Definition of Terms and Concepts Related to LGBT Issues

Understanding how certain terms are used is essential to understanding homosexuality. It is important to recognize the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior as well as the differences among sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender role.

Sexual orientation may be defined as the erotic and affectional (or loving) attraction to another person, including erotic fantasy, erotic activity or behavior, and affectional needs. Heterosexuality is the attraction to persons of the opposite sex; homosexuality, to persons of the same sex; and bisexuality, to both sexes. Sexual orientation can be seen as part of a continuum ranging from same-sex attraction only (at one end of the continuum) to opposite-sex attraction only (at the other end of the continuum).

Sexual behavior, or sexual activity, differs from sexual orientation and alone does not define someone as an LGBT individual. Any person may be capable of sexual behavior with a person of the same or opposite sex, but an individual knows his or her longings—erotic and affectional—and which sex is more likely to satisfy those needs.

It is necessary to draw a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Not every person with a homosexual or bisexual orientation, as indicated by his or her fantasies, engages in homosexual behavior. Nor does sexual behavior alone define orientation. A personal awareness of having a sexual orientation that is not exclusively heterosexual is one

way a person identifies herself or himself as an LGBT person. Or a person may have a sexual identity that differs from his or her biological sex—that is, a person may have been born a male but identifies and feels more comfortable as a female. Sexual orientation and gender identity are two independent variables in an individual’s definition of himself or herself.

Sexual identity is the personal and unique way that a person perceives his or her own sexual desires and sexual expressions. Biological sex is the biological distinction between men and women.

Gender is the concept of maleness and masculinity or femaleness and femininity. One’s gender identity is the sense of one’s self as male or female and does not refer to one’s sexual orientation or gender role. Gender role refers to the behaviors and desires to act in certain ways that are viewed as masculine or feminine by a particular culture.

A culture usually labels behaviors as masculine or feminine, but these behaviors are not necessarily a direct component of gender or gender identity. It is common in our culture to call the behaviors, styles, or interests shown by males that are usually associated with women “effeminate” and to call the boys who behave this way “sissies.” Women or girls who have interests usually associated with men are labeled “masculine” or “butch,” and the girls are often called “tomboys.”

Transgender individuals are those who conform to the gender role expectations of the opposite sex or those who may clearly identify their gender as the opposite of their biological sex. In common usage, transgender usually refers to people in the transsexual group that may include people who are contemplating or preparing for sexual reassignment surgery— called preoperative—or who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery—called postoperative. A transgender person may be sexually attracted to males, females, or both.

Transvestites cross dress, that is, wear clothes usually worn by people of the opposite biological sex. They do not, however, identify themselves as having a gender identity different from their biological sex or gender role. The motivations for cross dressing vary, but most transvestites enjoy cross dressing and may experience sexual excitement from it. The vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual, and they usually are not included in general discussions about LGBT people.

Gender identity disorder (GID) was introduced in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Although GID is listed as a mental illness, most clinicians do not consider individuals who are confused or conflicted about their biological gender and their personal sense of their gender identity to be mentally ill. Considerable work needs to be done to augment the small amount of research available on the development of a transgender identity—that is, how a person becomes aware of a sexual identity that does not match his or her biological sex or gender role.