Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Terminology for Cis-gendered Straight Allies, Parents and Teachers (and other people too...)

If you've found your way to this post, let me first say welcome! I'm so glad you're here. I hope that you find some new information and that words you may hear used make more sense after you read this.

Before I begin, though, I must offer a few disclaimers.

I have been a lifelong ally and advocate for the LGBTQQPA+ community, but occupy a space of being a cis-gendered straight woman, so my perspective is necessarily limited by my experience with the world. I'm learning every day, primarily by reading and listening to those within the community.

It is important to understand that some of these terms have, at one time or another, been viewed negatively. As groups reclaim terms used to describe them historically, the term takes on a different meaning...but that doesn't always mean that it's going to be socially acceptable for cis-gendered straight people to use them. When in doubt, ask people if they choose to use a label, then respect the label they choose. Your opinion about the accuracy of a label or whether its use is appropriate is generally irrelevant. Your willingness to honor the word choices of others without inserting your feelings into the mix is a critical part of being an ally.

I am writing this primarily to help cis-gendered straight allies, parents and teachers navigate this ever changing world of labels, but if it benefits others as well, even better.

The language within this community is constantly evolving and it is entirely possible that the terms described here might become outdated at any moment. It's possible that they might be replaced with different terms. There are differences in use regionally and among different generations. And it's almost guaranteed that there will be new terms that come along shortly that I've missed here. Consequently, this list is by no means intended to be all-encompassing. 

I will begin by describing the terms used with sexual orientations, then go on to discuss gender identity later on. I will provide links to resources throughout, and thank several local agencies for their assistance in assembling this group of terms. 

Sexual Orientation

Straight - I'll start with the label most of you are familiar with, and the one with which you're probably most likely to self-identify. Which is weird because we're not here to talk about you. (winky face) Straight is a blanket term that means you are attracted to people of the opposite gender from yourself and how you identify. (Warning, this will get more complicated later when we start talking about identity...but for now, just go with the basic definition.)

Lesbian -  When a person who identifies as a women is attracted to other people who identify as women.

Gay - This is a larger term and its use varies pretty widely. It's the most generally accepted of the orientation terms, and often used as an umbrella term for anyone who is attracted to people who aren't of their gender (possibly in addition to being attracted to their own gender). More specifically, it is used to describe people who identify as men who are attracted to other people who identify as men.

Bisexual - This term as it was used originally relied on an assumption that there are two distinct genders, though that is no longer necessarily the case. It means that a person is attracted to people of two different genders. Again, this is usually viewed to mean attraction to both men and women, but that is not always the case.

Questioning - This is the perhaps the most important letter of the acronym, because it is where many adolescents find themselves. It simply means that they are questioning and unsure of who they are attracted to. 

Queer - This is one of the terms that historically has been used in a negative manner, but has been reclaimed by the community. I highly recommend that if you are a cis-gendered straight ally, you avoid the use of this word in casual conversation or as a label unless you are certain that a person chooses to use it. It has become more commonly used among younger generations and is often not seen as an insult in any way by that demographic. (Still, use discretion and caution here.) Queer is literally defined as different or odd. As an orientation, it is used to describe someone who has attractions to people outside of the expectations of society. Some people use it to describe both their identity and orientation.

Pansexual - This term is used to describe individuals who are attracted to people, without regard to the gender of the persons they might be attracted to. 

Asexual - This term is literally defined as an individual who does not have sexual attraction to other people, though the definition varies widely among those who describe themselves using it. It is often referred to as the "ace" orientation. There are several subcategories. Aromantic people have little to no romantic attraction to other people. Demisexual individuals won't have a sexual attraction to another person until and unless an emotional connection has first been formed. Sapiosexual is used to describe a person who is attracted to the intelligence of another person, sometimes without regard to gender. 

Gender Identity

Before I get to the terminology involved, we should first talk about gender. How do we define gender? Why do we make the assumptions we make? 

Far too many people insist that gender is a simple issue, one that can be determined instantly and immediately by glancing at a person's genitals. Except....I don't generally walk around in public with my genitalia hanging out. I assume that you don't either. 

Even if we were to start with the assumption that gender is about genitalia, we'd be wrong. There aren't just two genders from a scientific standpoint. There is a third, huge and varied group of people defined as intersex. They may have chromosomal differences, they may have difference with the presentation of genitalia at birth, they may have hormonal variations inconsistent with the male/female dichotomy. It's estimated that as much as 2% of the population could fit within some definition of intersex. 

It needs to be mentioned that hermaphrodite and androgynous have been used to describe intersex people. Hermaphrodite is an outdated and offensive term that isn't even technically correct because humans can't spontaneously change genders. Androgyny is still used occasionally by some people to describe themselves, but should generally be avoided otherwise. 

