It is not unusual to feel uncertain (or certain) about your sexuality and/or gender. For some people, puberty and sexual development can be a frightening or disorientating experience. For other people it is a wonderful period of exploration and self-knowledge, and for others it doesn’t feel very significant at all.
This section aims to give you some tools to speak about your gender and sexuality. It also aims to help you recognise and speak about other people’s gender and sexuality in a way that is supportive and non-oppressive. At the end of the section there are some external links to websites where you can find more information and support.
Generally speaking, people are attracted to all different kinds of people – socially, romantically and sexually. Sexual identity is certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ rule.
Some people go through stages of uncertainty when they are ‘discovering’ their sexuality and gender. For others, their sexuality and gender feels very familiar and is always ‘known’ to them; they don’t feel that they have to discover it or reveal it (often called ‘coming out’) as they feel that it has always been there.
Although terms such as straight, gay, bi, queer, pan and poly are commonly used in social media, music and other spaces, many people are still unsure about how to use them. The same goes for terms such as transgender and cisgender.
In this sub section, we’ve provided short definitions of terms, and added a few to the list mentioned above to help introduce you to the topics of sexuality and gender identity.
Sex or gender?
These two terms are commonly mixed up with one another. Despite the fact that many people and lots of official forms use these terms interchangeably, they are not the same thing.
• Gender, or gender identity, is about how a person experiences their gender. If a person feels that they are a boy/man, girl/woman, non-binary person, or gender queer person, then they are one – regardless of what their body looks like, or how other people define them. In short, gender is located in the mind.
• Sex describes someone’s physical reproductive anatomy and/or chromosomes.
When considering the two definitions above, you can appreciate how some people have come to use them interchangeably.
This is because for the majority of people, their gender and their sex are ‘aligned’ with society’s general expectations – e.g. a person born with a penis feeling as though they are a man.
But to use these terms as if they are the same thing can be very upsetting and damaging for people whose gender does not align with what society often tries to impose on them (and what was imposed on them at birth).
Transgender (also: trans or trans*)
A person who is transgender is someone who was assigned a gender at birth with which they do not identify.
Toni is a 12 year old boy. When he was born, his ‘sex’ was recorded as ‘female’ on his birth certificate because the doctor and the midwife who delivered him assumed that he was a girl on the basis of his physical characteristics. However, as Toni grew up and could express himself he was able to tell his family that he was in fact a boy. Toni was lucky to have a supportive family, and they stopped using incorrect pronouns like ‘she/her’ and began to use Toni’s preferred pronouns.
Sara is a 50 year old woman. She was born with a penis and was identified by other people as a boy and then a man for much of her life. When she became more financially independent and had the right amount of support, she was able to tell people who she has always been – a woman. This wasn’t easy for Sara, and she faced a great deal of transphobia and transmisogyny when she transitioned. She had read stories about people hurting trans people before, and knew that it would be time consuming and expensive to transition because of all the forms and tests that she would have to pass before the government would give her a gender recognition certificate. This was part of the reason why it took so long for her to feel ready to be open about herself.
Kalissa was born with a vagina. When they were born, their doctor said, ‘It’s a girl!’ and Kalissa went home to a family who thought of them as their daughter, sister, niece and granddaughter. However, Kalissa didn’t ever feel happy with being called a girl. Nor were they okay with being called a boy. As Kalissa grew older, and read more about gender, they realised that they did not fit into the gender identities of ‘girl’ or ‘boy’. In fact, they felt like a non-binary person and preferred gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they/them’ or ‘ne/nem’ or ‘ze/hir’.
Some people who are transgender have surgical procedures to align their physical bodies with how they feel inside. They might take medication to increase or reduce hormones. These hormones cause changes that may help them feel more at home in their bodies.
Equally, some transgender people do not wish to have surgeries or take any medication as they don’t feel that it is necessary.
Every person is different, and it is not okay to ask someone about their genitals or medical procedures unless they invite you to ask them. It is important to use the pronouns that a person asks you to use, and it is also important to respect their right to privacy – just as you would with anyone else.
Asking about previous names or implying that they ‘changed’ from being one gender to another is unacceptable. ‘Outing’ them (telling other people that they are trans) without their express permission is also a very horrible and potentially dangerous thing to do.
Cisgender (also: cis)
This term, like the term trans, is from Latin. It is used to describe people who identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. It is much better to use this term rather than ‘biological woman/man’ or ‘normal woman/ man’ as this way of viewing cisgender people harms transgender people.
Non-binary (also: non binary, nonbinary)
This term is used to describe people who do not fit into the gender binary. The gender binary is a popular Euro-American concept of gender that maintains that there are only two (which is what the ‘bi’ means) kinds of people: men/boys and women/girls. It does not acknowledge that there are people in the world who feel that they are both, neither or partially one or the other or move in between multiple genders.
