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Sexual Orientation 101

Sexual orientation refers to an aspect of a person’s sexual identity; more specifically, it represents the inherent emotional, romantic, physical, and/or sexual attraction, or lack thereof, to other people (Human Rights Campaign, 2018). 

As language continues to evolve, the same occurs with LGBTQ+ terminology and respective definitions. For context, while we list various definitions below, we promote that readers use this as a guideline to expand understanding of orientation and human sexuality on a general level rather than as a rubric. Like gender identity and other important aspects of sexuality, sexual orientation is complex, varied,  and multi-faceted. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep in mind different terms may mean different things to different people as sexual orientation is ultimately determined by an individual on their own terms, rather than as a fixed definition. To explore terminology which define terms other than the different sexual orientations listed below, check out our LGBTQ Terminology page. There are several online resources with lists of terms and definitions, including this List of LGBTQ+ Vocabulary Definitions.


Gay: An adjective used to describe people whose physical, romantic, emotional, and/or spiritual attractions are to people of the same sex. In contemporary contexts, the term is more commonly used to describe the population who identifies as men who are sexually and/or romantically attracted to other men.

Lesbian: Usually describes a person who identifies as a woman who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to other women. 

Bisexual: This is an umbrella term which describes people whose sexual and/or romantic attractions are not limited to one sex and/or gender.  It is an open and inclusive word which describes a diverse group of people with a wide variety of experiences around same-sex and different-sex attractions.  Individuals may experience this attraction in differing ways and degrees over their lifetime.

Queer: an umbrella term used to describe people sexually and/or romantically attracted any number of permutations of non-strictly heterosexual attractions.  This may mean sexual, physical, and/or romantic attraction(s) to the same sex and/or gender, either sex or gender, non-binary attraction, polyamorous sexual identity, or other ways which may or not align with heterosexual or heteronormative sexual orientation or expression.  There are many permutations to the application of this term to sexual orientation expression.  This term can be also used to describe an identity like many of the other sexual orientation terms, and it has been reclaimed by some people of marginalized gender identities and sexual orientations.

Questioning: In this context, an adjective that describes a state of being where an individual feels unsure (however privately or openly) of their own sexual orientation that they have been brought up as, previously or currently identity with,  or have asserted for themselves.  This state of being is often caused by the disequilibrium of perceived social expectations versus their own innate discovery or manifestation of attractions. 

Asexual: an adjective that describes a person who does not experience sexual and/or physical attraction to others. An individual with this orientation may still be involved in romantic or other types of intimate relationships.  The person may still participate in sexual behavior, usually for a partner’s sake. Important: being asexual does not necessarily mean one is entirely put off from sexual relations, it simply means one does not actively desire it. 

Aromantic: an adjective that describes a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others and/or has a lack of interest in romantic behavior/relationships.  While romantic persons desire romantic relationships, aromantic persons feel no dissatisfaction from not being in one. 

Pansexual: an adjective used to describe individuals who have the capacity to be attracted to people regardless of their gender identity.  Persons who identify as bisexual might use this definition for their bisexuality instead, and the definition of these two identities largely depend on the people who use them.

Demisexual: a person who is only sexually attracted to people after a strong, emotional bond has been formed. 

Demiromantic: an adjective used to describe individuals who have little or no capacity to experience romantic attraction until a strong sexual or emotional connection is formed with another individual.

Polyamorous: refers to an individual who has the desire, or orientation, towards having honest and consensual non-monogamous relationships (that may include multiple partners). This may include open relationships, polyfidelity (which includes more than two people being in romantic and/or sexual relationships who are not open to additional partners than those in the relationship), etc.   Also known as Ethical non-Monogamy.

References:
Human Rights Campaign. 2018. “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions.
It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. 2017. “Comprehensive List of LGBTQ+ Vocabulary Definitions.”