Sexual Orientation

Learning Outcomes

  • Define sexual orientation and understand the role of homophobia and heterosexism in society
  • Describe how sexual identities are part of the socialization process

Sexual Orientation

A person’s sexual orientation is their physical, mental, emotional, and sexual attraction to a particular sex (male or female).

Sexual orientation is typically divided into several categories: heterosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the other sex; homosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the same sex; bisexuality, the attraction to individuals of either sex; asexuality, a lack of sexual attraction or desire for sexual contact; pansexuality, an attraction to people regardless of sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression; omnisexuality, an attraction to people of all sexes, genders, gender identities, and gender expressions that considers the person’s gender, and queer, an umbrella term used to describe sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Other categories may not refer to a sexual attraction, but rather a romantic one. For example, an aromantic person does not experience romantic attraction; this is different from asexuality, which refers to a lack of sexual attraction. And some sexual orientations do not refer to gender in their description, though those who identify as having that orientation may feel attraction to a certain gender. For example, demisexual refers to someone who feels a sexual attraction to someone only after they form an emotional bond; the term itself doesn’t distinguish among gender identities, but the person may feel attraction based on gender (PFLAG 2021). It is important to acknowledge and understand that many of these orientations exist on on a spectrum, and there may be no specific term to describe how an individual feels. Some terms have been developed to address this—such as graysexual or grayromantic—but their usage is a personal choice (Asexual Visibility and Education Network 2021).

People who are attracted to others of a different gender are typically referred to as “straight,” and people attracted to others of the same gender are typically referred to as “gay” for men and “lesbian” for women. As discussed, above, however, there are many more sexual and romantic orientations, so the term “gay,” for example, should not be used to describe all of them. Proper terminology includes the acronyms LGBT and LGBTQ, which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” (and “Queer” or “Questioning” when the Q is added). In other cases, people and organizations may add “I” to represent Intersex people (described below), and “A” for Asexual or Aromantic people (or sometimes for “Allies”), as well as one “P” to describe Pansexual people and sometimes another “P” to describe Polysexual people. Finally, some people and organizations add a plus sign (+) to represent other possible identities or orientations. Sexuality and gender terminology are constantly changing, and may mean different things to different people; they are not universal, and each individual define them for themselves (UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center 2020). Finally, a person who does not fully understand all of these terms can still be supportive of people who have those orientations or others; in fact, advocacy and support organizations indicate it is much better to admit you don’t know something than to make assumptions or apply an incorrect label to someone (GLAAD 2021).

While the descriptions above are evidence of a vast degree of diversity, the United States and many other countries are heteronormative societies, meaning many people assume heterosexual orientation is biologically determined and is the default or normal type of orientation. While awareness and acceptance of different sexual orientations and identities seems to be increasing, the influence of a heteronormative society can lead LGBTQ people to be treated like “others,” even by people who do not deliberately seek to cause them harm. This can lead to significant distress (Boyer 2020). Causes of these heteronormative behaviors and expectations are tied to implicit biases; they can be especially harmful for children and young adults (Tompkins 2017).

There is not a wealth of research describing exactly when people become aware of their sexual orientation. According to current scientific understanding, individuals are usually aware of their sexual orientation between middle childhood and early adolescence (American Psychological Association 2008). They do not have to participate in sexual activity to be aware of these emotional, romantic, and physical attractions; people can be celibate and still recognize their sexual orientation, and may have very different experiences of discovering and accepting their sexual orientation. Some studies have shown that a percentage of people may start to have feelings related to attraction or orientation at ages nine or ten, even if these feelings are not sexual (Calzo 2018). At the point of puberty, some may be able to announce their sexual orientation, while others may be unready or unwilling to make their sexual orientation or identity known since it goes against society’s historical norms (APA 2008). And finally, some people recognize their true sexual orientation later in life—in their 30s, 40s, and beyond.

People identifying as LBGTQ (stands for “Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender” (and “Queer” or “Questioning” when the Q is added) were surveyed and asked about their “coming out” experiences. The average age gay men said they had “first thoughts” that one might be gay was 10 years old, while the average gay man “knew for sure” at 15 years of age and “told someone” at age 18; whereas respondents identifying as lesbian had substantially higher averages with 13, 18, and 21 respectively.[1] This suggests that there is a gender difference in terms of self-identifying and of sharing one’s sexual orientation with others.

