Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation describes a person’s sexual or affectional attraction to another person specifically identified by gender, either opposite sex (heterosexually oriented), same sex (homosexually oriented), or both sexes (bisexually oriented). This entry focuses on sexual orientation as applied to a same-sex orientation or a bisexual orientation.

Sexual Orientation and Career Counseling

Only 30 years ago there was little research addressing career counseling with lesbian and gay clients other than literature addressing such clients generally as “deviants.” That is now changing, and for career counseling professionals seeking practical advice on how to provide such counseling services, there is now a growing body of literature.

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First, counselors who have lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients must become aware of the client’s culture in order to be knowledgeable facilitators of growth and development—aware of the sociopolitical issues, specific knowledge, necessary information, and institutional barriers that confront gay and lesbian clients who seek career counseling, and also aware of the history, language, rituals, traditions, and sense of community that define the gay and lesbian culture. Finally, counselors must take a personal inventory of the ways that their often subtle or unconscious biases may influence the career counseling process.

Discrimination issues permeate all approaches to career counseling with sexual minorities because such discrimination colors the social and personal lives of all sexual, racial, and ethnic minorities. The special needs of this cultural minority arise from the historic discrimination that has helped define the gay and lesbian community and includes lack of civil rights; secret or semisecret lives; oppression, rejection, or ostracism by family of origin; societal censure; lowered self-esteem due to internalized homophobia; fear and reality of physical violence; and campaigns of hatred and vilification by right-wing political groups and fundamentalist religious groups.

Career counseling with gay or lesbian individuals requires cultural counseling competence. Three seminal documents inform such competence: the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (American Counseling Association and Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development); the Association for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues in Counseling Competencies for Counseling Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Clients; and the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients.

Living in communities that routinely discriminate against gay men and lesbian women makes it virtually impossible for counselors to avoid internalizing negative stereotypes or attitudes about this sexual minority culture. Such misunderstanding will quickly be evident to sexual minority clients and may cause them to seek help elsewhere or not to get help at all. Counselors, however, must be familiar with gay and lesbian culture so that they are credible and congruent in their attitudes. Attending workshops, reading the literature, participating in lesbian and gay culture, and talking with former lesbian or gay clients or friends are effective ways to acquire knowledge about gay men and lesbian women and their culture.

Counselors need explicit awareness of their own religious and spiritual nature and beliefs. Counselors never impose their own belief system on their clients, but many lesbian and gay clients have been hurt by religious organizations.

Finally, counselors must confront their own individual prejudice and bias toward lesbian and gay clients and culture. The ethics codes of all the major mental health professional associations offer guidance for individuals who work with clients around issues related to their sexual orientation.

Coming Out

A central issue for gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons’ career development is coming out, the process of identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and recognizing themselves as part of a stigmatized and semi-hidden minority. This identity development is a long process usually beginning during adolescence, though sometimes considerably later.

There are two different types of coming out. On the one hand, coming out has been discussed as a developmental task for gay and lesbian individuals to successfully complete. This coming out involves a self-acceptance of the individual’s own sexual orientation and might be better termed coming out to self. On the other hand, coming out has also been discussed as disclosing to others. Such disclosure might be accomplished by verbal or written, private or public statements to other individuals. By this action, individuals inform other persons of their sexual orientation. This might be better termed coming out to others.

The traditional stages of coming out to self include initial awareness of attraction to and feelings for the same sex; then experiences of sex; followed by explorations of the gay and lesbian cultural community; then self-labeling as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; and finally the disclosure of one’s identity to others (coming out to others). Identity foreclosure, whereby the person stops his or her coming out process, can occur at any stage, or the individual can progress to the last stage with a fully integrated lesbian or gay cultural identity.

As part of effective career counseling, counselors need to address the “how to’s” and the “why’s” associated with deciding to come out to others, including considering the advantages and disadvantages of coming out in the workplace or school, providing opportunities for behavioral rehearsals to develop strategies for coming out to others, offering special services to meet the career development needs of lesbians and gays such as resume writing workshops (directly addressing issues of how far “out” to be on the resume or how many times the word lesbian is mentioned on a resume page, e.g., research on lesbian issues, teaching lesbian topics), and job interviewing workshops (training clients in responding to informational interview and job interview questions like “Are you married?” and “How many children do you have?”).

Job Discrimination

Discrimination against individuals on the basis of their race, ethnic origin, gender, disability, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation is a fact of life in U.S. society. Career counselors should recognize this and assist their clients in coping with this reality. In spite of increased visibility and acceptance, gay men and lesbian women continue to experience discrimination in various aspects of their lives: in the workplace, when buying homes, when trying to adopt a child, and when seeking a marriage license to solemnize their relationships. Issues of dual and multiple discrimination also must be addressed when providing career counseling services. For example, lesbian women may face at least two forms of discrimination— sexism and heterosexism. If they are also a member of an ethnic or racial minority, older, or physically challenged, they may face daunting barriers to achieving their career goals.

For both lesbian women and gay men, discrimination based on sexual orientation is consistently listed among the top three most anticipated career-related barriers and is also expected to provide a moderately high degree of hindrance if encountered. Openly addressing such issues and preparing clients to cope with the more overt manifestations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and ageism is an important role of the career counselor. Such discussions lead to improved decision making.

Other Issues

Other issues that can be addressed in career counseling with gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals include dual career same-sex couples, career counseling with racial and ethnic minority lesbians and gays, special assessment issues when using psychological inventories, use of gay and lesbian professionals as role models (informational interviews, job shadowing, internships, mentoring, etc.), special workplace services (mentoring programs, diversity workshops, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual affirmative policies such as nondiscrimination policies and domestic partners benefits), preparing special information for distribution to lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients (the geographic location and the size of the gay and lesbian communities in their area, the employment policies and Equal Employment Opportunity statements of local businesses, local and federal antidiscrimination laws), and even social advocacy for such clients (working to change employer-related statements or policies that discriminate, working toward changing the laws that criminalize certain sexual acts between two consenting adults, changing housing laws that do not allow two unrelated persons to live together, or working to stop police entrapment and unequal enforcement of laws).


  1. Croteau, J. M., & Bieschke, K. J. (Eds.). (1996). The vocational issues of lesbian women and gay men [Special issue]. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 48, 119-255.
  2. Diamant, L. (Ed.). (1993). Homosexual issues in the workplace. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.
  3. Ellis, A. E., & Riggle, J. D. (Eds.). (1996). Sexual identity on the job: Issues and services [Special issue]. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 4, 1-106.
  4. Gelberg, S., & Chojnacki, J. T. (1996). Career and life planning with gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
  5. Human Rights Campaign. (2003). The state of the workplace for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. Available from
  6. Pope, M. (Ed.). (1995). Gay/lesbian career development [Special section]. Career Development Quarterly,44, 146-203.

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