Learn about the different aspects of sexual orientation -- attraction, behavior and identity -- and the many ways people identify.
DeeWho is Dee?
Hi! I’m here to help you learn about sexual orientation. At its core, sexual orientation is all about attraction — who you’re drawn to, romantically and sexually. Most of us understand what it means to be gay or straight, but what about bisexual, asexual and pansexual? This section breaks down all that and more. Let’s get started…
Learn what sexual orientation really is and the terminology currently used.
It all starts with attraction
There are three aspects to sexual orientation--attraction, behavior, and identity.
Terms to know
Vocabulary can shift over time. If you’re curious about some terms you’ve heard, here are a few to start with.
Are women the same as men?
Researchers are learning a lot from studying women’s sexual orientations, including the possibility that some people’s sexual orientations are more fluid than others.
How did you know you were gay?
Watch as two young women have a lively conversation about coming to terms with their sexual identity.
Hear from people with a variety of sexual orientations as they talk about the lives and relationships.
“I married my sorority sister”
Laura and Sam met and fell in love in their college sorority. Now they are married and raising a family.
“It kinda threw me for a whammy.”
Deidra Robinson talks with her father about what happened to their once-close relationship when she told him she was gay.
"Do I have to call you Mommy?"
Before she passed away from AIDS-related illness, Corinithia Isom's mother asked her good friends Kathleen and April to love and care for her daughter after she was gone.
“I blamed myself”.
Samuel Taylor and his mother reflect on her struggles to come to terms with Samuel being gay.
"I knew I was home"
Would you invite someone you had just met to come home with you for Christmas? That's exactly what Seth Smiley-Humphries did.
“In those days you served in silence.”
Denny Meyer recalls what it was like to hide that he was gay while serving in the Navy.
What understanding looks like
When the Kanijow family realized their son was gay, they didn’t disown him. They did this instead.
“Everyone is different”
Meet a young asexual couple and hear about their relationship—“a modern-day love story with a bit of a twist.”
What makes a family?
What does family mean to you? That's the question posed to 2 same-sex couples and their young children.
Wives for life
Meet Gail and Audrey, two highly successful women who share a deep love for one another.
An appealing alternative
In the late 1800s, committed unions between two women—sometimes called Boston marriages--were socially acceptable. How was this possible more than a century before same-sex marriage was legalized?
Seeing is believing
"How can you believe in something you've never seen?" Janal Jordan makes LGBTQ+ love visible through the power his photography.
Things never to say to your gay friends
Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy and journalist Phillip Picardi share commonly asked questions that seem innocent but can actually be offensive and hurtful.
What not to say to kids with LGBTQ+ parents
Kids of LGBTQ+ parents receive a lot of questions, these are the ones to avoid.
Taking the field
Carl Nassib is the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Check out this video by NBC News to learn more about how and why Nassib came out.
Teacher John Byrne shares his story of coming out to his students and what happened next.
Bayard Rustin was one of the most important leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement. So why have so few people heard of him?
Learn about the demographics of sexual orientation.
Growing up with LGBTQ+ parents
What happens when children are raised by gay or lesbian parents? Find out what the research says.
Raised by same-sex couples
Discover what researchers have to say about how children of same-sex couples are doing in school.
(Adj.) Describes a person who does not experience any form of sexual attraction. People who identify as asexual may or may not experience emotional, physical, or romantic attraction. Learn More
(Noun) A feeling of interest in another person. Attraction can take different forms, including sexual, romantic, physical, emotional, and aesthetic attraction. Individuals may experience just one or multiple types of attraction for another person. Learn More
(Adj.) Refers to the sexual orientation of a person who experiences sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to persons of more than one gender, not necessarily equally or at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree. Also known as "bi". Learn More
(Noun) Originated in New England during the late 1800s to describe a situation where two women lived together in a committed relationship. Boston marriages typically occurred between women who were college-educated and financially independent, thereby eliminating the need for male support. Learn More
(Adj.) Hiding one's sexual orientation, gender identity, or status as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, either totally or partially. Learn More
(Noun or Verb) The process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates their sexual identity or gender identity and begins to share that with others. Learn More
(Adj.) Describes the sexual orientation of persons who are emotionally, sexually, and/or romantically attracted to persons of the same sex/gender. While the term is most often used to describe men, it can also be used more broadly to refer to both men and women (i.e., gay man, gay woman, gay people). Learn More
(Noun) A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity and ascribe qualities of masculinity and femininity to people. Gender characteristics can change over time and vary between cultures. Learn More
(Noun) One’s deeply held, core sense of being a man, woman, or some other gender. A gender identity can be a combination of two or more genders (such as gender fluid), and some individuals don't identify with any gender at all--described as being agender. Learn More
Heterosexual / Heterosexuality
(Adj.) Primary or exclusive sexual, emotional, and/or romantic attraction to a gender other than one's own. Typically this means a woman who is primarily attracted to men and vice versa. Also referred to as "straight". Learn More
Homosexual / Homosexuality
(Noun) A term that describes a primary or exclusive sexual, emotional, and/or romantic attraction to persons of one's own sex/gender. The term is considered outdated by many in the LGBTQ+ community but is still used in some research contexts. Learn More
(Adj./Noun) Refers to the sexual orientation of women who are emotionally, sexually, and/or romantically attracted to women. Learn More
(Adj.) LGBTQ+ is an umbrella term used to refer to the community of sexual and gender minorities as a whole. The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning, with the "+" representing additional sexual orientations and gender identities, such as persons who are intersex or asexual. Learn More
(Adj.)Describes a person who is romantically and/or sexually involved with only one person at a time. Learn More
(Adj.) A person who is pansexual is capable of experiencing emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to persons of all gender identities and gender expressions. Learn More
(Adj.) Describes a person who experiences romantic attraction towards multiple but not all genders. Learn More
(Adj.) Alternative term to LGBTQ+. An umbrella term for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual. Historically a negative term and insult, queer is being reclaimed by many LGBTQ+ people—particularly youth—as a source of pride and political identity. The term is valued by some for its defiance, by some because it can be inclusive of the entire community, and by others who find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities. “Queer” is still disliked by some people in the LGBTQ+ community and its use by straight people can be considered offensive. Due to its varying meanings, this word should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer (i.e. “My cousin identifies as queer.”) Learn More
(Adj.)Describes the process of discovery and exploration about sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or a combination thereof. Can be an aspect of adolescence as young people explore various facets of their identity.
