Traditional sexual identity models – as in, man, woman, husband, wife – are being replaced with a more contemporary and liberal understanding about gender, sexual orientation and what that means.
We're finally talking about it in a more open way but sexual orientation is a very personal thing and can still be confusing, especially when you're trying to figure out where you sit on the sexual spectrum. It's healthy to be curious and staying open to all kinds of relationships and letting them develop naturally can be a helpful mantra. Remember, nothing is wrong, even if it's different to what the majority appears to be choosing.
We've always had multiple sexualities
Being gay is nothing new. In the 16th to 19th centuries, same-sex relationships were common and up until the 6th century, the ancient Greeks readily accepted homosexuality.
And in South Africa, between the 16th and 20th centuries, wealthy women could take a number of partners, even if they were already married to a man.
We've come a long way in opening up the lines of acceptance with regards to gender and sexual identity since the first gay pride march in the US on June 28, 1970, but the topic of sexual orientation can still cause misunderstandings. Especially for young people who feel they want to ‘come out’ and aren't sure they'll be accepted.
Some of our confusion about sexual identity may be linked to not being fully clear on gender and the role it can play.
Your sexual identity can change over time and although we may not need (or like) labels, we can use them to help us identify our own sexual orientation.
In oversimplified terms: your gender is what you’re born with: male, female; intersex (neither or not wholly male or female) whereas sexual identity is your romantic and sexual preference: same-sex, opposite sex, both, many, neither.
We are all the colours of the rainbow
It’s certainly not black and white. A 1990 study by the Social Organization of Sexuality showed that only 16% of women and 36% of men who reported some level of same sex attraction identified as being bisexual or homosexual. So even within the multitude of sexual identity, there are many variables.
The Sexual Discrimination Act 2010 is there to offer protection to people who identify as male, female or intersex, but statistics show that LGBTI people ages 16 to 27 are five times more likely to commit suicide and are twice as likely to be diagnosed and treated for mental health conditions.
That statistic is even worse for people who are transgender: they are 11 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. But our ignorance doesn’t begin and end with gender. When it comes to sexual identity, the spectrum is wide and deep, and determining your sexual orientation can take time, and for some may remain fluid over a lifetime.
Let's be clear about queer
According to the Growing Up Queer study by the University of Western Australia; homophobia, transphobia and heteronormativity can have a serious impact on people who are sexually diverse. Harassment, violence, bullying and humiliation are commonplace affecting the education experience of many youths in Australia. The study acknowledges that “Growing up in rural or isolated communities often exacerbates the problem.”
The study concludes that misrepresentation and misrecognition of the variety of sexual identities is a form of homophobia and often accompanied by bullying. Study participants reflected a desire to not be treated differently just because of their sexual or gender identity.
The takeaway? We need to start speaking about and learning more about the variety of sexual identities. Because compassion generally follows understanding.
Without the need for labels it might be easier for us to all be free, but unfortunately we're not there yet. So until then, if you are looking for a term to help you identify your own preferences or those of someone you know or love, the following list may be helpful.
Some people have an absence of sexual desire and don’t engage in sexual behaviour – that’s asexual, which is different to being celibate. Celibacy is a choice not to have sex. A person who is asexual may well be choosing not to, but they also lack the desire and may never have had a sexual relationship. A British study of almost 19,000 participants reported that approximately 1.1% of the population had “never felt sexual attraction to anyone at all.”
Celebs who are asexual:
Morrissey. For a long time the British singer was considered to be asexual, but he more recently said “I’m attracted to humans … just not many.”
John Frusciante. Multiple reports claim the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' guitarist would rather meditate than have sex after he declared “I'm very well without it”. However, having been married for four years between 2011 and 2015, Fruisciante is more likely celibate than asexual.
Being ‘bi’ means you are sexually attracted to both men and women. Recent figures given by the LGBTI National Alliance suggest that between 1 and 2% of Australians identify with being primarily bisexual.
Celebs who are bisexual:
Drew Barrymore “When I was younger I used to go with lots of women.”
Debbie Harry “Women are more sensual.”
Angelina Jolie “Honestly, I like everything. Boyish girls, girlish boys.”
The term gay or homosexual is used for both genders but is usually reserved for men and is also referred to as same-gender loving. It indicates having sexual attraction to the same sex. Up until 1974, homosexuality in the US was defined as a medical disorder.
Celebs who are homosexual:
Elton John, Lance Bass, Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Martin
Pan or pansexual is a fluid form of sexuality that signifies being attracted to all types of genders (like bisexual) but can include transgender, transsexual, cross-dressing and gender-fluid people. It’s a term that’s becoming more common as people feel the label ‘bisexual’ is too restrictive.
Celebs who are pansexual:
Miley Cyrus: “I always hated the word ‘bisexual,’ because that's even putting me in a box. I don't ever think about someone being a boy or someone being a girl.”
