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 the gender of a person who we become sexually attracted to. People who identify as “straight” or “heterosexual” will describe being attracted to people of the opposite gender. “Homosexuality” or “gay” orientation refers to people who have sexual attractions to members of their own gender. “Lesbian” refers specifically to women who identify as gay or homosexual. “Bisexual” refers to people who have sexual attractions to both genders, male or female. “Pansexual” is a relatively new term used by people who have sexual attractions to all people, regardless of their gender (people who may not express being fully male or fully female).

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 other people of the same gender, but have no crushes or pleasurable experiences with people of the opposite gender will ultimately report being “gay” or “lesbian”. Having one or a few experiences with somebody of the same gender does not automatically make you gay or even bisexual. Sometimes it takes a long time to understand our bodies and how they react to other people.

When will I know my sexual orientation?

There is no official time that determines our sexual orientation. During adolescence, our brain starts 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 a pleasurable sexual experience.

Is it OK to be gay or bisexual?

Yes. Although religions and cultures may have traditional beliefs that these types of feelings shouldn’t be expressed in our behavior, current medical and psychiatric organizations have long taken the stance that being “lesbian” or “bisexual” is normal. Many lesbian and bisexual people are able to keep their religious values and cultural identity, yet feel comfortable to express their sexuality. There are also many religious figures in the community who are accepting of people of all sexual orientations.

Gender identity is how strong a person’s feeling is about being male or female, or possibly parts of both. Most people are comfortable with the feeling that they are one gender (male or female); however, not everybody falls into this category.

How do people express their gender identity?

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

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, or even possibly both types of feelings) and sexual orientation is about “who you have a crush on”.

What does “transgender” mean?

Transgender people are people whose gender identity (feeling about which gender they are) doesn’t match with their biologic gender (or sex). This means that their mind may tell them one thing, but their bodies tell them another. For example, a person born female feels that they are a male trapped in a girl’s body. Transgender people feel strongly that their mind is right, and often desire to go through medical procedures to help change their body to the other gender.

What does gender-queer mean?

This is a term used by people who don’t feel comfortable calling themselves male or female. They actually may feel comfortable with parts of both categories (or neither category). Some people who feel this way do not like to use male or female pronouns.

Is it ok to be transgender or gender-queer?

Absolutely. As with gay or bisexual people, some people with traditional beliefs may be uncomfortable with those who express these feelings, but professional medical 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 gay? What about transgender and straight?

Yes and yes. Being transgender is an individual thing, and it is about people whose mind and bodies 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 with the same gender (as their mind tells them they are), and other transgender people may be attracted to people of the opposite gender (as their mind tells them they are). If you are confused by this, it’s ok, because many other people are too!

What are homophobia and transphobia?

Homophobia is a term that describes negative feelings and attitudes towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Transphobia is a similar term that describes negative feelings and attitudes towards transgender and gender-queer people.

What are some examples of homo/transphobia?

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

Why does homo/transphobia exist?

There is not an easy answer to this question! The best way to understand it is to realize that minority groups in the past have always made mainstream culture to feel uncomfortable. Other minorities such as women and racial ethnic groups are also discriminated against. Even though being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or gender-queer 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 decrease in the future.