There is no scientific consensus regarding the exact reasons why an individual holds a specific sexual orientation. Research has been conducted to study the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, but there has been no evidence that links sexual orientation to one factor (APA 2008). Alfred Kinsey was among the first to conceptualize sexuality as a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy of gay or straight. He created a six-point rating scale that ranges from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. See the figure below. In his 1948 work Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey writes, “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats … The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects” (Kinsey 1948). Many of Kinsey’s specific research findings have been criticized or discredited, but his influence on future research is widely accepted.

A bar graph with 0 to 6 on the X-axis labeled 'Varying bisexual responses'. The left side of the graph is labeled 'Exclusively heterosexual', and the right is labeled 'Exclusively homosexual'. A blue shaded area shows an increase in bisexual responses towards the 'Exclusively homosexual' side.

Figure 1. The Kinsey scale indicates that sexuality can be measured by more than just heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Later scholarship by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick expanded on Kinsey’s notions. She coined the term “homosocial” to oppose “homosexual,” and to describe nonsexual same-sex relations. Sedgwick recognized that in U.S. culture, males are subject to a clear divide between the two sides of this opposition, whereas females enjoy more fluidity. This can be illustrated by the way women in the United States can express homosocial feelings (nonsexual regard for people of the same sex) through hugging, handholding, and physical closeness. In contrast, U.S. males refrain from these expressions since they violate the heteronormative expectation that male sexual attraction should be exclusively for females. Research suggests that it is easier for women to violate these norms than men, because men are subject to more social disapproval for being physically close to other men (Sedgwick 1985). Sedgwick was also one of the founders of Queer Theory, which will be discussed later in this section.

Because of the deeply personal nature of sexual orientation, as well as the societal biases against certain orientations, many people may question their sexual orientation before fully accepting it themselves. In a similar way, parents may question their children’s sexual orientation based on certain behaviors. Simply viewing the many web pages and discussion forums dedicated to people expressing their questions makes it very clear that sexual orientation is not always clear. Feelings of guilt, responsibility, rejection, and simple uncertainty can make the process and growth very challenging. For example, a woman married to a man who recognizes that she is asexual, or a man married to a woman who recognizes that he is attracted to men, may both have extreme difficulty coming to terms with their sexuality, as well as disclosing it to others. At younger ages, similarly challenging barriers and difficulties exist. For example, adolescence can be a difficult and uncertain time overall, and feelings of different or changing orientation or nonconformity can only add to the challenges (Mills-Koonce 2018).

There is no scientific consensus regarding the exact reasons why an individual holds a heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual orientation. Research has been conducted to study the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, but there has been no evidence that links sexual orientation to one factor (APA 2008).

Sexual Orientation and Discrimination

Recall from the module on Crime and Deviance that the FBI’s hate crime data indicates that crimes against LGBTQ people have been increasing, and that those crimes account for nearly one in five hate crimes committed in the United States (FBI 2020). While the disbanding of anti-LGBTQ laws in the United States has reduced government or law enforcement oppression or abuse, it has not eliminated it. In other countries, however, LGBTQ people can face even more danger.

Reports from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the International Lesbian, Gay, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) indicate that many countries impose penalties for same-sex relationships, gender noncomformity, and other acts deemed opposed to the cultural or religious observances of the nation. As of 2020, six United Nations members imposed the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts, and another 61 countries penalized same sex acts, through jail time, corporal punishment (such as lashing), or other measures. These countries include prominent United States allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (both of which can legally impose the death penalty for same-sex acts). Some nearby nations criminalize same-sex relations: Barbados can impose lifetime imprisonment for same-sex acts, and Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Lucia have lesser penalties, though Saint Lucia’s government indicates it does not enforce those laws (ILGA 2020). Even when the government criminal code does not formalize anti-LGBTQ penalties, local ordinances or government agents may have wide discretion. For example, many people fleeing Central American countries do so as a result of anti-LGBTQ violence, sometimes at the hands of police (Human Rights Watch 2020).

Such severe treatment at the hands of the government is no longer the case in the United States. But until the 1960s and 1970s, every state in the country criminalized same-sex acts, which allowed the military to dishonorably discharge gay veterans (stripping them of all benefits) and law enforcement agencies to investigate and detain people suspected of same-sex acts. Police regularly raided bars and clubs simply for allowing gay and lesbian people to dance together. Public decency laws allowed police to arrest people if they did not wear clothing aligning with the typical dress for their biological sex. Criminalization of same-sex acts began to unravel at the state level in the 1960’s and 1970s, and was fully invalidated in a 2003 Supreme Court decision.

