A few weeks ago after a presentation I did for a conference of school counselors on supporting transgender students in schools, a group of counseling students came up to me and said that they were so afraid of offending someone by using the wrong language that they were afraid to talk about the LGBTQ community at all. I hear this a lot from well-meaning folks who haven’t had much experience with LGBTQ people but want to be respectful. Language around gender and sexuality seems to change continuously and rapidly, so it can feel hard to keep up and easy to feel out of the loop when you’re not sure how to use the newest term. The LGBTQ acronym itself can be confusing by mixing together gender (T) and sexuality (LGBQ). I explained last month that they’re not the same thing at all. (Remember that gender is who you go to bed as and sex is who you go to bed with.) If you missed that post about terminology related to gender identity, be sure to check it out.
This week, let’s focus on sexuality (a.k.a. sexual orientation). If gender identity is the internal sense of your true gender, then sexual orientation is your internal sense of who you’re attracted to sexually. It’s important to respect the terms that people choose to describe their sexuality, whether you understand them or not. Self-identification is a critical way that LGBTQ people are able to feel empowered after decades of being labelled with words chosen by others. If you don’t understand a term someone uses to describe themselves, it’s fine to say so and ask respectful clarifying questions. ("Can you tell me more about what the word 'queer' means for you?") Be prepared that not everyone who identifies as LGBTQ feels a responsibility to educate folks with questions, so you might have to do some research of your own (like reading this post!). Whether or not you have questions, it’s not okay to pass judgment on LGBTQ people’s terms or identities that they choose for themselves.
Let’s run through some of the common options for sexual identity. Back to the LGBTQ acronym, L stands for lesbian, a term for a female-identified person who’s attracted to other female-identified people. These female-identified people could be cisgender or transgender because, let's say it together, gender and sexuality are not the same. Gay is a word that’s embraced by many kinds of people, male and female, though it’s often associated with men. People who identify as bisexual are sexually attracted to both men and women.
As options for gender identity have expanded, so too have options for identifying sexual attraction toward multiple genders. Since bisexual implies two genders (male and female), people who are attracted to folks of all genders (male, female, transgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, etc.) sometimes identify as pansexual. Queer is a term that has historically been used against LGBTQ people, but has been reclaimed by many as a term of empowerment representing sexual and gender identities that are outside of the mainstream. It’s important to note that, as a word that’s been reclaimed, many feel that the word should not be used by those who do not identify as queer. Acceptance of the word queer varies depending on who you’re talking to, so be aware that not all LGBT people embrace the word queer. Related to the politics of terminology, I’m often asked about use of the word homosexual. I advise against using this word unless a person self-identifies as a homosexual because of its negative history as a mental health disorder. There are people who identify this way, so we should respect their right to self-identify.
All of the above terms describe sexual attraction. Sexual attraction could be the same as who you are attracted to romantically, or in the case of asexual people, you may only feel romantic attraction and no sexual attraction at all. Or you may identify as demisexual, meaning that you’re only sexually attracted to someone after you feel emotionally or romantically connected to them.
If you’re confused about a person’s sexuality, it may be okay to just ask, “How do you identify your sexual orientation?” Before you go that route, ask yourself a few questions. “How is this information relevant to my relationship with the person I’m asking?” If you’re interested in asking them out on a date, it might be relevant. If you’re behind them in line for coffee and just curious, it might not be any of your business. “Do I know this person well enough to ask a personal question?” If you’ve determined the question is relevant, you might want to make sure it’s the right time to ask it. Some people are very private about their sexuality and others shout it from the rooftops. One good litmus test might be asking yourself how you would feel if this person asked you the same question first. Finally, make sure you’re prepared for the answer, whatever it is. “Am I able to respect this person’s sexual orientation, even if it includes terms I’m not comfortable with?” If the answer is no, save the person you’re talking to some heartache and take some time to make peace with the words that make you uncomfortable before you broach the subject.