Sexual OrientationSkip to the navigation
Sexual orientation means how you are attracted romantically and sexually to other people. There are different kinds of sexual orientation. A person can be:
- Heterosexual—attracted only or almost only to the other gender.
- Gay or lesbian—attracted only or almost only to the same gender.
- Bisexual—attracted to both men and women, though not necessarily as strongly or at the same time.
- Asexual—not attracted to either gender. This is different from deciding not to have sex with anyone (abstinence or celibacy).
Scientists can't say yet why a person is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. Most people feel that their sexual orientation is not a matter of choice: it's just part of who they are.
Many people discover more about this part of themselves over time. For example, some girls and boys date heterosexually in high school then find later on that they are really more comfortable, romantically and sexually, with members of their own gender.
You may hear many different words and phrases about sexual orientation. Here are some definitions:
- Ally: A heterosexual person who fully accepts and supports his or her LGBT friends or family members. An ally recognizes the equality of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
- Bi: A short, informal way of saying "bisexual."
- Gay: A man who is attracted only or almost only to men, or a woman who is attracted only or almost only to women.
- Gender identity: Your internal sense of whether you are male or female. This may not be the same as your physical sex.
- In the closet: A person who realizes that she or he is gay and keeps this a secret is "in the closet" or "closeted."
- Lesbian: A woman who is gay.
- LGBT: Popular shorthand for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender." Often seen as "GLBT." Sometimes a "Q" is added (LGBTQ), for "queer" or "questioning." A person who is "questioning" is one who isn't sure about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Queer: A word meaning "not heterosexual." Some gay people are offended by the word. But many people have reclaimed the word as a way of saying that they are open about their sexual orientation.
- Straight: Heterosexual.
- Transgender: People who don't feel that their gender identity fully "matches" their physical sex or other body characteristics, or who feel different from most other people of their physical sex in some significant way, sometimes call themselves transgender. This is a very general term. There are many ways to be transgender.
- Transsexual: People who use medical treatments, such as hormone medicine or surgery, to make their bodies match their gender identity.
For more information, see the topics:
How do people find out their sexual orientation?
Many people first become aware of their orientation during the preteen and teen years. For example, a heterosexual man may have first experienced romantic feelings when he was in early puberty, having a crush on a girl in his class. And many gay and lesbian people were first attracted to members of their own gender during these early years.
During the teen years, same-sex "crushes" are common. Some teens may experiment sexually with someone of their own sex. But these early experiences don't necessarily mean a teen will be gay as an adult.
For some teens, though, same-sex attractions do not fade. They grow stronger.
Remember: You're not alone
The pressure and stress caused by feeling alone and sad can lead to depression, a very serious problem. Depression can lead to suicide. Teens with depression are at particularly high risk for suicide and suicide attempts.
If you are gay, it's important to realize that there are lots of people just like you. They have the same problems, emotions, and questions that you have, whether you have told someone or are still hiding the fact that you are gay.
It can be very comforting and helpful to talk to people who know what you're going through. You can find such people through local or online groups. If you don't know where to find support, ask:
- Your doctor.
- Your school counselor or trusted teacher.
- A therapist or other counselor.
- LGBT friends or relatives.
- LGBT clubs and organizations in your community.
- Churches that welcome LGBT members.
- Websites and online organizations. You can find a list of such organizations on the website for PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) at www.pflag.org.
Why is it important to understand stress and know how to cope with it?
Stress is a fact of life. Most of us have periods of stress at various times in our lives. But extra stress can have a serious effect on your health, especially if it lasts for a long time.
People who are still keeping their sexual orientation a secret may be worried about being found out and about what might happen if others knew. It can be very stressful to have to hide a big secret, especially one about who you really are. Rejection, discrimination, fear, and confusion cause long-term stress in many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Constant stress can be linked to headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping. It can weaken your immune system, so that you have a harder time fighting off disease. If you already have a health problem, stress may make it worse. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Your relationships may suffer. And you may not do well at work or school.
People who are under long-term stress are also more likely to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol heavily, and use other drugs. These habits can lead to serious health problems.
It's important to recognize the effects that stress can have on your life and to learn how to cope with stress to stay healthy. For more information, see the topic Stress Management.
Other Places To Get Help
Other Works Consulted
- American Psychological Association (2008). Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx.
- APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns (2011). Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/transgender.aspx.
- Biggs WS (2011). Medical human sexuality. In RE Rakel, DP Rakel, eds., Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed., pp. 1000–1012. Philadelphia: Saunders.
- Eliason MJ, et al. (2009). LGBTQ Cultures: What Health Care Professionals Need to Know About Sexual and Gender Diversity. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Available online: http://www.nursingcenter.com/upload/Journals/Documents/LGBTQ.htm.
- Hillman JB, Spigarelli MG (2009). Sexuality: Its development and direction. In WB Carey et al., eds., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 4th ed., pp. 415–425. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- Sadock VA (2009). Normal human sexuality and sexual and gender identity disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2027–2060. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Zucker KJ (2011). Gender identity and sexual behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 346–348. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Current as ofMarch 14, 2017