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Sexual Orientation
Emerging terms
Terms with mixed meanings (avoid these unless invited)
Terms to avoid
      "Gay" as a put-down

Gender Identity and Gender Expression
Gender identity
Gender expression
Sex (biological)
Gender or gender role (social/cultural)
The relationship between gender identity or expression and biological sex
Transgender identity
The relationship between gender identity or gender expression and sexual orientation

Other important terms
Closet (in the closet, closeted)
Coming out
Outing, to “out” someone
Community, LGBT community
Internalized homophobia

Sexual Orientation
A person’s sexual orientation is defined by the sex of the person she or he is emotionally and sexually attracted to.  Sexual orientation involves a wide range of feelings, behaviors, experiences, and commitments.  The most common designations of sexual orientation include the following:

Usually the term is used to refer to males (gay boys / gay men) who are emotionally and sexually attracted to members of the same sex. 

Traditionally, "gay" has often been used to refer to both women and men.  However, since this makes women and their issues invisible, the current preference in much of the LGBT community is for the term "gay" to refer to boys and men (often "gay men" or "gay males" is used to further clarify the meaning of the term), and "lesbian" to refer to girls and women.  

A girl or woman who is emotionally and sexually attracted to other girls/women.

A person who is emotionally and sexually attracted to members of both sexes (either at different times or simultaneously).  Being attracted to members of both sexes does not require that a person be involved with members of both sexes (any more than being attracted to many women or many men requires that one be involved with them all).

Emerging Terms
While these are the most common terms used to refer to sexual orientation, others are appearing all the time.  For example:

Aword used by some LGBT people (especially younger folks) to express what they see as a wide spectrum of possible identities – as opposed to the discrete categories that are more common in everyday language.  People using this term often see sexual orientation (and even gender identity) as complex and reflecting a wide range of factors – not just sexual and emotional attraction.  They also see these identities as potentially changing and fluid over time.

A word used to refer to someone who is exploring the possibility of attractions to and/or relationships with members of both sexes, but who does not claim a bisexual identity.

Terms with Mixed Meanings – avoid using these unless you are invited to do so
Members of minority or oppressed groups often adopt language that is comfortable when used by members of their own group but that may feel offensive when used by others.  This is true of certain words that deal with sexual orientation.  The following are words that you may hear used by members of the LGB community that generally should not be used by people outside that community—except when invited to do so.  Some of these terms have historically had very negative connotations.  However, these have been “reclaimed” by many in the LGBT community and are often viewed by these people as positive terms.  (It should be noted that not everyone in the LGBT community views these terms positively, and some members of the LGBT community find them offensive.)  For example:

Butch and Femme
These terms refer to stereotyped roles of "masculine" and "feminine."  "Butch" describes a person who shows stereotypically "masculine" behavior, mannerisms, and dress. "Femme" describes a person who behaves in a stereotypically "feminine" way.

Slang term for a lesbian, usually having the connotation of traditionally "masculine" appearance, dress, speech, and manner.  In this meaning, it is a stronger form of "butch."  Historically, the term was used in a derogatory way (and sometimes still is).  Now, some lesbians claim the term as a way of taking back the word and its meaning. 

Slang term for a gay man. The term faggot means a bundle of sticks, and its use
to refer to gay men apparently derives from the time when men accused of
homosexual acts were burned along with the witches.  Like dyke, the term has historically had a negative connotation, but is now often used within the LGBT community as an affirmation of gay pride.

Another term for a gay man, perhaps deriving from the "feminine" qualities
stereotypically attributed to gay men.  Like dyke and fag, this term is sometimes used within the LGBT community, typically without negative connotations.

A gay man, especially one who is particularly "feminine" in manner and dress.  The term is usually used by others derogatorily, but may be used by gay men themselves to show their comfort with violating norms for "masculine" behavior.

A slang term traditionally used to refer to LGBT people – and, more and more, used to refer to anyone who steps outside the usual “straight” box.  Historically, this was a very negative term.  Recently, it has been used by many LGBT people as a term of pride, especially when used among themselves.  It also serves as an “umbrella” term for all the varieties of non-straight identity.

Terms to Avoid

This is a medical and psychiatric term for a person who is emotionally and sexually attracted to members of the same sex. It was used during the era when same-sex attractions were viewed as sick, perverted, crazy.  The term is offensive to many LGB people and their allies for two reasons: 1) It is a psychiatric diagnosis, long used to label LGB people as sick; and 2) It focuses only on the sexual aspect of LGB experience and ignores all the other elements of LGB identity.  Anti-gay-rights groups are fond of using this term in anti-LGB speeches and publications.

