What Sexual Minority Means

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Sexual minorities are groups of people whose sexual orientation, gender identity, or sexual characteristics are different from the presumed majority of the population, which are heterosexual, cisgender, and non-intersex individuals.

Sexual Orientation

The most common use of the term sexual minority is to refer to people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual. This includes gay men (men/man-aligned people who are only attracted to people of the same/similar gender), lesbians (women-aligned people who are solely attracted to people of similar genders), and bisexuals (people of any gender attracted to people of all genders), and questioning people.

Many people identify as queer rather than gay or bisexual, although queer is still a slur, so it should not be used as an umbrella term for the whole community and should not be used by cisgender heterosexual individuals.

Another sexual minority is "men who have sex with men" or MSM for short. These men do not always identify themselves as gay, bisexual, or queer.

While people of all sexual orientations may consider themselves authorities on the sexual identities of others—some even bragging about the accuracy of their gaydar—no one can truly know the feelings of another person, and no one has the right to judge the sexual orientation of another person. Therefore, the sexual identity of another person is entirely for them to decide and disclose, as they feel appropriate.

Because of the complexity of sexual feelings, what each person decides may change at different times of their life. Some people whose sexual orientation changes or who are attracted to a wide range of people regardless of gender describe themselves as pansexual, while some who do not experience sexual attraction describe themselves as asexual.

Gender Identity and Sexual Characteristics

Sexual minorities also include transgender individuals—people who identify as a different gender than the one associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people socially transition by changing their names, their pronouns, and their gender expression. Some trans people also medically transition by taking hormones and/or undergoing gender affirmation surgeries. Some trans people identify as nonbinary.

Another sexually minoritized group is intersex people, who are born with or develop anatomical sexual characteristics that are neither typically male nor typically female, or who have a combination of male and female characteristics. Many intersex people have been surgically mutilated at birth with or without their parents' permission. Intersex activists are currently working to get these medically unnecessary surgeries—which can cause loss of sensation, sexual dysfunction, and other chronic health issues—banned.

Not All Sexual Minorities Are Included

Sexual minority generally refers to groups of people's sexual orientation or identity within relatively socially acceptable limits—meaning, people who have sexual identities related to legal sexual activities between consenting adults. The term is not generally acceptable in reference to sex addiction, polygamy, child sexual abuse, or paraphilias, although increasingly, the polyamorous community is gaining acceptance as a sexual minority.

Substance Use and Addiction Risks in Sexual Minorities

While some sexual minorities are more prevalent than others, being part of a sexual minority appears to increase the risk of substance use problems and addictions. However, research has mostly focused on gay men, particularly the party and play phenomenon, and the association of gay men with substance use has lead to myths about gay meth use. Although the research is far from conclusive, it seems plausible that the increased stress of being part of a sexual minority, rather than anything implicit to sexual orientation or sexual identity, is the cause of this increased risk.

5 Sources
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  2. Human Rights Campaign. Glossary of Terms.

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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.