Sexual orientation means how you are attracted romantically and sexually to other people. There are different kinds of sexual orientation. For example, a person may be:
- Heterosexual—attracted only or almost only to the other binary (male/female) gender. "Binary" is the idea that there are only two genders, male and female.
- Gay—attracted only or almost only to those of the same gender.
- Bisexual—attracted both to people of their own binary gender and to those of the other binary gender.
- Pansexual—attracted to those of any gender.
- Asexual—not sexually attracted to any gender. This is different from deciding not to have sex with anyone (abstinence or celibacy).
Many people discover more about their sexual orientation over time. For example, some girls date boys in high school, then find later on that they are more attracted, romantically and sexually, to members of their own gender.
Understanding sexual orientation and gender identity
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing. Here are some definitions of words and phrases you may hear.
- Bi: Short for "bisexual."
- Cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth (for example, woman and female). May be shortened to "cis."
- Gay: A man or woman (either cisgender or transgender) who is attracted only or almost only to those of the same gender.
- Gender identity: Your inner sense of being male, female, both, neither, or some other gender. For transgender people, their gender identity does not match the sex that they were assigned at birth. Sometimes gender identity is outside the two most common categories of male or female. People who feel this way may use the term "nonbinary."
- Lesbian: A woman (either cisgender or transgender) who is gay.
- LGBT: Short for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender." Also seen as "GLBT." Often a "Q" is added (LGBTQ), for "queer" or "questioning." Those who are "questioning" are still exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Nonbinary: This term may be used when gender identity is outside the two main categories of male or female. Nonbinary people may identify as both male and female, as neither, or as a gender in between. For some people, gender identity can shift or be "fluid." For instance, they may feel more male one day and more female the next.
- Queer: May be used by those who identify as being outside the binary categories of male or female and gay or straight. Some LGBT people are offended by this word, but others have reclaimed it. Related terms include genderqueer, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming.
- Straight: Another term for "heterosexual."
- Transgender: Broadly, those who are not cisgender. People whose gender identity doesn't match the sex that they were assigned at birth. Sometimes shortened to "trans" (as in trans man, trans woman).
- Transsexual: A term sometimes used to describe people who use medical treatments, such as hormone medicine or surgery, to make their bodies match their gender identity.
For more information, see the topics:
- Common Questions About Sexual Orientation.
- Gender Identity and Transgender Issues.
How do people find out their sexual orientation?
Many people first become aware of their orientation during the preteen and teen years. For example, it's common to experience one's first romantic feelings in early puberty, by having a crush on someone at school.
During the teen years, same-sex crushes are common. Some teens may experiment sexually with someone of their own gender. These early experiences don't necessarily mean a teen will be gay as an adult.
For some teens, same-sex attractions do not fade. They grow stronger.
Remember: You are not alone
Whatever your orientation or gender identity, it's important to realize that there are lots of people like you. Many of them may have the same emotions and questions that you have.
It can be comforting and helpful to talk to people who know what you're going through. You can find these people through local or online groups. If you don't know where to find support, check with:
- Your doctor.
- Your school counselor or trusted teacher.
- A therapist or other counselor.
- LGBTQ clubs and organizations in your community.
- Websites and online organizations. You can find a list of such organizations on the website for PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) at www.pflag.org.
Why is it important to understand stress and know how to cope with it?
Stress is a fact of life. Most of us have periods of stress at various times in our lives. But extra stress can have a serious effect on your health, especially if it lasts for a long time.
If you are not heterosexual, you may be under a lot of extra stress because of discrimination in the community. Rejection, prejudice, fear, and confusion cause long-term stress in many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Constant stress can be linked to headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping. It can weaken your immune system, so that you have a harder time fighting off disease. If you already have a health problem, stress may make it worse. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Depression can lead to suicide. Teens with depression are at particularly high risk for suicide and suicide attempts.
People who are under long-term stress are also more likely to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol heavily, and use other drugs. These habits can lead to serious health problems.
It's important to recognize the effects that stress can have on your life, to learn how to cope with stress, and to know when to get help. For more information, see the topic
Other Works Consulted
- American Psychological Association (2008). Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx.
- APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns (2011). Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/transgender.aspx.
- Biggs WS (2011). Medical human sexuality. In RE Rakel, DP Rakel, eds., Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed., pp. 1000–1012. Philadelphia: Saunders.
- Eliason MJ, et al. (2009). LGBTQ Cultures: What Health Care Professionals Need to Know About Sexual and Gender Diversity. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Available online: http://www.nursingcenter.com/upload/Journals/Documents/LGBTQ.htm.
- Hillman JB, Spigarelli MG (2009). Sexuality: Its development and direction. In WB Carey et al., eds., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 4th ed., pp. 415–425. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- Sadock VA (2009). Normal human sexuality and sexual and gender identity disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2027–2060. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Zucker KJ (2011). Gender identity and sexual behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 346–348. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: September 23, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine