Sexual Orientation at a Glance
- Sexual orientation is the term used to describe what gender(s) someone is sexually and/or romantically attracted to.
- We don't know for sure what causes a person's sexual orientation.
- You can't tell a person’s sexual orientation by the way they look or their job or hobbies. The only way to know is if they tell you.
- Homophobia and biphobia — fear and hatred of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people — are very harmful.
Many of us are curious about sexual orientation. Here are answers to some of the most common questions people have about it.
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What Is Sexual Orientation?
Sexual orientation is the term used to describe what gender(s) someone is sexually and/or romantically attracted to. Sexual orientation is different from gender and gender identity — how you feel about and express your gender. Sexual orientation is about who you are attracted to and want to have intimate relationships with.
- People who are attracted to members of the other gender often call themselves straight or heterosexual.
- People who are attracted to people of the same gender often call themselves gay or homosexual. Women who are gay may prefer the term lesbian.
- People who are attracted to both men and women, or people of any sex or gender identity, may 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 are unsure about their sexual orientation may call themselves questioning or curious.
- People who don't experience any sexual attraction for anyone may call themselves asexual.
Why do we keep saying "often" or "may"? Because some people don't think these labels describe them accurately. Some people don't like the idea of labels at all. Some 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.
Some people describe themselves as queer. Queer is an umbrella term for a variety of sexualities and gender identities, including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, pansexuals, transgender people, and some intersex people. "Queer" has ben used as a slur to hurt or insult people. Some people still find it offensive, but others feel like they've reclaimed the word and now use it with pride to identify themselves.
What Causes Sexual Orientation?
It’s not known what causes a person's orientation, but research shows that it's based on biological factors that are in place before birth. We do know that sexual orientation is often established before puberty. And although sexual orientation is usually set early in life, it may be fluid and shift over the course of a lifetime.
One thing is clear — sexual orientation is not a choice and cannot be changed.
How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual (LGB)?
There's no way to know for sure because many people don't identify as LGB, or may not act on LGB attractions. Someone may have strong sexual attractions to only one gender or another, or be equally attracted to both genders, or tend to be attracted to one gender more than the other. For example, a woman may identify as straight, but have occasional sexual attractions to women, or have one sexual experience with a woman while all of her relationships are with men. For some people, sexual orientation can shift, or seem to shift, at different periods in their lives. It's difficult to measure how many people are LGB when sexual orientation is so complex for many people. People with same-sex attractions may also choose not to identify as LGB because of fear of discrimination.
Research by Alfred Kinsey suggests that about 1 in 10 people are attracted to people of the same gender. Other research suggests somewhat lower estimates. But far fewer than 1 in 10 people identify openly as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Research shows that about 3.5 percent of American adults identify as LGB, 8.2 percent report that they've engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, and 11 percent acknowledge at least some same-sex attraction. This shows that what people do or feel is not always the same as how they identify themselves.
How Can I Figure Out Someone’s Sexual Orientation?
The only way you can know is if the person tells you. Some people think they can determine sexual orientation by the way people walk, talk, or dress, or by the job or hobbies they have. This isn't true. Those are just stereotypes — very simplified judgments about a group.
What If I’m Unsure About My Sexual Orientation?
You are not alone. It can take years, or even a lifetime, to understand your sexual orientation. Often, people find that they're "questioning" for quite a while, or that none of the labels used to describe sexual orientation seem to fit. For some, discrimination and homophobia can make it difficult to come to terms with a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity, so the process of coming out may be slow.
Rest assured that many people are still figuring out their sexuality, so what you're feeling is more common than you might think. Talking with a trusted friend or family member may help you figure it out.
What Is “Coming Out?”
“Coming out” or “coming out of the closet” is a process of accepting and being open about being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The first step is coming out to ourselves. This happens as we recognize our sexual orientation and accept it. We may also tell family, friends and people in our community — sometimes right away, and sometimes later on. We might decide to be open with some people in our lives, but not with others. Coming out is extremely personal, and different for everyone. But it can feel better to be open and honest about your sexual orientation than it does to hide it.
Coming out isn’t a one-time thing. Because many people assume that everyone they meet is straight, coming out can be a constant process. Every time LGB people meet someone new, they have to decide if and when to come out. But choosing to come out doesn't mean you have to be out everywhere, all the time — part of the coming out process is choosing how, where, and when it's best for you to be out. And there's no right or wrong way to do it.
The coming-out process can be freeing, empowering, and bring us closer to those we love, but it can also be stressful or even risky.
If you’re wondering whether or not to come out, there's a lot to think about. Consider all the risks and benefits. If coming out means that you risk losing emotional and financial support from your family, for example, you may want to wait until you can find a way to support yourself. You should also think about whether coming out could put you in any physical danger. But you're in charge of your coming out experience. It's up to you to choose how, where, when and with whom to be open about your sexual orientation. It may feel safer to start by being open with other people who are also LGB. This could be online, in community centers, at an LGB club or group, or with a few close friends.
For a step-by-step resource about coming out, check out the HRC's Resource Guide to Coming Out.
Outing is the act of revealing someone else's sexual orientation without their consent or permission. If you share information about someone's sexual orientation against their wishes, it can make them feel embarrassed, vulnerable and put them at risk for discrimination and even violence. If someone shares their orientation with you, ask them what they feel comfortable with you saying to other people and respect their wishes.
What Is Homophobia?
Homophobia is fear or hatred of people who are or are thought to be lesbian or gay.
When LGB people have fear or hatred of themselves or other gay people because of their own attractions, it’s called internalized homophobia.
Biphobia is fear or hatred of bisexuality, or the denial that bisexuality exists at all. Both straight and gay people can be biphobic, and people can be biphobic without being homophobic.
Homophobia and biphobia come from fear and ignorance. Some people's families, friends, cultures and religious authorities promote negative feelings and stereotypes about homosexuality and bisexuality. And some people are fearful or ignorant because they don’t know anyone who is openly LGB.
Homophobia and biphobia hurt all of us. They can prevent LGB people from feeling safe and from living full lives. They can lead to job, housing, and health care discrimination and sometimes verbal abuse and even physical violence. Homophobia and biphobia can cause feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation. They can also lead to suicide. LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Homophobia can also hurt straight people. It can keep straight men from forming close friendships with other men, for example, for fear of being perceived as gay.
What Can I Do to Help Stop Homophobia?
No matter what your sexual orientation, there are things you can do to fight homophobia and biphobia:
- Treat everyone — regardless of sexual orientation — with respect and dignity.
- Don't assume everyone you meet is straight. For example, if you meet a man who wears a wedding ring, don't automatically refer to his partner as his wife.
- Don’t claim that bisexuality doesn’t exist, is "a phase," or that bisexuals are really homosexuals who are afraid to come out. Don’t label bisexual people as confused, indiscriminate, promiscuous, or selfish.
- Think about the words you use that could be considered hurtful. Even if you don't mean for it to be hurtful or you "wouldn't say it to someone you know is gay," words like "fag" or "dyke" are offensive. Even if you think there are no LGB people around, you can't assume you know everyone's sexual orientation, and homophobic slurs offend many straight people also. And putting someone down by using a word like "fag" implies that LGB people have less value or aren't as important as straight people.
- Call people out who are making assumptions based on stereotypes, or saying or doing homophobic things, as long as you feel safe doing so.
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
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