Watch It: The 50th Anniversary of The Stonewall Riots

Watch this brief clip that summarizes what occurred at The Stonewall Inn, located in Greenwich Village in New York City, in 1969 and what is considered the origin of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Hate crimes and anti-LGBTQ legislation are overt types of discrimination, but LGBTQ people are also treated differently from straight and cisgender people in schools, housing, and in healthcare. This can have effects on mental health, employment and financial opportunities, and relationships. For example, more than half of LGBTQ adults and 70 percent of those who are transgender or gender nonconforming report experiencing discrimination from a health care professional; this leads to delays or reluctance in seeking care or preventative visits, which has negative health outcomes (American Heart Association 2020). Similarly, elderly LGBTQ people are far less likely to come out to healthcare professionals than are straight or cisgender people, which may also lead to healthcare issues at an age that is typically highly reliant on medical care (Foglia 2014).

Much of this discrimination is based on stereotypes and misinformation. Some is based on heterosexism, which Herek (1990) suggests is both an ideology and a set of institutional practices that privilege straight people and heterosexuality over other sexual orientations. Much like racism and sexism, heterosexism is a systematic disadvantage embedded in our social institutions, offering power to those who conform to heterosexual orientation while simultaneously disadvantaging those who do not. Homophobia, an extreme or irrational aversion to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or all LGBTQ people, which often manifests as prejudice and bias. Transphobia is a fear, hatred, or dislike of transgender people, and/or prejudice and discrimination against them by individuals or institutions.

Major policies to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation have not come into effect until recent years. In 2011, President Obama overturned “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a controversial policy that required gay and lesbian people in the US military to keep their sexuality undisclosed. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Obgerfell vs. Hodges that the right to civil marriage was guaranteed to same-sex couples. And, as discussed above, in the landmark 2020 Supreme Court decision added sexual orientation and gender identity as categories protected from employment discrimination by the Civil Rights Act. At the same time, laws passed in several states permit some level of discrimination against same-sex couples and other LGBTQ people based on a person’s individual religious beliefs or prejudices.

Supporting LGTBQ people requires effort to better understand them without making assumptions. Understand people by listening, respecting them, and by remembering that every person—LGBTQ or otherwise— is different. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual is not a choice, but the way a person expresses or reveals that reality is their choice. Your experience or knowledge of other LGBTQ people (even your own experience if you are LGBTQ) cannot dictate how another person feels or acts. Finally, as discussed in the Race and Ethnicity chapter, intersectionality means that people are defined by more than their gender identity and sexual orientation. People from different age groups, races, abilities, and experiences within the LGTBQ community have different perspectives and needs.

While each individual has their own perspective, respecting their feelings and protecting their equality and wellbeing does have some common elements. These include referring to a person as they would like to be referred to, including the avoidance of abbreviations or slang terms unless you are sure they accept them. For example, many people and organizations (including those referenced in this chapter) use the abbreviation “trans” to represent transgender people, but a non-transgender person should not use that abbreviation unless they know the person or subject is comfortable with it. Respect also includes people’s right to privacy: One person should never out a person to someone else or assume that someone is publicly out. LGBTQ allies can support everyone’s rights to be equal and empowered members of society, including within organizations, institutions, and even individual classrooms.

Supporting others may require a change in mindset and practice. For example, if a transgender person wants to be referred to by a different name, or use different pronouns, it might take some getting used to, especially if you have spent years referring to the person by another name or by other pronouns. However, making the change is worthwhile and not overly onerous.

You can learn more about being an ally through campus, government, and organizational resources like the Human Rights Campaign’s guide

Language is an important part of culture, and it has been evolving to better include and describe people who are not gender-binary. In many languages, including English, pronouns are gendered. That is, pronouns are intended to identify the gender of the individual being referenced. English has traditionally been binary, providing only “he/him/his,” for male subjects and “she/her/hers,” for female subjects.

This binary system excludes those who identify as neither male nor female. The word “they,” which was used for hundreds of years as a singular pronoun, is more inclusive. As a result, in fact, Merriam Webster selected this use of “they” as Word of the Year for 2019. “They” and other pronouns are now used to reference those who do not identify as male or female on the spectrum of gender identities.

Gender inclusive language has impacts beyond personal references. In biology, anatomy, and healthcare, for example, people commonly refer to organs or processes with gender associations. However, more accurate and inclusive language avoids such associations. For example, women do not produce eggs; ovaries produce eggs. Men are not more likely to be color-blind; those with XY chromosomes are more likely to be color blind (Gender Inclusive Biology 2019).

