What Are Sexual Minorities?

Trans man with his wife
Transgender people do not accept the gender assigned to them at birth. Patryce Bak / Getty Images

Question: What Are Sexual Minorities?

What does it mean when someone refers to a "sexual minority?"

Answer:

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 male or female heterosexuals.

Sexual Orientation

The most common use of the term sexual minority is to refer to people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual.

This include people who are homosexual, including gay men -- men who are sexually attracted to and/or have sex with men and not women, and lesbians -- women who are sexually attracted to and/or have sex with women and not men; and bisexuals -- men and women who are sexually attracted to and/or have sex with both men and women.

Some men who identify as gay, and some women who identify as lesbian, as well as men and women who identify as bisexual, describe their orientation as an affliation with a gay, lesbian or bisexual identity, regardless of sexual activity or even sexual desire. Both men and women may identify as queer rather than gay, although some lesbians and gay men are still offended by the term queer.

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 whose identity is only minimally associated with their sexual orientation describe themselves as asexual.

Gender Identity and Sexual Characteristics

Sexual minorities also include transexuals -- men and women who identify themselves as the opposite gender, whether or not they have undergone any kind of gender re-assignment, and people with intersex characteristics, previously termed hermaphrodite, who are born with or develop anatomical sexual characteristics that are neither typically male nor typically female, or who have what appears to be a combination of male and female characteristics. They may or may not choose to have surgery and/or other treatments to assign a male or female identity, and they may or may not have had the choice in this matter, if a gender identity was assigned to them in infancy. Some people who reject the notion of a "gender binary," that is, they do not believe everyone should be assigned to the male or female gender, or strongly feel a sense of affiliation with both male and female gender characteristics. They may refer to their gender identity as gender fluid, "genderqueer" or "non-binary" genders.

Not All Sexual Minorities Are Included

As a politically correct term, 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.

Sources

Capital Health Region Addiction Services. Supporting Sexual Minority Clients. Professional Training Workshop, Victoria, BC, Canada. 2001.

Halkitis, P., Mukherjee, P., & Palamar, J. "Longitudinal modeling of methamphetamine use and sexual risk behaviors in gay and bisexual men." AIDS Behav 13:783-791. 2009.

Richards, C., Bouman, W., Seal, L., Barker, M., Nieder, T., T’Sjoen, G. "Non-binary or genderqueer genders." International Review Of Psychiatry [serial online], 28(1):95-102. 2016.

Semple, S., Zians, J., Strathdee, S. & Patterson, T. "Sexual marathons and methamphetamine use among HIV-positive men who have sex with men." Arch Sex Behav 38:583â590. 2009.

Shelton, M. Gay Men and Substance Use: A Basic Guide for Addicts and Those Who Care For Them. Center City: Hazelden. 2011.

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