Frequently Asked Questions: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

A Guide for International Students at Pacific School of Religion

Every culture and religious tradition has its own attitudes and beliefs about sexual orientation, sexual intimacy and gender identity and expression. There are various views and opinions on these issues in the United States and various degrees of comfort in discussing them. Religious and political (or civic) concerns around these topics often overlap and intersect in American culture.

The following are commonly asked questions by international students regarding these issues and topics. The answers are not shared by everyone at PSR or the GTU, but they are frequently discussed, both inside and outside the classroom. As a matter of institutional policy, PSR welcomes students, staff and faculty of many different sexual orientations and gender identities. PSR also includes a Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS), which offers programs and educational resources both here on campus and around the country. A good place for further information on these issues is the Center's website (www.clgs.org).

What does "gay" mean?

A gay man has significant sexual and/or romantic attractions to other men, or identifies as a member of the gay community. At times "gay" is used to refer to all people, regardless of sex, who have their primary sexual and or romantic attractions to people of the same sex.

What does "lesbian" mean?

A lesbian is a woman who has significant sexual and/or romantic attractions to other women, or who identifies as a member of the lesbian community.

What does "heterosexual" mean?

A person (male or female) who has significant sexual and/or romantic attractions primarily to members of the other sex is heterosexual.

What does "bisexual" mean?

A bisexual person (male or female) is someone who has significant sexual and/or romantic attractions to both males and females or is someone who identifies as a member of the bisexual community. Bisexuality does not imply having multiple sex partners or relationships.

What does "transgender" mean?

There are several meanings for this term and not everyone agrees about how to define it. Generally speaking, most cultures live with social expectations concerning gender (men looking and behaving differently than women). Those who identify as “transgender” do not generally match or fit those expectations or choose not to. For some time now in American culture the meaning of gender and its expression has been debated in both civic and religious contexts. Transgender people offer new insights and pose fresh questions about the assumptions most of us have about gender.

Can you determine someone's sexual orientation or gender identity from his or her appearance?

It is impossible to tell someone's sexual orientation or gender identity by their appearance. Cultural stereotypes can be misleading and it's best not to make any assumptions about another person's identity.

How many lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) people are there in the United States?

No one knows for sure, although it is estimated that from 2% to 10% of the U.S. population is LGBT.

Why do people have different sexual orientations or gender identities?

Different cultures have different theories and beliefs about this question. In the U.S., there is no agreement on the answer. Some people believe that sexual orientation and gender identity are influenced by biology, while others believe these are shaped by the environment and still others believe it may be a combination of the two. Although there have been studies and research in this area, there is no conclusive answer.

Is being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender normal?

The question of what is "normal" can vary widely depending on one's own background and religious tradition. It is important to realize, however, that various sexual orientations and gender identities have existed throughout history in many different cultures. People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender belong to every age group, race, religion, education level, and socioeconomic class. At PSR, generally speaking, an LGBT orientation is considered just as "normal" as any other and is not considered "sinful" or in any way contrary to God's will for human life.

Are there health concerns associated with being LGBT?

There is nothing inherently unhealthy about any given gender identity or sexual orientation. All people who are sexually active risk being exposed to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV and AIDS, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The American Psychological Association (APA) does not consider a lesbian, gay or bisexual orientation to be a mental illness. This was a significant change in American culture when the APA made this decision in the early 1970s.

Are LGBT people discriminated against?

In the U.S., some organizations and individuals discriminate against LGBT people. For example, in some parts of the country school teachers can lose their jobs if someone thinks they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. LGBT people can be refused housing or be evicted from their homes. In addition, they are sometimes harassed or physically attacked. In addition to these civil rights concerns, religious attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity vary, and sometimes widely, depending on the tradition or denomination. While some Christian churches will accept and ordain openly gay or lesbian people, for example, others will not.

What does it mean to be "in the closet"?

When someone is LGBT but has not personally come to terms with his/her identity and has not shared his/her gender identity or sexual orientation with others, this person is said to be "in the closet." It is difficult for many people to come "out of the closet" and reveal their true identity because of the problems and possible discrimination that can sometimes come with being LGBT. Always remember that it's up to LGBT people to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity to others.

What is "homophobia"?

