Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Homosexuality is a sexual orientation and it is defined as romantic attraction and/or sexual interaction between individuals of the same sex. In modern use, the adjective homosexual is used for intimate relationships and/or sexual relations between people of the same sex, who may or may not identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Homosexuality, as an identifier, is usually contrasted with heterosexuality and bisexuality. The term gay is used predominantly to refer to self-identified homosexual people of either sex. Lesbian is a gender-specific term that is only used for self-identified homosexual females.

Transgender is a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies that diverge from the normative gender role (woman or man) commonly, but not always, assigned at birth, as well as the role traditionally held by society.

Transgender is the state of one's "gender identity" (self-identification as male, female, both or neither) not matching one's "assigned gender" (identification by others as male or female based on physical/genetic sex). Transgender does not imply any specific form of sexual orientation — transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual.

A transgender individual may have characteristics that are normally associated with a particular gender, identify elsewhere on the traditional gender continuum, or exist outside of it. There are also intersex individuals, whose sex chromosomes, genitalia and/or secondary sex characteristics are determined to be neither exclusively male nor female. A person with intersex may have biological characteristics both male and female.

In addition to orientation and identity issues, there is a broad spectrum of alternative sexual and relational behaviors such as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism,) polyamory (multiple partners,) “friends with benefits” (when non-romantic partners have a sexual relationship,) and others.

How Do I Know There’s a Problem?

Sexuality is not a problem in and of itself, though your friend may struggle with personal questions about her or his gender identity, sexual orientation, or relational values. You may worry about friends’ lack of judgment or ability to give consent if they abuse recreational drugs or alcohol frequently, or their health if they practice unsafe sex. You may be concerned that they are having abusive or coercive sexual experiences or partners.

What To Do

Your friend may simply need a safe place to explore his/her thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Sometimes cultural, family, and religious values can create internal conflicts for folks wrestling with these identity questions. Your friend may be sensitive to any perceived disapproval or judgments you might have, or may feel such shame or confusion that s/he is trying to maintain secrecy or a “double life.” You can help by being supportive, non-judgmental, and not assuming you know everything about your friend’s sexuality.