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within this community is constantly evolving and it is entirely possible that the terms described here might become outdated at any moment.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!

1 comment:

  1. This was really informative and I'm so glad you took the time to write about this. I hadn't realized how little I knew about all the different identities. I'm definitely going to be looking into this more and thanks for including links.

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