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What is the difference between the terms “gay” and “homosexual”?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they have some very real differences. Knowing what they are can help you offer advice and counsel to those who seek your input.

There really is no such thing as a homosexual. As strange as that may sound, it’s true. We are all biological heterosexuals. To be sure, some heterosexuals, through a combination of factors, find themselves dealing with a homosexual problem — and when I use the term “homosexual” in my answers, I’m referring to men and women who, because of these various factors, find themselves attracted to members of their own sex. But to firmly identify oneself as a homosexual is to buy into the false idea that two distinct, valid, immutable orientations exist.

Still society will continue to use the term “homosexual,” so here are some basic differences between that word and “gay”: Men and women who experience homoerotic desires, fantasies, and attractions are those most likely to identify themselves as homosexual. However, not all homosexuals think of or classify themselves as “gay” — a term with decidedly sociopolitical overtones, one that is as much about identifying oneself as a member of a community than identifying oneself by sexual orientation. As Dr. Joseph Nicolosi explains, some men “experience conflict between their values and their sexual orientation.” These individuals would never be comfortable claiming a gay identity.

The ultimate rule of thumb? All gays are homosexual but not all homosexuals choose to identify themselves as gays. Another helpful distinction is that those who seek to walk away from homosexuality can be referred to as “non-gay homosexuals.”

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