“Gay” as a put-down
Currently the term “gay” (and sometimes “fag”) is often used as a form of put-down (“That’s so gay!”), with or without any actual reference to sexual orientation.  This only works as a put-down if  being gay is seen as a bad thing, but its use in this way is demeaning to LGBT people.

Gender Identity and Expression
The terms gender identity and gender expression refer to different issues than sexual orientation. 

Gender identity refers to whether people see themselves as a man or as a woman. 

Gender expression has to do with how people behave – whether their dress, mannerism, interests, etc. fit the stereotypic “masculine” or “feminine” role.  To understand gender identity and gender expression, it is necessary to recognize the difference between sex and gender.

The term “sex” refers to the biological distinction between female (girl/woman) and male (boy/man).  It is based on physical characteristics, especially chromosomes and genitalia. 

Gender or Gender Role
The term gender refers to a social role.  It means the attitudes and behaviors a person is taught based on his or her sex (i.e., based on being a male or female).  A combination of the various expectations for how men or women should behave, think, feel, etc. make up the gender role.  The "feminine" role tells us how girls and women are expected to be, and the "masculine" role tells us what is expected for boys and men.

The Relationship between Gender Identity or Expression and Biological Sex
For most people, biological sex and gender identity match.  Most girls/women feel like they are girls or women; most boys/men feel like they are boys or men.   

This is generally true even for most people whose gender expression doesn’t match their biological sex - that is, even when their clothing, mannerisms, interests, etc.) do not match the gender role they are expected to express.  For example, girls/women who prefer activities that are usually associated with “masculine” identities typically do not feel like they are boys or men – they just prefer these activities.  Similarly, most boys or men who prefer activities usually seen as “feminine” don’t feel like they are women – they just feel like boys or men who prefer these activities. 

People are often harassed for these violations of “appropriate” gender expression.  They are often assumed to be gay or lesbian.  But they do not see themselves as truly being members of the other sex or feel like they are “in the wrong body.”  In these cases, gender expression differs from their biological sex, even though gender identity does not. 

For some people, biological sex and gender identity do not match.  Instead, these individuals experience themselves as truly being members of the other sex. They often express a feeling of being "in the wrong body."  These people identify as transgender, which includes:

  • Transwoman or MtF (male to female) – a person who was born a biological male but has changed (or transitioned) to a female identity.
  • Transman or FtM (female to male) – a person who was born a biological female but has transitioned to a male identity.

People who identify as transgender may consider a variety of ways to make their gender identity compatible with how they present themselves in the world.  Some transgender people choose to live as the other sex (i.e., change their gender expression) while retaining the physical body of their birth sex.  They may select an appropriate name and then behave and dress in keeping with the other sex without making other changes.  Some choose to take hormones to produce visible physical characteristics of the other sex, such as beard growth or breasts.  Others elect to have surgery to bring their physical bodies into keeping with their sense of their correct gender identity.

The term transsexual is often used in reference to people who choose to make physical changes to their bodies so that their biological sex (i.e., their body) fits with their gender identity.

The Relationship between Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation
Transsexual/transgender identity represents an entirely different dimension from sexual orientation.  Gender identity is defined by the individual’s understanding of her or his own sex/gender.  It has to do with how the person understands or expresses personal gender, not whom that person loves.  Sexual orientation, in contrast, is defined by a quality of someone else – namely, by the sex of one’s partners.  It has to do with whom a person loves, not how that person understands or expresses gender.

Because these are separate dimensions, it is crucial to realize that gender expression and gender identity are not indications of sexual orientation

  • Gender identity tells us nothing about sexual orientation – or vice versa.  Transgender people can be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual. 
  • Gender expression tells us nothing about sexual orientation – or vice versa.   Heterosexual people can engage in cross-sex gender expression; LGB people can engage in completely stereotypic gender expression. 

Drag is an example of cross-sex gender-expression that is not the same as transgender identity. Being "in drag" involves violating gender role expectations, especially by dressing in clothing usually prescribed for the other sex.  In addition to dress, someone “doing drag” also mimics the make-up, hairstyles, and mannerisms of the other sex.  Drag Queens are men (usually gay men) who appear in public in drag.  Women (usually lesbians) who perform in similar formats identify as “drag kings.”  People doing drag do not identify as being in the wrong body; drag queens understand themselves to be men doing drag; drag kings understand themselves to be women doing drag. 

