm, Psychologist

If you are coming to GAMMA, it usually means one of two things. Either you are confused about your sexuality or you are confused about what to do about your sexuality.

You may have had sex with a man recently for the first time in many years, or perhaps for the first time ever. You may have been having sex with other guys for years but recently have begun to feel somehow not okay or dissatisfied about what you have been doing. Or maybe you have been spending a lot more time thinking about having sex with men, spending time on the internet having cyber-sex with other guys and getting more and more confused about who you are.

Gamma attracts lots of guys who are confused. The issue of sexual identity is confusing. How do you really “know” what you are? For many guys – both gay and straight – this isn’t an issue. Many just “know.” Other guys spend a lot of time – sometimes many years, agonising over identity issues – trying to figure it out. Am I really gay? Am I just bisexual? Am I really straight but just like having sex with guys sometimes?

For married guys who have sex with men, any of these answers might be “true.” It seems that some married guys who have sex with men are fundamentally homosexual, some are fundamentally bisexual and some are straight.

I have spent a long time trying to figure this out – trying to find answers for myself as well as for other guys. So what does it mean that you can be having sex with men, but be gay, bi or straight? What’s the difference? What is it that makes you one or the other?

After talking to lots of guys over many years my conclusion is that we have trouble working this out because we confuse three separate things about sexuality. The three things are:

1. What we do (our behaviour)

2. What we call ourselves (our “identity”)

3. What we really are (our “orientation”)

My conversations with men who have sex with men has taught me that sexual behaviour and what we call our selves (our identity) often has little to do with what we really are.

Firstly let’s talk about what we do (our behaviour).

Men, being men, can often have sex just because they want to have sex – and sometimes they don’t care much who it is (or even what gender) they have sex with. That is, “straight” men have sex with other guys just because they are horny and they want to have sex. And just to confuse things even more, guys who are very clear about the fact that they are “gay” sometimes have sex with women because they like to. So who we have sex with and how often doesn’t tell us a lot about who we “really” are.

What about what we call ourselves?

Trying to work out what we “really” are from what we call ourselves can also just muddy things up sometimes. Lots of guys call themselves “bisexual” for a while before they start calling themselves gay. In the course of my life, I first identified as a heterosexual and then as a bisexual, before becoming comfortable about calling myself gay.

Identifying as “gay” or “homosexual” can be a very difficult thing for many men to do. These sexual identities for many of us have lots of associations that we don’t feel comfortable with.

So whether we are “gay” “bi” “straight” or something else is not about what we do and it’s often not about what we call ourselves. So what is it about?

One of the ways I went about trying to find this out was to talk to lots of married men who have sex with men and ask them how they defined themselves. I talked to men who defined themselves as “gay,” as “bisexual” and as “heterosexual” – three very different groups of men. I then asked men in each of these groups what the differences were in their sexual feelings for men and women.

Here are three typical responses from each of these three groups:

Heterosexual:
“Sex with men is just so easy, no foreplay. Just get off and you are gone. I don’t have the time or money for female prostitutes.”

Bisexual:
“Attraction towards men is more physical, attraction towards women is more emotional.”

Homosexual:
“My sexual feelings for men are more intense…when I am with a man my feelings are more exciting, more in tune with my inner self.“

When I had a close look at some of the characteristics of these three groups of men there seemed to be some clear differences between them.

It seemed that the men who defined themselves as “heterosexual” were pretty much just focused on having sex. There was little, if any emotion attached to their sexual activities with men. These guys often just “fell into” having sex with guys – it wasn’t planned – they liked it the first time it happened – and they were happy if it happened again but they didn’t worry too much about whether it happened or not. It was just sex. Many of these guys did not have sex with other guys when they were growing up and their first sex with men was often, but not always, as an adult.

The guys who defined themselves as “bisexual” tended to say they liked to have sex with guys and often “hunted” for it. They talked a lot about finding men’s bodies (or sometimes a particular part of men’s bodies) physically attractive. Many of these guys said that they first started having sex with other guys when they were growing up. But they also said very clearly that they could not “fall in love” with a man – their emotional “attachment” was to women.

The men who said they were “homosexual” were much more likely to talk about being “in love” with a man, or being very “emotionally” attracted to men. They also were physically attracted to men and sex was important but it was the emotional issues that were much more important. Some of these men had sex with other guys when they were younger but many did not.

