In any discussion of sexuality, orientation seems to be the logical starting point. Are you gay, or are you straight? Countless people struggle with these questions every day.
In our society, there is a strong need to label each other so that everyone fits into clearly defined groups. This keeps everything clean and tidy and predictable. Pick a group and stick to it so we all know what you are! Oh, and for Pete's sake, please don't say you're one of those "bi" people. It's too confusing. That's the thing about sexuality, though; it is confusing. There are not clean and tidy and predictable categories. Keeping that in mind, let's answer our opening questions.
Are you gay, or are you straight?
This seems like a simple question, but it's not. Part of the problem is that the question itself is oversimplified. It places heterosexuality and homosexuality on a binary scale as if they are the only options, and assumes that they are opposites. This is simply not true; I believe that they are actually on the same end of the orientation spectrum. Those who identify as heterosexual are only attracted to members of the opposite sex. For homosexuals, the attraction is to members of the same sex. The common thread with each of them, and why I would place them on the same end of the spectrum, is that both homosexuals and heterosexuals are only attracted to one sex. Neither would actually be at the far end, however. That space would be taken by those who identify as asexual. These people experience little to no sexual attraction or desire.
On the opposite end of the spectrum would be pansexuals; these people are capable of experiencing sexual attraction or desire that is not limited to those of a particular sex or gender identity. There are two more categories that we might find closer to the middle of the spectrum: bisexual and polysexual. A person who is bisexual can be attracted to others of at least two genders - typically males and females. Polysexual people are attracted to more than two genders, but not necessarily all types of people. For example, a polysexual woman might be attracted to men, women, and transgendered men, but have no attraction to transgendered women. Or maybe a polysexual man is attracted to women, transgendered women, and those who are intersex, but has no attraction to males. The possible combinations of attraction are really endless. If we were to create a visual representation on this basic orientation spectrum, it might look something like this:
Notice that there is a considerable amount of open space between the categories we have defined, and that the spectrum itself continues beyond the scope of what is included in this post. This is because there are too many variations of sexual orientation to neatly fit them all within a few categories, and plenty that we still don't know.
How do you know?
You may not. Some people say that from the time they were very young they "just knew". They always found themselves naturally drawn to the same gender, so they have always been certain of their orientation. Others thought they knew, and then someone came along that challenged that certainty. There are also those who search for years before finding the answer. Still others struggle their whole lives to define themselves and never do.
Most commonly, people initially attempt to classify themselves as heterosexual, simply because that is the societal norm. The reality is that same-sex experiences are quite common. According to the CDC's National Health Statistics Reports,
13% of women and 5.2% of men report having engaged in sexual activity
with someone of the same sex at some point in their lives. These are
all self-reported behaviors, so it is very likely that the true numbers
are much higher.
When a person seeks to define their orientation, they typically base that upon who they have found themselves drawn to or in relationships with thus far. This can be helpful when the answers are clear-cut and consistent. The problem is the fluidity of sexuality itself. Desires can and do change dramatically over the years, so your sexual reality at 18 may not be your reality at 38. As a young adult you may find yourself attracted to males and females, experiment with both, and label yourself as bisexual. Twenty years later, though, you may be in a heterosexual marriage and no longer have any desire for or attraction to members of the same sex. Your reality at that point has become heterosexuality. Does this mean your orientation has changed? Only you can answer that. Or perhaps you have always identified as heterosexual, but you meet someone of the same gender and connect immediately. You find yourself fantasizing about this person in ways that are new, confusing, and maybe a little bit scary. Does this mean you are now "gay"? Not necessarily. It could mean, though, that you are not as "straight" as you thought. These kinds of thoughts and feelings are normal; they simply reflect the idea that sexual orientation is not necessarily fixed, but fluid.
What if you don't know?
Society has a need to categorize and label people as a means to sort everyone into tidy groups and identify who "belongs". This is not necessarily a negative; this can help people to identify those with common backgrounds and interests. It can help individuals find a place where they feel like they belong. The problem is that not everyone "fits". Sexuality is not that easy. People in general are just not that easy. There are too many variations, and there will always be someone who doesn't belong in a category. There will always be those who feel restricted by labels, and want the freedom to simply live without having to define every aspect of themselves. Ultimately, the only person who can define your sexuality is you. If you do not feel the need to define your orientation, the world will not suffer because of it.
Does that mean that something is wrong?
Absolutely not! An inability or unwillingness to define orientation does not mean that something is wrong with you. In fact, it aligns well with the fluidity of sexuality. If your orientation remains undefined, it is easier to be authentic and trust your instincts and desires as opposed to trying to live within the constraints of your label.
However you ultimately decide to define - or not define - your orientation is a very personal choice. There are possibilities beyond the widely accepted gay/straight continuum that most people are entirely unaware of. Whatever your choice may be, keep in mind that this is just your current reality. Be aware of and honest with yourself, and accept the innate fluidity of sexuality. The label you choose for yourself now may stay consistent for a lifetime, or you may find that at some point it no longer fits. Rest assured that, either way, you are normal.