Understanding Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation refers to who you are sexually attracted to and who you want to be in a relationship with. Sexuality exists on a spectrum, both in who we are attracted to and how sexual we want to be physically with our partners. It’s common for teenagers and young adults to start exploring their sexuality on their own and with partners, and for our understanding of our sexual identity to evolve over time as we grow and have new experiences.
Whether you are questioning your sexuality, considering coming out about your sexuality, or trying to support a friend who is questioning their sexuality, understanding sexuality and our own sexual identity is an important part of getting to know ourselves and forming healthy relationships with others.
Common Labels for Sexual Orientations
The terms we commonly use to describe different sexual orientations include (but are not limited to):
- Gay: A man or man-aligned person who is sexually attracted to other men (or man-aligned people. Gay is also often used as an umbrella term for people in various same-sex or queer relationships.
- Lesbian: A woman or woman-aligned person who is sexually attracted to other women or woman-aligned people.
- Bisexual (Bi): A person who is attracted to two or more genders, not exclusive to those only in the man/woman gender binary (man and woman).
- Asexual (Ace): A person who does not experience sexual attraction. This term should not be confused for people who have sexual dysfunction, or are celibate or abstinent. People who are asexual are still capable of having sex and having fulfilling romantic relationships if they choose to.
- Queer: This is often used as an umbrella term by people who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some people prefer to use this term to describe their sexuality or gender identity, while others prefer to use it in addition to more specific labels. While “queer” has been and can still be seen as a slur, many members of the LGBTQ+ community have reclaimed the word as their own.
These are just some of the many identities that make up the LGBTQ+ community. As we understand more about the sexual identity spectrum and expand upon it, these definitions can grow and change.
Sexual Identity vs. Experience
If we’re questioning our sexuality, it may bring up doubts and questions, especially if we’ve already had certain sexual or romantic experiences. For example, you may wonder, “Am I gay even if I’ve never kissed a man?” “Am I a lesbian if I like women but I’ve only dated men?” or “How can I tell if I am bisexual if I’ve only had sex with men and not women?”
It’s important to understand that while we look at sexual orientation through sexual attraction and romantic relationships, you do not need to have had sex or a relationship with the kind of person you’re attracted to in order to identify with a particular orientation. For example, if you identify as a woman and are attracted to other women, you can identify as a lesbian, even if you’ve never dated a woman before. You can be bisexual and still have only dated people from one of the genders you’re attracted to. Similarly, you do not need to engage in sexual activity before deciding to identify as asexual.
However you identify, you do not need to rush into any sexual or romantic experiences to validate your sexuality to yourself or to others.
What is the Difference Between Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity?
The term LGBTQ+ is often used to refer to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and questioning community. While labels like gay, lesbian, and bisexual are all examples of sexual orientation, the term transgender refers to a gender identity: a person’s individual understanding and expression of their gender, regardless what sex they were assigned at birth. Like sexual orientation, gender identity exists on a spectrum: there is a range of gender identities, including transgender, cisgender, agender, and nonbinary.
Your sexual orientation isn’t the same as your gender identity. Think about it this way: gender identity is about who you are, and sexual orientation is about who you want to be with sexually or romantically.
It’s important to understand that a person’s gender identity doesn’t dictate their sexual orientation. People of any gender can have any sexual orientation.
Why Labels Matter (And Why They Don’t Have To
Realizing that you may not be a cisgender or straight person can feel overwhelming, and it is the first realization in the journey of coming out to yourself—and to others, if you so choose. You may start to explore your sexual identity by using labels about sexual orientation, including gay, lesbian, queer, or others along the spectrum. Using labels can help:
- Communicate to others within and outside the LGBTQ+ community how a person identifies
- Acknowledge the diverse and unique experiences outside of cisgender and heterosexual experiences
- Add another layer to someone’s experiences, along with other characteristics such as race, disability, and gender
- Create a sense of belonging within a community during what can be a difficult process of questioning and exploring identity
- Give allies of the LGBTQ+ community a better understanding of what unique experiences of discrimination and bias a person may be dealing with due to their sexuality, and how to better support them
It’s important to remember that sexuality is fluid, and labels can be too. We can choose to change our labels as we grow and our lives change. If you choose a label that fits at one time and later you feel it no longer fits your experience, it is okay to explore other labels. Some people even choose not to label their sexuality at all. All of these choices are valid, and unique to each person.