I also found that these men differed in terms of the numbers of male and female sexual partners they had had in their life and the average ages they said they first felt sexually attracted to men and women. Not surprisingly, the heterosexual guys tended to have sex with women at younger ages and had more female partners that the guys who defined themselves as gay. Most of the guys who defined themselves as gay had had only one female partner. The “bisexual” guys tended to be in the middle – they tended to have sex with both males and females when they were fairly young and although they tended to have more male partners than female partners, they nonetheless tended to have more than one female partner.

One other thing was important in distinguishing these groups. The men who defined themselves as gay were almost always aware of being attracted to other males long before they acted upon these desires. Most of the men in the other two groups did not report long term same-sex desires prior to having same-sex experiences.

So how do know what you are?

The first step is to stop thinking that whether you are gay, straight or bisexual is about who you have sex with. It’s not. It’s about who you can fall in love with, who you feel “at home” with, who you feel “fulfilled” by. The trouble with this way of looking at sexuality is that it still requires us to look inside ourselves and discover our feelings.

And discovering our feelings can be difficult if we think there is something “wrong” with our feelings.

So the second step is to recognise that there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that being attracted to one gender or the other is “built-in” to us. That is it is a biological given. This statement is not without controversy and some don’t accept it. However, as a psychologist, it is the only perspective that makes sense to me and also seems to fit most of the “evidence” that we currently have available. So if you have same-gender attraction, this is not a question of morals but a question of biology.

The trouble is that we are given lots of messages both as we were growing up and now, that having same-gender attraction is somehow “not okay.” These persistent messages can be very difficult to manage and over time, many of us tend to take them on board and believe them, that is we develop a long term feeling that there is “something wrong” with us. For many of us, it was the attempt to deal with this “something wrong” that lay behind our decision to marry.

So discovering our “real” feelings later in life can be a difficult and sometimes protracted process – men at GAMMA speak of a journey – that it can sometimes take a long time to work out it, and working it out seems to be easier when we start to open up to other people who understand our feelings and don’t judge us.

If we have spent most of our life thinking that we are an “ugly duckling,” discovering the “swan” inside us can take some time, but it’s ultimately pretty liberating. Some guys that I talk to find this “ugly duckling” analogy a helpful one to start reflecting about the way they have been thinking about themselves. If you aren’t familiar with the fairy tale I would strongly suggest you get hold of a copy of it and read it – just try putting “ugly duckling” into your favourite search engine on the net and you will soon come up with a version of the story.

Does it really matter that we try to find out what we “really” are? I think it does – and I think it matters very much. A few years ago, I was asked to go and talk to a group of wives of “bisexual” men. At the time, I was still regularly facilitating the GAMMA group. I was pretty aware of the “suffering” of men who came to the group in trying to figure out who they were and what to do about, but I knew that presenting that to the wives would not be an easy thing to do.

I was forced to reflect on what GAMMA was really all about and I came up with a model that reflected what we did at GAMMA meetings so that I could explain this to a group of wives. I realised that GAMMA was about 4 things, and that these four things were all ‘stages on the road’ or part of the journey. The four stages or the four goals of GAMMA are:

Discovery: Discovering who we are


Acceptance: Accepting who we are


Authenticity: Being who we are


Integrity: Taking responsibility for who we are.

Who we are is therefore important. We have to discover who we are to begin to make sense of our lives and accept ourselves. Feeling good about ourselves is essential if we are going to be authentic in our lives. We all have a choice to be ourselves or to pretend to be something we are not. Each of these choices has consequences, but fundamentally we decide to live a life of pretence or we choose to no longer pretend.

Once we decide to live more authentically, we can then make choices which help us take responsibility. Not living authentically has consequences. Those of us who married, fearing that we were gay, but pretending we were not, have involved others in our lives, including wives and children.

How we manage our past decisions, and any future decision we make to “come out” or not, has consequences for ourselves and others. After nearly 20 years of working with married men who have sex with men and experiencing my own journey, I am convinced that authenticity and honesty, however painful, are in the long term psychologically and emotionally healthier for all concerned.

That is, if we want to “be” who we “really are,” then that means taking responsibility both privately and publicly. One of the things I have found as I have talked to guys and watched their struggle is that our fears of terrible consequences when we “come out” are rarely realised. Sometimes significant people in our lives do reject us, but mostly they don’t. More importantly, for those married men who feel primarily attracted to other men, psychological and emotional health is improved among those men who separate compared to those who don’t.

These are really hard issues to grapple with. They take time to sort out, and each one of us has to find our own answer in our own time. There are lots of resources and information available, and the more we find out and the more we talk to other guys like ourselves, the clearer things become. Ultimately, however, it is about who we are and not who we have sex with that is important.