Monday, October 09, 2006

Exploring (Homo)Sexuality...

How do you know if you're gay?
Most people feel drawn to someone of their own sex at some point in their life. But finding someone attractive doesn't always mean you're gay. For many, these feelings are just part of normal sexual development and some go on to have relationships with people of the opposite sex.

What if these feelings don't go away?
* If you're still asking questions about your sexuality, then you're probably not ready to give yourself a label. Working it out takes time.
* Nobody knows what makes someone gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight. Sometimes it just 'is'.
* Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is normal. You haven't done anything wrong.
* Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Some people feel threatened by things they don't understand. Because of this, you may be tempted to keep quiet or pretend that you're heterosexual. The trouble is, you can't hide your feelings forever. What's more, you shouldn't have to - you have a right to be proud of who you are.
* It can feel isolating to discover that your sexuality is different to other people around you, especially if you don't know anyone else who's gay or lesbian. There are many groups who can help you talk through how you're feeling...

Coming Out
snoggingThere's always speculation in magazines about whether certain stars are gay or not. Likewise, regular people can feel the pressure to let people around them know about their sexuality or 'come out', if they are Gay or Bi. It's difficult, but it can be a great relief to be open about who you are.

Here are some tips:
* Take time to feel comfortable with your own sexuality.
* Don't be pushed into it, you'll know when the time is right for you.
* The scary thing is not knowing how other people will react. Start by telling a friend you can be fairly certain will be supportive. This will give you confidence.
* There are several (silly) questions you're likely to be asked: when did you know? Is it a phase you're going through? Have you got a boyfriend/girlfriend? Do you fancy me? Have you got AIDS? Make things easier by thinking through your answers in advance.
* Don't expect everyone to be happy. Life isn't perfect. Ignorant people can be hurtful, even your family can be. The support of your true friends should help you get through it all.
* Telling friends is one thing, coming out to your parents is a different matter. They brought you up and have hopes and ideas about your future. They may surprise you by saying they had suspicions for a long time. But expect them to be upset if this news comes as a bolt from the blue. Most parents need time to adjust. Family love is unconditional and they should come round when they realise you're happy.

Gay Sex
Some people love it, some people can take it or leave it. For most, sex is an important part of an intimate relationship and gay, lesbian and bisexual people are no different. There's a common misconception that gay relationships are all about sex. This is wrong - they're the same as straight relationships! There may be lots of pressure when you first come out to have sex before you're ready for it. Some people may say you can only know if you're really a gay man by having sex with another man. This is not true at all!

Having sex before you're ready may leave you feeling hurt and confused. Only you can decide when you're ready. It helps:
* If you feel comfortable with yourself and who you are
* If you feel comfortable with your partner
* If you are clear about what you do and don't want to do
* If you are able to communicate this to your partner
* If you don't feel pressured into doing something you don't want to
* If you are clued up on safer sex

Remember, the law in England, Wales and Scotland says it's illegal to have sex under the age of sixteen. In Northern Ireland, the age of consent is 17. Even when you hit 16 and sex becomes legal, you may not feel ready. It's not a race. There are no prizes for starting early.

Gay Sex: Staying Safe

When many people think of gay men and sex they assume we're talking about anal sex. For some gay men anal sex is part of their sex lives. For others, it may be less important. Some gay men never have anal sex.

There are lots of ways of turning each other on - use your imagination, explore each others bodies, see what feels good. Your brain is the biggest sex organ you have. Use it.

HIV is a fact of life and it has had a big impact on gay men's sex lives. As a result condoms have also become a fact of life for gay men who have anal sex.

If you're going to have anal sex, remember:
* Use extra strong condoms
* Use plenty of water-based lube

Condoms can protect you from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, if used properly. Follow the instructions on the packet.

You can get free condoms and lube from most gay bars, your local gay men's project and Sexual Health Clinics (GUM Clinic).

There are other sexually transmitted infections that it would be useful for you to find out about. Local gay men's projects and helplines will be able to give you lots of information about these as well as offering support.

Research has shown that the HIV risk for lesbians is very small. You also need to protect yourself from STIs like genital warts and chlamydia (which is on the rise amongst women). The type and level of protection you use really depends on what you are doing and who you are doing it with, but if you think you need protection you might want to use a dental dam.

One thing to remember is that it is common for women who label themselves as lesbian or bisexual to have sex with men at some point in their lives, and it's very important to protect yourself against infection. Check out our section on contraception for more info.

Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Partnership Rights
The UK doesn't recognise same sex partnerships in law except in certain situations. Currently, same sex couples can't marry or register their partnership in a way that would give them legal status.

Other European countries such as Norway, France, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Iceland and Denmark recognise same-sex couples in a civil partnership. This means that registered same-sex couples are entitled to many of the rights entitled to heterosexual couples.

And in the Netherlands, these rights are extended to include same-sex marriages. The rights and responsibilities of same-sex couples are the same as those of heterosexual couples.

Apart from the fact that same-sex couples cannot currently be married in Britain, there are other differences that distinguish same-sex couples from heterosexual partners, whether the heterosexual couple is married or not.

In London, a civil-partnership register has been set up so that there is a way for same-sex partners to have their relationships recognised publicly. This will not be a legally recognised union (like a marriage would be), though it is one of the first systems to provide a certificate as acknowledgement of a relationship, whatever your (and your partner's) gender.

It is possible to have an affirmation ceremony or blessing for same-sex couples. Among the bodies that would perform the ceremonies are the Lesbian and Gay Humanist Association, the Metropolitan Community Church and the Lesbian & Gay Christian movement. All their details can be found in the Further Info section.

Other, everyday ways in which lesbian and gay couples are treated differently from heterosexual couples in the UK include:

Discrimination in the workplace
There is currently no specific law to protect people in the workplace who may be suffering discrimination because of their sexuality, though this is set to change in 2003. See the One Life section on Equal Opps for Lesbian, Gay and Bi people for more details, and advice on what to do should you feel you are a victim of this sort of discrimination.

Pension schemes
Many schemes will provide for a widow or widower's pension in the event of the other partner's death. For a lesbian or gay couple, this benefit may not apply, irrespective of how long the couple have been together. It's worth checking with whoever provides the pension scheme you have to make sure that you know where you are. If it isn't as you want, shop around.

Being next of kin
You are not automatically classed as your partner's next of kin if you are in a same-sex relationship. Only if you are a blood relative or married to that person are you legally assumed to be next of kin. And, because same-sex couples cannot presently be legally married in the UK, this is something that could cause big problems if something were to happen to you or partner. It's definitely worth making sure with a solicitor that, in the event of your death, your wishes would be carried out exactly as you would like.

Similarly, any inheritance left as part of a will is not going to be left to your partner automatically if you die. The law states that a blood relative or a legally-recognised spouse is entitled to it, no matter how long you have been with your partner, unless you specifically request differently. So, make a will!

Getting a mortgage
There is meant to be no difference in applying for a mortgage as a same-sex couple from applying as as a heterosexual couple. However, if you are thinking of buying a property together, it's always best to check with your lender to make sure that you are getting the best deal available, and one which suits your circumstances perfectly - especially as same-sex couples cannot apply as being married. When applying for a mortgage you can often be, in the eyes of the lender, classed only as either 'married' or 'single'.

Some banks or building societies say they ask fewer questions of your relationship, but this doesn't mean you should shrink back from asking them everything you need to know. Everyone is entitled to the best deals available, whatever the relationship, so always shop around.

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