Bish guide to sexualities: Queer, Straight, Gay, Asexual, Lesbian, Bi …. Also why some people love labels and others not.
This is about trying to explain some of these terms and labels, but I’ll also try to explain how people can think very differently about they feel about their labels. We make lots of assumptions on people based on labels and often we use labels to label people. I’m using them here to help explain them, but let’s let people make up their minds about who they are. It’s not your job to tell people what their label is.
If someone tells you they are [insert label] – believe them.
I’m using the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in this piece for clarity but just assume that I’m talking about both cis and trans men and women. Ok? Let’s crack on …
Also known as heterosexual. Most people would probably describe themselves as ‘straight’.
Straight people tend to fancy people of a different gender/sex to them.
So a man who mainly fancies women would probably say they are ‘straight’, and a woman who mainly fancies men would probably say they are ‘straight’. So many people in the world are straight that it’s easy to assume that everyone is straight. This isn’t good. It puts pressure on people who aren’t straight to be straight which can make them unhappy because they aren’t able to be who they are. So let’s try to change things.
Fun fact, according to this research only one in two young people would say they are 100% straight. Surprised?
The meaning of ‘queer’ is a bit fuzzy but I’ll try to explain. For many years ‘queer’ was just a nasty and insulting word used to describe non-straight people. This word has been reclaimed by many people – just like black people can use the N word, this is an example of reclaiming. Reclaimed words are used by the minority community as a way of taking the sting out of the insult and giving themselves a powerful word to use.
Although some people still use the word queer as an insult (like the N word) some people also use it as a positive word.
Queer is a reclaimed word like this. So it’s okay for queer folk to use the term to describe themselves. Queer is also used when we talk about culture. For example, Queer Theory is a whole field of study and my mate Meg-John wrote this really great book about this Queer a Graphic History
‘Queer’ describes any sexuality which is not straight, or anything which many people might think to be outside the norm (whatever norm means). It has a very broad meaning, so people might not agree on the definition exactly (this is true for all of these terms). For example it’s also possible for straight people to do queer things, or to help to make things more queer, even if they themself are not. Queer applies to who people fancy but it also applies to how people feel about their own gender – this is genderqueer which I’ve tried to explain over here.
‘Questioning’ is for people who are questioning their sexuality. There are also people who might be ‘undecided’ or ‘undeclared’. These people may learn stuff about themselves to see if they are other things that you see on this page, or they might not, or they might learn that they don’t need to!
Also known as homosexual (which is a clinical term a lot of people don’t like anymore). People who describe themselves as ‘gay’ are probably men who mainly fancy other men. Just to confuse you, gay is also a term used to describe lesbians.
Just as with people who say they are straight, this applies to people who mainly fancy people of the same gender to them.
You don’t have to only have sex, or have had sex, or think about having sex with people of the same gender to you to be gay. There are plenty of gay people who don’t have sex with anyone.
Gay is also a term used by people to say that something is sh*t. This really gets on my nerves and I wish people wouldn’t do it, although I do appreciate that it’s possible for words to have more than one meaning. More here.
Gay people are a minority and just like other minorities they face insults and stigma for who they are. There are lots of insulting terms that are used against gay people, which non-gay people shouldn’t use. Using these terms might be an example of ‘homophobia’. Treating anyone harshly or less fairly because of their sexuality is homophobia and is wrong (and sometimes illegal).
Also known as homosexual (again, a clinical term that people don’t like now). A person who describes them self as a lesbian is probably a woman who mainly fancies other women. Just as above, a lesbian doesn’t have to hand in her lesbian badge if she has sex, or has had sex, or thinks about having sex with men. You don’t have to be having sex with women to ‘prove’ that you are a lesbian. There are loads of women who have sex with women who don’t identify themselves as lesbians.
Lesbians are usually women who fancy other women
Lesbian people are a minority and just like other minorities they face insults and stigma for who they are. There are lots of insulting terms that are used against lesbians, which non-lesbians shouldn’t use. Using these terms might be an example of ‘homophobia’. Treating anyone harshly or less fairly because of their sexuality is homophobia and is wrong (and sometimes illegal).
People who describe themselves as bisexual are usually people who are sexually attracted people of the same and different sex/gender to themselves. So a man who fancies men and women would probably say they are bisexual, as would a woman who fancies women and men. Bi people may fancy anyone of any gender (including non-binary folk), though some people choose to say they are pansexual.
