Sexual Orientation

Learning Objectives–At the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. understand the key terms connected to sexual orientation.
  2. understand how sexual orientation is different from gender identity, gender expression and sex assigned at birth.
  3. learn about microaggressions experienced based on sexual orientation.
  4. explain why it is important to understand the issues surrounding sexual orientation to better support youth who identify as non-straight (lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, pansexual etc.).

Here is Dr. Jama Shelton discussing sexual orientation:

For this Toolkit we have defined sexual orientation as “a person’s emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to another person(s).” We all have a sexual orientation. And we have many to choose from, including heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual.

Gay is a term used to describe a man who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to men, but often used and embraced by women to describe their same-sex relationships as well.

Lesbian is a term used to describe a woman who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to women.

Bisexual is a person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to more than one gender. Also called “bi”.

Asexual is a person who is not emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to anyone or does not have a sexual orientation.

Pansexual is a person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to all or many gender expressions.

Sexual orientation is sometimes described as being on a continuum. Heterosexual was on one end and homosexual (gay or lesbian) on the other with bisexual in the middle. The concept is from Alfred Kinsey and referred to as the Kinsey Scale .

This visual becomes problematic when we try to add asexual to the continuum. This is what makes the Gender Unicorn from the Key Concepts module, so useful.

The Gender Unicorn is a great visual tool to help us quickly visual gender diversity. Throughout the Toolkit, we will attempt to highlight this distinction at all opportunities. The Gender Unicorn has five elements:

Trans Student Educational Resources
Trans Student Educational Resources

Gender Identity: One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or another gender. Everyone has a gender identity, including you. For transgender people, their sex assigned at birth and their own internal sense of gender identity are not the same. Female, woman, and girl and male, man, and boy are also NOT necessarily linked to each other but are just six common gender identities.

Gender Expression/Presentation: The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc. Most transgender people seek to make their gender expression (how they look) match their gender identity (who they are), rather than their sex assigned at birth.

Sex Assigned at Birth: The assignment and classification of people as male, female, intersex, or another gender based on a combination of anatomy, hormones, chromosomes. It is important we don’t simply use “sex” because of the vagueness of the definition of sex and its place in transphobia.

Sexually Attracted To: Sexual Orientation. It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction can be from a variety of factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth.

Romantically/Emotionally Attracted To: Romantic/emotional orientation. It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction can be from a variety of factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth (Trans Student Educational Resources, n.d.).

You will notice that the “attracted to” scale has three levels. Both start with “Nobody” and end with either “Men/Males/Masculinity” or “Women/Females/Femininity”. This gives us five possible identities: asexual, gay/lesbian, straight, bisexual and pansexual.

Sexual orientation is who we are (or are not) attracted to. As Jama states in the clip above from her talk, having a sexual orientation does not equal being sexually active.

Why is it important you know this

Homophobia is fear, anger, intolerance, resentment, or discomfort with queer people, often focused inwardly as one begins to question their own sexuality.

Biphobia is an aversion toward bisexuality and bisexual people as a social group or as individuals. People of any sexual orientation can experience such feelings of aversion. Biphobia is a source of discrimination against bisexuals, and may be based on negative bisexual stereotypes or irrational fear.

Youth are coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender at a younger age than ever before. One recent study found that the average age gay and lesbian teenagers first self-identify is 16. In the 1980s, the average age of self-identification was about 20 for gay men and 22 for lesbians” (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2005)

Family rejection or the fear of family rejection are the main reasons why queer youth leave the family home. LGBTQ2S youth are homeless due to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Unfortunately they continue to encounter homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as they try to navigate through systems in their efforts to transition into adulthood.

The following statistics are from “Helping Families Support Their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Children” by Dr. Caitlin Ryan.

Compared with LGBT young people who were not rejected or were only a little rejected by their parents and caregivers because of their gay or transgender identity, highly rejected LGBT young people were:

  • More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide;
  • Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression;
  • More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs; and
  • More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs” (Ryan, 2009: 4).

We also know from research that youth experiencing homelessness who identify as LGBTQ2S are often homeless longer than heterosexual/cisgender youth.

Data from New York City show that the average period of time away from family among homeless youth is 26 months, but among lesbian, gay, and bisexual homeless youth, the average is slightly longer — 29 months… For transgender youth, the duration of familial separation jumps significantly… [to] 52 months… (Cray, 2013: 8).

The longer youth are homeless the harder it is for them leave street life. We need to decrease the length of time LGBTQ2S youth are homeless.

