Exploring Sexual Health: Sexual Orientation and Coming Out Safely
“I know someone who is bi, but what does that mean?” In an age where there are more terms than ever to describe one’s sexual orientation, one may wish to go beyond the commonly discussed ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ and learn more about the other terms, so that we are able to better understand and respect others’ preferences, especially that of our friends. But what is sexual orientation and what do these terms mean?
Sexual orientation is defined by one’s emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to others and is an important part of one’s sexuality. Sexual orientation can be generally classified as:
- Heterosexual – People who are heterosexual are attracted to those of the opposite sex. Heterosexual males are attracted to females and vice versa. Heterosexuals are also sometimes termed as ‘straight’.
- Homosexual – People who are homosexual are attracted to those of the same sex. The term ‘gay’ is often used to describe homosexuals of either sex, but females may prefer to use the term ‘lesbian’.
- Bisexual – People who are attracted to those of either sex.
- Pansexual – People who are pansexual are attracted to people of any gender identity. Many pansexual people describe themselves to be attracted to people based on personality, rather than one’s sex.
- Asexual – People who are asexual are not sexually attracted to other people, but they can still feel emotionally attracted to others. Asexuality has nothing to do with one’s romantic interests, some may identify as asexual and gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight. People who are asexual may want to be in a romantic relationship with others, but they just do not have the desire to act on their feelings in a sexual way.
As the definitions for bisexual and pansexual are rather similar, some people are confused between the two terms. Some people believe that the term ‘bisexual’ implies that there are only two sexes (male or female) and does not recognise that there are also those who identify as non-binary. Other people assume that the word ‘pansexual’ was thus created to overcome the exclusion of non-binary people by the term ‘bisexual’.
However, this is reported to be not accurate. Although some people may use the term bisexual to only include women and men, this is not necessarily a universal definition. In fact, many bisexual communities do recognise non-binary people and many non-binary people themselves identify as bisexual.
In short, there may not necessarily be a difference between the terms ‘bisexual’ and ‘pansexual’. Depending on one’s experiences and how one defines the terms, there is nothing wrong for one to identify as both bisexual and pansexual as both terms do fit into a broadly similar definition. Some people may prefer to identify as bisexual as it may mean that they are attracted to those of the same and other genders, but not all genders. Moreover, the term ‘bisexual’ has a long history and some may wish to identify as bisexual to remember those who came before them and align themselves with their predecessors as a community. Others may prefer to identify as pansexual as it clearly suggests that they are attracted to all genders, and they find it easier to communicate their preferences without having to provide too much details.
It should also be noted that sexual orientation ranges over a continuum and it is possible to identify with more than one sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is also not synonymous with sexual activity, there some who may identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but have not had any sexual experience with those of the same sex. The converse is also true with those who identify as heterosexual, as it is normal for youths to experiment and discover during their developmental period.
What’s my sexual orientation?
How about myself? How do I know what is my sexual orientation then? The experience of finding out one’s sexual orientation is tricky as it varies among different people. Some people discover their sexual orientation as teens or young adults. In many of such cases, the patterns of emotional, romantic and sexual attraction may arise even without the individual having any prior sexual experiences. Others engage in sexual activity before assigning a clear label to their sexual orientation. On the other hand, there are also those who do not know their sexual orientation either. Some people even take a lifetime to discover their own sexual orientation. Some people may even try on a label to see if it fits and change to another label if it does not. There is nothing wrong with not having a label, in fact, it should also be remembered that one’s sexual orientation can be changed over time as well.
Unfortunately, nobody can also provide you an answer as to what your sexual orientation is. Nobody knows your sexual orientation unless you have chosen to disclose this information. Your sexual orientation cannot be known by superficial factors such as the way you dress or act. These are stereotypes of the LGBTQ community and using such stereotypes to label one’s sexual orientation can be hurtful and inaccurate. In fact, it is possible for one to be attracted to others of the same sex without being homosexual or bisexual, and some may also choose not to pursue this attraction.
Thus far, scientists have been unable to come to a common consensus as to what causes us to be of a certain sexual orientation. There have been much research done to study the possibility of genetic, hormonal, developmental, societal and cultural influences on one’s sexual orientation, but there have been a lack of evidence to allow scientists to conclude that one’s sexual orientation is a result of any particular factor or factors. Many believe that both nature and nurture played complex roles and one have little or no choice about their sexual orientation.
If you feel that you do not know your sexual orientation, be assured that you are not alone as this is very common. Talking with a trusted friend or family member may help you to figure it out, or you may wish to speak to our doctors at Dear Doc if you need someone to talk to in a safe space.
Accepting my sexual orientation
Thinking of coming out but worried about the associated stigma you may face? Coming out is the process which people who are LGBTQ go through as they work to accept their own sexual orientation and gender identity and share that identity with others. Coming out involves a lot of understanding, acceptance and being able to value one’s sexual orientation. There is no right or wrong for how one should come out, as the process of coming out is very personal and different people have different experiences. The first step of accepting one’s sexual orientation usually involves coming out to oneself, often with the realization that one’s feelings makes sense if they can be labelled accordingly.
Coming out as homosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual may be difficult. This is as most have grown up believing that they must be heterosexual and act according to society’s definition of their gender. Moreover, some may be afraid of the homophobia and discrimination that they may face. These are real fears and should not be overlooked.
However, most people do feel liberated once they have come out. Coming out does not necessarily mean that everyone has to know one’s sexual orientation. One may choose to only come out in part of their life and not in another. For example, one may choose to come out to one’s family, but not at work.
Accepting other’s sexual orientation
Maybe you do not identify as LGBTQ, but you do know of people who do. Sometimes, we may find ourselves a little worried – What if he/she likes me? How should I behave such that he/she knows I am not interested?
The fact that you know the other party is part of the LGBTQ community suggests that they trusted you and feels comfortable to be able to come out to you. Although valid, there is little need for you to feel worried as just as the other party would want you to respect them for who they are, they too will also respect you. You could instead give your support to them such as by talking and listening to them, especially if you know that they are planning to come out to others.
Coming out safely
Coming out does have its risks and benefits that needs to be taken into consideration. Is there the risk of losing emotional or financial support from one’s family when the individual comes out? Does coming out put one in physical danger? If there are such risks, one may wish to wait for a different situation or when there is more support.
If an individual have decided that to come out, there are also other considerations that the individual may wish to consider:
- Support – Coming out may be very difficult, hence it is important to find someone supportive to come out to first. The individual should also think about what they want to say and the time and place should be appropriately chosen such that it makes them feel safe and supported. If they have already come out to certain individuals whom they trust, and they are planning to come out to others, they should let the certain individuals know and make time to talk with them afterwards about how things went. This may help one cope with their experience of coming out.
- Prepare for an initial negative reaction – One may not necessarily get an initial negative reaction when one comes out, but some individuals may need more time than others to process and come to terms with what have just been shared. Even if one do get an initial negative reaction, the individual should not give up hope and always be reminded that they have the right to be who they want to be. Another’s person rejection does not reflect anything about one’s worth or value.
At Dear Doc, we promote a diverse and inclusive community, hence we wish to provide a safe space for everyone. If you feel confused about your sexual orientation or need support to come out, our doctors are specialised in this area and more than willing to explore and support you.
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