Terms to know

It’s hard to get a handle on all the terms out there to describe different sexual orientations. That’s partly because vocabulary shifts and changes over time. For instance, the terms gay and lesbian only came into common usage in the 20th century, even though evidence of same-sex attraction goes back thousands of years. As our culture continues to evolve, the terminology will continue to develop and change. Here are some terms you’ll want to know:

Heterosexual (aka straight). A person who identifies as heterosexual or straight is attracted to the opposite gender.

Homosexual (aka gay or lesbian). A person who identifies as homosexual (gay or lesbian) is attracted to the same gender.

Bisexual (aka bi). A person who identifies as bisexual experiences sexual, romantic, and physical attraction to people of their own gender as well as other genders, not necessarily equally or at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree.

Pansexual. An alternative term to bisexual, a person who identifies as pansexual has the potential to experience attraction to people of all gender identities and expressions.

Queer. Queer is an alternative term to LGBT and is sometimes used as an umbrella term for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual/straight. Historically a negative term and an insult, queer is being reclaimed by many LGBT 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 LGBT 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.

Questioning. A person who identifies as questioning is in the process of discovering and exploring their sexual orientation.

Asexual. A person who identifies as asexual does not experience any form of sexual attraction. A person who is asexual may or may not experience romantic and/or emotional attraction.

Now that you have a handle on the terms that are out there, check out the Real People section to learn about some of the people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other identities—who they are as individuals, what their families are like, and how they identify.


GLAAD. (n.d.). Glossary of terms- lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/queer.
Media Reference Guide. https://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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