Figuring out your orientation can be complicated.

In a society where most of us are expected to be straight, it can be difficult to take a step back and ask whether you’re gay, straight, or something else.

You’re the only person who can figure out what your orientation truly is.

Many of us grow up to assume that we’re straight only to find out, later, that we’re not.

Sometimes, we realize this because we have sex dreams, sexual thoughts, or feelings of intense attraction toward people of the same gender as us.

However, none of those things — sex dreams, sexual thoughts, or even feelings of intense attraction — necessarily “prove” your orientation.

Having a sex dream about someone of the same gender as you doesn’t necessarily make you gay. Having a sex dream about someone of the opposite gender doesn’t necessarily make you straight.

There are a few different forms of attraction. When it comes to orientation, we usually refer to romantic attraction (who you have strong romantic feelings for and desire a romantic relationship with) and sexual attraction (who you want to engage in sexual activity with).

Sometimes we’re romantically and sexually attracted to the same groups of people. Sometimes we’re not.

For example, it’s possible to be romantically attracted to men but sexually attracted to men, women, and nonbinary people. This sort of situation is called “mixed orientation” or “cross orientation” — and it’s totally OK.

Bear this in mind as you consider your sexual and romantic feelings.

If only Buzzfeed had all the answers! Unfortunately, there isn’t a test to help you figure out your sexual orientation.

And even if there were, who’s to say who qualifies as gay or straight?

Every single straight person is unique. Every single gay person is unique. Every person, of every orientation, is unique.

You don’t have to fulfill certain “criteria” to qualify as gay, straight, bisexual, or anything else.

This is an aspect of your identity, not a job application — and you can identify with whatever term fits you!

There’s no “right” way to come to terms with your orientation. However, there are a few things you can do to explore your feelings and help figure things out.

Above all else, let yourself feel your feelings. It’s hard to understand your feelings if you ignore them.

Even now, there’s a lot of shame and stigma around orientation. People who aren’t straight are often made to feel like they should repress their feelings.

Remember, your orientation is valid, and your feelings are valid.

Learn about the different terms for orientations. Find out what they mean, and consider whether any of them resonate with you.

Consider doing further research by reading forums, joining LGBTQIA+ support groups, and learning about these communities online. This could help you understand the terms better.

If you start identifying with a certain orientation and later feel differently about it, that’s OK. It’s all right to feel differently and for your identity to shift.

That’s a good question. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer.

Yes, sometimes people do get their orientation “wrong.” Plenty of people thought they were one thing for the first half of their life, only to find that wasn’t true.

It’s also possible to think you’re gay when you’re actually bi, or think you’re bi when you’re actually gay, for example.

It’s totally OK to say, “Hey, I was wrong about this, and now I actually feel more comfortable identifying as X.”

It’s important to remember that your orientation may change over time. Sexuality is fluid. Orientation is fluid.

Many people identify as one orientation for their entire life, while others find it changes over time. And that’s OK!

Your orientation may change, but that doesn’t make it any less valid over time, nor does it mean you’re wrong or confused.

Why are some people gay? Why are some people straight? We don’t know.

Some people feel they were born this way, that their orientation was always just a part of them.

Others feel their sexuality and orientation changes over time. Remember what we said about orientation being fluid?

Whether orientation is caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of the two isn’t really important. What is important is that we accept others as they are, and ourselves as we are.

Most sex education in schools focuses solely on heterosexual and cisgender (that is, not transgender, gender nonconforming, or nonbinary) people.

This leaves the rest of us out of it.

It’s important to know you can get sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and, in some cases, become pregnant regardless of what your sexual orientation is.

STIs can transfer between people no matter what their genitals look like.

They can transfer to and from an anus, penis, vagina, and mouth. STIs can even spread through unwashed sex toys and hands.

Pregnancy isn’t reserved for straight people, either. It can happen whenever two fertile people have penis-in-vagina sex.

So, if it’s possible for you to become pregnant — or impregnate someone — look into contraception options.

Still have questions? Check out our guide to safer sex.

You may also consider scheduling an appointment with an LGBTIQA+-friendly doctor to talk about your sexual health.

You don’t have to tell anyone anything that you don’t want to.

If you feel uncomfortable talking about it, that’s OK. Not disclosing your orientation doesn’t make you a liar. You don’t owe that information to anyone.

Telling people can be great, but keeping it private can be great, too. It all depends on your personal situation.

On the one hand, telling people might help you feel better. Many queer people feel relief and a sense of freedom once they come out. Being “out” can also help you find an LGBTQIA+ community that can support you.

On the other hand, coming out isn’t always safe. Homophobia — and other forms of bigotry — are alive and well. Queer people are still discriminated against at work, in their communities, and even in their families.

So, while coming out can feel freeing, it’s also OK to take things slow and move at your own pace.

Sometimes, it’s best to start by telling someone who you’re sure will be accepting, such as an open-minded family member or friend. If you’d like, you could ask them to be there with you when you tell others.

If you’re not comfortable talking about it in person, you can tell them via text, phone, email, or handwritten message. Whatever you prefer.

If you want to talk to them in person but are struggling to broach the topic, perhaps start by watching an LGBTQIA+ movie or bringing up something about an openly queer celebrity. This could help you segue into the conversation.

You may find it helpful to start with something like:

  • “After thinking about it a lot, I’ve realized that I’m gay. This means I’m attracted to men.”
  • “Since you’re important to me, I want to let you know that I’m bisexual. I’d appreciate your support.”
  • “I’ve figured out that I’m actually pansexual, which means I’m attracted to people of any gender.”

You could end the conversation by asking for their support and directing them to a resource guide, perhaps online, if they need it.

There are many resources out there for people who want to support their queer friends and family members.

Also let them know whether you mind them sharing this news with others or not.

Sometimes the people you tell don’t react the way you want them to.

They may ignore what you said or laugh it off as a joke. Some people might try to convince you that you’re straight, or say you’re just confused.

If this happens, there are a few things you can do:

  • Surround yourself with supportive people. Whether it’s LGBTQIA+ people you’ve met online or in person, your friends, or accepting family members, try to spend time with them and talk to them about the situation.
  • Remember that you’re not the one in the wrong. There’s nothing wrong with you or your orientation. The only wrong thing here is the intolerance.
  • If you want, give them space to improve their reaction. By this, I mean that they may have realized their initial reaction was wrong. Send them a message to let them know you’re willing to talk when they’ve had some time to process what you said.

It’s not easy to deal with loved ones who don’t accept your orientation, but it’s important to remember that there are many people out there who love and accept you.

If you’re in an unsafe situation — for example, if you were evicted from your home or if the people you live with threaten you — try to find an LGBTQIA+ shelter in your area, or arrange to stay with a supportive friend for a while.

If you’re a young person in need of help, contact The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. They provide help and support for people who are in crisis or feeling suicidal, or for people who simply need someone to talk to and vent to.

Consider joining in-person groups so you can meet people face-to-face. Join an LGBTQIA+ group at your school or college, and look for meetups for LGBTQIA+ people in your area.

You can also find support online:

There’s no easy, foolproof way to figure out your orientation. It can be a difficult and emotionally tough process.

Ultimately, the only person who gets to label your identity is you. You’re the only authority on your own identity. And no matter what label you choose to use — if you use any label at all — it should be respected.

Remember that there are plenty of resources, organizations, and individuals out there who are willing to support and help you. All you need to do is find them and reach out.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.