In an effort to continue to highlight areas of inequities for children, we’re diving deeper into our conversation around gender. Gender disparities exist in many capacities. Boys and girls face different challenges in education and society, as we’ve highlighted so far in this blog series. As we continue this discussion, we look forward to sharing about gender in another way. How does gender impact people who don’t fit society’s expectations? We’ll explore topics related to sexuality, gender conformity and more. To start us with this conversation, Momentous Institute psychologist Lauren Mann will help us understand exactly what we’re talking about.
When we talk about sex, sexuality, and gender, there are a lot of terms to keep track of. Even those of us who work in this space are constantly learning new titles and terms. It can feel overwhelming to make sure we’re using the right language. Kids teach me new words and phrases every day as they find new ways to express themselves. So I thought it might be helpful to share some of the ways sex, gender, and sexuality have been explained to me by kiddos and to explore some of the common terminology around gender and sexuality.
Think of the checkboxes on a form that you might fill out at a doctor’s office or applying for a new job. When identifying race, it wouldn’t be appropriate to simply say, “Black” or “White”. That’s because we know that race requires more than two, three, or even four boxes to encompass the different races with which people identify. The same is also true for gender.
However, until recently, gender has simply had two boxes: “male” and “female.” Like race, what we’re finding now is that these two boxes are not enough to represent all of the people in our society. We find ourselves moving away from “black and white” thinking to a more inclusive spectrum approach to gender and sexuality.
In order to understand the gender spectrum, it is important to have a basic understanding of the differences between biological sex, gender, and sexuality.
Sex refers to the biological sex organs that a person is born with. This can be male or female sex organs and characteristics, in other words, basic biology. In addition, this can also be intersex, which means someone who is born with both male and female sex organs.
Gender refers to how a person expresses his or herself. Gender is expressed through hairstyles, clothing choices, accessories such as nail polish or jewelry, etc. A person can identify their gender in many different ways: male, female, agender, transgender, queer, cisgender, or in many other ways. These are just a few of the most common.
Sexuality refers to a person’s romantic interests. This can be expressed as gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, pansexual, panromantic, asexual, straight or others. Again, these are just a few of the basics. There are many different ways sexuality can be expressed.
Quite simply – biological sex is how you are born; gender is how you express yourself; and sexuality is your romantic partner of choice.
I realize this is a lot and can feel overwhelming. For many people, this conversation can feel tricky. People don’t want to offend, but can be unsure if they’re using the “right” or the latest terminology. For the most part, a posture of genuine curiosity and acceptance is enough. The best bet when you’re not sure is simply to ask. You can say, “How do you identify?” or, “What terms would you like me to use when talking with or about you?” People know when someone is genuinely interested in who they are and cares about forming a strong relationship. Any attempt at using the right language, paired with all of the important skills of relationship building, will go a long way. I still make mistakes and the kiddos are forgiving and understanding. What is most important is that we as adults try to understand where kiddos are coming from.
Below is a list of common terms to help break down the concepts of biological sex, gender and sexuality. This is a non-comprehensive list – just the basics. Also notice that some of the terms can be listed for both gender and sexuality. I have also listed some additional websites and books below that may be helpful for talking with teens or gaining more vocabulary. We will be posting more on gender and sexuality throughout the coming months as well as activities that can be done at home.
Terms Related to Biological Sex
Biological sex: a medical term used to refer to the chromosomal, hormonal and anatomical characteristics that are used to classify an individual as female or male or intersex. Often referred to as simply “sex,” “physical sex,” “anatomical sex,” or specifically as “sex assigned at birth.”
Intersex – adj.: term for a combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs, and genitals that differs from the two expected patterns of male or female. Formerly known as hermaphrodite (or hermaphroditic), but these terms are now outdated and derogatory.
Terms Related To Gender
Cisgender: a person whose gender identity and biological sex assigned at birth align (e.g., man and assigned male at birth). A simple way to think about it is if a person is not transgender, they are cisgender. The word cisgender can also be shortened to “cis.”
Agender: a person with no (or very little) connection to the traditional system of gender, no personal alignment with the concepts of either man or woman, and/or someone who sees themselves as existing without gender. Sometimes called gender neutrois, gender neutral, or genderless.
Gender expression: the external display of one’s gender, through a combination of dress, demeanor, social behavior, and other factors, generally made sense of on scales of masculinity and femininity.
Gender fluid: a gender identity best described as a dynamic mix of boy and girl. A person who is gender fluid may always feel like a mix of the two “traditional” genders, but may feel more man some days, and more woman other days.
Terms Related to Sexuality
Heterosexual: a person is sexually or romantically attracted to people of the opposite sex
Homosexual: a person is sexually or romantically attracted to people of the same sex; other names include gay or lesbian
Bisexual: a person is sexually or romantically attracted to both males and females
Bicurious: a curiosity about having attraction to people of the same gender/sex (similar to questioning)
Pansexual: a person does not dichotomize gender when determining sexual or romantic attraction; in other words, anyone can be attractive – male, female, transgender, etc.
Asexual: a person is not sexually or romantically attracted to anyone
Aromantic: experiencing little or no romantic attraction to others and/or has a lack of interest in romantic relationships/behavior.
Panromantic: a person is romantically attracted to one gender, but sexually attracted to another
Polyamory / polyamorous: refers to the practice of, desire to, or orientation towards having ethically, honest, and consensual non-monogamous relationships (i.e. relationships that may include multiple partners).
Terms Pertaining to both Gender and Sexuality
LGBTQ (abbreviations): shorthand or umbrella terms for all folks who have a non-normative (or queer) gender or sexuality. There are many different initialisms people prefer. LGBTQ is Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer and/or Questioning (sometimes people add a + at the end in an effort to be more inclusive); Other options include the initialism GLBT or LGBT and the acronym QUILTBAG (Queer [or Questioning] Undecided Intersex Lesbian Trans* Bisexual Asexual [or Allied] and Gay [or Genderqueer]).
Queer: used as an umbrella term to describe individuals who don’t identify as straight. Also used to describe people who have a non-normative gender identity, or as a political affiliation. Due to its historical use as a derogatory term, it is not embraced or used by all members of the LGBTQ community. However, many are using the word queer to take back power in the LGBTQ community.