Likewise, transvestite is an outdated term for a person who dresses in the clothing of the opposite gender and should generally not be used at all. 

In this society, we already separate gender and sex organs, contrary to what some people believe. A woman with a hysterectomy or a mastectomy is not deemed non-female post surgery. A man with an injury to his penis isn't defined any differently as a result. He is still male.

Gender identity is deeper than physical characteristics, it's deeper even than hormones. Instead, it is about how you see yourself as a person on the inside. That may coincide with the gender you were deemed to possess at birth. It may not. You may not see yourself as belonging to either gender. You may see yourself floating between the two. 

Gender is a social construct. The expression of gender is what we generally think about when we talk about gender. Gender expression involves clothing and mannerisms and speech patterns and hairstyles and and whether someone wears makeup. None of those things are dependent on what is in your pants.

Gender identity and expression are separate and distinct from sexual orientation. 

Cis-gendered - This is used to describe a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, and lives openly as a member of that gender. So, you were born male and have lived your entire life as a male. 

Bigendered - This is a person who goes back and forth between identifying as a man and woman.

Gender Expansive - This is a term used most commonly with children who may not see themselves as fitting into their assigned gender. They associate with attributes of their assigned gender as well as others traditionally viewed as belonging to another gender.

Transgender - This is the umbrella term used to describe all people who see themselves as not belonging exclusively or at all to their assigned gender. More specifically, it is used to describe people who live as the gender they feel defines them, not that to which they were assigned. Whether they have engaged in any degree of physical or hormonal transition is irrelevant, and frankly, none of anyone else's business. 

Gender Fluid - This describes a person who feels most comfortable as a changing mixture of male and female identities. Some days they may feel more of a man, others more of a woman. 

Gender Non-Conforming- This is a person with gender identity that doesn't conform to the societal expectations surrounding gender. They may not associate with a gender at all, or may defy the beliefs that surround the gender they feel is appropriate for them.

Genderqueer - This is usually used as an umbrella term for non-conforming gender identities and/or for people who feel that choosing a gender definition is too limiting.

Two-Spirit- This is a term used by indigenous people to describe individuals who possess traits of both genders and live their lives as combination of the two. It is a Native American term, not to be appropriated.

Again, I wholly recognize that I'm missing terms here, and that they may be used differently than I've defined them. 

What is most important is that we never 
ever define or label someone else. 
We let them do it for themselves, and we honor them. 

For more information, please see the following links:

I personally would like to thank the staff at OASOS for their help!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

no room in society for this kind of grief


Before we even begin, let's just breathe for a moment. Can we? Inhale, drawing that breath all the way down, filling all the space. Then hold it. Count to yourself up to seven slowly, then let it out a little at a time until it feels like everything is gone.

Do that a few times, then we'll go on.

I'm being serious.

Posts like this one are draining to read, I know.

Trust me when I tell you that they're even harder to write.


I also wanted to preface what I am about to write with a warning of sorts.

My words, they're not for everyone. There are a great many people in this world who don't quite know what to do with my experiences or my willingness to share them. Some of them insist that I'm somehow mistaken or wrong, that things surely couldn't have been the way that they were. I've had family members tell me that I was a liar before. I'm sure that it wasn't the last time. I've grown accustomed to what others think of me. Their words, their accusations, their glares that could bore holes through walls...I've gained immunity. Get hurt enough by people you love and you develop these mechanisms, I suppose.

There's a price to pay for writing, and it's a price I'm willing to accept in exchange for the necessity of this exercise. I need to write these words. They need out of my head.

And so, if what I am saying doesn't resonate with you, that's okay.

If my experiences don't mesh with yours, that's okay.

If what I say might seem harsh and vastly different than all that you know, that's okay. In fact, let me say congratulations. I don't wish for people to understand where I've been. I just wish for those who don't to respect my story, my life, my experiences.

This might, and hopefully will, look a lot different than the mother/daughter stories you've lived or read or been told.

Maybe this isn't for you.

For those who understand, this is for you as much as it is for me.

Perhaps it is the changeover of the year, the turning of the pages on the calendar. Perhaps it is the season, the one where we're all told that we are supposed to be surrounded by loving and supportive family members and, gasp, happy. Perhaps it is the uncertainty that lingers in the air now like an oppressive fog, makes us reach out for something with which we can firmly root ourselves.

I don't know what the reason is. In fact, I'm not even certain that my observations are wholly legitimate ones. I know that so much of the way I see the world is shaped by the lenses I wear. I see things differently than most people do or ever will.

Regardless, it seems, from my perspective at least, that there is an abundance of things out there in the interwebs about mothers and daughters and the ties that bind them. More than ordinary. More than I've grown accustomed.

Or, perhaps it is just because as time marches forward, more and more of my contemporaries are joining this club. We get older, our parents get older. Well, their parents get older.