There are a number of reasons that a person might be intersex.
• They may be born with reproductive or sexual organs that are difficult to characterise under the current medical binary categorisation of sex as either ‘male’ or ‘female’
• There may be a variation in their chromosomes other than XX or XY, such as XXY.
• Their bodies may have a mixture of cells containing both XX chromosomes and XY chromosomes
• They may have a marked difference in levels of hormones that determine sexual characteristics
Because of the way that society unfortunately often operates, newborn intersex people’s bodies are sometimes operated on and they are raised as a certain binary gender from birth. At birth, they are too young to make a choice for themselves about their bodies and how they would like others to speak about and perceive them.
Some people who are intersex also define as trans. As with all identities, it is important to trust the person whose body it is to tell you who they are – they are the one who knows best. It’s also important to note that the term ‘hermaphrodite’ is outdated and offensive to many people in intersex communities.
Asexual (also: ace)
Someone who is asexual does not desire other people sexually. Some asexuals may experience sexual arousal, but it is not directed at (or due to) another person.
However, is important to note that some people who are asexual may engage in sexual activity with partners for a number of reasons aside from sexual attraction to those partners.
Being asexual is a valid sexuality. It can often be distressing or annoying to be told things like ‘You just haven’t met the right person yet’ if you are asexual. People who are asexual do not need to be ‘cured’, and it is not helpful to suggest so.
Please also note that being asexual is very different from someone who is abstinent or celibate. Being asexual is about one’s sexuality. It is not a choice, whereas the latter cases, celibate people are motivated by personal or religious factors to refrain from sex.
Some people identify may feel that they are on the asexual spectrum but that they do not fully identify with the term. They may identify as ‘Grey-A’. This could be where a person does not experience sexual desire directed at a person most of the time, or experiences it very very rarely, or only feels sexual attraction under specific circumstances.
Some people who only experience sexual attraction after forming strong emotional or social relationships may identify as demisexual. This term falls under the Grey A umbrella.
Heterosexual (also: ‘straight’)
Technically speaking, a person who is heterosexual is attracted to someone who is not the same gender as them.
For example: a woman who likes a man, a person who likes a woman, a man who likes a person, and a boy who likes a girl.
Some people who define as gender-queer or non-binary might consider themselves heterosexual if they were attracted to someone who was not gender-queer or non-binary, but others might not. It’s always important to remember that the only person who gets to define their sexuality is the person themselves. Heterosexuals are often referred to in popular culture as ‘straight’.
Homosexual (also: gay, lesbian or same gender loving)
A person who is homosexual is solely attracted to people of the same gender as themselves.
For example, a gender queer person who likes another gender queer person, a woman who likes women and a man who likes another man could all be thought of as homosexual. Women who are homosexual tend to be referred to as lesbians and men are referred to as gay. However, some people who are homosexual self-define as gay or ‘queer’ regardless of their gender.
Bisexual (also: bi)
In society’s common understanding of gender, a person who is bisexual is attracted to both men and women. However, many people who identify as bisexual might be attracted to a range of genders, not just the two most common ones: e.g. men and gender queer people, women and gender queer people, etc. A bisexual identity does not necessarily equate to equal sexual attraction to all genders; commonly, people who have a distinct, but not exclusive sexual preference for one gender over others, also identify themselves as bisexual.
This term recognises the fact that gender is not a simple binary of men/women. ‘Pan’ means ‘all’. Someone who is pansexual might say that they have the potential to be attracted to people of all genders. (It does not mean that they are attracted to every single person they meet, but rather that their sexual attraction is not dictated by someone’s gender).
Many people use the term Bisexual and Pansexual interchangeably. If you are unsure about what someone means, don’t make assumptions. Ask them – but also be prepared to drop the subject if they ask you to.
This is a very important term in sexuality and gender rights movements. It is a term that many people have reclaimed, as it was once (and sometimes still is) used to hurt and oppress them.
Many people across these movements see it as an all-embracing umbrella term for anything that does not adhere to society’s expectations or ‘norms’.
It is important to note that only people who define themselves in this way should use it, and only about themselves.
Using it about or directing it towards other people not only has the potential to be hurtful – it can be abusive and legally defined as harassment.
Polyamorous (also: ‘poly’)
Euro-American society generally expects people to have monogamous relationships – that is, between two people, and no more. For some people, this simply does not work. People in poly relationships have more than one partner at the same time and they do so openly, with all people in the relationship aware and consenting to it.
As with monogamous relationships, some poly partners live together and some do not. Some poly relationships begin because two people in a monogamous relationship agree that they would like to have another partner or more partners.
Poly relationships are distinct from ‘open relationships’ in that they are committed partnerships often involving emotional attachment. They tend to be long term and involve a group of more than two people who all know and care for one another.