Sexual orientation and gender identity
Here are some definitions of common terms relating to sexual orientation and gender. See our GLBT FAQ for answers to common questions about sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation refers to one’s sexual and romantic attraction. 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.
A heterosexual man or woman’s primary sexual and romantic attraction is to people of the opposite sex. She or he may or may not have had sex with another person, but still realize that his/her 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.”
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 sometimes referred to as “bi.”
A homosexual person is someone whose primary sexual and romantic attraction is to people of the same sex. She or he may or may not have had sex with another person, but still realize that his/her sexual attraction is mainly to people of the same sex. Some people who consider themselves homosexual have or have had sexual contact with people of the opposite sex.
Lesbian is one name for 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.
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 20 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.”
This common abbreviation stands for “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, Transsexual, 2-spirited, Intersexed, Queer/Questioning and Allies.” Sometimes people use more or fewer letters or a different combination, but the intent is usually to use an inclusive term for anyone with a non-mainstream sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some GLBTT2IQ people, particularly young people living in the coastal US, use the term “queer” to encompass the entire GLBT community. For these people, the term “queer” is positive and empowering. Other GLBTT2IQ people find this term degrading.
Women who have sex with women (WSW)
This is a specific term that describes any women who have sex with women, whether they identify as gay, bisexual, straight or otherwise. This is a useful description for situations where sexual behaviour and activity is relevant (e.g., some healthcare programs).
Men who have sex with men (MSM)
This is a specific term that describes any men who have sex with men, whether they identify as gay, bisexual, straight or otherwise. This is a useful description for situations where sexual behaviour and activity is relevant (e.g., some healthcare programs).
At birth, we are assigned one of two genders, 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 that to which they were assigned at birth. People deal with this discomfort in many ways, sometimes only in personal ways, and sometimes in ways visible to others.
Transgender and transsexual
People who identify more strongly with the other gender than the one to which they were assigned (e.g., women who feel like men, or men who feel like women) are called “transgendered.” Transgendered people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.
Some transgendered people may “cross-dress” or “do drag” regularly or for fun (but not everyone who cross-dresses is transgendered).
Transgendered people may take hormones or have surgery in order to change their bodies to reflect how they feel inside. These people are also called “transsexual.”
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 sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and continue to take hormones, often for the rest of their lives.
Some “non-op” transsexuals either do not want or cannot afford SRS, though they may still take hormones.