What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation is a term that is used to describe what gender, or genders, someone is attracted to. The most common sexual orientations that people identify with are straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but there’s a whole pile of other terms and language around it that are important to know too. Make sure not to confuse it with gender identity - sexual orientation describes what gender or genders you’re attracted to, and gender identity describes what gender or genders you are.

Please note, that although we tried to list as many terms as we can here, sexual orientation is a super complex issue, and new terms are being developed to describe different orientations and ways of thinking about sexual orientation and attraction all the time. It’s always important to respect everyone’s sexual orientation, even if they identify as something you’ve never heard of before.

Remember, sexual orientation can be fluid, and many people identify as different orientations at different stages of their lives. It's totally fine to question your sexual orientation, and to identify with something different than what you did before.

We understand also that if you feel your particular sexual orientation isn’t represented or accurately described by any popular terms, you might feel pretty alienated and alone. But you should try to realise that whatever you identify with is absolutely fine and great, even if there’s no popular word out there that describes it. You might just be a bit ahead of your time, and society and language will catch up with you eventually.


A-Z of sexual orientation

Asexual

Asexual is the term used to describe people who feel little or no sexual attraction to anyone. This is totally normal and may be more common than you think.

Bisexual

This is the term used to describe people who are sexually attracted to more than one gender. It is sometimes shortened to just “bi”.

Biphobia

Biphobia is the word for the discrimination and prejudice that bisexual people face.

Closeted

This is a terms used to describe when someone is not currently open with others about their sexual orientation or gender identity. How “closeted” someone is may vary depending on the context. For example, some people may be closeted at work or school but not at home.

Coming out

This is the process of accepting your sexual orientation or gender identity, and becoming open about that with both yourself, and others.

Gay

This is used to describe people who are exclusively attracted to members of the same gender. Some gay women will prefer to refer to themselves as lesbians.

Heteronormative

Heteronormative is the term used to describe the belief that that to be heterosexual and cisgender is the only natural way of living, and that anything else is outside of the norm, unusual or deviant.

Heterosexism

This is a form of prejudice or bias that believes that heterosexual relationships between cisgender people are somehow superior, more natural, or deserving of better treatment than gay or lesbian relationships, or relationships between transgender people.

Heterosexual

This the word used to describe someone who is exclusively attracted to members of the opposite gender.

Homophobia

Homophobia is a form of prejudice or discrimination faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Homosexual

This a word used to describe someone who is exclusively attracted to members of the same sex. Many gay and lesbian people will prefer to simply be referred to as gay or lesbian. 

Lesbian

This is a word used to describe women who are exclusively attracted to other women. Some of these women will prefer to simply describe themselves as gay.

LGBTQIA+

LGBTQIA+ is a commonly used acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex or Asexual. The + sign is to signify other categories of gender and sexual orientation that aren’t accurately described by these terms.

MSM

An acronym for “men who have sex with men”. People who fall under this category do not necessarily identify as gay or bisexual, but may be straight men who have had sexual experiences with men at different stages of their life. 

Outing

This is when a person publicly declares someone else to be LGBTQIA+. It is often against the will of the LGBTQIA+ person.

Pansexual

This is used to describe someone who is attracted to people irrespective of gender identity and expression.

Pride

Pride is an international movement that encourages LGBTQIA+ people to celebrate their sexual orientation or gender identity, that challenges ongoing discrimination and oppression of LGBTQIA+ people, and that increases the public visibility of LGBTQIA+ people. In the UK, most Pride celebrations take place during the summer months.

Queer

Queer is an umbrella term used to describe people who do not fall into a traditional gender role or sexual orientation. Essentially, it can be used to describe anyone who is not heterosexual and cisgender. However, it has historically been used as a slur against LGBTQIA+ people, and some will still be pretty offended by it. As such, it’s only ok to use it about another person if that person self-identifies as queer.

Questioning

This is when someone is unsure of their sexual orientation or gender identity and are in the process of questioning it. Many people go through phases of questioning in their life, whether they’re straight, gay, bi, lesbian, trans or cis, and this is absolutely fine.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is a term used to describe what gender or genders someone is attracted to.

Straight

A term used to describe people who are exclusively attracted to members of the opposite gender. It can be used interchangeably with heterosexual.


Support:

You can contact the LGBT Switchboard on 0300 330 0630 or www.switchboard.lgbt or find details of local switchboards and organisations that offer face-to-face counselling at www.turingnetwork.org.uk.