Warm weather has arrived and Pride month is upon us! The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health is celebrating Pride with you by combing through the meanings behind important words and phrases you might encounter this month.
The CSPH is a small non-profit located just north of Providence, Rhode Island, that works to advance culturally-inclusive, medically accurate, pleasure-informed sexuality education, therapy, and professional development. We provide a welcoming, friendly drop-in and online space to learn about sexual pleasure, health, and advocacy issues.
We believe in the full equality of LGBTQIA+ individuals and celebrate the beauty and diversity in various types of relationships and identities that shape our world. Understanding how sexuality and identity interact with each other can be confusing, and terminology can blend together. If you’re eager to celebrate Pride and want to learn, don’t fret. We’re here to help! Let’s get to the basics.
Here are 5 terms easily explained to help set the stage for Pride.
Gender Identity is your sense of self as a man or woman, a combination of both, or neither. Do you feel you’re more “woman,” or “man,” or do neither fit? Or maybe both? Your gender identity is how you think and feel about yourself.
Gender is different than sex—which we’ll define here as the biological characteristics people are assigned at birth (i.e. genitalia, hormones, and chromosomes). Gender and sex are often used interchangeably, and it’s commonly believed that “vagina=woman” and “penis=man,” but that isn’t entirely true.
Most children in western cultures are placed into a strict binary when they enter this world. If they are born with a vagina, they’ll be told they’re a girl from the moment they can comprehend language (vice versa for boys). Gender is presumed to be natural and static, but in reality, gender is a social norm that we’re taught and that we experience with much more complexity.
While most people in the world are cisgender (their gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth), gender isn’t always predictable or binary. For example, transgender people identify with a different gender than the one assigned at birth. Others consider themselves somewhere on a spectrum between man and woman. People who fall between or outside this spectrum may identify as non-binary (enby), genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, trigender, bigender, demigender, or other gender identities.
Gender expression is how you express your gender through the ways you act, dress, and interact. Conventionally, behaviors and characteristics separate into “feminine” and “masculine,” and people who display attributes of both may be perceived/or identify as androgynous.
For example, a person walking down the street with long hair, minimal muscle tone, who’s wearing a flowy dress and goes by Sandy will typically be seen as a woman without much thought, even if Sandy doesn’t identify as such. Our brains are always unconsciously perceiving people’s voices, bodies, behaviors, and clothes, and labeling them as either a man or a woman. But the way we express gender is much more flexible and often changes from day to day or place to place.
The expression of femininity and masculinity is a spectrum and most people demonstrate different attributes of each throughout their day. Some people choose to use their gender expression as a way to communicate what their gender identity is. Others choose not to show outward signs of their gender identity for all kinds of reasons (not being out, concerns about their safety, etc.) What’s important to note is that how we express our gender doesn’t necessarily determine how we identify our gender. Although they’re often correlated, gender identity and gender expression are independent of each other.
In simple terms, sexual orientation is about who you feel drawn to romantically, sexually, and emotionally.
Everyone has a sexual orientation! Folks who are attracted to people of their same gender usually identify their sexual orientation as lesbian or gay (or the more formal/medical term, homosexual). Folks who are attracted to people of a different gender usually identify as straight (or the more formal/medical term, heterosexual). Often, sexual and romantic attraction go hand in hand, but sometimes they don’t! Folks who don’t experience sexual attraction to others might identify as asexual, and folks who don’t experience strong romantic attraction to others might identify as aromantic.
Just like gender, sexual orientation exists on a continuum. Someone who identifies as bisexual or pansexual feels attraction to more than one gender. They many not necessarily experience equal attraction to all genders, but this does not make them any “less” bi or pansexual.
Sexual orientation isn’t necessarily static. This part of our identity can develop and change over time! People may also use other labels (pansexual, demisexual, polysexual, andro/gynosexual, etc.) to identify their sexuality or use none at all.
To grasp the concepts above, it’s vital to understand intersectionality and how it affects gender and sexual orientation. Intersectionality, a concept coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is how different social identities such as race, body size, ability, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, class, gender, and ethnicity intersect. These interdependent identities affect how we experience privilege and oppression, and how the world perceives us.
For example, celebrated leaders in the LGBTQIA+ movement (and the sexuality field) are often white, cisgender, and typically-abled. Leaders who hold marginalized identities, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (the trans women of color, sex workers, and civil rights activists who fueled the Stonewall riots that developed into Pride), are too often forgotten or ignored. Within a group of people who experience backlash and discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity, there are still layers of race, gender, class, and other identities that contribute to complex experiences of privilege, oppression, and discrimination. What’s important to remember is an identity can never be isolated when discussing social justice.
Traditionally, LGBT is used to abbreviate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. It’s a popular acronym used to represent queer communities as a whole. The CSPH uses LGBTQIA to include queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual identities under the umbrella as well, to help promote inclusivity and social justice.
Want to learn more? Check out our ID A Day series on the CSPH blog, where we highlighted one sexuality-related identity every day for an entire month!
Patty Affriol, Editorial Content Intern at The CSPH