Sexual Orientation

Learn about the different aspects of sexual orientation -- attraction, behavior and identity -- and the many ways people identify.

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Hi! I’m here to help you learn about sexual orientation. At its core, sexual orientation is all about attraction — who you’re drawn to, romantically and sexually. Most of us understand what it means to be gay or straight, but what about bisexual, asexual and pansexual? This section breaks down all that and more. Let’s get started…

The Basics

Learn what sexual orientation really is and the terminology currently used.

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It all starts with attraction

There are three aspects to sexual orientation--attraction, behavior, and identity.

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It’s not just gay or straight

Sexual orientations are diverse and occur along a continuum.

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Terms to know

Vocabulary can shift over time. If you’re curious about some terms you’ve heard, here are a few to start with.

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Are women the same as men?

Researchers are learning a lot from studying women’s sexual orientations, including the possibility that some people’s sexual orientations are more fluid than others.

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How did you know you were gay?

Watch as two young women have a lively conversation about coming to terms with their sexual identity.

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Conversion therapy

Explore what researchers are learning about the effects of conversion therapy.

Real people

Hear from people with a variety of sexual orientations as they talk about the lives and relationships.

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“I married my sorority sister”

Laura and Sam met and fell in love in their college sorority. Now they are married and raising a family.

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“It kinda threw me for a whammy.”

Deidra Robinson talks with her father about what happened to their once-close relationship when she told him she was gay.

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“I blamed myself”.

Samuel Taylor and his mother reflect on her struggles to come to terms with Samuel being gay.

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“In those days you served in silence.”

Denny Meyer recalls what it was like to hide that he was gay while serving in the Navy.

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“Everyone is different”

Meet a young asexual couple and hear about their relationship—“a modern-day love story with a bit of a twist.”

The Stats

Learn about the demographics of sexual orientation.

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Current estimates of the US lesbian/gay/bisexual population

The LGB population in the US is bigger than you might think.

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LGB population by age group

Studies show adults between the ages of 18-44 identify as LGB at a higher rate than older Americans.

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LGBT Parenting in the US

Increasing numbers of same-sex couples are raising children.

Glossary

Asexual

(Adj.) Describes a person who does not experience any form of sexual attraction. People who identify as asexual may or may not experience emotional, physical, or romantic attraction.

Bisexual

(Adj.) Refers to the sexual orientation of a person who experiences sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to persons of more than one gender, not necessarily equally or at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree. Also known as "bi".

Closeted

(Adj.) Hiding one's sexual orientation, gender identity, or status as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, either totally or partially.

Coming Out

(Noun or Verb) The process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates their sexual identity or gender identity and begins to share that with others.

Gay

(Adj.) Describes the sexual orientation of persons who are emotionally, sexually, and/or romantically attracted to persons of the same sex/gender. While the term is most often used to describe men, it can also be used more broadly to refer to both men and women (i.e., gay man, gay woman, gay people).

Gender

(Noun) A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity and ascribe qualities of masculinity and femininity to people. Gender characteristics can change over time and vary between cultures.

Gender identity

(Noun) One’s deeply held, core sense of being a man, woman, or some other gender. A gender identity can be a combination of two or more genders (such as gender fluid), and some individuals don't identify with any gender at all--described as being agender.

Heterosexual / Heterosexuality

(Adj.) Primary or exclusive sexual, emotional, and/or romantic attraction to a gender other than one's own. Typically this means a woman who is primarily attracted to men and vice versa. Also referred to as "straight".

Homosexual / Homosexuality

(Noun) A term that describes a primary or exclusive sexual, emotional, and/or romantic attraction to persons of one's own sex/gender. The term is considered outdated by many in the LGBTQ+ community but is still used in some research contexts.

LGBTQ+

(Adj.) LGBTQ+ is an umbrella term used to refer to the community of sexual and gender minorities as a whole. The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning, with the "+" representing additional sexual orientations and gender identities, such as persons who are intersex or asexual.

Lesbian

(Adj./Noun) Refers to the sexual orientation of women who are emotionally, sexually, and/or romantically attracted to women.

Pansexual / Omnisexual

(Adj.) Describes a person who experiences emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to persons of all gender identities and gender expressions. An alternative to bisexual, which evokes the idea of an attraction to only two genders.

Queer

(Adj.) Alternative term to LGBTQ+. An umbrella term for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual. Historically a negative term and insult, queer is being reclaimed by many LGBTQ+ people—particularly youth—as a source of pride and political identity. The term is valued by some for its defiance, by some because it can be inclusive of the entire community, and by others who find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities. “Queer” is still disliked by some people in the LGBTQ+ community and its use by straight people can be considered offensive. Due to its varying meanings, this word should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer (i.e. “My cousin identifies as genderqueer.”)

