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Why Do Some People Think They Are Straight Until They Come Out?

Colton Underwood of "The Bachelor" reveals much about us.

Key points

  • Children are typically not given permission to express themselves as LGBT.
  • Coming out is still hard and a lifelong process.
  • Heterosexism and homophobia can stunt the development of an LGBT identity.

Recently, Colton Underwood, a contestant on the popular TV show The Bachelor, went on Good Morning America and announced that he was gay. My first thought was about how sad it was that in 2021 and at the age of 29, coming out is still hard and delayed. So many say that things are better, but are they?

Source: Istock by Getty Credit: nadia_bormotova

Have you heard all the questions and accusations? “How could he not know he was gay?” “Why would he pretend to be heterosexual in such a public way?” “Leading everyone on like that shows he has no integrity or sense of honor.”

People mistakenly think that it has to be easier to come out today because of all the media stars who are out, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, Pete Buttigieg, and Anderson Cooper, and because of programs like Will & Grace. But in Underwood’s case, it appears that he maintained the self-illusion of being straight well into his 20s. He may have really believed he was straight until he gained perspective and courage and was successful enough in his football career to feel safe enough to come out publicly. I don’t mean to imply that as kids or teens we consciously choose to have an easier heterosexual/cisgender identity. Underwood was groomed and rewarded for being straight, as are all of us, and if he came out as gay would not likely have been rewarded in the same way in his environment.

Could we take just a moment, then, and have some compassion for Underwood and other LGBT people who need a minute (or more) to come out?

Little Room for Expression in Childhood

We typically don’t teach children to be anything other than heterosexual and cisgender (identifying as having a gender that corresponds to the sex one has been assigned at birth). If we see a little boy holding hands with a little girl, we call it “puppy love.” We ask them if they are “sweet” on each other and maybe even encourage their age-appropriate little romance. When a little girl or boy develops a crush on their teacher of the opposite sex, and maybe wants to give them a Valentine, our reaction is, “Aww, that’s so cute.” But if they are of the same gender it’s a different story. In many cases, they’ll most likely be told that this isn’t proper behavior.

LGBT children and youth are lured into heterosexual/cisgender compliance by heterosexism, cisgenderism, and homophobia, groomed from childhood by our parents, teachers, neighbors, religion, and even movies and TV. You’re left to your own resources to figure your real identity out, and it's usually not until you’re an adult. Teens may not have even had sex yet, but their identities have typically already been formed and imprinted as straight. If they’re LGBT, their romantic and sexual thoughts have often become completely separated from their identity.

If you’re heterosexual in this world, you are holding the golden ticket. If not, budding affections and erotic interests will likely compete with what you are taught your identity is. There may be an internal split: “These only are sexual fantasies, only what brings me to orgasm, not who I really am.”

Imagine for a moment that everyone in your family, all your friends and nearly everyone you see in the media, is green … and you’re blue. When you look in the mirror you realize that something about you is different, but no one in your life has ever hinted that being blue is a valid way to live and you just want to fit in. So, you take all your cues from others and act as green as you can, never really acknowledging your blueness even to yourself. Also, you’ve learned that some folks don’t like blue people, so it’s a lot safer to just pretend you’re green.

I am reminded of the words of Brian McNaught, a sex educator and author of Now That I’m Out What Do I Do?, who puts into perspective what happens to a young LGBT person's development:

“... most gay people have been enormously, if not consciously, traumatized by the social pressure they felt to identify and behave as a heterosexual, even though such pressure is not classified as sexual abuse by experts in the field. Imagine how today’s society would respond if heterosexual thirteen to nineteen-year-olds were forced to date someone of the same sex. What would the reaction be if they were expected to hold the hand or slow dance with, hug, kiss and say “I love you” to someone to whom they were not and could not be sexually attracted?

The public would be outraged! Adult supervisors would be sent to prison. Youthful “perpetrators” would be expelled from school. Years of therapy would be prescribed for the innocent victims of such abuse. Volumes would be written about the long-term effect of such abhorrent socialization. Yet, that’s part of the everyday life of LGBTQ teenagers. And there’s no comparable public concern, much less outcry, about the traumatizing effects on their sexuality.”

Underwood grew up Catholic—a religion that continues to deny validity to homosexuals—in what he calls a “conservative environment” (where hetero/cisgender privilege reigns). He was very athletic, excelling at football, not a sport considered particularly friendly toward homosexuals. It’s not difficult to imagine how he became split between his secret sexual attractions and the identity he developed after being born into the culture of his family and community. Even though he was in his 20s when on The Bachelor, he claimed to have still been a virgin, never having found the “right one.” Compartmentalization like this is common in a culture where children only have permission to explore heterosexuality and being cisgender.

Compassion Instead of Criticism

Of course, acceptance of homosexuality varies from region to region. In some nations, homosexuality is so taboo that they deny it even exists. In relatively few places in the U.S., there may be teen clubs for LGBT youth, supportive teachers and counselors and such, but in most parts of our culture we’re rewarded from birth into our teens for being straight.

So, again, I’d like to encourage compassion instead of criticism for Underwood. Likely because of the grooming of children and expectations of the adult world around him, he was 29 years old by the time he announced who he really was. I wish him the best for the future, and hope that other young men and women who are struggling with this internal erotic/gender identity problem will be more supported as they begin to deal with the confusing inevitability of attraction and love.