Mine never will.

So, maybe it is that we've become older and the natural consequence of our collective aging is the loss of our parents, or at least the impending loss of them. Or, at a minimum, the realization that parents won't live forever, even if once when we were very small, they seemed so sturdy and strong.

Nevertheless, there's an ample supply of these articles and posts and poems and memes in my newsfeed at the moment. I wish sometimes that there was a way to shut out the things in social media that can harm us most deeply, but there isn't.

Besides which, it's only a half-hearted wish. I wouldn't elect to remove myself from the world, even if it protects me to do so. I'm there, eyes wide open, even if they're sometimes filled with tears.

And for me at least, the most damaging things that float through my screen aren't the ones that most people would think. They're quite the opposite, in fact.

The posts about gratitude for mothers, about how women I know and love and respect proclaim to all online that they are who they are because of the strength of their mothers. About how their mothers taught them everything they know about love and family and relationships and how they wouldn't know where they'd be without these women guiding them.

Well, they might be sitting here writing this post, for one.

I push away the bitterness that rises up in my throat when these posts drift by. I try not to be envious of this thing that they have or at least claim to have with their mothers. I struggle with it.

I wish I had those things.

I didn't.

And now, because of the finality of death, there is no chance remaining.

My mother has been gone over three years now. She'd long before stopped being maternal. For too long, the roles reversed and I was trying to help and guide her through the world, shielding her from the things I didn't want her to know, frustrated at my abundant failures.

I know this role now, and I know it well, as the mother of two adolescent daughters myself.

I don't want them to ever be in the place that I was. I don't want that.

I fight with every cell in my body to make sure that they'll never have to experience the things I've lived.

And still, there are no guarantees in life.

I'm certain that when my mother was young, she wanted things to be different than they were. I know that she wanted them to be different than they were at the end, but virtually nothing about her reality (or mine at that time, if I'm being frank), was within the grasp of my control. Anyone who knows me now or knew me then knows that I tried.

I tried.

I tried so goddamn hard.

For nothing.

I made promises to my dying father that I would take care of her.

The only thing he ever asked of me towards the end was for her to be looked after. He wanted assurances that she would be okay in this world without him and she wasn't and no matter what I tried, I couldn't make it be.

There is so much more to the story, one that still, after all this time, trickles out in tiny pieces.

I loved my mother.

I hated my mother.

Those two feelings existed in my life simultaneously. For years.

And when she took her last breath, over a thousand miles away from me, there were tears of sadness and loss and tears of relief.

And no one, least of all me, ever knows quite what to do with that combined reality.

I've been shamed for it, mocked for it, and worse.

Trust me when I say I've beat myself up for it sufficiently.

So much about our society is illusion based. The Rockwellian paintings of how life is supposed to be. The notions of the virginal bride and the faithful marriage and the easy pregnancies and planned number of children. The health, the perpetual youth. The picket fence and the well behaved, but occasionally naughty dog. The gradual rise in career, the picture perfect holidays. The fond relationships with our parents based on gratitude for our solid upbringing and unending support, where they are allowed to grow old.

And sure, maybe some people have those things.

But a lot of us don't.

And when we lose a parent who wasn't what society said she was supposed to be, what other people were given, what we needed, that grief is compounded and twisted and manipulated and complicated.

The day after she died, I wrote about her.

Within hours, a message was sitting in my inbox, from a family member.

The words, how dare you.

I don't expect people to understand. I don't ask for their forgiveness for whatever it is that they believe I've done. I know my truth and I walk in my truth and I write my truth, even knowing what will come.

Instead, I wish that they, and that the rest of this world, could understand that we never really know the whole story.

Sometimes people lie.
Sometimes people manipulate your emotions.
Sometimes mental health issues cloud everything.

Sometimes what you think you understand has just been manufactured, packaged and screened for an audience of one.


I know that she wouldn't have chosen to be the way that she was, if she'd had the choice.

I know that she didn't mean to hurt me in all the ways that she did, or I at least have to be willing to believe that because the alternative is simply too awful to bear.

I know that I wish I had only fond memories.

I know that I wish I didn't cringe every time another post comes into my line of sight.

I know that no matter how much I fight the envy, I envy those who have functional relationships with their mothers.

These are my demons.

And I'm not alone.

I know that there are many more people out there in this world than might ever admit who struggle in these ways. I know that their silence is often intended because it's easier to pretend that things were fine and so you pretend to mourn the loss of the parent everyone thinks you were given.

I know.

I see you.

This one is for you as much as it is for me.

So, to all those out there who can thank their mothers for teaching them coping mechanisms, for teaching them how to firmly draw boundaries, for teaching them that to survive, sometimes they need to eliminate their own flesh and blood from their lives entirely, I salute you.

You aren't alone.

And neither am I.

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