Every day LGBTQ2S youth endure microaggressions. “Microaggression theory is a social theory that describes social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group” (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Here are some examples of microaggressions LGBTQ2S youth encounter:

  • “That’s so gay.”
  • “No homo.”
  • “Man up.”
  • “Have you had the surgery?”
Photo Credit: Alison Rowan


Bisexuals encounter micro aggressions (biphobia) from both straight folks and gays and lesbians. Here is quick video that has three bisexuals respond to some of the negative comments they hear. Please watch this video in which some bisexual folks share the microaggressions they are tired of hearing (Buzzfeed, 2014).

Here are a few more articles to read if you are Interested in learning more about the microaggressions:

In the clip below Dr. Shelton discusses heterosexism, heteronormativity, homophobia.

Here are some things not to say, and why not to say them:

  • Dyke — A derogatory slang term used for lesbian women; reclaimed by many lesbian women as a symbol of pride and used as an in-group term.
  • Fag or faggot — A derogatory slang term used for gay men.
  • Homosexual — A medical definition for a person who is attracted to someone with the same gender (or, literally, biological sex) they have, this is considered an offensive/stigmatizing term by many members of the queer community; often used incorrectly in place of “lesbian” or “gay”.
  • Sexual Preference — Generally when this term is used, it is being mistakenly interchanged with “sexual orientation,” creating an illusion that one has a choice (or “preference”) in who they are attracted to.

Sexual orientation and your work

When we talked with LGBTQ2S youth in the focus groups, they overwhelmingly told us that they need staff to be trained to support them. They don’t want to have to educate staff. By engaging with this Toolkit you are educating yourself. You can also share what you are learning with others (your colleagues, family and  friends). Please see the Being an Ally module for more details.

Youth need to feel secure that staff respect their confidentiality. Many LGBTQ2S youth feel unsafe in the shelter system due to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia from staff and other youth. Confidentiality policies should be shared with youth (during intake and posted in public spaces) and also enforced.  Please see How Not to Out Youth module for more information.

Be aware of your influence with youth you work with and your colleagues. You are a role model for others. Act in ways that respect, affirm and validate the identities of LGBTQ2S youth.

It is important to address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic issues in the moment. We cannot ignore violence or threats of violence.

Different organizations use different terms, but the idea is the same: does your organization have a policy or statement about diversity/inclusiveness/anti-oppression/anti-harassment?

If yes, is it posted where youth and staff can see it? If not, you can talk with management about posting it in high traffic areas (make it large and laminate it).

Don’t stress if you don’t have one. We have collected several examples for you to model one on. Please see our Tools section to see sample Forms, Policy and Procedures, Program Models and Signage.

Policies set the standards of our organizations. Policies need to make it clear that organizations will not tolerate discrimination by staff, volunteers or youth on any grounds. Such policies enable staff to act on incidents of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

Not sure about how you can better support LGBTQ2S youth? Use Team Meetings as a space to discuss issues or potential issues. Share scenarios with your peers and discuss alternative actions/words.

Exiting a program generally involves referrals to other programs or supports. It is important during this stage that referrals are made with the youth in mind, specifically around their sexual orientation and gender identity, as some programs will be a better fit for the youth. It is important to youth that staff care where they are going and if it will be a good fit for them. This means proper referrals to other programs that respect the youth’s sexuality and/or gender identity. For example staff should not refer a trans woman to a men’s only shelter. Youth want to be respected enough to have an input into where they were going, and as to what they would need to make that work. Youth would like to see more flexibility and ability to have input on the exiting process.

It is important for youth, that staff assist with the transition process and refer them to appropriate resources where staff has an understanding of working with LGBTQ2S youth. Youth feel that “exiting” needs to be a process and not a “day” where they are no longer able to avail of services. For youth, an exit process from our programs needs to be at the pace of the youth and not based solely on a programs mandate.

It is also important that youth decide where they are going and not be told where they are going. It is also necessary that there is communication amongst resources/youth and that there staff continue to provide after-care support (i.e. text/phone check-in’s) for a period of time after exit.


Buzzfeed. (2014, September 21). Things Bisexual People Are Tired of Hearing. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Clay, A. (2013). Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Jaferi, T. (2014, October 8). Microaggressions: Trendy buzz-word or something to think about? Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

McClouskey, M. (2014, September 15). The Many Faces of Homophobia: Microaggressions and the LGBTQIA Community. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. (2005, January 1). Youth – National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Nigatu, H. (2014, February 19). 19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Sexual orientation and human rights (brochure). Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Ryan, C. (2009). Helping Families Support Their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Children. Washington, DC: National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.

Shelton, J. (2015, January 15). Heterosexism, heteronormativity, homophobia. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Shelton, J. (2015, January 15). Orientation. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Trans Student Educational Resources. (n.d.). Trans Student Educational Resources. Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Microaggression theory. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from


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