Courtney Act: “The reason I identify as pansexual is not because I wander around the street looking at women thinking I wanna bang ’em, it’s because I've had sexual and emotional experiences with women.”
‘Poly’ means ‘many’ and being polyamorous means the ability to love multiple partners _ usually with the consent of all involved. Slightly different to polygamy which is being married to multiple partners, polyamory isn’t confined to being a sexual relationship, but will at least be romantic. Hugh Hefner would be an example of someone who is polygamous rather than a polyamorous because his wives don’t tend to have other lovers.
Celebs who are polyamorous:
Ethan Hawke and Ryan Shawhughes “'Sexual fidelity can't be the whole thing you hang your relationship on,” says Hawke.
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith: Much has been reported about Will and Jada being in an open relationship, but Pinkett-Smith set the record straight in a Facebook post: “Will and I BOTH can do WHATEVER we want, because we TRUST each other to do so. This does NOT mean we have an open relationship...this means we have a GROWN one.”
This is the opposite to love at first sight whereby an emotional connection is required before a demisexual person will experience sexual attraction. You become sexually attracted over time, but it starts with friendship.
Boy George “I used to say that tea was more reliable than men,” he adds. “But that's changed a bit. You have the relationships you're worth.”
Jennifer Lawrence “I am making it clear that I have not had sex in a very long time. I would like to have a relationship, you know. It is hard out there.”
Blake Lively “I’ve had four boyfriends in my whole life. I’ve never been with anyone that’s not a boyfriend. If I spend time with a man, it’s because there’s somebody that I know well who has been a friend for a while.”
Vanessa Sunshine (The Bachelor) “I need to get to know someone first.”
A Lesbian is a person who identifies as female and who is sexually attracted to other women. The term lesbian originates from the poet Sappho who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos and wrote about erotic female-to-female encounters. Trans-females can also identify as lesbian.
Celebs who are lesbian:
Ruby Rose “I came out when I was 12-years-old.”
Ellen DeGeneres The iconic Time magazine with the coverline “Yep, I’m gay,” cemented Ellen’s pubic ‘coming out’ in April 1997.
Hannah Gadbsy referred to herself as a lesbian for many years, but in her Netflix documentary, Nannette she said: “I don’t identify as transgender. But I’m clearly gender not-normal. I don’t think even lesbian is the right identity for me.”
An ally is a heterosexual person who supports and fights for the rights of the LGBT social movement.
Celebs who are ally:
Jack Falahee (How To Get Away With Murder) “While I'm not gay, on HTGAWM I play a character who's in an interracial relationship with an HIV positive man … Now more than ever, I want to offer my support to the community as an ally."
Jake Gyllenhaal (referencing Brokeback Mountain) “The struggle for identity is everybody’s struggle … it’s possible you can find love anywhere.”
The term bi-curious is distinguishable from bisexual as being someone who identifies as homosexual or straight but is interested in having a sexual encounter with someone outside of their preferred norm.
Celebs who are bi-curious:
Britney Spears Remember that kiss she had with Madonna at the MTV awards?
Demi Lovato “I don't think there's anything wrong with experimentation at all.” Lovato told Alan Carr after she kissed Kehlani on stage at her Newark concert in April.
Rather than being sexually attracted to specifically men and women (bisexual), someone who is polysexual is attracted to more than one gender but may have a slightly different preference such as: men and transgender men, but not women. Some transgender people will identify as transmale-straight or transfemale-lesbian for example, so within polysexual, the combinations of sexual identity are vast.
Celebs who are polysexual:
Kehlani: “I’m queer. Not bi, not straight. I’m attracted to women, men, REALLY attracted to queer men, non-binary people, intersex people, trans people.”
Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is the norm and that people fall into clear gender and sexually-orientated categories. It relies on the belief that sexual relations between the opposite sex is the ‘right’ and only way.
Celebs who are heteronormative
Boxer Anthony Mundine: “If you are going to be gay, do it behind closed doors, that is how it used to be in the olden days.”
Tony Abbott: The ex-PM who was openly against gay marriage was recently seen at his sister’s same-sex wedding.
LGBT is also referred to as LGBTQ and LGBTQI, the acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (or Questioning) and Intersex. Queer, although previously viewed as derogatory is now commonly used as an umbrella term by the LGBTQI community.
What to do if you are unsure about your sexuality
They say; “It’s normal to feel confused,” and “Just because you define your sexuality one way now, doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later.” The most helpful advice seems to be to know that whatever you’re going through is normal for you and it doesn’t matter what other people think.
No matter what age you are it can be helpful to find other LGBTQI communities, either locally or online, where you can hear about other people’s experiences and gain validation of your own. Twenty10.org.au provides youth counselling and a fee drop-in service in Sydney and Parramatta (ph: 1800 184 527).
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed about your sexual identity or are being bullied, BeyondBlue (ph: 1300 22 4636) provides online assistance for people of all ages.