Transvestite identity is another example of gender-bending that is not the same as transgender identity.  A transvestite is a person (most often a heterosexual man, often married with children) who dresses in clothing usually seen as appropriate for the other sex, and finds sexual gratification in this practice.  Transvestites do not see themselves as being in the wrong body; they see themselves as men who enjoy dressing as women (or sometimes, vice versa).  Their cross-sex behavior is also not indicative of sexual orientation or of transgender identity. 

Since sexual orientation and gender identity are separate dimensions, these two identities can interact in interesting ways.  For example, a post-operative transwoman (i.e., a male-to-female transsexual) may form relationships with men. Such relationships are heterosexual according to the social roles (gender expression) and the external genitalia of the partners, although both people are genetically male.  If the same person formed relationships with women, these would be lesbian relationships according to the external genitalia and gender expression of the people involved, even though the partners are genetically of different sexes.

Other Important Terms

An ally is a heterosexual person who takes a stand in support of LGBT rights.  Allies often face prejudice and discrimination themselves and have to work to overcome the heterosexism they have learned (along with everyone else) along the way.  They sometimes also face doubts or even resistance from LGBT people, so maintaining an ally identity can itself be a struggle. 

Closet, In the Closet, Closeted
The term used to describe a lesbian, gay male, or bisexual (or, sometimes, transgender) person who hides her/his sexual orientation (or gender identity) for fear of the consequences if her/his true identity were known. 

Coming Out (of the Closet)
The sequence of events by which individuals come to recognize their sexual orientation and disclose it to others. It is typically used to refer to this process in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.  Since heterosexuality is taken for granted, there is generally no conscious process of discovery or disclosure for straight people.  The term is also increasingly applied to transgender people as they claim that identity.  People can be "out" in varying degrees; some are out only to themselves, some are out to their family, some are out at work, one may be out to some friends and not to others, and so forth.

Outing, To "Out" someone
Revealing the sexual orientation of someone else without that person’s consent.

Community/LGBT Community
The usually informal social, emotional, and political network within which LGBT individuals create and maintain contacts with others. The community is made up of individuals, couples, families, and groups.  It creates opportunities for the sort of interaction and mutual support that are provided for straight people by mainstream institutions. The LGBT community also has its symbols, traditions, rituals, and institutions: churches, community centers, bars, bookstores, clubs and organizations. Close friendship networks, public and private social gatherings, educational opportunities, cultural events, political activities, and assorted formal and informal gatherings provide a sense of belonging in a community that many LGBT people refer to as "family of choice."

The belief that heterosexual identity and behavior are normal and legitimate, and that any other sexual orientation is deviant, sick, abnormal, or dangerous.  We see heterosexism where individual people or social institutions show a preference for heterosexuality and support it with public policies, rituals, legal rights, and resources while ignoring, demeaning, or even punishing other sexual orientations.

Technically, this means an irrational fear of homosexuality.  The term has come to refer to all forms of prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people and their sexual practices, lifestyles, and relationships.  “Phobia” is not really an accurate term, since such prejudice may or may not be based on fear, and it is more a matter of widespread cultural beliefs than of individual fear.

Within this larger concept of anti-LGBT attitudes, biphobia refers to negative attitudes or feelings toward people who identify as bisexual.  Bisexual individuals often have to deal with biphobia from lesbian and gay people as well as from mainstream communities and individuals.  Transphobia refers to negative attitudes toward transgender or transsexual people. Those who identify as trans often face transphobia from the LGB community as well as from mainstream communities.

Internalized Homophobia (or Internalized Biphobia/Transphobia)
This term refers to negative attitudes toward LGBT identity that have been taken in by LGBT people themselves.  Such attitudes are a natural consequence of living in a homophobic (or heterosexist) society, and we all “catch it” as we grow up.  These negative attitudes are reinforced by the negative consequences that can result from being seen as LGBT – e.g., fears of verbal and physical attacks, possible loss of friends, family, status, job, housing, and child-custody.

Another group of people who have recently come to the attention of those struggling for equality for LGBT people are those who are “intersex.”  The term intersex refers to a situation where the child at birth cannot easily be categorized as either male or female.  This typically involves ambiguous external and/or internal genitalia.  (It is the condition historically termed “hermaphroditism.”)  In the past, this situation was viewed as demanding “correction” (often involving surgical procedures and/or hormone treatments) to make the child conform to one or the other “normal” sex.  In recent years, a movement has emerged arguing that such corrections are not necessary, and that intersex individuals should be given the right to make their own decisions about their identity as male or female. 

This situation challenges societal norms that see sex and gender as dichotomous and that allow for no deviation from those dichotomous categories:  one must be either male or female, either masculine or feminine.  Because this challenge is closely related to the issues of LGBT people, intersex individuals and their concerns are often included with those of LGBT community.

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