When you are writing, you need to follow general principles to ensure that your language is free of bias. Here we provide guidelines for talking about sexual orientation with inclusivity and respect.
Sexual orientation is a part of individual identity that includes “a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction” (APA, 2015a, p. 862). Use the term “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference,” “sexual identity,” or “sexual orientation identity.” All people choose their partners regardless of their sexual orientation; however, the orientation itself is not a choice.
Sexual orientation can be conceptualized first by the degree to which a person feels sexual and emotional attraction; some parallel terms are “sexual,” “demisexual” (or “gray-asexual” or “gray-A”), and “asexual” (see The Asexual Visibility & Education Network, n.d.). A person who identifies as sexual feels sexual and emotional attraction toward some or all types of people, a person who identifies as demisexual feels sexually attracted only within the context of a strong emotional connection with another person, and a person who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction or has little interest in sexual behavior (see APA, 2015b).
Second, sexual orientation can be conceptualized as having a direction. For people who identify as sexual or demisexual, their attraction then may be directed toward people who are similarly gendered, differently gendered, and so on. That is, sexual orientation indicates the gendered directionality of attraction, even if that directionality is very inclusive (e.g., nonbinary). Thus, a person might be attracted to men, women, both, neither, masculinity, femininity, and/or to people who have other gender identities such as genderqueer or androgynous, or a person may have an attraction that is not predicated on a perceived or known gender identity.
Terms for sexual orientation
Some examples of sexual orientation are lesbian, gay, heterosexual, straight, asexual, bisexual, queer, polysexual, and pansexual (also called multisexual and omnisexual). For example, a person who identifies as lesbian might describe herself as a woman (gender identity) who is attracted to women (sexual orientation)—the sexual orientation label of “lesbian” is predicated on a perceived or known gender identity of the other person. However, someone who identifies as pansexual might describe their attraction to people as being inclusive of gender identity but not determined or delineated by gender identity. Note that these definitions are evolving and that self-identification is best when possible.
Use the umbrella term “sexual and gender minorities” to refer to multiple sexual and/or gender minority groups, or write about “sexual orientation and gender diversity” (these terms are used by the Office on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity at APA and the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office at the National Institutes of Health). Abbreviations such as LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA, and LGBTQIA+ may also be used to refer to multiple groups. The form “LGBT” is considered outdated, but there is not consensus about which abbreviation including or beyond LGBTQ to use. If you use the abbreviation LGBTQ (or a related one), define it and ensure that it is representative of the groups about which you are writing. Be specific about the groups to which you refer (e.g., do not use LGBTQ and related abbreviations to write about legislation that primarily affects transgender people; instead, specify the impacted group). However, if in doubt, use one of the umbrella terms rather than a potentially inaccurate abbreviation.
When using specific terms for orientations, define them if there is ambiguity. For example, the adjective “gay” can be interpreted broadly, to include all genders, or more narrowly, to include only men, so define “gay” when you use it in your paper, or use the phrase “gay men” to clarify the usage. By convention, the term “lesbians” is appropriate to use interchangeably with “lesbian women,” but “gay men” or “gay people” should be used, not “gays.”
Inaccurate or pejorative terms
Avoid the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality.” Instead, use specific, identity-first terms to describe people’s sexual orientation (e.g., bisexual people, queer people). These specific terms refer primarily to identities and to the culture and communities that have developed among people who share those identities. It is inaccurate to collapse these communities into the term “homosexual.” Furthermore, the term “homosexuality” has been and continues to be associated with negative stereotypes, pathology, and the reduction of people’s identities to their sexual behavior. Homoprejudice, biprejudice, homonegativity, and so forth are terms used to denote prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes toward lesbians, gay men, bisexual individuals, or other sexual minorities. Heterosexism refers to the belief that heterosexuality is normative, as indicated in the assumption that individuals are heterosexual unless otherwise specified (American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, 2015). The terms “straight” and “heterosexual” are both acceptable to use when referring to people who are attracted to individuals of another gender; the term “straight” may help move the lexicon away from a dichotomy of heterosexual and homosexual. For more information regarding sexual orientation, see “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People” (APA, 2015a).
Examples of bias-free language
The following are examples of bias-free language for sexual orientation. Both problematic and preferred examples are presented with explanatory comments.
1. Use of “homosexual”
The sample consisted of 200 adolescent homosexuals.
The sample consisted of 200 gay male adolescents.
The sample consisted of 100 gay male adolescents and 100 lesbian female adolescents.
The sample consisted of 80 gay male adolescents, 95 lesbian female adolescents, and 25 pansexual gender-fluid adolescents.
Comment: Avoid use of “homosexual.” Instead, specify the gender of participants. Note that the term “gay” may also be used to describe women or girls; specify its usage. The terminology will depend on the self-identification of the individuals being described.
2. Use of “homosexuality”
Participants were asked about their homosexuality.
Participants were asked about the experience of being a lesbian woman or a gay man.
Participants were asked about their experience of their sexual orientation.
Comment: Avoid the label “homosexuality,” which has been and continues to be associated with negative stereotypes, pathology, and the reduction of people’s identities to their sexual behavior. Use specific descriptors of “gay,” “lesbian,” and so forth only when these are known identifications; sexual orientation may be described by individuals using a multitude of descriptive self-identification labels (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and many others).
3. Differentiation of sexual orientation from sexual behavior
The women reported lesbian sexual fantasies.
The women reported female–female sexual fantasies.
Comment: Avoid confusing lesbian orientation with specific sexual behaviors.
4. Description of sexual behavior
participants who had engaged in sexual intercourse
participants who had in engaged in penile–vaginal intercourse
participants who had sex with another person
Comment: The first preferred example specifies the kind of sexual activity, if penile–vaginal intercourse is what is meant. The second preferred example avoids the assumption of heterosexual orientation, if sexual experiences with others is what is meant.
5. Description of marital status
Ten participants were married, and five were single.
Ten participants were married and living together, four were unmarried and living with partners, and one was unmarried and living alone.
Comment: The preferred example increases specificity and acknowledges that legal marriage is only one form of committed relationship. Marital status is sometimes not a reliable indicator of cohabitation (e.g., married couples may be separated), sexual activity, or sexual orientation.
American Psychological Association. (2015a). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming people. American Psychologist, 70(9), 832–864. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039906
American Psychological Association. (2015b). Key terms and concepts in understanding gender diversity and sexual orientation among students. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/programs/safe-supportive/lgbt/key-terms.pdf
American Psychological Association of Graduate Students. (2015). Proud and prepared: A guide for LGBT students navigating graduate training. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/apags/resources/lgbt-guide
The Asexual Visibility & Education Network. (n.d.). General FAQ: Definitions. https://www.asexuality.org/?q=general.html#def