Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression

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Sexual orientation is the term used to describe a person's sexual, mental, and emotional feelings of attraction towards another person. Sexual orientation refers to the gender (or genders) of the people we are attracted to, both emotionally and physically.

It is not always the same as a person's sexual activity or sexual behavior. There are many things that affect whether someone will become visible with their sexual orientation ("come out") or stay hidden ("in the closet"), and if they will act on their attractions.

Explore the 519's glossary of terms for a list of definitions related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, two-spirit, intersex, asexual, pansexual, genderqueer, etc. (LGBTQ2S+) community.

How is sexual orientation different from gender identity and gender expression?

Gender identity is each person's internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along or outside the gender spectrum. A person's gender identity may be the same as or different from their birth assigned sex. 

Gender expression is how a person presents their gender to the other people. This can include how they dress, their hairstyle, make-up, body language, and voice. A person's chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing gender.

Checkout the Gender Unicorn to learn more!

How do I know what my sexual orientation is?

You are the only one who will know your sexual orientation. No one can talk you into being someone you are not. You will learn to trust what feels right for you. 

Often, people find that they're "questioning" for quite a while, or that none of the labels used to describe sexual orientation seem to fit. Feelings of attraction can be confusing, and this is quite normal. There is no time limit on discovering your sexual orientation - it can take years, or a lifetime.

Expectations about who we should be come from family, friends, school, television, videos, movies, magazines, church and society as a whole. We live in a world where people often assume that everyone is heterosexual ("straight").  For some, discrimination and homophobia can make it hard to come to terms with LGBTQ2S+, so the process of coming out may be slow.

You may want to share your feelings with a trusted family member, friend, counsellor, nurse, teacher or someone at a gay or youth community centre. Reading books with a gay theme will show you that you are not alone in your questions and provide you with important information.

If you cannot answer these questions now, don't worry. You will be more certain in time. You and only you know how to see yourself correctly. You will know if what you are doing feels right. Learn to trust your own feelings.

What is homophobia?

Homophobia is the negative attitudes, feelings, fear or hatred of LGBTQ2S+ people, communities and behavior stereotypes as "homosexual".  Homophobia can lead to discrimination, harassment or violence against LGBTQ2S+ people and can happen in the home, workplace or anywhere in the community.

What does it mean to be "out"?

When LGBTQ2S+ people talk about "coming out of the closet" or "coming out", they mean telling others openly about their sexual orientation. This can be very difficult. Admitting your sexual orientation to yourself may be difficult enough. When people do "come out", they may only come out to a few very close friends or family members.  If you think you are gay, lesbian or bisexual and are thinking about coming out it may be helpful to talk to someone on a gay, youth "help" phone-line. They can help answer questions without anyone knowing who you are.

Who should I tell?

It is important to pick a trustworthy friend or family member who understands the importance of your privacy and cares about your safety and well-being. It should also be someone who does not talk badly about or makes cruel remarks about lesbians, gays, bisexuals or trans persons. You won't know the exact response your friend or family member will have until you tell them, and some people will have a negative reaction to others coming out. Please make sure you have a safety plan if you need it.

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