One of the most important parts of being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community is understanding. Even within our own community, to be an ally to each other, it's important that we make an effort to understand the nuances of people's identities, so that we don't make assumptions that could be hurtful or even harmful. And in order to understand someone, we have to listen to them.
I know that when I came out to my friends and family, the most important thing to me was being heard. I wasn't waiting for them to say the perfect thing or judging them based on using the wrong word. What I was looking for was general acceptance, not just uneasy tolerance. I was looking for a chance to talk about my experiences without being questioned or told I was wrong. The simple chance to speak my story without feeling I had to defend it was priceless to me.
At the time when I first came out, I hadn't heard a lot of the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity explained. I hadn't studied any of this stuff in school or on my own. I was only a little bit familiar with the definitions of words like "cisgender" and "transgender". Back in 2009, I had only very recently heard someone use the word "pansexual" to describe themselves. (The auto-correct spelling program for this website still doesn't recognize the words "pansexual" or "cisgender" yet. My post is full of red squiggly underlines.)
To this day I am still learning. Thankfully, there are a lot more resources online and in-person nowadays that make it much easier to do. In this post, I'm going to share some basic definitions and answers to questions that I've learned over the past few years.
What is gender identity?
Gender identity is something everyone has - whether you are LGBTQ+ or not. Anyone reading this has their own ideas of what gender means to them, and whether the gender people perceive them as having matches their internal identity or not.
What is sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation describes who you are attracted to. Straight people and gay people alike have sexual orientations. Some words describing sexual orientation are: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual and pansexual.
What is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to, not your gender identity. Any gender identity can correspond to a range of different sexual orientations. However, the word you use to describe your sexuality often depends on your gender identity.
For example, if you identify as a woman, and you are only attracted to others who identify as women, but not to those who identify as men, then most likely you would use the term "lesbian" to describe your sexual orientation.
Your gender identity may match the one other people see you as - your parents, doctors and so on - and fit with the way you were treated as you were brought up. Or your gender identity may be at odds with how other people perceive you. You may have been brought up being treated like you are one gender identity, when in reality you don't feel like that identity at all.
Here are some common definitions, with an (S) if they refer to sexual orientation and a (G) if they refer to a gender identity:
Lesbian (S): A woman who is attracted to other women exclusively.
Gay man (S): A man who is attracted to other men exclusively.
Bisexual (S): Someone who is attracted to people of their own gender as well as those of other genders.
Gay (S): A catch-all term for people who are attracted to the person of the same gender they are.
Cisgender (G): [Pronounced "sis-gender"; like the "sis" sound in "sister"] A person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth (almost always based on how doctors identified their biological sex).
Transgender (G): A person who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
If you grew up in the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's, you probably heard these some or all of these terms before and are familiar with their definitions.
However, over the past 20 or so years, there has been a lot of progress made in understanding and talking about people who do not fit these traditional definitions. Our vocabularies have expanded wonderfully.
Before we talk about the newer terms you may have heard (we'll save that for the next post), let's go over some of the core concepts you'll need to know in order to understand them.
Sex: A set of characteristics associated with reproduction and biology that generally assign individuals into binary categories of either “male” and “female.” Typically this is done at birth by the doctors in the hospital. Most of us are brought up as our assigned sex, with the assumption that our assigned sex matches our gender identity. For many people, this is fine. For others, whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex, the experience can be horribly confusing and painful.
Intersex: Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. It can be hard to pinpoint how often this happens in our general population, depending on what exact definition you use to determine who is and isn't considered to have an intersex condition, but in general the reported numbers from hospitals are around at least 1 in 2,000 babies born, probably more accurately 1 in 1,000.
People with intersex conditions may identify as either cisgender or transgender. Just because a person is born with an intersex condition does not mean they consider themselves transgender.
Gender Identity: Our inward experience of our gender. This does not depend on other people but is our own perception of who we are. You do not have to act a certain way, dress a certain way or have surgery to confirm your gender identity.
Everyone has a right to their own identity and self-concept. Some people see the world as having two binary genders, and so they will only identify as one or the other: a man or a woman. Others see the world as having a spectrum of genders, and may place themselves somewhere between two binaries of man and woman: as closer to one than the other; as equally both; or as neither. Finally, some people reject the concept of fixed genders altogether, and don't believe in a gender binary or in a gender spectrum.
The most important thing to do when talking to someone about their gender identity is to listen. We all have a right to think about the world and ourselves in our own unique way. What we should never do is tell someone else their self-concept is wrong, just as we should never entertain invalidation from other people.
Gender Expression or Presentation: Our outward appearance as it affects how people think about our gender identity. This includes the clothing we wear, the words we use, the type of voice we have, our mannerisms, our posture, our haircuts, shaving or not shaving body hair, wearing or not wearing make up - there are many ways in which we present who we are to the world. All people have a gender expression, whether they are cisgender or transgender, straight or gay.
We are all allowed to have a gender expression that does not match our gender identity. For many reasons, but particularly because of discrimination against gender nonconforming and transgender individuals, people may choose to present their gender as one way to the public, yet hold a very different identity inside.
It is not lying or dishonest to express your gender one way for the public, while maintaining your own private gender identity. Sometimes people may present their gender one way at work, for example, yet express themselves a different way among their friends or within a safe community. Everyone has a right to their gender identity regardless of whether it matches their gender presentation sometimes, all of the time or none of the time.
Gender Nonconforming: A broad term for people who don't fit social expectations of their gender. This very much depends on the society they were raised in and the corresponding social norms. People can be gender nonconforming through their clothing, attitudes, hobbies and any other area where their society divides things along gender lines.
Being gender nonconforming does not mean a person is gay or transgender. A heterosexual cisgender woman can be gender nonconforming by wearing clothing usually worn by men in her culture. Similarly, a heterosexual cisgender man may enjoy hobbies that his society usually presumes are "for women". This does not make him transgender or gay. He is simply a gender nonconforming person. Not conforming to gender stereotypes does not change one's sexual orientation or gender identity in the slightest.
I hope that was helpful! In the next part of this series, I'll go over what some of the newer words and terms mean, and talk more about what my own identity means to me.
Valerie Urso is a freelance writer and marketer living in Bakersfield, CA. They have been working as the volunteer Content Marketing Manager for The Center's blog since November 2018.
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