"Am I Gay?"
A Guide for People Who Question Their Sexual Orientation

Richard H. Reams, Ph.D.
Part 2: What is Sexual Orientation Identity?

A person’s sexual orientation, like their blood type, exists whether or not that person knows what to label it.  Although blood type is not an aspect of a person's identity, many people — especially LGB people — do regard their sexual orientation identity as being a significant aspect of their multidimensional identity.  (Other aspects of an individual’s identity might include their gender identity, ethnic or racial identity, national identity, and religious identity, among others.)

Anyone asking the question “What is my sexual orientation?” is seeking to understand their sexual self and describe it accurately to themselves and probably to others, at least selectively.  Most people use a label as a shorthand way of conceptualizing and describing their sexual orientation to themselves and others.  Sexual orientation identity is often called sexual identity, but sexual identity can get confused with gender identity, so I prefer the term sexual orientation identity for the sake of clarity.  (Unfortunately, my preferred term doesn't fit in the navigation bar to the left.)

Sometimes a person’s sexual orientation identity is an inaccurate description of their sexual orientation, based on the preponderance of the evidence of their emotional and physical attractions.  For example, one individual might maintain a heterosexual identity despite evidence to the contrary, perhaps believing that “I am a heterosexual who experiences homosexual temptations.”  Another individual might maintain a gay identity when a bisexual identity would more accurately describe the mix of their emotional and physical attractions.

The sexual identity development process for non-heterosexual people is commonly called the 'coming out' process.  This process of identity development involves coming out to oneself (recognizing and embracing a non-heterosexual identity) and coming out to others (divulging one's non-heterosexual identity), although not necessarily to everyone.


Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Identity

We cannot talk about either sexual orientation or sexual orientation identity without talking about gender identity.  I'm referring to an individual's experience of oneself as male, female, a blend of both, or neither.  For most men reading this guide, for example -- and to grossly oversimplify -- their question might be framed as, "Am I attracted to other men?  Or to men as well as women?"

Definitions of sexual orientation assume what is called 'the gender binary,' which refers to the assumption that everyone is either a man or a woman, a boy or a girl.  And definitions assume everyone is 'cisgender,' a term that may be new to you. 

Human being are incredibly diverse in their sexualities and their genders.  And although placing our diverse humanity into categorizes is a dicey proposition, I will group readers of this website into three gender-identity clusters because doing so helps shed some light on the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation identity.

  • Most readers are cisgender, meaning that the sex they were assigned at birth (e.g., "It's a girl!" as subsequently stipulated on the birth certificate) aligns with the reader's gender identity as a child ("I'm a girl") and as an adult ("I'm a woman").  Definitions of sexual orientation apply to him if he is attracted to other cisgender people -- whether male, female, or both -- and he may find that one of the available sexual orientation identity labels accurately describes his sexual orientation.
  • Some readers are transgender with a clear gender identity.  For example, a person who was assigned the sex 'male' at birth and who later develops a clear gender identity that she expresses as "I'm a girl" or "I'm a woman" may undergo hormone therapy and possibly gender confirmation surgeries to align the body with her gender.  Definitions of sexual orientation apply to her if she is attracted to other cisgender people and/or to other transgender people with a clear gender identity.  She may find that one of the available sexual orientation identity labels accurately describes her sexual orientation.
  • Some readers are transgender and their gender identity is 'beyond the binary.'  These transpersons do not experience themselves as being a man or a woman but rather as a blend of both or neither.  Among these transpersons, possible gender identity labels include Non-binary, Agender, Genderqueer, and Gender Fluid.  (Read more here.)  Definitions of sexual orientation fail to include these non-binary transpersons, and none of the available sexual orientation labels is likely to be satisfactory.


So Many Ways to Self-Identify...


Most people adopt a label as a shorthand way of conceptualizing and describing their sexual orientation to themselves and others.  For decades there were very few sexual orientation identity labels to choose from: heterosexual (or straight), gay, lesbian, and bisexual (or bi). 

Thanks to the Internet, options have expanded as people with highly diverse sexualities create descriptors for themselves that are sufficiently accurate.  Labels have emerged that better describe the sexuality of those for whom the straight-gay-bi options miss the mark.  Pansexual, Asexual, and Queer are three of the labels that I encounter being used among students at my university in 2017. 

Thanks to the Internet, options have expanded significantly and probably will continue to do so.  If this proliferation of labels seems strange or excessive, consider the diversity of identity labels among people with a religious identity.  For example, to describe oneself simply as a Christian (rather than as a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim...) is inadequate for the individual with a strong identity as an Evangelical Protestant Christian or a Pentecostal Roman Catholic or a Progressive Christian, to cite just three variations.

Providing a comprehensive list of sexual orientation identities has become impossible.  To see one example of an extensive list, visit this site.  And some people reject all labels.  When asked about their sexual orientation, some of these individuals will state an affinity such as "I'm attracted to guys" without attaching a label to that affinity.  Others will respond -- accurately, not evasively -- with, "It depends on the person" because gender is largely or completely irrelevant to them.  More about this on the next page.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the immense complexity of sexual orientation and sexual orientation identity, I'll identify misunderstandings about sexual orientation that may contribute to your confusion.  Indeed, we'll revisit some of the complexities I've already described in Parts 1 and 2.

On to Part 3, “Seven Myths about Sexual Orientation.”




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