Learn about the different aspects of sexual orientation -- attraction, behavior and identity -- and the many ways people identify.
DeeWho is Dee?
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…
Learn what sexual orientation really is and the terminology currently used.
There are three aspects to sexual orientation--attraction, behavior, and identity.
Vocabulary can shift over time. If you’re curious about some terms you’ve heard, here are a few to start with.
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.
Watch as two young women have a lively conversation about coming to terms with their sexual identity.
Hear from people with a variety of sexual orientations as they talk about the lives and relationships.
Laura and Sam met and fell in love in their college sorority. Now they are married and raising a family.
Deidra Robinson talks with her father about what happened to their once-close relationship when she told him she was gay.
Samuel Taylor and his mother reflect on her struggles to come to terms with Samuel being gay.
Denny Meyer recalls what it was like to hide that he was gay while serving in the Navy.
Meet a young asexual couple and hear about their relationship—“a modern-day love story with a bit of a twist.”
Learn about the demographics of sexual orientation.
The LGB population in the US is bigger than you might think.
Studies show adults between the ages of 18-44 identify as LGB at a higher rate than older Americans.
(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. Learn More
(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". Learn More
(Adj.) Hiding one's sexual orientation, gender identity, or status as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, either totally or partially. Learn More
(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. Learn More
(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). Learn More
(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. Learn More
(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. Learn More
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". Learn More
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. Learn More
(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. Learn More
(Adj./Noun) Refers to the sexual orientation of women who are emotionally, sexually, and/or romantically attracted to women. Learn More
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. Learn More
(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 queer.”) Learn More
(Adj.) When a person is in the process of discovery and exploration about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or a combination thereof. Learn More
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. Learn More
(Noun) The components of a person that include their biological sex, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, etc. Learn More
(Noun) The way a person views and understands their sexual orientation, such as gay, straight, bisexual, or some other orientation. Learn More
(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. Learn More
(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. Learn More
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. Learn More
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Citations & Sources
American Psychological Association. (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10–42. 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 24(1), 29-34. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1158136014000656
Buzzfeed. (2017, July 27). How did you know you were gay? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwKm0XUQ6e0
Carrillo, H. & Hoffman, A. (2018). Straight with a pinch of bi: The construction of heterosexuality as an elastic category among adult US men. Sexualities, 21(1-2), 90-108. 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. (2017, December). What does the scholarly research say about the well-being of children with gay or lesbian parents? What We Know: The Public Policy Research Portal. https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...
Cornell University. (2017, December). What does the scholarly research say about whether conversion therapy can alter sexual orientation without causing harm? What We Know: The Public Policy Research Portal. https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...
Conroy, E. (2013, April 29). The 4th Sexuality - Asexuality [Video]. YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrXWqwuOqIQ
Diamond, L.M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gates, G.J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/how-many-people-lgbt/
Gates, G. J. (2013). LGBT Parenting in the US. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-parenting-us/
Gates, G. J. (2014). LGBT demographics: Comparisons among population-based surveys. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-demo-comp-pop-surveys/
Gates, G.J. (2017). In US, more adults identifying as LGBT. Gallup. http://news.gallup.com/poll/201731/lgbt-identification-rises.aspx
GLAAD. (n.d.). Glossary of terms- lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/queer.
Media Reference Guide. https://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq
The Kinsey Scale. (2019). Kinsey Institute. https://www.kinseyinstitute.org/research/publications/kinsey-scale.php
The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. (2014). American Institute of Bisexuality. http://www.americaninstituteofbisexuality.org/thekleingrid
The Scene. (2017, March 29). I married my sorority sister [Video]. YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ASIpIY7RtE
Selterman, D. (2014, January 13). Debunking myths about sexual fluidity. Luvze. http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2014/10/13/debunking-myths-about-sexual-fluidity.html
StoryCorps. (2015, March 29). Deidra Robinson & William Watford III [Audio podcast]. https://storycorps.org/listen/william-watford-iii-and-deidra-robinson-150329/
StoryCorps. (2012, June 22). Denny Meyer [Audio podcast]. https://storycorps.org/listen/denny-meyer/
StoryCorps. (2013, June 28). Samuel Taylor and Connie Casey [Audio podcast]. https://storycorps.org/listen/samuel-taylor-and-connie-casey/