Sexual Orientation: An Introduction

By OBOS Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Contributors | October 15, 2011

Sexual orientation is about who attracts us. Sexual orientation falls along a spectrum. Some women are attracted only to men, some only to women, some to both, some to neither, and some to people who don’t identify as one gender or the other.

Although people may choose the nearest applicable label, such as lesbian, they may actually have attractions and even relationships that are not in rigid accordance with that label.

Many people confuse sexual orientation with gender identity. Gender identity is about who we are, while sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to. Being cisgender or transgender does not, for example, predict whether a woman will be straight, bisexual or lesbian.

The confusion of gender identity with sexual orientation gives rise to misleading stereotypes. Some people assume that if a woman is a lesbian, she must have a masculine gender expression — in other words, she must keep her hair short, wear no makeup, and dress like a man. Likewise, some might assume a woman who appears masculine is a lesbian. But being lesbian or bisexual doesn’t mean our gender looks or feels a certain way.

The following are terms used to identify sexual orientation.

Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction ever, or for a period of time.

Bisexual: A person who is romantically/sexually attracted to both men and women — sometimes, though not necessarily, at the same time. Bisexuals are often mislabeled as confused, or not queer enough; people who identify as bi have often been stigmatized. A 35-year-old Latina writes:

I have known I was interested in both sexes since I was six or seven. But, due to the conservative Catholic home I was raised in, my family did not accept same-sex relationships. In my 20s, when I started college, I began to start to explore women, and in my 30s I started to act on it. I love being with another woman; the connection is something I can’t put into words. When I talk with my partner about being bi, he thinks it’s just a “phase,” although I’ve told him many times that I enjoy being with a woman. So now he prefers not to talk about me being bi. I can feel myself distancing myself from him for not being open to how I feel. When he said, “It’s just a phase,” it was like he was doubting who I am. It hurt.

Gay/homosexual: A man who is romantically/sexually attracted to men. It is sometimes used to describe women who are attracted to women, but is often used to refer to men exclusively.

Lesbian: A woman who is romantically/ sexually attracted to women. “Same gender loving woman” is sometimes used in the African-American community.

Pansexual: A person who is attracted to people across the range of genders. Often used by those who identify as transgender or genderqueer or who are attracted to people who are transgender or genderqueer.

Queer: Historically a derogatory term for gays, this word is now used positively by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and allies. It is sometimes used to describe an open, fluid sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression.

Straight/heterosexual: Refers to women who are romantically/sexually attracted to men, and men who are attracted to women.

Some of us have reclaimed historically negative terms, such as queer, fag and dyke, and use these words affirmatively to describe ourselves. This is a political act that attempts to reclaim the power from these slurs. Rejecting labels is another form of resistance:

I don’t identify as anything as far as sexuality goes. I was heterosexual for the beginning of high school, then I had a two-year experience with asexuality, and after that I came into a lovely and mixed-up world that resists labels.