Learn the basics of Sexual Orientation and Sexuality


Sexuality is a person's inherent and enduring emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to another person. A person's sexuality is based on the gender and/or gender identity they are emotionally, romantically, and/or sexually attracted to. Sexuality exists on a spectrum, with each individual falling somewhere on that spectrum. Sexual orientation and sexuality are interchangeable.

Identity Labels

Identity labels refer to the label a person uses to identify and define their sexuality. Below are some of the broad labels used to describe an individual's sexuality. Labels simply there to help assist people in expressing their sexuality. Very few people fit perfectly into these labels, but they are a tool to better understand each other. The bottom line is the only person who knows their sexuality is that person. The only person who can label your sexual orientation is you.

Sexual orientation is independent of gender identity. Transgender and non-binary individuals may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual. Most transgender and non-binary individuals often use the label that best aligns with their gender identity, but that is not always the case. It is always best to use whatever label a person prefers. Learn more

Gay + Lesbian
On the other end of the spectrum is homosexuality, otherwise known as gay or lesbian. Homosexuality is when a person is physical, romantic, and/or emotionally attracted to the same gender/gender identity.

Bisexual + Pansexual
In the middle of the spectrum are bisexuality and pansexuality. Bisexuality is when a person is physical, romantic, and/or emotionally attracted to more than one gender or gender identity. Pansexuality is when a person is physical, romantic, and/or emotionally attracted to a person regardless of gender or gender identity. Pansexual and Bisexual are sometimes interchangeable, but not always.

On the other end of the spectrum is heterosexuality, otherwise known as straight. Heterosexuality is when a person is physical, romantic, and/or emotionally attracted to the opposite gender/gender identity.

Asexuality is a broad term for people who experience little to no sexual attraction to other people. Asexuality exists on its own spectrum, although those who identify as asexual often still use the above labels to describe themselves. Learn More

When applied, very few people fit perfectly into these labels. In reality, people exist anywhere on the spectrum, and the labels are simply there to help assist people in expressing their sexuality. The only person who truly knows a person's sexuality is that person. Additionally, the only person who can label their sexual orientation is that person.

Sexuality Identity Development

Cass Identity Model is a theory that was developed in 1979 by Vivienne Cass and is meant to explain the process of LGBTQ identity development. Cass divided the process into 6 general stages, with each stage often in subsequential order. It should be noted that an individual does not need to go through these stages nor in these order. LGBTQ individuals may revisit these stages at different times in their lives, they may skip stages altogether. It does not mean their identity is less valid. This model is merely an overview of LGBTQ identity development. You may find yourself at some point in this stage. It may be beneficial to know what's to come. It's important that you know that you are normal, and not alone in your experiences.

Identity Confusion
This stage begins with a beginning with the initial awareness of LGBTQ thoughts, feelings, and/or attractions. Some individuals choose to accept these feelings, and some individuals will choose to denial, repress, and even reject these feelings, thoughts, and attractions. It is important that everyone understands that these thoughts and feelings are normal. An individual cannot change their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and repression can lead to issues later in life.

Identity Comparison
This stage begins with the acceptance of the possibility of being LGBTQ. In this stage, individuals examine the wider implications of having an LGBTQ identity. Individuals may face self-isolation, grief, and self-doubt. 
This stage is marked by an exploration of identities. Moreover, it includes recognizing with societies view on LGBTQ and the definition of their sexuality and gender identity. It is important that individuals understand that what they are going through is normal. 

Identity Tolerance
This stage is marked with the acknowledgment that they are likely LGBTQ and likely not alone. Often, this is the stage where LGBTQ people are most likely to start to engage with the LGBTQ culture and more likely to seek support. 

Identity Acceptance
This stage is marked by a positive view of their LGBTQ identity. Contact with the LGBTQ community and other LGBTQ individuals increases. This is when an individual is most likely to seek out social support, and it is critical that they be provided with positive social support. 

Identity Pride

This stage is marked by a sense of pride for an individual's LGBTQ identity. This stage is often when an LGBTQ individual will come out to close friends and family members, followed by an expression of one's LGBTQ identity in public. It should be noted that this does not mean a person needs to come out in this stage. Each LGBTQ person has the choice of who, when, and how they come out.

Identity Synthesis
This stage is the final stage. It is marked with an integration of an individual's LGBTQ identity into one part of their whole sense of self. Individuals feel like they can be their whole selves in both public and private life. 

While Cass designed the model focusing on sexuality, the same model is a good outline for how an individual's gender identity is formed. Individuals whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth go through similar identity development. For transgender individuals, transgender identity development includes the process of balancing an individual's identity with the physical, social, and emotional consequences of transitioning. Transitioning is a difficult, and scary process that is unique to transgender people.


Is it normal not to be straight?

Yes! No matter if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or straight, you are normal! Heteronormative is the flawed belief that heterosexuality is the normal mode of sexual orientation. Our society often mistakenly reinforces this idea that heterosexuality is the default, and anything outside of that is ‘wrong’. Human sexuality exists on a spectrum, and it is theorized that a combination of environmental and genetic factors influences a person's sexual orientation. This does not mean that a person or persons can change or influence a person's sexuality, but rather that heterosexuality is not the only normal, preferred, or default sexual orientation. 

Do I need to have sex to know my sexual orientation?

Absolutely not! A person does not need to have a physical experience with someone to know their sexual orientation, nor does someone need to have dated someone to know their sexual orientation. Straight people do not need to have had a physical experience with the opposite gender in order to know they are straight. 

Do I need to have a label for my sexuality?

It depends. Labels can be meaningful for expressing and understanding one's identity. They can be helpful in self-discovery and liberating. Some argue they can also be restrictive. It is important to understand that a label is often a broad generalization, and it is normal to explore different labels.

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Last Reviewed: November 2023