You may also have heard the term ‘biromantic’– this refers to folk who have romantic attractions to same and different gender to them. For example there are plenty of asexual folk who may be into romantic relationships.
Bi peeps are a minority and just like other minorities they face insults and stigma for who they are.
Biphobia is unique (and we need to talk about it) because Bi folk get discriminated against from straight communities but also gay and lesbian communities.
Bi folk are often made invisible because too many of us (and society in general) make assumptions about someone’s sexuality based on who they are with at a time.
For example, if we see a man and a man getting married it’s just assumed that these two men are gay – they might well not be. See also a man and a woman getting married and a woman and a woman getting married. Just because someone has made a romantic commitment to one person does not erase their sexuality. People have fantasies, desires and identities, even if they don’t want to act on them. We should never put bi people in the position of having to prove their sexuality.
Also a lot of relationships are in some way non-monogamous. So the person you see someone with might have another romantic, or sexual partner. Of course we are also encouraged to have this binary thinking (one thing or the other) when it comes to gender too. Another way that bi folk are made invisible.
This all means that bi people are often less able to be ‘out’ than lesbian and gay people (remember people only have to ‘come out’ because we assume everyone is straight). So this affects bi people because they don’t feel they can ‘be’ themselves and can’t access a lot of support because they might not feel welcomed.
Because of all of this, the bi population as a whole experience poorer mental health than straight people and also lesbian or gay people. That’s why we need to recognise and acknowledge bi folk, why we have to challenge our own assumptions, and why we need education and health services to do this too.
Here’s a really well researched article about biphobia.
People who describe themselves as ‘asexual’ don’t usually fancy anyone that much at all. It’s quite a broad term so different people are going to have different views on what this means for them and others.
Asexual peeps either don’t experience sexual attraction or aren’t interested in sexual relationships.
They are still interested in developing close relationships with other people but this tends to be less about that person’s sexual attractiveness but other qualities. Asexual peeps can still be interested in intimate or romantic relationships which are either not sexual or not very sexual. Though some people are also ‘aromantic’ too.
Asexual peeps don’t say that sex is bad, or that other people shouldn’t do it – it’s just not for them.
Being asexual is different to someone who does experience sexual attraction but chooses not to act on them for a period of time – this is known as celibacy or being celibate.
For more about asexuality go here
Born this way?
People often say that they realise who they fancy from quite an early age. Trying to work this stuff out is something that non-straight people probably think about more than straight people. Everyone is assumed to be straight (and it’s assumed that everyone will fancy people), so people think a lot about this when they realise they might not be.
Also we don’t question straight people in the same way that non-straight people are questioned. Do straight people get asked questions like ‘when did you realise you were straight?’ or ‘why have you chosen to be straight when you could be gay?’ or ‘are you really straight or is this just a phase you’re going through?’
Some people feel that their sexuality is fixed and is fixed from an early age. Some people believe that they were born with that sexuality (see Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’). Other people believe that things are a bit more fluid than that.
Our sexualities are always changing actually. Check out this guide from me about this.
Do I need a label?
Some people like to find a label that they feel fits them and then stick with it. For people who belong to a minority ‘non-straight’ sexuality, a definite label can help them to come out and be who they want to be. Knowing that they can get support from everyone else with that label can be a massive massive boost in a society which expects everyone to be straight.
Other people like labels but don’t like them to be so big, or sticky. Some peeps like to switch labels, or not use labels at all and just be ‘peeps’. For a great article about this, written by Jake (Team Bish member) go here.
Some people put their sexuality at the heart of their view of who they are. Some people prefer to identify themselves with other things which might not relate to their sexuality or gender at all– for instance, what they are into, what they do, or what roles they fill.
Have a think of some of this stuff for you? What defines you? Write your name in the middle of a piece of paper and write down who you are, what’s important to you and your identity? Write the important stuff in big letters. Get creative. Don’t be afraid to go back and change things if you want to.
Links for support
akt – are an excellent charity who support LGBT young people who are homeless or living in a hostile home environment. Awesome and much needed charity (sadly).
Switchboard Providing free & confidential support & information to lesbian, gay, bisexual & trans communities throughout the UK HELPLINE 0300 330 0630 (DAILY 10AM – 11PM)
Young Stonewall – have lots of useful information, support, advice, and links for young LGBT folk
IT GETS BETTER a video project which gives support for LGBT young people
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© Justin Hancock, 2023
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.