Are you confused about the language of gender identity? As we learned from a recent post about ethnic identity, the best way to learn what words to use to distinguish one or more people by their physical characteristics is to ask them.
Unfortunately, this approach is not as easy as it seems. Those who wish to describe ethnic identity or gender identity often have a category, rather than one person, in mind, and any two people with similar characteristics (for example, a pair of American Indians, or two lesbians) are likely to have divergent preferences.
Likewise, any effort to obtain sanction for one term or another from an organization claiming to represent people with nonheterosexual gender identities (or people with a certain ethnic identity) will not result in universal acceptance of the term by those it is meant to refer to.
Why do we even need distinctive terms to discuss intersecting identities with nebulous boundaries? The answer to this question is another question: How can we hope to communicate about sexuality and gender without a common vocabulary? There is such a vocabulary, but, like humanity, it is necessarily fluid. But here are terms and definitions that many people agree on:
1. Bisexual: A term for a person sexually attracted to people of both the same sex and the opposite sex.
2. Dyke: A term for a woman sexually attracted to other women; some people consider it offensive, although many lesbians have reclaimed the word and self-identify as dykes.
3. Fag: A term for a man sexually attracted to other men; some people may consider it offensive, although many gays have reclaimed the word and self-identify as fags.
4. GLBT: An inclusive initialism for those self-identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transsexual. A more inclusive — and as yet uncommon — variant is GLBTQ2IA; the additional elements refer to “queer, questioning, intersex allies.”
5. Gay: An inclusive term for those attracted to people of the same sex or not exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex, although it is often used in the phrase “gays and lesbians,” which places men and women in separate categories, and can thus refer either to both genders or men only.
6. Genderqueer: A term for those who refuse to be confined to a single gender role.
7. Lesbian: A term for a woman sexually attracted to other women.
8. Queer: An inclusive term for those attracted to people of the same sex or not exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex; some people may consider it offensive, although many who that fall under that definition have reclaimed the word and self-identify as queers.
9. Same-gender loving: A self-evident term used by those dissatisfied by traditional terminology.
10. Transgender: A term for a person who presents as having a gender other than their original one. This usage is not to be confused with transsexual, which refers to someone in or beyond the process of gender reassignment involving physiological changes, or transvestite, a word for someone who — whether occasionally or frequently, whether publicly or privately, and for any one of various reasons — wears clothing associated with the opposite gender. (Transgender inclusively encompasses these and other terms.)
In general usage, it is usually safe to refer to “gays and lesbians” to refer to the entirety of people whose sexuality is not strictly heterosexual. GLBT is a more inclusive term, though it is often used fallaciously in the phrase “the GLBT community,” as if such a cohesive entity exists.
The connotation of this phrase seems to be that there is such a community, but only in the sense of people united in solidarity for civil rights for anyone falling under the GLBT umbrella. However, the phrase would seem to exclude heterosexual people sympathetic to the civil rights concerns of GLBT people. It’s perhaps best to restrict use of the initialism to usage such as “GLBT issues.”