Understanding the New Norms of Gender Identity
Image: GenderBread Person, Christopher Lacefield, Flickr Common Creative
While our society continues to move forward towards a more inclusive, safe and equal society, we are constantly re-evaluating and interpreting how we exist in the world. As a queer woman, and a service provider for LGBTQQ youth, I need to be up to date on how the youth in our community define their existence. The way in which younger generations define gender, sex, and sexuality is shifting, as is public discourse surrounding these topics. These changes have impacted our world in such a powerful manner that policies on a local, state, and national level are changing to adopt new definitions in the LGBTQQ realm. My hope is that these new concepts will help establish a common foundation for the discussion that will continue to expand our ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality.
The following are some generalized concepts I use in my work advocating with and for the LGBTQQ+ community.
Gender Identity (ID): Gender ID stems from the mind. It is an individual’s inner-most sense of their gender, and how they chose to identify and label that sense of self. Gender is felt on a continuous spectrum that goes beyond the binary definitions of man and woman. Gender has traditionally been a socially constructed notion that male and female dictate if you are a man or woman, and what those two genders are supposed to be. There are many new emerging categories of Gender and Gender Identity in today’s world, ranging from straight individuals, to those that are questioning their Gender Identity, to Bi-gender people who fluctuate between both physical sexes, and Agender people who feel no strong tie to either Gender in its traditional sense.
Gender terms are constantly changing, and The University of Wisconsin library has a great list that gives a detailed overview of all terms related to the LGBTQQ world: https://lgbt.wisc.edu/documents/Trans_and_queer_glossary.pdf
Sex: Biological sex is assigned at birth by doctors and is decided based on what type of anatomy is in between your legs. Sex has little to do with physical Gender or someone’s Gender Identity; to an individual, these can be mutually exclusive. Therefore, biological sex is not always an indicator of an individual’s chosen Gender Identity. Sex and Gender ID are both separate entities, but in some cases they can match up. For example, if a male bodied person identifies as a man, their Gender Identity would be cis-gender (since their physical and identified genders are the same). A transgender person is someone whose Gender Identity does not match their biological sex.
Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation is the feeling of attraction that one person has for another. Sexuality is felt on a spectrum, and there are many different sexual identities beyond straight, gay, or lesbian. A person’s Gender Identity does not dictate their sexuality; it can fall anywhere in the range of sexual preferences. This is known as the Queer spectrum, an umbrella term that describes the sexuality spectrum. This is an important element to know when educating others; a person does not have to have sex with someone of the same or opposite gender to know they are Queer. “Queer” has historically been used as a derogatory term, but it has been reclaimed by recent generations as a form of empowerment by the LGBTQQ+ community.
- Don’t make assumptions about a transgender person’s sexual orientation.
Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about who we’re attracted to. Gender identity is about our own personal sense of being male or female (or someone outside that binary.) Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.
- If you don’t know what pronouns to use, listen first.
If you’re unsure which pronoun a person prefers, listen first to the pronoun other people use when referring to that person. Someone who knows the person well will probably use the correct pronoun. If you must ask which pronoun the person prefers, start with your own. For example, “Hi, I’m Dani and I prefer the pronouns she and her. What about you?” Then use that person’s preferred pronoun and encourage others to do so. If you accidently use the wrong pronoun, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move on. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.
- Respect the terminology a transgender person uses to describe their identity.
The transgender community uses many different terms to describe their experiences. Respect the term (transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, cross-dresser, etc.) a person uses to describe themselves. If a person is not sure of which identity label fits them best, give them the time to figure it out for themselves and don’t tell them which term you think they should use. You wouldn’t like your identity to be defined by others, so please allow others to define themselves.
- Be patient with a person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity.
A person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity may take some time to find out what identity and/or gender expression is best for them. They might, for example, choose a new name or pronoun, and then decide at a later time to change the name or pronoun again. Do your best to be respectful and use the name and/or pronoun requested.
- Know your own limits as an ally.
Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. It is better to admit you don’t know something than to make assumptions or say something that may be incorrect or hurtful. Then seek out the appropriate resources that will help you learn more.
For a full list of tips, and how to be a successful ally to the LGBTQQ+ community, visit GLAAD’s Ally Page.
These emerging definitions and explanations are just the beginning of a bigger discussion. ACS and Outlet youth are constantly pushing themselves and others to reevaluate our understanding of these concepts.
For more information, there are amazing resources available!
A few include: