the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity

What is sexual orientation?

The definition of ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ is better expressed as ‘sexual orientation towards people’, rather than ‘sexual attraction to’. This reflects the fact that people build committed, stable relationships and is not purely a focus on sexual activity.

Everyone has a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is a combination of emotional, romantic, sexual or affectionate attraction to another person.

In other words, it's about who you are attracted to, fall in love with and want to live your life with.

The majority of women and men are heterosexual and they experience attraction and seek partners of the opposite sex. The words ‘heterosexual’ and ‘heterosexuality’ come from the Greek word heteros, meaning ‘different’ or ‘opposite’.

Gay is a term that is used to describe a man who has an emotional and/or sexual orientation towards men. Some women also define as gay rather than lesbian; it is a generic term for lesbian and gay sexuality.

A person should not be referred to as 'a gay', rather that they 'are gay'.

Other women and men can experience erotic and romantic feelings for both their own and the opposite sex and such people are bisexual.

The term ‘homosexual’ was coined by a Hungarian doctor Karoly Maria Benkert in 1869 and introduced into English by sexologist Havelock Ellis in the 1890s.

Originally the term ‘homosexual’ was used by scientists and doctors to describe same-sex attraction and behaviour as a sign of mental disorder and moral deficiency. To obtain distance from such medical labels, the terms gay and lesbian are now used.

Although the origin of the term ‘gay’ being associated with men and women is not clear, Gertrude Stein used it in her work “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” to refer to two women. There is also a suggestion that it comes from 19th Century French slang for men – ‘gaie’.

The term ‘lesbian’ is associated exclusively with women and comes from the name of the Greek island Lesbos. The prominent Greek poetess Sappho lived there in the 7th Century BC and was famous for her passionate poems dedicated to other women. The term ‘lesbian’ has been used in English since the 19th Century.

For more information on sexual orientation visit website of the American Psychological Association:


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