A Beginner’s Guide to Basic Sexuality and Gender Identity Terms

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June is Pride month and the LGBTQIA+ community celebrates in a number of different ways. We, as a society, need to raise awareness, remove stigma and offer support. There is no shame in being who we are.

I feel that this group has been marginalized and often bullied, and that needs to change. Regardless of sexuality and gender identity, and more important than any other label, we have to remember that at the heart of it all, we are all human beings. We have our own distinctive personality, talent, spirit and essence. Everyone has the right and freedom to express themselves as they wish.

While I always understood that sexuality is a spectrum, with straight people who are attracted to the opposite sex, bisexual people who are attracted to either sex, and Gay people who are attracted to the same sex, I did not realize that Gender is a spectrum as well.

When my son, who is in high school, talked about a friend and referred to that person as “they,” I was a little confused. Being an English major, and a little bit of a grammarian, my first thought was that “they” is a plural pronoun and is used when we talk about more than one person. 

My son explained to me that for a person who identifies as non-binary gender, we need to use the pronoun “they.” I told him he would have to explain to me what non-binary gender means as I do not understand. He looked at me quizzically with a typical teenager expression of disbelief at how clueless I sounded. Then he took a deep breath, shook his head and said,

“Mom, binary means having two parts, so traditionally gender is either Male or Female. Non-Binary Gender means you do not identify exclusively as either Male or Female. It does not have to be one or the other” 

Intrigued by this conversation, I decided to do some research online to learn more about gender fluidity. After reading some personal stories of non-binary people, I came to understand that even though we typically associate gender with physical attributes and reproductive organs, it is an internal perception of self by the individual; it is how people feel about themselves, rather than what they were born with.

I came across several terms on this subject and wanted to share them with you. 

Gender Identity Terms

  • Agender: This term signifies a person who does not identify as any particular gender. An agender person may identify as someone who is gender neutral, genderless or gender free.
  •  Bigender: This term relates to a person whose sense of personal identity encompasses two genders. For example, a bigender person may have a feminine side and a masculine side.
  •  Cisgender: This term denotes a person whose gender identity matches the sexual organs they were born with. For example, if you were born as a girl and you identify yourself as female then you are cisgender. If you were born as a  boy and you identify yourself as male then you are cisgender.
  • Gender Fluid: When someone is flexible about their gender identity and may fluctuate between different gender identities over the course of their life, or even over the course of a  single day, they are gender fluid. A gender fluid individual may be bigender – oscillating between masculine and feminine – or someone alternating between more than two genders.
  • Intersex: Intersex is an umbrella term used for a variety of different cases, in which a person is born with reproductive anatomy and /or chromosomes that do not fit the fixed definition of Male or Female. Sometimes, doctors may perform surgeries on intersex children to make them fit the binary boxes of “male” or “female.” In some states, doctors assign a binary gender to the intersex babies. However, these intersex kids may grow up to be individuals who may or may not agree with the gender assigned to them by the doctor at birth.
  • Transgender: This term denotes a person whose inherent sense of gender identity does not align with their birth sex. A person assigned male at birth may identify as female. A person assigned female at birth may identify as male. Transgender people may choose to have gender reassignment surgery to align more closely with the gender that is most authentic and appropriate for them, or they may just dress and behave according to that correct internal gender. Transgender people change their name based on gender identity, and people around them should call them by their new name as they feel disrespected when people continue to call them by their old name. My son’s friend is a transgender male and he feels really hurt when people call him by his old name. A transgender male is a man who was assigned female at birth. A transgender female is a woman who was assigned male at birth. In society, a transgender male or female should be seen just as any other regular male or female and they should not be treated any different.

Sexuality Terms

  • Asexual: This term relates to people who do not experience sexual attraction or a desire to have sex. They may have romantic feelings of love, but they lack interest in sexual activity. 
  • Bisexual: This term signifies those who are sexually attracted to both genders. A bisexual man is attracted to both men and women and a bisexual woman is attracted to both men and women as well. They can have physical and romantic relationships with either sex. A bisexual person can also be attracted to and have relationships with people of non binary genders.
  • Demisexual: Demisexual people feel sexual attraction towards someone only when they have formed a strong emotional connection with that person. They don’t desire sex unless there is a deep bond with their partner. Demisexual individuals can be gay, straight, bisexual, or pansexual, and may have any gender identity.
  • Straight/Heterosexual: You are straight or heterosexual when you are attracted to a person of the opposite sex. Men who are sexually attracted to women and women who are sexually attracted to men are considered straight or heterosexual.
  • Gay (Homosexual)/Lesbian: A homosexual person is attracted to another person of the same sex. The word (Greek root) “homo” means “same.” Men who are romantically or sexually attracted to, and engage in sexual behavior with men, are Gay or Homosexual. The word ‘homosexual’ is getting redundant as it has been used negatively very often. People in the LGBTQ community prefer the word ‘Gay’. Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to, and engage in sexual behavior with women, are Lesbian. 
  • Pansexual: Pansexuality means you are attracted to all people regardless of their gender identity or sex. A pansexual person falls in love with the inherent essence of the person, the sexuality or gender of that person is not a defining factor when falling in love. 

Gender inclusive pronouns are on the rise. Binary pronouns include she/her/hers for female and he/him/his for male.  Alternate pronouns that are gender neutral include ze/hir/hirs and they/them/theirs for non binary people. Pronounced /zee/ and /here/ they replace “he” and “she” and “his” and “hers” respectively.

Alternatively, some people who are not comfortable, and do not embrace he/she, use the plural pronoun “they/their” as a gender neutral singular pronoun. There are several more gender neutral pronouns, and it’s best to ask the person what pronouns they prefer. It is also respectful to use gender inclusive phrases like “Good evening, everyone” instead of “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.”

Incidentally, I did some research and found out that The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet and Mansfield Park have all used a singular they at least once! You can read more about it at Wikipedia.

These terms can be confusing and they are ever evolving but as a civilized society, we should treat everyone equally and with respect, regardless of whether or not we agree with their choices of sexuality and/or gender expression. 

If this topic interests you, here are some additional resources:

Grown and Flown

ABC News

Young Scot

Richland Library Broader Bookshelf