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What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation is about who you’re attracted to and want to have relationships with. Sexual orientations include gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, and asexual.

Sexual orientation is different from gender and gender identity.

Sexual orientation is about who you’re attracted to and who you feel drawn to romantically, emotionally, and sexually. It’s different than gender identity. Gender identity isn’t about who you’re attracted to, but about who you ARE — male, female, genderqueer, etc.

This means that being transgender (feeling like your assigned sex is very different from the gender you identify with) isn’t the same thing as being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Sexual orientation is about who you want to be with. Gender identity is about who you are.

There are a bunch of identities associated with sexual orientation:

  • People who’re attracted to a different gender (for example, women who are attracted to men or men who are attracted to women) often call themselves straight or heterosexual.

  • People who’re attracted to people of the same gender often call themselves gay or homosexual. Gay women may prefer the term lesbian.

  • People who’re attracted to both men and women often call themselves bisexual.

  • People whose attractions span across many different gender identities (male, female, transgender, genderqueer, intersex, etc.) may call themselves pansexual or queer.

  • People who’re unsure about their sexual orientation may call themselves questioning or curious.

  • People who don't experience any sexual attraction for anyone often call themselves asexual.

It’s also important to note that some people don't think any of these labels describe them accurately. Some people don't like the idea of labels at all. Other people feel comfortable with certain labels and not others. It's up to you to decide how you want to label yourself, if at all.

What does queer mean?

The term queer can include a variety of sexual identities and gender identities that are anything other than straight and cisgender.

In the past, “queer” was a word used to hurt and insult people. Some people still find it offensive, particularly those who remember when that word was used in a painful way. Others now use the word with pride to identify themselves.

You may not want to refer to someone as “queer” unless you know that’s how they identify themselves. When talking to someone about their sexual orientation, use the terms that they use. It’s okay (and often encouraged!) to ask what labels folks prefer.

What’s asexuality?

People who identify as asexual don’t really feel sexual attraction towards anyone. They may think other people are physically attractive, or they may want to be in romantic relationships with people — but they’re not interested in having sex or doing sexual things with other people. Asexual people sometimes use the word “ace” for short.  

Asexuality has nothing to do with romantic attraction. Many asexual people feel romantically attracted to people — so they may identify as asexual, and also as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. They just don’t feel any desire to act on these feelings in a sexual way.

Asexual people have emotional needs just like everyone else. Some asexual people have romantic relationships, and others aren’t interested in that. They get close to people or experience intimacy through ways other than sex.

There are also people who don’t feel romantic attraction or want to be in romantic relationships — they may identify as aromantic. Being aromantic and being asexual are two separate things.

Some asexual people do get aroused (turned on), but they don’t feel the desire to be sexual with other people. And some asexual people masturbate. But others may not feel arousal at all.

It’s totally normal to go through times when you don’t want to have sex, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re asexual. And asexuality is not the same thing as being celibate. Celibacy is a choice you make, and asexuality is a sexual identity — who you naturally are.

Like other sexual orientations, asexuality isn’t always black and white. There’s a spectrum between being sexual (having sexual attraction) and being asexual. Different people fall into different places on that spectrum. Some people who have very little sexual attraction to other people identify as gray-a. Some people who are only sexually attracted to people they’re in relationships with identify as demisexual. Want to know how someone identifies? Ask them.

There is nothing “wrong” with people who are asexual, and there’s no evidence to support that people are asexual because of any kind of mental health or trauma. It’s actually kind of common — some research says that 1 out of 100 adults is asexual. You can find more information about asexuality at the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.

What if I don’t want to be labeled?

It’s okay if you don’t want to be labeled. Only you can decide what sexual identity best describes you. But some people may feel that none of the common labels feel right to them.

Your sexual orientation and identity can remain the same throughout your life. Or it can vary depending on who you’re attracted to, or romantically partnered or sexually active with. This is completely normal. Once you claim a label, there’s no reason why it can’t change as you change.

Changing how you identify doesn’t mean that you’re “confused.” Many folks, old and young, experience changes in who they’re attracted to and how they identify. This is called “fluidity.”