Jan 092013


At some point last spring, I wrote a brief post about the Genderbread Person, an illustration of the differences between gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, and sexual orientation.  I was thinking about the Genderbread Person today, an thought it would be worth re-visiting and unpacking a bit for a second installment of Queer Terminology!!

  • Gender Identity: Gender identity is how you, in your head, think about yourself.  It’s the chemistry that composes you (e.g., hormonal levels), and how you interpret what that means.  So, for me, the fact that I identify as a woman would put me more to the left side of the gender-identity spectrum.
  • Gender expression: Gender expression is how you demonstrate your gender  through the ways you act, dress, behave, and interact. Some folks wear dresses, others wear pants, or ties, or bows, or makeup, or not. Gender expression and gender identity are different things.
  • Sex assigned at birth: Sex refers to the objectively measurable organs, hormones, and chromosomes present in a person. Sex assigned at birth is typically based on a quick observation of a person’s external genitalia.
  • Sexual orientation: Sexual orientation is who you are physically, spiritually, and emotionally attracted to, based on their sex/gender in relation to your own.  This is often the spectrum people typically identify when talking about attraction.  Though folks traditionally think of gay, straight, or bisexual, there are many many more sexual orientations that exist, including pansexual (the attraction to people of all genders) and asexual (which is a lack of sexual attraction).

One of the key factors in each of these categories is that a person needn’t exist on on end or the other.  Each category is non-binary – and fluid.  Just as we change and evolve over our lives, so do the ways we understand and express ourselves.

One of the most enlightening experiences I had about my own gender expression, identity, and sexual orientation was when I was training to work with LGBTQ+ youth.  The other trainees and I each plotted ourselves in all four categories, and it was amazing to see how much variation there was – not one of our graphs looked the same!  Various life experiences, background, race, class, etc, will all play into the way we understand ourselves.  (For instance, what may be seen as “masculine” in one culture may be “feminine” in another.)



Sep 192012

I’ve had several conversations lately with folks about language, and on the importance of recognizing when we might be unintentionally saying something that offends someone. This is especially true with language around sexual orientation and gender identity. I frequently find myself in conversations with people where they seem to be navigating a list of terms in an effort to avoid offending me.  This has particularly true with friends in seminary, who are interested in going into the parish, and recognize that they will have parishioners who identify somewhere along the gender spectrum, but want to avoid unintentionally alienating someone (even now, as I write, I am aware that some people may be wondering what the heck I mean by “gender spectrum.”).

So, in an effort to address some of the concerns about language, I thought it might be a good idea to go ahead and start defining some of the terms (both preferred, and ones to avoid) and answering some of the questions that I’ve been asked, to begin a sort of running vocabulary list of definitions.  I would also invite you to contact me with questions you have about terminology: maybe a word you hear tossed around, but don’t understand, or a concern about how to avoid offending someone in conversation.  There is a “contact” page on the main navigation bar (just up and to the right, below the “living somewhere between the now and the not yet” ). I can assure you that no question is too elementary or basic.  I hesitate to speak for all LGBT people when I say this, but I know that I would far prefer you ask a question, especially if your question is in the spirit of inclusion and understanding.  Please – send me questions!!  Also, If you have questions or are frustrated with the particular definition of a word, please let me know.

To begin, we’ll start with some of the basics:

LGBTQ (or GLBTQ): Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (Note: There is no difference between “LGBT” and “GLBT”):

  • Gay: a term used in some settings to describe a male-identified who is attracted to men.  It is a self-identifying term that describes feelings and emotions, not behavior (not all men who engage in sexual acts with other men identify as “gay,” and not all men who identify as “gay” engage in sexual acts with other men); “gay” is also used as an umbrella term to include all LGBTQ people.
  • Lesbian: a term used to describe a female-identified person who is attracted to women.  Again, like “gay,” “lesbian” is a self-identifying term that describes feelings and emotions, not behavior
  • Bisexual: a person who is attracted to both men and women, whether on an emotional, physical, and/or sexual level
  • Transgender: a self-identifying term that describes a person whose gender identity is different than what is expected based on assigned sex. “Transgender” does not imply anything about one’s sexual orientation.
  • Queer – a self-identifying term which can be controversial.  I’ll write more about this in a later post; but, again it’s important that it is a self-identifying term – that it is not put upon someone by another
  • Same-gender-loving (SGL): a term primarily used by people in the African-American community for whom the terms “gay” and “lesbian” were too predominately descriptive of the experiences of white people, and failed to encompass the uniqueness of their experiences.

Words to avoid:

  • Homosexual: refers to a person who is primarily attracted to people of the same sex.  WHY IT SHOULD BE AVOIDED: Well, for a number of reasons (in no particular order).  First, it is not a self-identifying term. I know of no LGBT people who identify themselves as “homosexual.”  Second, though it is often used as a sort of umbrella term, it only refers to the sexual orientation of a person, and excludes bisexual and transgender people.  Third, using “homosexual” as a noun erases a person’s personhood, and highlights only their sexual attraction.
  • Lifestyle: yeah – just avoid this one all together.  It implies a whole lot of negative things; it is particularly offensive when used in combination with “homosexual.”  It is often used by people who are actively working against the health welfare of LGBTQ people.

Okay, that’s it for today.  Next time: the transgender umbrella, and other fun terms! Again, please send in your questions, words you’d like to define (or definitions of words you’d like me to share)!

Jul 302012

I came across this article yesterday, titled “Six Things Straight People Should Stop Saying About Gay People;” and, while I think the conversation could be more nuanced in particular ways (specifically dealing with the issues transgender folks face every day, and with the particularities that lead one to find fulfillment in a relationship with someone of the same sex), I appreciate that the article was written by a straight, evangelical woman who herself has been transformed by her relationships with people who are not straight.

Many people think they don’t know anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender – this is in large part because it is not always safe for LGBT people to disclose their gender or sexual identity. Regardless of what you may think, I guarantee you that you do know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Thinking about your words, regardless of whether or not you are in the company of someone you know to be gay, might make it easier for those people you know to trust you. What we say does make a difference. . .

Feb 292012

Not much to share this evening. I just had a great evening talking with the youth about gender. We used this genderbread person to talk about the differences between gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation. I am constantly amazed by the way these youth articulate their thoughts. We certainly didn’t talk about this stuff when I was in high school….