What does this alphabet soup mean? Why do we need all of these labels?
Understanding how certain terms are used is essential to understanding how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning (LGBTIQ) individuals define and see themselves in the world.
One of the most important things to understand is that sexual orientation and gender identity/expression are related, but they are also separate and distinct.
Use labels and definitions carefully and avoid assumption. It is often better to ask people how they describe themselves and then use their preferred self-definitions and pronouns.
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectional attraction to another person. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female) and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from being exclusively gay or lesbian to being exclusively straight and includes various forms of bisexuality. Sexual Orientation is different from sexual behavior because it refers to feelings and self concept. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.
Gender identity is how a person sees themselves in terms of gender (e.g., male, female, or something else). This is an internal identity rather than a physical one. A person’s gender identity might not match their body, presentation, or expression.
Gender expression is everything a person does to communicate their gender to others. This includes: clothing, hair styles, mannerisms, way of speaking, adornment, etc. Gender expression can vary for an individual from day to day or in different situations, but most people have a range of expression that makes them feel most comfortable.
Heterosexuality is the sexual orientation in which a person is attracted (affectionally, sexually, romantically) to partners of the opposite sex. This is sometimes referred to as being “straight.”
Homosexuality is the sexual orientation in which a person is attracted (affectionally, sexually, romantically) to partners of the same sex.
This is a clinical term that is sometimes seen as derogatory because historically it has been used as in a negative context or as a slur. It is also somewhat un-inclusive because it does not include bisexual, transgender, or intersex people. Many LGBTIQ people prefer to use the terms “gay and lesbian” to identify same sex orientation.
Bisexuality is a sexual orientation in which people are attracted to partners of the opposite sex as well as partners of the same sex. Bisexual people have often faced discrimination even within the LGBTIQ community. There are those who believe that bisexuals are in denial and are actually gay or lesbian. Research has repeatedly shown that many people are in fact bisexual.
When a person is in the process of exploring their sexual orientation, they may choose to identify as Questioning. Whether done consciously or not, this process is a healthy part of understanding one’s own sexual orientation. Typically, this happens during early puberty, but can happen at any time during a person’s life.
Gender is the concept of maleness and masculinity or femaleness and femininity. One’s gender identity is the sense of one’s self as male or female and does not refer to one’s sexual orientation or gender role. Gender is not an absolute and for many individuals, it exists on a continuum.
Sex refers to the biological characteristics of a person at birth, while gender relates to his or her perception of being male or female and is known as the gender role.
Gender role refers to the behaviors and desires to act in certain ways that are viewed as masculine or feminine by a particular culture.
A culture usually labels behaviors as masculine or feminine, but these behaviors are not necessarily a direct component of gender or gender identity. It is common in our culture to call the behaviors, styles, or interests shown by males that are usually associated with women “effeminate” and to call the boys who behave this way “sissies.” Women or girls who have interests usually associated with men are labeled “masculine” or “butch,” and the girls are often called “tomboys.”
Transgender, or simply “trans,” is an umbrella term used to describe those who transcend conventional expectations of gender identity or expression. Like any umbrella term, many different groups of people, with different histories and experiences, get associated within the greater trans community – such groups include, but are certainly not limited to, people who identify as transsexual, genderqueer, gender variant, gender diverse androgynous, etc.
A transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not correspond with their biological/physical gender. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being or feeling male, female, or something else. For example, a transgender man is a person who was born physically female, but identifies as male, while a transgender woman is a person who was born physically male, but identifies as female.
Straight-identified males who wear women’s clothes and/or make-up. They do not identify themselves as transgender. The motivations for cross dressing vary, but most cross dressers enjoy cross dressing and may experience pleasure and comfort from it. These people are typically satisfied with their biological gender.
Gay men who dress in female clothing for the purpose of performance are not necessarily transgender individuals. The choice that these individuals make to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex is not typically a matter of gender identity.
The same is true of drag kings (i.e., women who dress in men’s clothing) and male impersonators.
Genderqueer individuals are people who view their gender identity as one of many possible genders beyond strictly male or female. Such people feel they exist psychologically between genders or beyond the notion of only male and female. People who feel this way may or may not pursue hormone therapy and/or surgical body modification and sometimes prefer using gender-neutral pronouns (e.g. “ze,” hir”). Some people prefer this label because it is a rejection of traditional gender labels. Related terms include: gender fluid, gender neutral, bigendered, androgynous, or simply gender diverse.
Born with aspects of both female and male genitalia, often referred to as “ambiguous biological sex characteristics.”
These people have often been put through genital surgery as infants, their sex having been decided by the doctor. Historically, this was frequently done without the parents’ consent, though this practice is changing.
Intersexed people may later grow up to have gender identities that are the opposite of the manufactured sex constructed for them at birth and have feelings similar to transgender individuals.
An international organization has been formed to help and advocate on behalf of individuals who are born intersexed or with ambiguous sexual characteristics.