Sexual Orientation

What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions. Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. However, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of three categories: heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of the other sex), gay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of one’s own sex), and bisexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to both men and women).

This range of behaviors and attractions has been described in various cultures and nations throughout the world. Many cultures use identity labels to describe people who express these attractions. In the United States the most frequent labels are lesbians (women attracted to women), gay men (men attracted to men), and bisexual people (men or women attracted to both sexes). However, some people may use different labels or none at all.

Sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female),* and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behavior).

Sexual orientation is commonly discussed as if it were solely a characteristic of an individual, like biological sex, gender identity, or age. This perspective is incomplete because sexual orientation is defined in terms of relationships with others. People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing. Thus, sexual orientation is closely tied to the intimate personal relationships that meet deeply felt needs for love, attachment, and intimacy.

In addition to sexual behaviors, these bonds include nonsexual physical affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment. Therefore, sexual orientation is not merely a personal characteristic within an individual. Rather, one’s sexual orientation defines the group of people in which one is likely to find the satisfying and fulfilling romantic relationships that are an essential component of personal identity for many people.

Concerns/Issues with Sexual Orientation

It is important to realize each person is different and will have unique concerns, issues, and experiences. Listed below are some concerns that a gay, lesbian, transgendered, or bisexual person might face. If you feel you need professional help, do not wait. Act now!

To simplify reading, all pronouns will be female.

Having the feelings (without the first encounter)
This is a stage of self discovery where one must deal with the attractions, both physically and mentally to someone of the same sex.

Trying to go “straight” and be “straight”
When one is dealing with the confusion of same sex attractions and feelings, the individual wants life to continue as is. No one can find out, however, so she lives life as a heterosexual or at least “passes” for one. Others may be in denial and insist on living as a heterosexual and may even actively participate in heterosexual sex.

Values, religious beliefs and self
For some, the way they were raised and the morals and values instilled in them (either through religion, friends, family, etc.) will conflict greatly with being gay, lesbian or bisexual. Often, because of this conflict, gays, lesbian and bisexuals are forced to re-define their “self” and begin living their true identity.

Dealing with stereotypes and self
Unfortunately, many negative stereotypes of gays, lesbian and bisexuals exist. While coming to terms with their sexuality, gays, lesbians or bisexuals must analyze themselves in reference to these stereotypes and find where they fit in. Often gays, lesbians and bisexuals fall into an internalized oppression and begin living out the stereotypes that they feel best define them.

Examining the beliefs of others, especially those you respect
Similar to the analysis of one’s own beliefs, a gay, lesbian or bisexual person must also look at the beliefs of others and where she will now fit into those beliefs. Conflicts in beliefs often cause a person to stay closeted.

Coming out to self
This is the biggest step for a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person. A gay, lesbian or bisexual cannot begin to be honest with others until she is honest with herself. Through the coming out process, a gay, lesbian or bisexual must create a new identity for herself or perhaps redefine her current self. At this point, a gay, lesbian or bisexual has accepted her own sexuality.

Coming out to others
Once a gay, lesbian or bisexual person has been honest with herself about her sexuality, she considers telling others of this news. First to be told are those whom they feel both close and comfortable with. Every day a decision must be made about who to come out to. Parents are sometimes the first to know, and sometimes the last to know.

Resources: American Psychological Association, 2009. Website:
University of Tennessee, Counseling Center, 2008. Website:

Other resources:

American Social Health Association

American Psychological Association

Gay and Lesbian National Hotline

One in Teen


Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PLAG)

University of Georgia Health Center: Sexual Health

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