Recently, I decided to binge watch the Netflix series of Sex Education—all three seasons of it, and I'm looking forward to the fourth season (which has been announced as going to happen). It's a racy show that explores the concepts of gender and sexual identity while at the same time reminding us that we are all human. And it is seriously funny.
I will admit that I still see Gillian Anderson as Scully from X-Files, but in every single one of the characters on the show, I can see someone that I know in person.
The show is aimed at teenagers, primarily those 16 years old and older. But if you have never seen the show, let me warn you now that there is open-door sex throughout the show, including in the opening scene of the premiere episode. But the show is not about sex. It's about understanding who we are as human beings, and yes, sex is a part of that.
This post uses medically correct terminology for human reproductive organs. If you are not comfortable with that, then you can stop reading right here.
The show is highly relevant to today's society.
The show's importance to today's society is highlighted the most in season 3, where the students of the fictional Moordale Secondary School are forced to wear gender specific uniforms and are subjected to an "old" (as in 1970s old) sex education curriculum.
The students are forced to educate the head teacher on what it means to be non-binary and why it is so difficult for some people to accept who they are inside—and I'm not talking about just the sexual and gender identity stuff. I'm talking about how some of us are quirky and geek out over science fiction, how some of us are not academically inclined, and how the school jock might actually be a Shakespeare fan. And the message that sits under all of this…
Some topics, like gender and sexual identity, were never openly discussed because it wasn't until recent history that this range of identities was openly accepted. It is my parent's generation who started the fight, with the likes of RuPaul taking the steps necessary to "come out of the closet" and tell the world the realities of who they are. It is my generation—the children of the hippies—who fought to have these variations in our society accepted, fighting to get laws changed. We've encouraged our children to explore their own identities for themselves, instead of being told who they are.
But the fight isn't over, and it's those who are currently teenagers and early 20s who are now at the forefront of the push for acceptance.
And it's shows like Sex Education that highlight how important it is to have these open conversations with our youth.
An alphabet soup of terms
I'll be the first to admit that all the various terms for gender and sexual identity do my head in. I struggle to keep it straight at times. And the term LGBTQ+ drives me nuts; I constantly get the order of the letters muddled, and I struggle to "say" it because I constantly get the letters muddled. It often comes out as "L-G-B-T-Alphabet-Soup."
Within my reading, and with my interactions of those who are part of the community, I have discovered that I'm not the only one who thinks of the acronym as Alphabet Soup, but there isn't a single term that describes the community—except "community."
I don't think I'll ever be politically correct in all of this. It's too easy now to offend someone. So, to help with my mental sanity, I worry less about offending people and just work to accept people for who they are. And a big part of that is educating myself.
So, here goes…
A glossary of terms for the unknowing parent
What follows is a list of the terms for gender and sexual identity as I understand them. I have compared these to listings found elsewhere, and I have had a writing buddy who is a member of the community look over the terms listed below, but language evolves, words do take on different meanings.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but it seems to be the core terms that any parent like me, a heterosexual cis-female, needs to at least start to have the open conversations with their children.
Just as a reminder, I'm using the medical definition for genitalia, which includes both internal and external reproductive organs.
Gender Identity Terms
Cis-male/cis-man: born with male genitalia (penis, testicles, etc.) and identifies as a male; most common pronouns: he/him/his
Cis-female/cis-woman: born with female genitalia (vagina, uterus, ovaries, etc.) and identifies as female; most common pronouns: she/her/hers
Intersexed: born with some combination of male and female genitalia, but identifies as male, female, or non-binary; most common pronouns: he/him/his or she/her/hers or they/them/their
Non-binary: born with male or female genitalia (or both), but doesn't identify as either male or female; most common pronouns: they/them/their
Enby: another word for non-binary that I knew nothing about until I had someone from the community double check my list (We learn something new every day.)
Gender fluid: similar to non-binary, but different, in that a person who is gender fluid may feel more like a male on some days and more like a female on other days, or they might want to be both male and female on any given day; pronouns: he/him/his or she/her/hers or they/them/their, or any combination thereof
Androgynous: possesses both male and female traits in appearance but with no distinction either way; being androgynous has nothing to do with sexual or gender identity
Transgender: person born with one set of genitalia but identifies differently to their born gender; a person who identifies as non-binary and was born with male or female genitalia from a linguistic perspective is transgender, though they might not classify themselves as such
Trans-male/Trans-man: born with female genitalia but identifies as a male; most common pronouns: he/him/his
Trans-female/Trans-woman: born with male genitalia but identifies as a female; most common pronouns: she/her/hers
Neo-Pronouns: The traditional pronouns within the English language are she/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/their/theirs. However, other pronouns have made their way into our everyday language (and it totally does my head in). Any pronoun that doesn't fit into one of the traditional groups is called a neo-pronoun, or "new" pronoun. (Thank you, CK, for reminding me of the crazy associated with this topic. My head hurts now.)