Beyond the language of gender, the language of society and culture itself can be either a barrier or an opening to inclusivity. Societal norms are important sociological concepts, and behaviors outside of those norms can lead to exclusion. By disassociating gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation from the concept of norms, we can begin to eliminate the implicit and explicit biases regarding those realities. In everyday terms, this can take the form of avoiding references to what is normal or not normal in regard to sexuality or gender (Canadian Public Health Association 2019).

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LGBTQ flags, flowers, and signs are laid on the ground outside the Stonewall Inn as a memorial. Some signs read, "Stop the hate" and "Love conquers hate".

Figure 2. Photo at the Stonewall Inn, taken on pride weekend in 2016, the day after President Obama announced the Stonewall National Monument, and less than two weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Socialization and Sexual Identity

Like gender role socialization, sexual identities are heavily socialized from early ages. The United States is a heteronormative society, meaning it assumes sexual orientation is biologically determined and unambiguous. Consider that homosexuals are often asked, “When did you know you were gay?” but heterosexuals are rarely asked, “When did you know that you were straight?” (Ryle 2011). 

Societal acceptance of homosexuality has increased over time, including in the U.S., where 60% of respondents in 2013 said homosexuality should be accepted, as opposed to 49% who said so in 2007. This still ranks well below Canada, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Britain and Argentina, where national acceptance is over 70%[2] A Pew Research poll found that 63% of Americans said homosexuality should be accepted by society in 2016 [3]

A 2017 Gallup poll concluded that 4.5% of adult Americans identified as LGBT with 5.1% of women identifying as LGBT, compared with 3.9% of men. A different survey in 2016, from the Williams Institute, estimated that 0.6% of U.S. adults identify as transgender. Studies from several nations, including the U.S., conducted at varying time periods, have produced a statistical range of 1.2 to 6.8 percent of the adult population identifying as LGBT.

The District of Columbia has the highest GLBTQ population at 8.6%, followed by Vermont with 5.3%, Massachusetts, California, and Oregon, all at 4.9%, and Nevada with 4.8%.[4]

Like other aspects of socialization, norms and values related to sexuality and sexual orientation are transmitted through various agents of socialization beginning with the family. We can examine views on sexual orientation and examine other variables such as religion, country of origin, age, political affiliation, and others in order to theorize how values and norms related to sexual orientation operate.

Heteronormative behaviors are reinforced through agents of socialization, including popular movies and TV shows that feature LBGTQ relationships and individuals, which is symbolic of growing cultural awareness of relationships that are not heteronormative. Emmy-award winning comedienne Ellen DeGeneres broke early barriers by starring in a sitcom (Ellen 1994-1998) with herself as a gay female lead who comes out during an episode (April 30, 1997). Roseanne (1988-1997), starring Roseanne Barr, also revolutionarily featured several same sex couples and featured the first gay wedding of a recurring character in the episode “December Bride” (December 12, 1995). Roseanne made a comeback in 2018, but Barr herself was written out of the show and widely ostracized after posting an Islamophobic and racist tweet comparing an African American political operative to an ape.

The Showtime series Shameless (2011-present) has featured several same sex couples, and has intersected class, the military, and religion in its depiction of homosexual central character Ian Gallagher. HBO series Game of Thrones (2011-present) boasts 11 LGBTQ characters, including lesbian Lara Greyjoy and non-gender conforming Brienne of Tarth, among others.

Perhaps the biggest shift in popular culture has been to include LGBTQ characters in childrens’ series. The Legend of Korra (2012-2014), successor to Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008), features a queer lead and explicitly addresses sexism. [5]

In 2012, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay politician, and the first Wisconsin woman, to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Prior to being elected to the Senate, Baldwin had been the first openly gay member of the U.S. Congress, joining the body in 1998.

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heteronormative society:
assumes sexual orientation is biologically determined and unambiguous
an ideology and a set of institutional practices that privilege heterosexuals and heterosexuality over other sexual orientations
sexual orientation:
a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and sexual attraction to a particular sex (male or female)

  1. "A survey of LBGT Americans." (2013). Pew Research Center.
  2. "The global divide on homosexuality," 2013. Pew Research Center.
  3. Brown. A. 2017. "Five key findings." Pew Research Center.
  4. Gates, G. 2017. "Vermont leads states LGBT identification," Gallop Social and Public Issues.
  5. Necessary, T. "10 Kids Shows." Pride.