Sexual orientation and gender identity
Here are some mainstream definitions of common terms relating to sexual orientation and gender. We recognize that definitions can feel very limiting for some and for others feel very comfortable. It’s most important that you define and express your feelings and experience for yourself
The definitions are NOT intended to be a prescription but rather a basic overview that can and will evolve!
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 person’s primary sexual and romantic attraction is to people considered to be a different sex or gender than them. She/he/they may or may not have had sex with another person, but still realize that his/her/their 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 sometimes referred to as “straight.”
Asexual (or non sexual)
A person who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction to others or does not desire to be sexual with partners. Some people who are asexual may still be sexually active.
Bisexual people have sexual and romantic attractions to people of more than one sex and/or gender. Depending upon the person, his/her/their attraction may be stronger to a gender, or they may be approximately equal. A bisexual person may have had sex with people of many genders, or only of one gender, or they may never have had sex at all. It is important to note that some people who have sex with both or all genders do not consider themselves bisexual.
Bisexual people are sometimes referred to as “bi.”
A homosexual person is someone whose primary sexual and romantic attraction is to people of the same or similar sex or gender as themselves. She/he/they 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 male whose primary sexual and romantic attraction is to other males. He may have sex with males currently or may have had sex with males 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 males. Some gay men have sex with women and some don’t. It is important to note that some males who have sex with other males, 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 males. 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, Transgender, 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 diverse 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.
A person who isn’t sure about their sexual orientation or has never been or who is in the process of figuring that out.
Pansexual or omnisexual
A person who can feel attraction to people of all gender identities, or who doesn’t feel gender plays a part in their sexual attraction.
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 usually assigned one of two sexes, usually based on our visible genitals. For some people this sex assignment also fits their gender expression and experience. It feels comfortable and they never think about it further. Some do not feel that their assigned sex matches their gender expression and experience, either because they find a two gender system too limiting or because they identify more with a different gender. People deal with these experiences in many ways, sometimes only in personal ways, and sometimes in ways visible to others.
Cisgender, transgender and transsexual
Cisgender is a term that often refers to a person who feels that their body, their gender experiences and expression, and identity match with one another.
People who identify more strongly with another gender than the one to which they may have be assigned (e.g., women who feel like men, or men who feel like women) may identify as “transgender.” Transgender people may identify their orientation as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual.
Some transgender people may “cross-dress” or “do drag” regularly or for fun (but not everyone who cross-dresses is transgendered).
Transgender 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 transsexual people are sometimes referred to as “FTMs” or “transsexual men,” and male-to-female transsexual people as “MTFs” or “transsexual women.”
Pre-operative (“pre-op”) transsexual people are preparing for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and may take hormones.
Post-operative (“post-op”) transsexualpeople have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and continue to take hormones, often for the rest of their lives.
Some “non-op” transsexual people either do not want or cannot afford SRS, though they may still take hormones.
Two spirited is a term used to refer to people of aboriginal ancestry who embody the spirit of both genders and experience varying degrees of gender fluidity.
We really like this definition from 2Spirits “The term Two-Spirit has multiple contemporary meanings and also highlights historical elements regarding the possible positions of Two-Spirit peoples in their communities and their place in the sacred circle. Two-Spirit identity affirms the interrelatedness of all aspects of identity – including gender,sexuality, community, culture, and spirituality (Wilson, 1996).