Breaking the Binary – A guide to understanding the essence of human sexuality and gender
Humans have always boxed everything up into black and white contrasts and standardised ideals, essentially losing touch with what it means to be human. In this ever-changing, quick-paced world, where everyone is in a hurry, let’s take a step back and get down to the basics of being human – identity. Specifically, sexual and gender identity.
It’s time to break the binary by understanding the LGBTQIA+ community.
Let’s first understand the difference between gender, sex and sexuality.
Sex – At birth, the genitalia and reproductive system humans possess, determines their sex. This could be male, female or intersex (more on this later).
Gender – A combination of innate traits and learned behaviour, gender is how one identifies and expresses themselves regardless of sex. Gender and sex cannot be used interchangeably.
Cisgender – describes a person who is comfortable and identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Sexuality – Completely separate from gender and sex, sexuality only refers to the romantic and sexual attraction one experiences towards other people.
Heterosexual – describes a person attracted exclusively to the opposite gender (men attracted only to women; women attracted only to men) romantically and sexually.
Now that we have this basic understanding, what does LGBTQIA+ mean?
L – Lesbian
Lesbian (n.) is the term for women who are only attracted to other women, romantically and/or sexually.
Usage: A lesbian; Lesbians; “I am a lesbian”
G – Gay
Gay (adj.) is the term for men who are only attracted to other men, romantically and/or sexually. Gay is also an umbrella term for same-sex attraction and can be used by lesbians to describe themselves as well.
Usage: A gay man; Gay men; Gay women; “I am gay”
Wrong usage: A gay.
B – Bisexual
Bisexual (n., adj.) is the term for people who are attracted to both men and women, romantically and/or sexually. Contrary to what many believe, bisexual people are not, in fact, “half gay, half straight, or confused”.
Usage: A bisexual person; “I am bisexual”
T – Transgender
Transgender (adj.) defines people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. is the antonym, denoting people who are comfortable and identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people also undergo gender-affirming surgery to align with their identity.
Usage: A transgender person; “I am transgender”
- Transgender woman/trans woman
- A transgender woman or trans woman is someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman.
- Transgender man/trans man
- A transgender man or trans man is someone who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man.
Wrong usage: Transgendered; transgenders
Q – Questioning/Queer
The ‘Q’ in LGBTQIA+ refers to people who are still questioning and exploring their identity. It may also stand for “queer” – a word that originated as a slur against people in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Many members of the community have reclaimed the word “queer”, and use it amongst themselves as a blanket term for the community. However, there are some members who find the word offensive and don’t condone its usage. If you are not part of the LGBTQIA+ community, refrain from using this word.
I – Intersex
Intersex (adj.) is the term for people born with any of the several variations in chromosomes and hormones, and a reproductive system or genitalia that does not align with the typical definitions of female or male.
However, many intersex children are brought up as the gender their physical appearance most resembles. Some of them are also subjected to irreversible genital surgeries as infants, thought to help them “grow up normally”. This is an unnecessary procedure, as being intersex is not a medical problem. It may actually cause them psychological harm.
It is also important to note that intersex is exclusively about varying reproductive and sex characteristics, therefore it is not the same as transgender.
A – Asexual
An asexual person, “ace” for short, is someone who does not experience sexual feelings towards others, regardless of gender. This does not mean asexual people do not enter romantic relationships or occasionally engage in sexual activity. It simply means that they rarely, if ever, have sexual desires. Note: Asexuality and celibacy are not the same thing, as celibacy is a conscious choice and decision.
There is a host of other sexualities and gender identities apart from those mentioned above. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
- Pansexual – Describes a person who is attracted to others regardless of their gender; different from bisexual, as a bisexual person experiences attraction to only two genders.
- Demisexual – Describes a person who is sexually attracted to others only after establishing a close relationship with them.
- Genderfluid – Describes a person whose gender identity varies from time to time, or is fluid.
- Non-binary – Describes a person who does not identify as man or woman/boy or girl at any given point of time. Read about non-binary poet Alok Vaid-Menon here.
- Gender non-conforming – An umbrella term for people with alternate gender identities, including but not limited to genderfluid and non-binary people.
Related terms to keep in mind:
- Coming out of the closet – Coming out of the closet, or just “coming out”, refers to the process of a person accepting themselves for their sexuality and gender identity, and letting people around them know.This can be a rather terrifying process for many, as it involves risks including being abandoned, alienated and even violence. If someone comes out to you, always remember that they trust you and hope that you will not treat them any differently because of their identity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a sexuality and/or gender identity different from the majority. There is no shame in knowing someone from the LGBTQIA+ community.
- It is also important to note that you should never disclose someone else’s identity, or “out” them, without their consent, as it could be dangerous for them. Plus, it’s not your story to tell
- Pronouns – Pronouns are especially important when it comes to trans people and gender non-conforming people because it directly aligns with their identity. Referring to trans women as “he” or “him”, and trans men as “she” or “her”, based on their assigned gender at birth, is extremely disrespectful.We’ve all learnt that “he/him” and “she/her” are singular pronouns, and that “they/them” is a plural pronoun. However, many gender non-conforming people go by “they/them” pronouns as it is gender-neutral and can be used in the singular form.
- Do not purposely refer to them with gender-specific pronouns. It is ok to forget or slip up sometimes but always correct yourself without being overly apologetic.
- Heteronormativity – The deep-rooted idea that gender falls into strictly two categories and that only heterosexual relationships are valid. Gender and sexuality vary from person to person and are not limited to rigid boxes. A large part of this mindset is due to what we watch on TV and read in the news, which is almost entirely made up of heterosexual couples, stereotypical portrayals of gender roles and depicting gay and transgender people in derogatory and/or excessively comical light. We need to consciously remove this veil of heteronormativity and look at the world with a wider perspective.
The LGBTQIA+ community has faced and continues to face immense discrimination and violence. As times change, there have been a lot of positive changes in mindsets, opinions and laws all around the world, including the recent de-criminalisation of Section 377 in India, but there still remains the discomfort and awkwardness when we talk about sexuality and gender.
Parents shield themselves and their children from such conversations, labelling them “bad” and “inappropriate”. Forced “conversion therapy” takes place behind closed doors. Classrooms, corridors and washrooms have heard and seen too many slurs being hurled, “jokes” being made, and bullying being overlooked. Teenagers and young people are thrown out of their own homes, with nowhere else to go.
There have been innumerable incidents of targeted violence that have turned fatal. The list of injustices faced by the members of the LGBTQIA+ community goes on and on and needs to stop. Use your knowledge and voice to stand up for and with the community.
How you can be a better ally:
- Don’t laugh at “jokes” that throw the LGBTQIA+ community under the bus. Instead, call them out and make your stance known firmly.
- If someone comes out to you, support and respect them.
- Remember to use the right pronouns.
- Don’t disclose anyone’s identity without consent.
- If you don’t fully understand something, do some research about it. Don’t hold opinions that are based on incomplete knowledge.
- Have an open mind, because the world is more than just black and white boxes. Celebrate the differences!
PS: The author is gay and identifies as non-binary, and goes by the pronouns “they/them”.