Sexual orientation is a natural part of who you are — it’s not a choice. Your sexual orientation can change over your lifetime.

What causes sexual orientation?

It’s not completely known why someone might be lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual. But research shows that sexual orientation is likely caused partly by biological factors that start before birth.

Sexual orientation isn’t a choice and can’t be changed. People don’t decide who they’re attracted to, and therapy, treatment, or persuasion won’t change a person’s sexual orientation. You also can’t “turn” a person gay. For example, exposing a boy to toys traditionally made for girls, such as dolls, won’t cause him to be gay.

You probably started to become aware of who you’re attracted to at a very young age. This doesn’t mean that you had sexual feelings, just that you could identify people you found attractive or liked. Many people say that they knew they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual even before puberty.

Although sexual orientation is usually set early in life, it isn’t at all uncommon for your desires and attractions to shift throughout your life. This is called “fluidity.” Many people, including sex researchers and scientists, believe that sexual orientation is like a scale with entirely gay on one end and entirely straight on the other. Lots of people would be not on the far ends, but somewhere in the middle.

How many people are LGBTQ?

LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning.

Although researchers try to study how many people are LGBTQ, it’s very difficult to get an accurate number. This is because gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and sexual behavior are complicated for people. Let’s break it down:

  • Gender identity is who you feel you are inside and how you express those feelings through how you act, talk, dress, etc.

  • Sexual attraction is the romantic or sexual feelings you have toward others.

  • Sexual identity is how you label yourself (for example, using labels such as queer, gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual).

  • Sexual behavior is who you have sex with and what kinds of sex you like to have.

Sometimes all of these things are in line for a person. For example, a woman may feel attracted only to women, identify as a lesbian, and have sexual relationships with only women.

But these things don’t always line up. Not everyone who has sexual feelings or attractions to the same gender will act on them. Some people may engage in same gender sexual behavior but not identify themselves as bisexual, lesbian, or gay. In some situations, coming out as LGBTQ can provoke fear and discrimination, and not everyone is comfortable coming out. For some people, sexual orientation can shift at different periods in their lives and the labels they use for themselves may shift, too.

So it’s difficult to measure how many people are LGBTQ when sexual orientation and gender are so complex for so many people. And not everyone feels safe or comfortable telling someone else that they’re LGBTQ.

Recent research suggests that 11% of American adults acknowledge at least some same-sex attraction, 8.2% report that they’ve engaged in same-sex behavior, but only 3.5% identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. This shows that what people feel or do is not always the same as how they identify themselves.