Sexual identity is complex; it exists on multiple continuums, which together encompass infinite variability and possibility.
Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation and Romantic Orientation are three integral components of sexual identity. Each component exists independently, yet they also intersect in ways that form a person's overall sexual identity.
- Gender identity is one's internal experience of their gender. Many people identify their gender primarily with their sex as assigned at birth, which is referred to as cisgender. Trans/transgender people identify with a sex/gender other than what was assigned to them at birth. For example, a person may have been assigned female at birth based on a doctor's examination of external genitalia, yet they might identify as a man and present as male socially. Examples of non-cisgender identities are: agender, bigender, gender neutral, non-binary or genderqueer.
- Sexual orientation is to whom we are sexually and romantically attracted. Terms for sexual orientation can include heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer/questioning.
- Romantic orientation reflects our intrinsic desire to engage in romantic connections with others. A person may have romantic desire or attraction, but not experience sexual attraction, or vice versa (e.g. hetero-romantic asexual, aromantic bisexual). Terms for romantic orientation may include aromantic, demi-romantic or polyamorous.
Looking at the ways these three components of sexual identity intersect can be confusing or overwhelming. However, it is important to recognize that there are limitless possibilities and that all are natural expressions of human sexuality.
While we have listed examples of identity terms for each of the three components, there are many other self-determined identities. You should respect and affirm ways that people self-identify, even if it is something you have never heard of before.
Discrimination and Oppression
While attitudes and social norms have significantly shifted in the United States and much of Europe, we continue to live in a world where gender and sexual minorities are targets of overt discrimination and hate crimes. Many countries in the world still criminalize people who are LGBTQ, sentencing them to prison or even death.
Due to experiences of chronic stigmatization, marginalization and rejection/alienation from close social networks such as families and churches/religious communities, many LGBTQ individuals experience symptoms of depression, suicide, anxiety, PTSD, substance use disorders and more. It is important to be aware of the connection between oppression and mental health issues and recognize that it is not a person's sexual identity that is the problem; rather the problem is the hurtful and harmful attitudes, beliefs and actions of others.
Discrimination and oppression can take many forms—including individual/internalized, interpersonal/social and institutional societal—and can be overt/aggressive or subtle microaggressions.
Examples of overt/aggressive discrimination:
- A lesbian is raped after leaving a bar by a man who believes lesbians need a man in order to make them straight.
- Heterosexual men beat a young college student to death when they discover he is gay.
- Parents file complaints to a school board that a lesbian teacher may be a pedophile or will recruit their children into a homosexual lifestyle. Despite the teacher's excellent work history and standing in the community, the school board fires her.
Examples of microaggressions and/or internalized homophobia/oppression:
- A woman is assumed to be a lesbian because she likes to hunt and is not interested in makeup or dressing in feminine clothes.
- A gay man hides his sexual orientation from his colleagues because he's worried about being fired.
- A transgender person tells someone their current name and pronouns, but the offender continues to mis-gender by using the transgender person's birth name and gender pronouns.
While subtle and overt forms of oppression are harmful, they can have different effects. Overt discrimination can lead to feelings of anger, outrage and motivation to take action or advocate for social justice. Subtle oppression is more likely to lead us to question ourselves and wonder if we are misinterpreting a situation, often leading to silence and inaction. All forms of oppression are harmful. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
The term "coming out" is used to describe the process of understanding, accepting and disclosing one's sexual identity. The process is personal and can happen in different ways for each person. Some people acknowledge their sexual identity during their teenage years, while others explore their sexual identity much later in life.
For those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, coming out is an ongoing process that may involve confusion, self-doubt and stress because of institutionalized heterosexism and homophobia.
LGBT individuals revisit and disclose their sexual identity over a lifespan of encountering new jobs, new places to live and new friends.
It is normal to have questions about one's sexual attractions. Simply exploring these questions does not determine if one is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or straight. It's okay not to know one's own sexual identity. Some of the positive outcomes of examining sexual identity in detail, even for those who identify as heterosexual, can be greater honesty in one's life, increased self-esteem and a sense of greater personal integrity.
There are several important considerations in coming out to others:
- What reactions are anticipated in the decision to disclose one's sexual identity?
- What risks are involved in disclosing this personal information?
- Will openness and honesty be fostered in the decision to disclose one's sexual identity?
- Will the benefits of disclosure outweigh the costs?
Cisgender heterosexual individuals do not often have to consider these issues in depth. However, LGBT individuals must confront these questions because of the very real presence of heterosexism, homophobia and discrimination. Some people feel more comfortable disclosing their sexual identity to LGBT people or others who will be supportive before they decide to disclose their identities on a broader basis.
Often, people choose to disclose to close friends and family members, depending on their comfort levels. Some people choose to come out in very public forums. Regardless of the circumstances, the choices surrounding coming out to others require courage and deserves respect.
Ways to Be an Advocate for Sexual Diversity
- Adopt the attitude that discrimination and oppression on the basis of sexual identity are unacceptable. Be vocal about this attitude and take responsibility for your actions. Explore your own biases and prejudices.
- For heterosexuals, this process involves recognizing the privilege that comes with your majority identity. For LGBT individuals, this process involves confronting internalized homophobia.
- If you are struggling with issues related to sexual identity, seek help. If someone you care about is struggling, help them find help. Educate yourself about issues related to human diversity, including sexual identity. Overtly object to homophobic jokes or statements made by others.
- Be supportive if someone comes out to you. Remember how much courage and risk is involved in coming out. A person who is coming out deserves friendship, love, support and respect, as all humans do.
- Student Counseling Center services are affirming of diverse sexual identities and expressions.
- The center has several clinicians on staff with expertise in gender identity, sexuality and sexual orientation, and relationship concerns.
- The center offers individual, couple and group therapy, as well as outreach presentations about issues relevant to gender, sexuality and romantic identities.
- Affirming counseling services for students, faculty and staff
- LEAP Initiative: LGBTQ education, advocacy and programming
Pride a UTD is a student social organization that focuses on creating social connections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, pansexual, queer, questioning and more (LGBT+) students at UT Dallas.
Rainbow Guard is a student organization that works to create a positive campus climate by implementing programming and policy to combat gender identity, sexual identity, racial and spiritual/religious discrimination at UT Dallas.
QuTD is a staff/faculty affinity group that meets monthly as a connection and social support network for LGBTQ employees of UT Dallas. Contact Mohammed Rahman at the Career Center or Ellen Greenwald at the Student Counseling Center for information regarding meeting schedule and joining QuTD.