Sexual Orientation

Young women's version of this guide
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What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation refers to the type of sexual and romantic feelings for other people. These people can be of the same gender, a different gender, or more than one gender. People who identify their sexual orientation as “straight” or “heterosexual” typically feel attracted to people of a different gender than themselves. People who identify as “lesbian” or “gay” typically feel attracted to people of the same gender as themselves. People who identify as “bisexual” typically feel attracted to more than one gender, such as being attracted to both women and men. “Pansexual” is a term used by people who feel attracted all genders, regardless of those persons’ anatomy. People who use the term “queer” may use it to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, or pansexual, or they may use it because other terms don’t quite describe their experiences.

Some people might identify their sexual orientation one way, but experience attractions that don’t match the label they are using. For example, a person might identify as “straight,” but feel attracted to people of the same gender or more than one gender and sometimes act on those attractions. Sexual orientation can also change over time for some people. For example, a person might be attracted only to people of the same gender as themselves, and then later be attracted to more than one gender. This is normal! It just means that sexual orientation is complicated for some people. Sexual orientation is based on gender, not sex or anatomy. This means that a person who identifies as lesbian can be attracted to all women, including cisgender and transgender  women.

How do I know my sexual orientation?

People usually know their sexual orientation based on how they feel romantically or sexually toward other people over time. For example, people who have repeated crushes and/or pleasurable body experiences with people of the same gender as themselves, but have no crushes or pleasurable experiences with people of a different gender than themselves may identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian.”. People who have repeated crushes and/or pleasurable body experiences with people of a different gender then themselves, but have no crushes or pleasurable experiences with people of a similar gender than themselves may identify themselves as “straight.” However, having one or even a few romantic or sexual experiences with someone of the same gender does not automatically make you lesbian, gay, or bisexual, just as having one or even a few romantic or sexual experiences with someone of a different gender does not automatically make you straight. Sometimes it takes a long time to understand our sexual and romantic feelings and how our bodies react to other people. Someone’s sexual orientation can also change over time. How you identify now may be different from how you identify later. Regardless, only you can identify your sexual orientation.

When will I know my sexual orientation?

There is no official time when people know their sexual orientation. For some people, adolescence is the time when they figure out their sexual orientation, but for other people it may not happen until young adulthood or even later in life. During adolescence, our brains start to release certain hormones that help our bodies go through puberty and change. This happens over many years. At the same time, we may start developing crushes towards other people, which may lead to having pleasurable sexual experiences. For some people, this gives them a clue about who they might have sexual and romantic feelings towards, and what their sexual orientation might be. Sexual orientation can change over time. It’s ok to identify with different orientations as you get older.

Is it OK to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer?

Yes! Although some religions and cultures may have traditional beliefs that these types of feelings shouldn’t be expressed as behaviors, current medical, psychological, and psychiatric organizations believe that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer (LGBQ) is normal. Many religions and cultures are inclusive and welcoming of LGBQ people. Regardless, many LGBQ people are able to keep their religious values and cultural identity and feel comfortable expressing their sexuality.

What’s the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?

Many people confuse the two, but here is a simple way to understand the difference: gender identity is more about “who you are” (boy, girl, both, or neither) and sexual orientation is about “who you have a crush on.”

Can I be both transgender and LGBQ? What about transgender and straight?

Yes and yes. Being transgender is about gender identity, not sexual orientation. Everyone has a sexual orientation, regardless of what their gender identity is. Transgender people, just as cisgender people, may be attracted to people of the same gender based on their own gender identity, attracted to people of a different gender based on their own gender identity, or they may be attracted to more than one gender.

What are homophobia and biphobia?

Homophobia is a term that describes negative feelings and attitudes toward people who are attracted to people of the same gender (e.g., lesbian or gay), and biphobia is a term that describes negative feelings and attitudes toward people who are attracted to more than one gender (e.g. bisexual or pansexual).

What are some examples of homophobia and biphobia?

Negative feelings and attitudes about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) people can be shown in different ways. Some ways are obvious and intentional; for example, direct insults, threats, bullying, physical harm or violence, and discrimination. Some ways are less obvious. Examples of these hidden forms of homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia include people who aren’t comfortable around LGBQ people; not including LGBQ persons in your activities, groups, or events; the use of slurs/words in an unintentional way; and avoiding discussions about LGBQ issues due to feeling uncomfortable. All types of homophobic and biphobic attitudes and behaviors can be hurtful and sometimes dangerous to LGBQ people.

Why do homophobia and biphobia exist?

There is no easy answer to this question! The best way to understand it is to realize that mainstream culture often feels uncomfortable with differences, and minority groups can be labeled as “different.” Minority is a term used to describe any group of people who experience a relative disadvantage in living their day to day lives as compared to the mainstream or dominant group. Other minorities such as racial/ethnic groups are also discriminated against. Even though being LGBTQ is common, these groups are still minorities, as minorities are not necessarily small in numbers. The good news is that through advocacy and social change mainstream people are becoming more welcoming and inclusive of diverse people, and hopefully homophobic and biphobic behaviors will become less common in the future. Even if you do not identify as LGBTQ, you can help support your friends who are by ensuring they feel welcome.

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