(Noun) Refers to the desire to engage in romantic behavior such as dating and relationships with another person or persons. Can exist independently or alongside other attractions, such as emotional, sexual and/or aesthetic attraction. Learn More
(Noun) The way a person identifies in relation to their romantic attractions. For instance, a person might identify as heteroromantic, panromantic or aromantic. Learn more
(Noun) A way of characterizing a person's identity vis-à-vis romantic attractions, behavior and identity. Learn More
Sex / Sex assigned at birth / Biological sex
(Noun) A person's sex (male, female, or intersex) is often determined based on the appearance of the genitalia, either in ultrasound or at birth. In reality, biological sex is more complicated, referring to a combination of anatomical, physiological, genetic, and physical attributes. These include genitalia, gonads, hormone levels, hormone receptors, chromosomes, genes, and secondary sex characteristics. The phrase "sex assigned at birth" is used by some to emphasize that genitalia alone are not always a sufficient indication of a person's sex, as well as the fact that a person's gender identity is not always aligned with the sex characteristics observed at birth. Learn More
(Noun) The components of a person that include their biological sex, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, etc. Learn More
(Noun) Refers to the desire to engage in sexual behavior or make sexual contact with another person or persons. Learn More
(Noun) The way a person views and understands their sexual orientation, such as gay, straight, bisexual, or some other orientation. Learn More
(Noun) Commonly used to refer to who we are or are not attracted to -- sexually, romantically, and emotionally--the relationships we have, and how we personally identify. Sometimes used more narrowly to refer to sexual attraction, behavior and identity. Attraction and behavior do not always define a person's sexual orientation. (e.g. a man who has sex with men may not identify as gay). Learn More
(Adj.) Another term for heterosexual. Refers to the sexual, emotional, and/or romantic attraction to a gender other than one's own. Typically this means a woman who is primarily attracted to men and vice versa. Learn More
Transgender / Trans*
(Adj.) Describes a person whose gender identity does not match their sex characteristics observed at birth. People who identify as transgender (sometimes shortened to "trans") may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity. This word is also sometimes used as a broad umbrella term to describe those who transcend conventional expectations of gender identity or expression, such as people who identify as genderqueer, gender variant, gender diverse, or androgynous. Learn More
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Citations & Sources
American Psychological Association. (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10–42. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/amp-a0024659.pdf
Beaulieu-Prevost, D. & Fortin, M. (2015). The measurement of sexual orientation: Historical background and current practices. Sexologies 24(1), 29-34. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1158136014000656
Buzzfeed. (2017, July 27). How did you know you were gay? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwKm0XUQ6e0
Carrillo, H. & Hoffman, A. (2018). Straight with a pinch of bi: The construction of heterosexuality as an elastic category among adult US men. Sexualities, 21(1-2), 90-108. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1363460716678561
Copen, C.E., Chandra, A., & Febo-Vazquez, I. (2016). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual orientation among adults aged 18–44 in the United States: data from the 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth. CDC: National Health Statistics Report, 88. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs//data/nhsr/nhsr088.pdf
Cornell University. (2017, December). What does the scholarly research say about the well-being of children with gay or lesbian parents? What We Know: The Public Policy Research Portal. https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...
Cornell University. (2017, December). What does the scholarly research say about whether conversion therapy can alter sexual orientation without causing harm? What We Know: The Public Policy Research Portal. https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...
Conroy, E. (2013, April 29). The 4th Sexuality - Asexuality [Video]. YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrXWqwuOqIQ
Diamond, L.M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gates, G.J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/how-many-people-lgbt/
Gates, G. J. (2013). LGBT Parenting in the US. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-parenting-us/
Gates, G. J. (2014). LGBT demographics: Comparisons among population-based surveys. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-demo-comp-pop-surveys/
Gates, G.J. (2017). In US, more adults identifying as LGBT. Gallup. http://news.gallup.com/poll/201731/lgbt-identification-rises.aspx
GLAAD. (n.d.). Glossary of terms- lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/queer.
Media Reference Guide. https://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq
The Kinsey Scale. (2019). Kinsey Institute. https://www.kinseyinstitute.org/research/publications/kinsey-scale.php
The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. (2014). American Institute of Bisexuality. http://www.americaninstituteofbisexuality.org/thekleingrid
The Scene. (2017, March 29). I married my sorority sister [Video]. YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ASIpIY7RtE
Selterman, D. (2014, January 13). Debunking myths about sexual fluidity. Luvze. http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2014/10/13/debunking-myths-about-sexual-fluidity.html
StoryCorps. (2015, March 29). Deidra Robinson & William Watford III [Audio podcast]. https://storycorps.org/listen/william-watford-iii-and-deidra-robinson-150329/
StoryCorps. (2012, June 22). Denny Meyer [Audio podcast]. https://storycorps.org/listen/denny-meyer/
StoryCorps. (2013, June 28). Samuel Taylor and Connie Casey [Audio podcast]. https://storycorps.org/listen/samuel-taylor-and-connie-casey/