Sexual orientation means how you are attracted romantically and sexually to other people. There are different kinds of sexual orientation. For example, a person may be:
- Heterosexual—attracted only or almost only to the other binary (male/female) gender. "Binary" is the idea that there are only two genders, male and female.
- Gay—attracted only or almost only to those of the same gender.
- Bisexual—attracted both to people of their own binary gender and to those of the other binary gender.
- Pansexual—attracted to those of any gender.
- Asexual—not sexually attracted to any gender. This is different from deciding not to have sex with anyone (abstinence or celibacy).
How people find out their sexual orientation
The way someone becomes aware of their sexual orientation can vary from person to person.
Some people first become aware of their orientation during the preteen and teen years. For example, it's common to have your first romantic feelings in early puberty by having a crush on someone. In some cases, those early romantic feelings reflect a person's sexual orientation.
Other people may spend many years learning about and exploring their sexual orientation. As adults, they may better understand the way they feel (or don't feel) sexual and romantic attraction. They may realize that some experiences from their younger years were signs of their orientation that they didn't understand at the time.
And some people find that the gender or genders they're attracted to have changed over time.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing
Here are some definitions of words and phrases you may hear.
- Bi. Short for "bisexual." Attracted both to people of their own binary (male/female) gender and to those of the other binary gender.
- Cisgender. A person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth (for example, female and female). May be shortened to "cis."
- Gay. A person (either cisgender or transgender) who is attracted only or almost only to those of the same gender.
- Gender-diverse. People whose gender identity or expression expands beyond the categories of male or female. For example, their gender identity may be neither male nor female, both, or some other gender. Or their gender identity may shift or be flexible.
- Gender identity. Your inner sense of being male, female, both, neither, or some other gender.
- Gender non-conforming. A person whose gender identity may not fit into the traditional categories or stereotypes of being male or female.
- Lesbian. A woman (either cisgender or transgender) who is gay.
- LGBTQ+. Short for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning." The "+" stands for all other sexual orientations or gender identities that are not cisgender or heterosexual.
- Nonbinary. A person whose gender identity is neither male nor female.
- Queer. This may be used by those who identify as something other than male or female and gay or straight. Some LGBTQ+ people are offended by this word, but others have reclaimed it. Related terms include genderqueer, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming.
- Questioning. Those who are still exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Sexual orientation. How a person is attracted romantically and sexually to other people.
- Straight. Another term for "heterosexual." Attracted only or almost only to the other binary gender.
- Transgender. Broadly, those who aren't cisgender. People whose gender identity doesn't match the sex that they were assigned at birth. Sometimes shortened to "trans" (as in trans man, trans woman).
How stress can affect your health
For many reasons, LGBTQ+ people may have extra stress.
If you move through life with added stress, it can affect your health and how you feel day to day. For example, you may:
- Feel anxious, moody, or depressed.
- Be more likely to have headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, or trouble sleeping.
- Get sick more often.
One key to managing extra stress is to get better at recognizing when and how you feel it. In your back? In your sleep? It's even more important to find out what helps you feel better. A hot shower? Stretching? Calling a friend?
If you're in tune with how you feel and why, and if you have some tools to feel better, you'll be more likely to make healthy choices. And you'll be less likely to turn to things like alcohol, drugs, or food.
Having a strong support network can also be a great way to lower stress. Connecting with others can help people feel better and live longer.
How to get support
Whatever your orientation or gender identity, it's important to realize that there are lots of people like you. Many of them may have the same emotions and questions that you have.
It can be comforting and helpful to talk to people who know what you're going through. You can find these people through local or online groups. If you don't know where to find support, check with:
- Your doctor.
- Your school counselor or trusted teacher.
- A therapist or other counselor.
- LGBTQ+ clubs and organizations in your community.
- Websites and online organizations. Go to www.pflag.org to find a list of support groups on the PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) website.
- Common Questions About Sexual Orientation
- Depression in Children and Teens
- Family Life Cycle
- Gender Identity Issues: Getting Support
- Growth and Development, Ages 11 to 14 Years
- Growth and Development, Ages 15 to 18 Years
- Stress Management
- Your Teen's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Current as of: November 22, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine