Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: General Information

Young men's version of this guide
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girl with kiss mark on faceThe word “sexuality” means different things to different people. Generally, it refers to an individual’s personal experience of being attracted to other people and the body’s sexual feelings and response to those people. There are lots of terms that are connected to sexuality such as sexual orientation, gender identity, bisexuality and more.

What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation refers to sexual and romantic feelings for people of the same gender, a different gender, or more than one gender. People who identify their sexual orientation as “straight” or “heterosexual” feel attracted to people of a different gender than themselves. People who identify as “lesbian” or “gay” feel attracted to people of the same gender as themselves. People who identify as “bisexual” feel attracted to more than one gender, typically women and men. “Pansexual” is a term used by people who feel attracted to more than one gender and feel that other terms don’t include people who are transgender and gender nonconforming (people who have a gender identity or gender expression that doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth). People who use the term “queer” may use it to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, or pansexual, or they may use it because other terms don’t quite describe their experiences.

Some people might identify their sexual orientation one way, but experience attractions that don’t match the label they are using. For example, a person might identify as “straight,” but feel attracted to people of the same gender or more than one gender and sometimes act on those attractions. Sexual orientations can also change over time for some people. For example, a person might be attracted to people of the same gender as themselves, and then later be attracted to more than one gender. This is normal! It just means that sexual orientation is complicated for some people.

How do I know my sexual orientation?

It may take a different amount of time to understand ourselves and our attractions to others. For example, people who have repeated crushes and/or pleasurable body experiences with people of the same gender as themselves, but have no crushes or pleasurable experiences with people of a different gender than themselves will often identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian” at some point. However, having one or even a few experiences with somebody of the same gender does not automatically make you gay or bisexual. Sometimes it takes a long time to understand our sexual and romantic feelings and how our bodies react to other people.

When will I know my sexual orientation?

There is no official time that determines our sexual orientation. For some people, adolescence is the time when they figure out their sexual orientation, but for other people it may not happen until young adulthood or even later in life. During adolescence, our brains start to release certain hormones that help our bodies go through puberty and change. This happens over many years. At the same time, we may start developing crushes towards other people, which may lead to having pleasurable sexual experiences. For some people, this gives them a clue about who they might have sexual and romantic feelings towards.

Is it OK to be gay or bisexual?

Yes. Although some religions and cultures may have traditional beliefs that these types of feelings shouldn’t be expressed as behaviors, current medical, psychological, and psychiatric organizations have long believed that being lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) is normal. Many LGB people are able to keep their religious values and cultural identity, yet feel comfortable to express their sexuality. There are also many people in religious communities who are accepting of people of all sexual orientations.

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is a person’s internal feelings of being a woman, man, both, or neither. Most people have a gender identity and/or gender expression (how a person shows their gender through their appearance or behavior) that matches their sex assigned at birth. However, some people have a gender identity or gender expression that is different from their sex assigned at birth; these people might use the term “transgender” or “gender noncomforming” to describe their gender identity.

How do people express their gender identity?

Gender can be expressed in many ways: through our clothes, speech, activities, hobbies, and our behaviors. It’s ok for any of these things to change at different times, depending on what feels comfortable.

What’s the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?

Many people confuse the two, but here is a simple way to understand the difference: gender identity is more about “who you are” (boy, girl, both, or neither) and sexual orientation is about “who you have a crush on.”

What do “transgender” and “gender nonconforming” mean?

Transgender and gender nonconforming people are people whose gender identity (feelings about which gender they are) and/or gender expression (how they show their gender through appearance and behavior) don’t match the sexy they were assigned at birth (female or male). This means that their mind may tell them one thing, but their bodies tell them another. For example, a transgender person who is assigned female at birth may feel like they are a boy trapped in a girl’s body, or a transgender person who is assigned male at birth may feel like they are a girl. Transgender people feel strongly that their mind is right, and often desire to go through medical procedures to help change their body to match their gender. However, some people express their gender through their appearance and/or behavior, without changing their body.

What does “gender queer” mean?

This is a term used by people who don’t feel comfortable calling themselves a boy or a girl. They may feel comfortable with parts of both genders (or neither gender). Other labels that people use are “gender nonconforming” or “agender.” Some people who feel this way do not like to use male (he/him) or female (she/her) pronouns, and instead use pronouns such as they/their.

Is it ok to be transgender?

Absolutely. As with LGB people, some people with traditional beliefs may be uncomfortable with people who express these feelings, but professional medical, psychological, and psychiatric organizations agree that it is better to express who you are, even if it makes other people a little uncomfortable.

Can I be both transgender and LGB? What about transgender and straight?

Yes and yes. Being transgender is about gender identity, not sexual orientation. Transgender describes people whose mind and body tell them different things about which gender they are. However, those same people also have attractions to other people – some of them may be attracted to people of the same gender, based on their own gender identity, and other transgender people may be attracted to people of a different gender, based on their own gender identity.

What are homophobia and transphobia?

Homophobia is a term that describes negative feelings and attitudes toward LGB people. Transphobia is a similar term that describes negative feelings and attitudes towards transgender and gender nonconforming people.

What are some examples of homophobia and transphobia?

Negative feelings and attitudes about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people can be shown in different ways. Some ways are obvious and intentional; for example, direct insults, threats, bullying, physical harm or violence, and discrimination. Some ways are less obvious. Examples of these hidden forms of homophobia or transphobia include people who aren’t comfortable around LGBT people; the use of slurs/words in an unintentional way; and avoiding discussions about LGBT issues due to feeling uncomfortable. All types of homophobic and transphobic attitudes and behaviors can be hurtful and sometimes dangerous to LGBT people.

Why do homophobia and transphobia exist?

There is no easy answer to this question! The best way to understand it is to realize that minority groups have always made mainstream culture feel uncomfortable. Other minorities such as racial/ethnic groups are also discriminated against. Even though being LGBT is common, these groups are still minorities. The good news is that people are becoming more comfortable with these issues, and hopefully homophobic and transphobic behaviors will become less common in the future.