How Can I Support A Friend Who is Questioning Their Sexual Orientation?
The journey of exploring sexuality is very personal, and should happen at the pace and comfort level of each individual. If you have a friend who is questioning their sexuality, sharing their journey with you, or still in the closet, you can support them by talking to them about their sexual orientation, actively listening to their experience, and asking respectful questions.
Never assume or guess at someone’s sexuality. Often when people assume someone’s sexuality, they are basing their guess off of harmful stereotypes. Instead of making assumptions, wait for your friend to come out to you.
What to Do When a Friend is Not Ready to Come Out
The pressure to “come out” about your sexual orientation from society and media can sometimes feel overwhelming for young people who are questioning their sexuality. But it’s important for people to be able to come out on their own terms, when they feel comfortable and safe doing so.
If you have a friend who is not ready to come out for whatever reason, be respectful. Your friend’s journey of sexual identity is theirs and theirs alone. Do not pressure them to come out to others before they are ready, or out them to others—even if you know the person you’re speaking to would be accepting. Outing someone else can feel very invasive and disrespectful, and it may damage your relationship.
Instead, if you suspect that your friend may be working up to coming out to you or others, be patient and respectful, and express how much you value them as a friend. By being respectful and going at their pace, you show that you’re a person they can trust with this part of their identity.
How Can I Support a Friend Who Has Come Out?
The process of coming out is different for everyone—how and when they choose to come out, and to whom, is the decision of the person who is coming out. Once someone does come out, they may be greeted with acceptance, but many LGBTQ+ young people face bias and discrimination from school administrators, medical practitioners, peers, and even family members. If a friend of yours has recently come out, here are some priorities to keep in mind when supporting them:
Are They Out to Everyone?
Some young people may choose to come out to everyone they know, while others choose who to come out to carefully depending on how comfortable and safe they feel doing so. For example, a teenager may choose to be out at school because their classmates and school administration show them support, but they may not be out at home because their family is not supportive. Knowing who a friend is out to and why is an important aspect of respecting their boundaries and supporting their journey, and is another step to ensuring their safety.
Are They Safe?
For an alarming number of LGBTQ+ young people, coming out may mean losing a safe place to live: Research shows that an estimated 40% of young people experiencing houselessness identify as LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ youth make up only 7% of young people in the U.S., but are almost 120% more likely to experience houselessness than their straight peers.
When a friend comes out, it is crucial that they have a support system to ensure their safety and access to resources, such as a safe place to live. If you feel comfortable, you can offer them a safe place to stay if they need it, or help them connect to other resources through extended family, other friends, and community programs.
What if They Change Their Sexual Orientation?
Identifying as a particular label may make a person feel like that label can never change. It’s important to remember that sexuality and gender identity are fluid, and our identities can change as we grow and learn more about ourselves. Your friend may try on different labels before they find one they are comfortable with, identify with many different labels throughout their life, or feel like existing labels don’t fit their experience. It’s important to accept this as a part of their coming out process, and not use this changing nature as a way to invalidate their current sexual orientation.
Are They Getting Mental Health Support?
Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community has a profound impact on the mental health of young people who identify as part of that community. Many people in the community are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. In a 2020 report on LGBTQ+ mental health, 40% of queer young people—those who identify as non-cisgender or not straight—considered suicide in the past year.
If your friend is experiencing mental health struggles related to their sexual identity, you can show your support by listening to them with an open mind, encouraging them to seek help, and offering to help connect them with LGBTQ+ affirming mental health resources. If you believe that your friend may be feeling suicidal, reach out to the Trevor Project for support.