Gender and sexuality are complex topics, but they play a large role in shaping our identity. Even though the world’s becoming more progressive, it can still be hard to talk about the personal preferences that determine whom we love and feel attracted to. The process can be even harder for those whose sexuality or gender identity intersects with other sources of oppression, like for gay people of color.

Here, we’ll try to tackle some of the most common questions people have when exploring their sexual and gender identity, so you can figure out where you fit.

First, some basic terminology:

  • Biological sex assigned at birth: based on the genitalia one is born with
  • Gender: based on who a person feels or knows they truly are (e.g. male, female, nonbinary, agender)
  • Cisgender: gender identity matches the biological sex assigned at birth
  • Transgender: gender identity is different than the biological sex assigned at birth
  • Sexuality: based on who a person is attracted to, and in what situations (e.g. heterosexual, pansexual, demisexual)
  • LGBTQIA+: not cisgender and/or not heterosexual – somewhere on the spectrum of gender and sexual fluidity

Many people believe that biology determines gender and sexual orientation. They believe that the only “right” thing to be is cisgender and heterosexual (i.e., your gender identity matches with your biological sex and you are attracted only to those of the “opposite” sex).

However, this idea is refuted both by culture and biology itself. That’s right — even biology doesn’t really support binary gender labels.

Biology and culture

Many people are born with both sets of genitalia, and these people are usually termed “intersex.” They are perhaps the most obvious example of the limitations of the biological binary.

Furthermore, there is genetic and neurological evidence of variations in physiological gender/sexuality markers. For example, some research has found that the brains of transgender people more closely match the brains of the gender they align with than the brains of the biological sex they were assigned at birth (i.e., a transgender woman’s brain likely looks more like a cisgender woman’s brain than a cisgender man’s brain).

Outside of biology, culture has a huge influence on gender and sexuality. For example, in ancient Greece, high-status men commonly gravitated to both men and women. Ancient Greeks did not even have terms for being “heterosexual” or “homosexual.”  

Perhaps most famously in our modern culture, historical scholar Michel Foucault defined sexuality as an entirely social construct.

Regardless of the exact biological and social bases of gender and sexuality, it’s clear that there’s no cut-and-dry “normal” way that everyone should be.

How do I know what I “am”?

You are an amazing, wonderful, and unique human. Part of being a person in the world is being different from anyone else in it.

It may take days, months, or decades to find what feels exactly “right” to you — and that’s fine.

For one thing, sexual identity can change over time. Some people directly identify as genderfluid or as having a fluid sexuality, and others simply adjust their labels as they learn more about themselves.

Either way, whatever you decide for yourself is not set in stone.

Please, never feel bad for exploring your identity, whether you’re just getting started or you’ve been using a given label for years. You will always be part of the LGBTQIA+ community (if you want to be).

Regardless of whether your identity changes or becomes even more deeply ingrained, you are valid and your identity is valid.

To label or not to label?

Labeling is a useful and efficient way of explaining who we are to others. We each use lots of different labels, and not just for gender and sexuality — for example, I could say that I am cisgender, bisexual/pansexual, agnostic, short, motivated, sporty, etc. No single label captures my identity holistically; rather, these labels are like shortcuts.

Labels can often be personally comforting for some LGBTQIA+ folks; they can help normalize your identity by providing an anchor around which to organize your experiences.

On the other hand, labels can also feel restrictive or minimizing, especially if you feel like your gender or sexual identity is very complex or variable. It makes sense to feel like none of the labels “fit” or really capture who you are. And it feels the worst to be mis-labeled by someone else.

Use labels as far as they make you feel more comfortable, but don’t feel like you have to quantify your entire set of sexual and romantic preferences for others to understand. Your gender identity is private information. No one is entitled to know except you — unless, of course, you want to share it.

Regardless of whether you choose to use labels or not, your identity will always be complex, multifaceted, and entirely your own. That said, you may need to decide on which pronouns to go by, since it may come up in daily life.

What pronouns should I use?

That’s up to you! If you identify as male, you probably want to be called “he/him.” If you identify as female, you probably use “she/her.”

For those who are nonbinary, you can ask to be called “they/them,” or you can make use of gender-neutral pronouns such as “zie/zim” or “e/em.” Some cisgender allies also go by “they/them” to promote more inclusive use of pronouns.

If someone misgenders you, it is absolutely within your right to correct them. Something direct may sound like “Sorry, it’s actually sir/ma’am,” or “I prefer to be called ‘they.’”

Something more indirect can involve inserting your name or preferred pronouns into your next sentence, like “I’m not sure we’ve been properly introduced yet — I’m Sarah.”

What do I tell other people?

The following list lays out some (not all) sexual identities. You can identify with many of these terms at once, or maybe only one, or maybe none. You can have your own label(s), or, you can keep your identity totally private.

The following terms can help you communicate your preferences to others, if you so choose.

As you read through, take note of what resonates with you. Look into these terms. You can find lots more background on them, and many more perspectives on them than what’s written here.

Gender identities:

This section is about your gender, or your own identity within your body and self.

  • Cisgender
    • My gender identity matches the biological sex I was assigned at birth.
  • Transgender
    • My gender identity is different than the biological sex I was assigned at birth.
  • Genderfluid
    • My gender identity is variable and may shift from time to time.
  • Genderqueer/Nonbinary/Gendernonconforming
    • My gender identity is outside of the male/female binary.

Sexual orientations:

This section is about the genders you experience attraction toward.

  • Heterosexual
    • I am attracted to the opposite gender in the gender binary.
  • Gay
    • I identify as a man and am attracted to men.
  • Lesbian
    • I identify as a woman and am attracted to women.
  • Bisexual
    • I am attracted to my same gender and at least one other gender.(this can mean two, more, or all genders)
  • Polysexual
    • I am attracted to multiple genders. (this can mean some genders or all genders)
  • Pansexual
    • I am attracted to people regardless of their gender identification. (this means all genders)
    • some people use “bi,” “poly,” and “pan” interchangeably
  • Asexual
    • I do not experience sexual attraction. (but I may experience other types of attraction)
      • (you can be asexual and also identify as gay/lesbian/bi/poly/pan)
    • Asexual aromantic: I do not experience sexual attraction or romantic/emotional attraction

Sexual preferences:

This section is about the circumstances in which you experience sexual attraction (regardless of your/their gender).

  • Asexual
    • I do not experience sexual attraction.
  • Graysexual
    • I sometimes, but not often, experience sexual attraction.
  • Autosexual
    • I prefer “self-love” over sexual activity with others.
  • Demisexual
    • I only experience sexual attraction when I have a deep emotional connection with the other person.
  • Sapiosexual
    • I experience sexual attraction on the basis of intelligence.
  • Polyamorous
    • I (sometimes) experience more than one sexual/romantic relationship at once.

These labels are not exhaustive. You can be none, one, a few, or most of these sexual identities. Feel free to use these definitions as a guide to pinpointing your own personal identity, but also don’t hesitate to explore outside these exact terms.

Take time to discover yourself like you’re tasting a fine wine. Or trying all the fancy cheeses at Whole Foods. You’ll probably miss out on a few of the subtler notes at first, but over time, you’ll start to develop a palate for your identity.

Celebrate every new discovery, and don’t be afraid to change your labels when you want to. The LGBTQIA+ community was built for inclusion — whatever your sexual identity, the community will welcome you with open arms.

If you want to talk to someone while you figure it all out, visit Supportiv’s anonymous chat – you will be matched with a virtual support group of people who are also exploring their sexuality.

Who knows — you may discover something new today.