Would you like to bi a vowel?
LGBTQ ... RSTUVWXY ... ?
I know, it’s a lot of letters but they’re all important.
We use a lot of words to talk about our sex, gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Let's break it down
Sex assigned at birth: What the doctor says you are.
- Based on your biology such as chromosomes, genitals and hormone levels.
- Assigned by the doctor when you’re born and recorded on your birth certificate.
- Examples: male, female, intersex.
Gender identity: Who you actually are.
- Your internal sense of being a man, a woman, neither, both or another gender.
- Examples: boy, girl, non-binary, transgender, cisgender, agender
Gender expression: How you look.
- How you express your gender identity through hairstyle, clothing, etc.
- E.g., butch, femme, masculine, feminine, androgynous.
Sexual orientation: Who you’re into.
- How you identify based on your attractions and desires.
- E.g., straight, omnisexual, asexual, lesbian.
Sexual behaviour: What you do in bed.
- Who you have sex with, your relationship structures and what you’re doing sexually. E.g., Men who have sex with men, polyamory, BDSM.
The gender binary
The gender binary is the way that society puts people into two distinct and opposite neatly packaged boxes based on the idea that sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation should align in a certain way.
If you were born with a penis*, society expects you to look, act and dress in one way, and if you were born with vulva*, society expects you to be the opposite. Many people assume that the sex you were assigned at birth (e.g., male) will determine your gender identity (man), your gender expression (masculine) and your sexual orientation and behaviour (straight). Men are supposed to be dominant, rational and providers while women are expected to be submissive, emotional and nurturing.
That’s not for everyone!
People identify in many ways—in between and outside of the categories of man/woman, male/female, masculine/feminine and gay/straight. Our lives are much more complex than the pink and blue boxes set by the gender binary.
People who break the gender binary rules are often punished through violence, isolation, invisibility, and denial of their existence. While the rules of the gender binary impact LGBTQ people in big ways, the gender binary limits everyone by setting rules like “boys can’t be emotional,” or “girls can’t be good at math.” Ditching the gender binary would help free us all from homophobia, biphobia and transphobia too. LGBTQ people experience the brunt of these oppressions, but straight and cis people can experience them too. For example, straight men get called sissies and fags for not living up to the masculine ideal, not because they’re having sex with men. Everybody wins when we dismantle the gender binary.
Think outside the box: Identities on a spectrum
A helpful way to understand sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression outside the gender binary is the spectrum model.
The sex spectrum
- Females are defined as having a vulva, uterus, ovaries, XX chromosomes, breasts*, and higher levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
- Males are defined as having a penis, testicles*, XY chromosomes, face and body hair, and higher levels of the hormone testosterone.
- Many of us don’t fit exactly at either end of this spectrum. Some females have facial hair and some males don’t. Some males have breasts and some females don’t. And some people have varying levels of hormones. What makes a “biological” male and female is not so clear cut.
- Intersex people have sex characteristics (e.g., hormones, genitals, hair growth patterns) that don’t fully match an assigned sex.
- Doctors often perform non-consensual surgeries on intersex people at birth to make them fit into the male/female binary. Check out this awesome video about intersex identities.
- Some cultures have always accepted that multiple sexes exist. The belief that there are only males or females is not universal.
The gender identity spectrum
- Cisgender (or cis) people’s gender identity aligns with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. For example, you’re cis if you were told at birth you were female and you currently identify as a girl or woman.
- Cis is a latin prefix that means staying on the same side and trans is a prefix that means crossing
- Cisgender is not a bad word! It’s just a description, like tall or short.
- Trans is an umbrella term for people who are not cisgender.
- Transgender people’s gender identity doesn’t match the sex and gender they were assigned at birth.
- Some trans people transition by changing their names, pronouns or way of dressing. Some change their bodies. Some don’t transition at all. There is no right way to be trans. The only way to know if someone is trans is if they identify that way.
- Trans people can be straight or LGBQ. Sexual orientation is different from gender identity.
- People who are between the woman and man ends of this spectrum may feel like neither of these genders fit them, like they are a combination of these genders, or that their gender identity is fluid.
- Non-binary is an umbrella term that covers some of the identities outside the gender binary of woman/man.