Homophobia is a term used to describe the fear and/or hatred of or the discomfort with people who love and sexually desire members of the same sex. Homophobic reactions often lead to intolerance, bigotry, and violence against anyone not acting within culturally determined heterosexual norms. People who are homophobic are often afraid to get to know LGBT people. They are sometimes afraid that other people will think they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Or, they worry that an LGBT person may be attracted to them.

What is "heterosexism"?

Heterosexism refers to the attitudes, policies and social systems that result from the assumption that all people are heterosexual or that heterosexuality is inherently normal and superior to all other forms of sexual orientation. This is similar to the social system of sexism that results from the belief that men are superior to women.

Why are gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people so public about their sexuality? Isn't this a private matter?

Some people in the U.S. think that LGBT people talk too much about their lives. In the U.S., however, heterosexual couples often hold hands and even kiss in public. They commonly talk about boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives. LGBT people on the other hand cannot talk about their social lives without revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity and thereby risk discrimination. LGBT people seek the same freedom of expression that heterosexuals already enjoy.

Why do LGBT issues get so much attention in the U.S.?

Historically, there have been many social movements for equal rights in the U.S., such as the movements to gain civil rights for women, African-Americans, and people of different religions. The LGBT rights movement is another example of people in the U.S. working together for civil rights. LGBT rights laws would help protect LGBT people from oppression. Similar movements have been underway for some time in many churches and faith communities to include and welcome openly LGBT people. LGBT civil rights and religious inclusion are still highly controversial in many places in the U.S., which is why these issues can so often receive attention in the news media or other public venues.

How do issues of LGBT rights and discrimination affect me if I'm heterosexual?

As a PSR/GTU student, you will meet lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, perhaps without ever knowing about their sexual orientation or gender identity. They may be your classmates, your instructors, and your friends. You will often read or hear about the issues of LGBT rights and discrimination against LGBT people. If you know about these issues, you will better able to understand the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people you meet. It is likely that you already know LGBT people from home, through they might not represent themselves to you in this manner. LGBT rights are important to heterosexuals as part of the broader civil rights individuals want and expect in this country. LGBT issues have also been discussed and debated in American churches and faith communities for several decades now and these issues will often appear in PSR course work as well as in the chapel and other on-campus programs.

What if I think I am lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?

It is not unusual to wonder about one's own sexual orientation or gender identity, especially on a seminary campus like PSR where these issues are discussed openly. You are welcome to talk to someone about this in a confidential manner. An appointment can be made with your faculty advisor or with a staff member from CLGS.

Will I have immigration problems because I am a gay or lesbian foreign student?

Sexual orientation is not a reason to be denied a visa or any of the benefits of F-1 or J-1 student status. One problem that lesbian or gay foreign students sometimes do face, however, is that there is no simple way to have a same-gender partner accompany you to the United States. The classification for dependents of students is only for a legally recognized spouse or children.

What if I find out I am gay or lesbian while in the United States, but don't know how to tell my family at home?

Deciding whether, when, and how to talk to your family and friends about your sexual orientation or gender identity is a complex issue that all LBGT people face, regardless of their citizenship or religious tradition. However, it can be a special challenge for students from countries that are less open than the U.S. A good starting place would be your faculty advisor or a member of the staff at CLGS.

Can I get political asylum in the United States because I am gay or lesbian?

This has happened before, although obtaining political asylum is a long and complex process. It would depend in part on what country you are from and what type of persecution you have faced in your home country.

A Safe and Welcoming Place

These questions and answers provide only a brief introduction to the issues around sexual orientation, sexual intimacy, and gender identity and expression, especially for faith communities. These issues are often complex and many people find them difficult to discuss. PSR is committed to providing a safe and welcoming place for people who identify as LGBT; this community is also committed to genuine conversation and theological education about these topics. PSR invites your questions and concerns about LGBT people while keeping in mind the dignity and respect each of us deserves as God's people. If you are concerned about how best to pose your questions, a good place to begin is to share these concerns with your faculty advisor.

The PSR community is greatly enriched by the cultural diversity that international students offer to the school. We are also enriched by the diversity contributed by our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members. This kind of diversity presents a remarkable opportunity for theological education and spiritual insight even when — or perhaps especially when — the diversity presents a challenge to one's own assumptions and beliefs. That challenge makes PSR a truly stimulating place to learn and grow.