Sexual orientation describes who you’re attracted to. You may already know what your sexual orientation is, or you might be figuring it out — both are totally normal.

What’s Sexual Orientation?

Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Queer. Questioning. Asexual. Straight. There are many labels that describe who you’re attracted to romantically and sexually. Maybe you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your sexual orientation. Or maybe you haven’t given it much thought. Either way, sexual orientation is just one part of who you are.

It’s not completely known what causes someone to be lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual, but your sexual orientation probably started at a very young age. This doesn’t mean that you had sexual feelings, just that you had feelings about who you were attracted to. As you get older these feelings get stronger and shape your sexual identity.

Sometimes sexual orientation changes over time. And sometimes it stays the same throughout your life. But sexual orientation isn’t a choice, and can’t be changed by therapy, treatment, or pressure from family or friends. You also can’t “turn” a person gay. For example, a girl who plays with toys traditionally made for boys isn’t going to become a lesbian because of that.

Sexual orientation can feel incredibly simple — you’re a girl who’s always liked both guys and girls and you identify as bisexual — or it can feel way more complex. It may take several years to understand your sexual orientation or come out. Some people call themselves questioning, which means they aren’t sure about their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is common — especially for teens.

What does queer mean?

Queer is a word that describes sexual and gender identities other than straight and cisgender. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people may all identify with the word queer. Queer is sometimes used to express that sexuality and gender can be complicated, change over time, and might not fit neatly into either/or identities, like male or female, gay or straight.   

The word “queer” has history to it that’s hurtful — “queer” used to be (and sometimes still is) used to put down or disrespect LGBT people. But more and more, people use the word with pride to identify themselves. So don’t call someone “queer” unless you know they’re cool with it. The best thing to do is ask what labels people prefer.

Who can I talk to about my sexual orientation?

Figuring out your sexual orientation can feel confusing and lonely. But it doesn’t have to be. 

Lots of people assume that everyone around them is straight, or have old-fashioned ideas about what LGBTQ people are like. That can make you feel bad about yourself, especially if you’ve ever been bullied about it.

But actually, you’re not alone at all, and it definitely doesn’t make you bad. It may not seem like it in high school, but being LGBTQ is pretty common — and it’s a huge source of pride and happiness for lots of people. Talking with someone you trust, someone who’s going through the same thing as you, or has gone through it in the past, can really help.

Here are some ways you can find people to talk with.

Thinking about this stuff can bring out a lot of feelings. If you’re having a really hard time, the Trevor Project has a 24/7 hotline where you can talk about what’s going on.

Remember that deciding who to come out to and when is totally up to you. Figuring out your sexual orientation and coming out are both processes — they take time. Don’t rush yourself.