- Some trans people are non-binary, but not all.
- Some non-binary people don’t identify as trans.
- Many cultures have long recognized a wide variety of genders
Sexual orientation spectrum
- Gay and lesbian people are attracted to their own gender.
- Bisexual and pansexual are attracted to more than one gender.
- Straight people are women who are exclusively attracted to men and men who are exclusively attracted to women.
- Sexual attraction and romantic attraction do not have to align. For example, you can be homoromantic, but bisexual. This means you’re romantically into people of the same gender as you, but you are sexually attracted to people of your gender and other genders.
- Sexual orientation and sexual behaviour are different. For example, a straight man may have occasional sex with another man, but not see himself as gay, bi or queer.
- Queer is an umbrella term for sexual minorities, so could include any part of this spectrum other than straight folks.
Some spectrum facts:
- Most people actually exist somewhere in the grey area between the ends of the spectrum. Even people who are cisgender and straight might not perfectly match society’s standards for their gender.
- Identities can be fluid. Some people remain in one spot on a spectrum for their whole lives while other people’s identities shift. For example, a person might identify as gay and then later identify as bisexual. A person’s identity is valid and true for them at any given time, even if it changes later.
- Even if you know how someone feels about their gender or their sexual orientation, that doesn’t mean you know what label they use.
- Even if you know what label someone uses, that doesn’t mean you know about their behaviours or feelings. LGBTQ people self-identify, tell their allies what labels they use or don’t use, and decide what those labels mean to them.
Think outside the spectrums!
While the idea of a spectrum can be a useful way to learn about sexual and gender identities, it has its limitations. Many identities don’t fit the spectrum model because reality is hella complicated! Here are some identities that are outside the spectrums:
- Two Spirit: Refers broadly to Indigenous people who hold masculine and feminine spirits. This identity can be a sexual orientation, a gender identity, a cultural identity or a mix of these. Before colonization, Two Spirit people were respected in many Indigenous communities and played valuable roles as educators, healers and leaders.
- Asexual: People who don’t experience sexual attraction. There are many ways to identify along the asexual or ace spectrum
- Aromantic: People who don’t experience romantic attraction.
- Agender: People who identify as not having a gender.
Practice—uhh—sometimes makes things more complicated, but it helps!
Let’s practice putting some of these spectrums together:
|Gender identity||Gender expression||Sexual orientation||Romantic orientation||What they mean|
|cis woman||femme||queer||A woman who is female assigned at birth and has feminine characteristics, who is attracted to women (trans or cis) and possibly to other genders as well.|
|transgender woman||butch||lesbian||A woman who was assigned male at birth, whose gender expression is masculine and who is attracted to women.|
|non-binary||panesexual||We don’t know this person’s assigned sex at birth, they are attracted to more than one gender and they fit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between man and woman.|
|genderqueer||asexual||aromantic||Someone whose gender lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum who does not experience romantic or sexual attraction.|
Gender and sexual identity as a constellation
Another helpful way to think about gender and sexuality characteristics is that they’re like stars. When they are joined together they form a constellation that is a person’s identity.
Interested in thinking about your own identities? Check out the Gender Unicorn!
* Not everyone uses these words for their bodies. It’s super important to respect the language that people use for their own parts!
Terms around gender and sexuality aren’t simple and are always changing. Here are some helpful tips:
- Understand that sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender expression are all different things.
- Respect that gender and sexuality are fluid for some people and can change over time.
- Accept the labels (or lack of labels) people use to describe themselves.
- Don’t assume you know someone’s identity just by looking at them.
- Do trans people feel like they are in the wrong body?
- What is the difference between gay and transgender?
- Can you be religious and LGBTQ?
- What bathrooms do trans people use?
- When two gay guys date, does one of them act like the girl and the other like a guy?
- Is it possible that an LGBTQ person is just experimenting or confused?
- Can you tell somebody is trans just by looking at them?
- If somebody hasn’t had surgery, how can they be transgender?
- How do lesbians have sex?
- Do bisexual people want to date everyone?
- Are LGBTQ people born that way?
- Trans women were born boys, right?
- How is drag different from being a trans woman?