Lifestyle

Beyond she and he: navigating gender identities and sexuality

If you're wondering how to navigate the world of pronouns and gender identity, Citro has you covered.

Not that long ago, we only used words like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ to describe sexual identity. Today, same-sex marriage is legal and there’s literally a rainbow of words to learn and understand.

By Carolyn Tate

Navigating today’s sexualities and gender identities can leave us feeling a little lost… this part of our world has changed at a rapid pace, and it’s understandable if you may not be sure how to keep up! Sometimes you might not feel comfortable asking questions, or you might worry about saying the wrong thing. 

But we’re here to help. It’s easier than it may seem once you have the right info. We’ve compiled a breakdown of some inclusive language basics to ensure that everyone around us feels comfortable, which means you can skip the stressing and just get on with your chats. 

First, let’s start with LGBTIQ+: it’s a term that literally means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Plus anyone not included in that short summary. You might sometimes see this term as LGBTIQA+, to include people who identify as asexual, and you might also see it sometimes without the ‘plus’. The acronym is constantly evolving, but the gist is the same: it’s a term people use to describe their experiences of their gender, sexuality and physiological sex characteristics. 

If you want to be an LGBTIQ+ ally or simply know what’s what when it comes to terms like gender, sex, cisgender, transgender, non-binary… then let’s dive in!

We’ll divide this discussion up into two broad categories: gender and sexuality.

The difference between sex and gender

First, let's talk about the difference between someone's sex and their gender. Your sex is usually determined by your anatomy - or your ‘primary sex characteristics’. When a baby is born and everyone looks between their legs before announcing, ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl’, it’s their sex we’re talking about. 

Your gender, on the other hand, refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities that we attribute to girls, women, boys, men, and gender-diverse people. 

So, you can have female sex organs, but identify as a man. Or you can be born with male sex organs but identify as a woman. Or you might reject both of those labels and identify as something in between or across that gender spectrum (more on that in a moment). 

You might also have heard the term ‘intersex’, which means that someone was born with a variation of sex characteristics, which don’t fit the typical female or male sex. This might mean a variation in their chromosomes, hormones or genitals. Being intersex is rare though, applying to only 0.018% of people.

Some common gender terms explained

A lot has changed in the way we talk about gender in the past couple of decades. Here are some of the more common terms you might hear:

Cis-gender

Cis-gender might sound like a new concept, but it simply refers to someone whose gender identity fits with their sex. If your sex is male and you identify as a man, you are cisgender. The word cisgender is the antonym of transgender. The prefix cis- is Latin and means on ‘this side of’. The term cisgender was first coined in 1994 and entered into dictionaries starting in 2015 as a result of gender conversations that were making their way into our vocabulary.

Transgender

That leads us neatly to transgender. Someone is transgender - or ‘trans’ - if their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth. ‘Trans’ is a Latin prefix meaning ‘across’, ‘beyond’, or ‘on the other side of’. You’ll often hear the term ‘sex assigned at birth’ in these conversations, which simply refers to the assumption society has made for many years that a baby born with a penis is a boy, and a baby born with a vulva is a girl. Transgender people don’t feel that their sex assigned at birth matches the way they feel. Someone can be transgender and go through various transitions to appear more like the gender they identify as, including social transitioning (using different gender pronouns, hair, fashion, makeup, a name, etc. that match the gender they identify as), hormone therapy, and surgery. But a trans person’s identity is not decided by how they appear to others, nor whether they have had any treatments. 

AMAB/AFAB

You might sometimes see these terms, which are short for ‘assigned male at birth’ and ‘assigned female at birth’. It’s a shorthand way of someone sharing their sex, which may or may not match their gender. You might occasionally see these acronyms in gender discussions. AMAB means ‘assigned male at birth, and AFAB means ‘assigned female at birth’.

Non-binary

Non-binary can be an umbrella term that includes people who don’t identify as male or female. Some people don’t feel that those gender terms describe them accurately. Some non-binary people will also identify as transgender.

Genderfluid

For some people, being gender fluid is about exploring different gender identities before landing on a stable gender identity that they feel is right for them. For others, being gender fluid is an identity that they feel best describes them. That means their identity can flow along the gender spectrum, between masculinity and femininity - sometimes over long periods of time, and sometimes in a single day.

Pronouns

You may have noticed that you’re sometimes asked what your pronouns are when you’re filling out forms, or in person. Allowing people to share their pronouns gives them control over how they present themselves socially, and many people who identify as cisgender also state their pronouns, to support the practice and avoid anyone feeling singled out. You might hear people say they use ‘he/him’ pronouns, ‘she/her’ pronouns, or ‘they/them’ pronouns. Sometimes, people might use a combination, which means they are happy to answer to any of the pronouns they’ve offered. Using someone’s correct pronouns is one of the simplest and easiest ways to show respect and support. If you’re unsure, it’s usually a safe bet to go with “they/them”, or to ask. 

Some common sexuality terms explained

There is a wide range of sexualities that people might use to describe themselves, but some of the more common terms you might hear are:

Heterosexual

Someone who is heterosexual, or ‘straight’, usually only feels sexually and romantically attracted to people who are a different gender to themselves. (You might sometimes hear the term ‘cis-het’, which means someone who identifies as the sex they were born with, and is heterosexual, or straight.) 

Gay

A person who identifies as gay is typically only sexually attracted to people of the same gender. 

Lesbian

This term is used by women and some non-binary people who feel sexual and romantic attraction towards other women. 

Bisexual

Someone who is bisexual is attracted to people of their own gender as well as people of other genders.

Asexual

This is an umbrella term that includes a broad spectrum of people who experience little or no sexual or romantic attraction towards other people.  

Demisexual

Someone who identifies as demisexual usually only feels sexual attraction towards someone with whom they already have a strong emotional bond. 

Sexual fluidity

Just like being gender fluid, someone who is sex fluid can have sexual orientation that changes over time. This may be while they are figuring out their sexuality, or it may be something that they experience all through their lives. 

Pansexual

Pan is Latin for ‘all inclusive’. Someone who is pansexual is typically attracted to people of any gender or sex. This can be similar to being bisexual, but people who identify as pansexual will often say they are attracted to the person, rather than the gender or sex that they are.

This scene from Schitt’s Creek is a wonderful explainer of how pansexuality works. 

What about ‘queer’?

Queer is a tricky term because it’s gone through a complex evolution of meaning, and it still continues to do so. Originally meaning ‘not straight’, queer has been used in the English language to mean unusual or different. Then, in the 1960s, queer became a term of abuse, which intensified during the AIDS epidemic when homophobia was rife. 

The term has since been reclaimed by some in the LGBTIQ+ community and is used with pride, but it’s still rejected by others. 

Some identify with the word queer as an umbrella term that includes an array of identities, and it’s often used as a ‘catch-all’ to ensure no identity is left out. Minus18, an organisation that supports LGBTIQ+ youth in Australia, reports that it can be a uniting term because ‘you might be gay, I might be trans, but we’re both queer and that brings us together’. 

But with the connotations of it being a slur, it’s best to leave ‘queer’ to the LGBTIQ+ community, and find another word to use, as long as there’s a risk it could hurt someone. 

If you’d like to learn more about how ‘queer’ is used, you can read more about it on the Minus18 website

We hope that helps you to understand some of the common terms you might hear when talking to someone about gender and sexuality. A lot has changed over the past few years, and it can be challenging to keep up with, but if you want to show your support, try to use the correct pronouns and terminology when you can. If you forget sometimes, that’s okay - the main thing is to correct yourself if you make mistakes, try to remember next time, and listen and learn as you go.

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