One of the ways we understand our world is to give names to things. Giving things proper and specific terminology is the first step to being able to discuss them openly, with all parties working from a shared perspective. This facilitates communication, helps individuals develop and understand their identities, and sets us all on a path toward greater understanding and acceptance. But it can also be very confusing!
If you’re struggling to keep up with the modern language of sexual identity and orientation, here is a brief primer. New concepts and terms are still being developed, and this list is by no means comprehensive, but it should help to clear some confusion and help you get started in following the important communications done about this issue.
At one time, sexual orientation options seemed pretty limited to “gay” or “straight.” Of course, that’s a linguistic issue – the reality of human sexuality has always been fluid, and there have always been people throughout history who haven’t fit neatly into those labels.
Some of the new sexual orientation terms you may encounter and be unfamiliar with include:
- Pansexual: An individual who is attracted to individuals of all gender identities, including those who are trans* or gender non-conforming. This differs from bisexual orientations, where people are attracted to both men and women. The pansexual label has increasingly become adopted by people who previously identified as bisexual in order to better describe their preferences.
- Asexual: Individuals who have little or no sexual interest in people of any gender. Asexuality occurs on a spectrum, and individuals who identify as asexual may still choose to engage in sex, have relationships, form romantic attachments, get married and other behaviors.
- Demisexual: This refers to individuals who experience sexual attraction secondary to romantic attraction. These people do not find others “sexy” without first establishing an emotional bond with them. Some consider demisexuality to exist within the asexual spectrum.
Some people may also identify their sexual preferences separately from their romantic preferences, adopting labels like “aromantic,” “biromantic,” or “demiromantic.”
Non-binary gender identity is a new concept for many people, and the specialized vocabulary may be intimidating. Here are a few terms to keep in mind:
- Cisgender: This means that you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. It is separate from sexual orientation. For example, you can be a cisgender gay man or a cisgender heterosexual (cis-het) woman.
- Transgender: This refers to a person whose gender identity does not align with the identity they were assigned at birth. Transgender people may or may not choose to undergo surgery to modify their appearance and genitalia to match their gender. A “trans man” is someone who identifies as male; a “trans woman” identifies as a woman.
- Trans*: A catch-all term for the transgender community, encompassing individuals who may be non-binary, gender fluid, agender, etc.