Attraction, Orientation and Identity: What do you mean when you say I’m Gay
Words are tricky things. We use words as a way of communicating, but sometimes what we mean when we say something, and what the listener assumes we mean when we use those words can be very different things. Recently I was hanging out with a group of youth, and one of them told me Â“I going to get pimped outÂ” Because I know this teen pretty well I understood that what he meant by the phrase was Â“IÂ’m going to get really dressed upÂ” much the same as my grandparents would have said Â“IÂ’m really putting on the ritz.Â” What made the situation humourous was a bystander who wasnÂ’t as trained in the slang of youth culture was shocked and confused because she interpreted those same words to mean Â“IÂ’m going to have someone set me up to be a prostituteÂ”
Similarly I had an experience of traveling to the Southern United States, and ordering a meal in a restaurant. I was quite thirsty so I asked the waitress what kind of Â“popÂ” they had. She looked at me blankly with no idea what I meant, and told me she didnÂ’t think they had any of that. I couldnÂ’t believe that any restaurant wouldnÂ’t have soft drinks of some kind, and so I asked her Â“You knowÂ…like Coke, or Pepsi!Â” She smiled and said Â“Oh you want a soda! Why sure, we have that!Â”
In both these cases, what the speaker was trying to communicate, and what the listener understood where two different things. So when talking about anything it important to make sure that all parties involved understand what you mean when you say something.
And when it comes to sexualityÂ…well its very easy to end up arguing simply because people arenÂ’t even talking about the same thing. Take for instance the word Â“gayÂ”. ItÂ’s thrown around a lotÂ…but what do we mean by it?
When I was in elementary school I remember watching the Flintstones, and singing along with the theme to the show Â“WeÂ’ll have a gay old time!Â” No, I donÂ’t think Fred and Barney were sleeping together, the word back then usually meant Â“funÂ”. Today the word Â“gayÂ” generally is connected to homosexualityÂ…but even now it can mean different things to different people. In my years working with teens I have had dozens tell me Â“I think IÂ’m gayÂ” but once again, they said them for different reasons, and meant different things by it.
To help clear up these differences it has been helpful to think of sexuality as being made up of three distinct parts: Attractions, Orientation, and Identity.
Attractions are perhaps the simplest part of the equation. Everyone has attractions, though they may be to different things. Attractions come on different levels. I can be attracted to a person physically, emotionally, mentally, sexually, or a combination of each of these levels. Sometimes its confusing to know on which level you are attracted to someone. For example many people may find one of their friends attractive on an emotional level, desiring to be emotionally close, get approval from them, share honestly, etc. This is different from being sexually attracted to them (ie. Wanting to have sex with them) However many people who are aware that they are emotionally attracted assume this must mean they should be sexually attracted too. Similarly there can be confusion between physical attraction and sexual attraction, especially among younger teens whose bodies are still dealing with the hormonal changes of puberty. For example a teen who finds himself physically aroused in a setting such as a locker room around other men, may assume that arousal means he must be gay. But really in adolescence it is easy to become aroused for little or even no reason, and being aroused in a certain setting does not mean one wants to have sex with members of the same gender.
The truth about attractions is that they come and go, they can be on different levels, and they can be directed at different people or things. It is a common belief in our culture that only gay people will experience any amount of attraction towards the same sex, but that simply isnÂ’t true. Studies show that a significant number of people who end up heterosexual experience some amount same sex attraction, especially during their adolescent years.
So simply experiencing some level of attraction to a person of the same sex doesnÂ’t mean you are gay, or really mean anything, other than that at a certain time, in a certain situation you felt a certain thing.
Orientation is the next part of sexuality. Orientation could be understood as the normal direction in which your attractions go. Often we use terms like Â“gayÂ” Â“straightÂ” and Â“biÂ” to indicate sexual orientation. If you find over the course of several years that almost all your attraction is to the opposite gender, you might call yourself Â“straightÂ”. On the other hand if over years you find that your attractions are mostly towards the same sex you might call yourself Â“gayÂ”. But once again orientation is not a written in stone thing, itÂ’s a description of general direction. People who would describe themselves as having a Â“straightÂ” or heterosexual orientation could find themselves attracted to someone of the same sex in certain situations.
One thing about orientation, while it can describe the general direction of attraction, it tells us nothing about behavior and actions. It is quite possible to have a homosexual orientation, but to never actually have sex, or to choose have sex with the opposite gender instead. Why someone would do this will be covered more later. But for now it is enough to recognize that many people although they would consider themselves to have a homosexual orientation choose not to call themselves gay, or who do call themselves gay, but would choose not to act on their attractions. For this reason we on the site tend not to refer to homosexual orientation by using the term Â“gayÂ” but rather use Same Gender Attraction (SGA)
The other thing about orientation is it can describe what you are attracted to, but tells you nothing about how appropriate it is to act on those attractions. Many people take the fact that they have an orientation to mean that it must be right to act on it, but there are many orientations beyond even Â“gayÂ”, Â“straightÂ” and Â“biÂ”. Some people find themselves solely attracted to children. We call this pedophilia. While we recognize that it is a serious and persistent orientation, few people would claim that acting on it is a good thing.
Finally the third part of sexuality is identity. Sexual Identity is how you think about yourself, the labels you embrace, the values you hold, and the things you believe about sex. When we use the term Â“gayÂ” on this site we often are talking about Identity. We are talking about people who have identified themselves as having a homosexual orientation, and who have decided that acting on their attractions is appropriate and good for them.
This is why talking about change can be so tricky. I have a friend who tells lots of people that he Â“used to be gayÂ”. Many people assume when they hear this he is talking about attraction: that he used to be attracted to men, but now is not. But actually what he is talking about is Identity: he used to believe that having sex with men was good for him, he used to engage in sex with men on a frequent basis, he used to identify his relationship to men as the key thing in his life. Now he doesnÂ’t. While he is still attracted to men, he no longer has sex with them, and what he believes about his past relationships has changed a great deal. His attractions have not changed, but his identity certainly has!
So is he telling the truth when he said he used to be gay? Well yes, but you have to understand what he means by it.
Understanding the difference between identity, orientation, and attraction will make understanding the rest of this website a lot easier. This is at the root of everything that we talk about here, and will help clear up a lot of misconceptions.