Sexual Identity Terms
For whatever reason, the gender identity terms are commonly lumped together with the sexual identity terms, even though the two things are distinctly different. To complicate matters, sexual identity terms also lump romantic and sexual preferences into one, though they are not necessarily the same either. (And the head is pounding from thinking too hard.)
Doing the best I can to provide some level of distinction here, and likely failing, here goes.
Heterosexual: a person who identifies as a male or female and is sexually attracted to persons of the opposite gender
Homosexual: a person who identifies as a male or female and is sexually attracted to the same gender
Straight: while this word could mean almost anything based on context, for this situation, this is the slang term given to those who are heterosexual and, in theory, are capable of reproducing together (I add the "in theory" part because I personally know many straight couples who required IVF to conceive—and one gave me the blow-by-blow details of the drug treatments... more than I ever wanted to know.)
Gay: a term that has historically changed its meaning, because prior to the 1960s, this term was another word for happy, but it has come to refer predominately to a male (cis- or trans-) sexually attracted to other males (but in some circles, gay could refer to someone who is a lesbian)
Lesbian: a female (cis- or trans-) sexually attracted to other females
Bisexual: a person sexually attracted to both males and females
Asexual (also known as being "ace"): a person who has little or no interest in sexual activities, but is still interested in forging meaningful relationships (sometimes romantic)
Aromantic (also known as being "aro"): a person who has little or no interest in a romantic relationship, but still experiences sexual attraction to others
Queer: an umbrella term for anyone who isn't heterosexual; historically, this was a derogatory term, but some people within the LBGTQ+ community have claimed the term as their own, hence the Q in the acronym.
(Now for the terms that start to really confuse me.)
Pansexual: a person sexually, romantically, or emotionally attracted to others regardless of gender identity; often referred to as gender-blind; this is different to bisexual, removing any connection associated with the genitalia; it's all to do with personality
Polysexual: encapsulates attraction to the characteristics of many kinds of gender presentation; it appears to be a replacement term for bisexual (though some will argue that it's not)
Demisexual: this refers to someone who only becomes attracted to those whom they already have a connection with; in other words, there is no physical attraction until you've gotten to know the other person on some level
Sapiosexual: attracted to the intelligence of another person; this is not a sexual orientation in the way that the other terms are, but this term seems to be a commentary on something else that makes little sense to me; it has been highlighted to me that some consider this term to be a smokescreen for bigotry, though I do believe that there is something deeper here, because there is so much controversy surrounding this term
So, the number of confusing terms could easily do anyone's head in. And the collective terms aren't much better. To make matters worse, it seems like there is disagreement within the LGBTQ+ community itself about the terms, the acronym, and all the goes with it.
The moment emotions of any kind are involved, everything has the potential to become a heated mess. And there are people who would be more than willing to hand you your head on a platter for something that you've said because you didn't know any better.
As I said above, I tend to worry less about offending people and just work to accept people for who they are. And part of that is asking questions of the people in the know—if the situation lends itself to asking questions.
I have to add that last bit, because not all situations are a conducive environment to asking questions out of genuine curiosity.
Pronouns get a little muddled these days, and one can no longer make assumptions about preferred pronouns based on masculine or feminine features.
I know someone who I have known as a "she" for years only to discover recently that their preferred pronouns are "they/them/their". My brain is seriously struggling to make this transition, but I also struggle with which name to call them by too, because I know their real name and their pen name—and they respond to both. (You know exactly who you are, my Gothic paranormal romance genius, and you know I adore you.)
So, when it comes to pronouns, just ask. Some people will tell you right up front. Others will accept whatever. But if in doubt and you want to be respectful, just ask what the person you're talking to prefers.
In my mind, it's like names. People might have been given one name at birth, but they might go by a completely different name for whatever reason. (My great-grandfather went by his middle name, because he despised his first name. My great-great-grandmother went by her last initial. It might seem odd, but she was from a time when you called your elders by their last name, but she hated the formality of it. She insisted everyone call her Grandma P, even if you weren't her grandchild.)
In terms of sexual and gender identity, if a person feels it's important for you to know, they'll tell you. Otherwise… Don't be rude, but if you are curious, and if the situation lends itself to asking questions, then ask.
Right… I could go on forever about what, to me, is just common courtesy.
If anyone is willing to have an open discussion with me about some of these confusing terms, helping me understand them a little better, please reach out.