Questioning

(Adj.) When a person is in the process of discovery and exploration about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or a combination thereof.

Sex / Sex assigned at birth / Biological sex

(Noun) A person's sex (male, female, or intersex) is often determined based on the appearance of the genitalia, either in ultrasound or at birth. In reality, biological sex is more complicated, referring to a combination of anatomical, physiological, genetic, and physical attributes. These include genitalia, gonads, hormone levels, hormone receptors, chromosomes, genes, and secondary sex characteristics. The phrase "sex assigned at birth" is used by some to emphasize that genitalia alone are not always a sufficient indication of a person's sex, as well as the fact that a person's gender identity is not always aligned with the sex characteristics observed at birth.

Sexuality

(Noun) The components of a person that include their biological sex, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, etc.

Sexual identity

(Noun) The way a person views and understands their sexual orientation, such as gay, straight, bisexual, or some other orientation.

Sexual orientation

(Noun) An enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectional attraction or non-attraction to other people. People use a variety of labels to describe their sexual orientation. Some of the better-known labels or categories include bisexual, pansexual, asexual, lesbian, gay or straight. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Transgender and gender non-conforming people may identify with any sexual orientation, and their sexual orientation may or may not change before, during or after gender transition.

Straight

(Adj.) Another term for heterosexual. Refers to the sexual, emotional, and/or romantic attraction to a gender other than one's own. Typically this means a woman who is primarily attracted to men and vice versa.

Transgender / Trans*

(Adj.) Describes a person whose gender identity does not match their sex characteristics observed at birth. People who identify as transgender (sometimes shortened to "trans") may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity. This word is also sometimes used as a broad umbrella term to describe those who transcend conventional expectations of gender identity or expression, such as people who identify as genderqueer, gender variant, gender diverse, or androgynous.

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Citations & Sources

American Psychological Association (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/amp-a0024659.pdf

Beaulieu-Prevost, D. & Fortin, M. (2015). The measurement of sexual orientation: Historical background and current practices. Sexologies (4), 15-19. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1158136014000656

Buzzfeed. How did You Know You Were Gay? [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwKm0XUQ6e0

Carrillo, H. & Hoffman, A. (2017). Straight with a pinch of bi: The construction of heterosexuality as an elastic category among adult US men. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1363460716678561

Copen, C.E., Chandra, A., & Febo-Vazquez, I. (2016). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual orientation among adults aged 18–44 in the United States: data from the 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth. CDC: National Health Statistics Report, 88. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs//data/nhsr/nhsr088.pdf

Cornell University, What We Know. What does the scholarly research say about the well-being of children with gay or lesbian parents? Retrieved from https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...

Cornell University, What We Know. What does the scholarly research say about whether conversion therapy can alter sexual orientation without causing harm? Retrieved from https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...

Diamond, L.M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The 4th Sexuality - Asexuality [Video File]. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrXWqwuOqIQ

Gates, G. J. (2014). LGBT Demographics: Comparisons among population-based surveys. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. Retrieved from http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/lgbt-demogs-sep-2014.pdf

Gates, G. J. (2013). LGBT Parenting in the US. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. Retrieved from http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/LGBT-Parenting.pdf

Gates, G.J. (2017). In US, More Adults Identifying as LGBT. Gallup. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/201731/lgbt-identification-rises.aspx

GLAAD Media Reference Guide. GLAAD. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq

Kinsey Institute, Indiana University (2014). Kinsey Institute Homepage. Retrieved from https://www.kinseyinstitute.org/="https:>

American Institute of Bisexuality (2014). The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. Retrieved from http://www.americaninstituteofbisexuality.org/thekleingrid/

Selterman, D. (2014). Debunking myths about sexual fluidity. Retrieved from http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2014/10/13/debunking-myths-about-sexual-fluidity.html

Story Corps. (2012, June 22). Danny Meyer [Video File]. Retrieved from https://storycorps.org/listen/denny-meyer/

Story Corps. (2015, March 29). Deidra Robinson & William Watford III [Video File]. Retrieved from https://storycorps.org/listen/william-watford-iii-and-deidra-robinson-150329/

Story Corps. (2013, June 28). Samuel Taylor and Connie Casey [Video File]. Retrieved from https://storycorps.org/listen/samuel-taylor-and-connie-casey/

The Scene. (2017, March 29). I married my sorority sister [Video File]. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ASIpIY7RtE

What does the scholarly research say about the well-being of children with gay or lesbian parents? What We Know, The Public Policy Portal, Cornell University. Retrieved from https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...

What does the scholarly research say about whether conversion therapy can alter sexual orientation without causing harm? What We Know, The Public Policy Portal, Cornell University. Retrieved from https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...