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  Home  > Personal Wellness  > Definitions of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Definitions of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to one's sexual and romantic attraction. Those whose sexual orientation is to people of the opposite sex are called heterosexual; those whose sexual orientation is to people of the same sex are called homosexual (or lesbian or gay), and those whose sexual orientation is to people of both sexes are called bisexual. The term sexual preference is misleading because it implies that this attraction is a choice rather than an intrinsic personal characteristic. Sexual orientation is not necessarily the same as sexual behavior.

Gender Identity

At birth, we are assigned one of two gender identities, usually based on our visible genitals. For many people this gender assignment fits and feels comfortable and they never think about it further. Others do not feel as comfortable with their assigned gender, either because they find the two-gender system too limiting or because they feel more identification with the gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth. People deal with this discomfort in many ways: sometimes only in personal ways sometimes in ways visible to others.

Lesbian

A lesbian is a woman whose primary sexual and romantic attractions are to other women. She may have sex with women currently or may have had sex with women in the past. A smaller number of lesbians may never have had sex with another woman for a whole host of reasons (age, societal pressures, lack of opportunity, fear of discrimination), but nonetheless realize that their sexual attraction is mainly to other women. Some lesbians have sex with men and some don't. It is important to note that some women who have sex with other women, sometimes exclusively, may not call themselves lesbians.

Gay

A gay man is a man whose primary sexual and romantic attraction is to other men. He may have sex with men currently or may have had sex with men in the past. A smaller number of gay men may never have had sex with another man for a whole host of reasons (age, societal pressures, lack of opportunity, fear of discrimination), but nonetheless realize that their sexual attraction is mainly to other men. Some gay men have sex with women and some don't. It is important to note that some men who have sex with other men, sometimes exclusively, may not call themselves gay.

Gay is also used as an inclusive term encompassing gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, and sometimes even transgender people. In the last twenty years, this has become less and less common and gay is usually used currently to refer only to gay men. The term is still often used in the broader sense in spoken shorthand, as in The Gay Pride Parade is at the end of June."

Bisexual

Bisexual men and women have sexual and romantic attractions to both men and women. Depending upon the person, his or her attraction may be stronger to women or to men, or they may be approximately equal. A bisexual person may have had sex with people of both sexes, or only of one sex, or he or she may never have had sex at all. It is important to note that some people who have sex with both men and women do not consider themselves bisexual. Bisexuals are also referred to as bi.

Heterosexual

A heterosexual man or woman's primary sexual and romantic attraction is to people of the other sex. She or he may or may not have had sex with another person, but still realizes that his orher sexual attraction is mainly to people of the other sex. Some people who consider themselves heterosexual have or have had sexual contact with people of the same sex. Heterosexual people are also referred to as straight.

Transgender

People who identify more strongly with the other gender than the one to which they were assigned (for example, women who feel like men, or men who feel like women) are called transgendered. Some transgendered people may cross-dress or "do drag" regularly or for fun (and many of these people are comfortable in their assigned gender). Other transgendered people may take hormones of the opposite gender and/or have surgery in order to change their bodies to reflect how they feel inside. These people are also called transsexual. Transgendered people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.

Female-to-male transsexuals are sometimes referred to as FTMs or transsexual men, and male-to-female transsexuals as MTFs or transsexual women. Pre-operative (pre-op) transsexuals are preparing for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and may take hormones. Post-operative (post-op) transsexuals have undergone SRS and continue to take hormones, often for the rest of their lives. Some transsexuals (non-op) either do not want or cannot afford SRS, though they may still take hormones.

Source: King County (Seattle, Washington) Public Health Department. "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Health," www.metrokc.gov/health/glbt/transgender.htm.




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