An often-marginalized demographic is finding its voice. Transgender people—estimated at one-fifth of one percent of the total U.S. population—have been thrust into the national spotlight amid the political firestorm following the introduction of North Carolina’s bathroom bill, HB2. Dr. Jay Irwin helps to explain LGBTQ community discourse. — Executive Editor Doug Meigs
In 2006, while wasting time on the Internet when I should have been writing a paper for graduate school, my whole world changed. I found an online diary of a young trans man—a person who identifies as male but was assigned female at birth—talking about his own process of self-discovery. His words and story made 100 percent sense to me, as I was struggling to figure out who I was as well. I had come out as a lesbian two years prior, but something about that term didn’t click. Reading his words about his own gender discovery and transition, I finally knew who I was and what it meant. With learning the words, I found the ability to finally understand myself.
Transgender and cisgender. The terms are hot topics in the news. They offer clarity to some and confusion to others. Approximately 700,000 transgender individuals are estimated to live in the U.S. (or 0.2 percent of the population). Although a relatively small portion of the nation’s populace, the demographic is making big strides culturally.
The way we talk about people and gender identity has shifted. In the 1970s, the focus was on gay rights, with social movements like the Gay Liberation Front and the Stonewall Riots in New York CityIn the 1980s and 1990s, the language shifted to gay and lesbian, responding to calls to make these groups more inclusive of women and their experiences. But behind the scenes, conversation around language for diverse sexuality and gender identities was already pointing out the limiting nature of the common phrase “gay and lesbian.”
Currently, the most used phrase for this topic is LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Occasionally you will see two Qs, highlighting both queer and individuals who are questioning, or still trying to figure out their sexuality and/or gender. You may also see LGBTQ+, pointing out that these 5 letters have left a lot of more specific identities out of the acronym. This shift can be seen in the name change of a major organization that advocates on the behalf of LGBTQ people—the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the organization that runs Creating Change, the largest LGBTQ social justice conference in the U.S., changed its name to the National LGBTQ Task Force in 2014. We can also see it locally, as the UNO student group for LGBTQ+ students just changed its name from Gender and Sexual Orientation Student Agency (GSO) to Queer and Trans Services Student Agency (QTS, pronounced “cuties”).
For many, the fluid nature of language in this area is confusing. Even for myself, someone who teaches and researches gender and sexuality at UNO, keeping up with the changes in language takes a lot of work.
Take for example the word “queer,” a word steeped in a lot of negative connotations and usages for many folks, which is now a formal part of many acronyms currently in use. But what’s most important with the term queer is that many people in the community have reclaimed the word to embrace part of its original meaning: difference and diversity. Queer, as an identity, is a very open and wide-ranging term, often meaning non-heterosexual but with nuances for specific individuals who identify as queer. And for many young people, queer is a word that feels more comfortable to them than gay or lesbian. (It should be noted, for some individuals who identify as gay or lesbian—particularly individuals from earlier generations—the word queer can still have negative connotations, so use the word with care.)
Today, we are witnessing a massive shift in the language used when we talk about gender. With recent media attention to transgender people, that is, people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, more and more trans people are claiming their own language and their own words, all while highlighting that gender is much more than just male or female.
There are many other terms, far too many to define here. The website for Trans Student Educational Resources published an online glossary that includes: heteroflexible, cisgender, transgender, genderqueer, polysexual, pansexual, asexual, gender fluid, demisexual, and the list goes on. See the glossary at the bottom of this article for more information.
Jessi Hitchens, director of UNO’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, the official UNO office that oversees inclusion and programming for women as well as LGBTQ persons on campus, discusses her own discovery of the plethora of language options: “Growing up in a small, blue-collar, immigrant town in Illinois, I did not have language for what I was experiencing at the time. Once in college, my worldview shifted and the community language was never static or silenced for me again.”
Hitchens, who identifies as a polysexual, cisgender woman, acutely understands the power in language. She describes her identities in the following way: “I have been sexually and romantically attracted to many different genders. I am currently in a 14-year monogamous relationship with a straight, cis man but that does not mean my polysexual identity is any less real.” She goes on to clarify what she means when she says “cis”—“I am a cis woman which for me means my gender assignment at birth and my gender identity and gender expression are all in alignment.”
Jeff Horger, associate artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse, identifies as a straight man. He states that perhaps we’ve put the cart before the horse. “I think that the acronym LGBTQ has been inappropriately mainstreamed.” In his view, while people inside the community may be aware of the meaning, a number of folks are unaware and thus unable to understand the complexity of it all. For Horger, without a wide public education first, the acronym isn’t as powerful as it could be.
Despite Horger’s views on a wider usage of the term LGBTQ, he does appreciate the fact that the acronym is trying to highlight the complexity that is gender identity and sexual orientation. “People [used to be] homosexual or heterosexual. We were very comfortable looking at the world in a binary fashion, but once we started looking at ourselves, we realized that we’re a lot more complicated than that. A complicated world requires a complicated description and a complicated acronym.”
When asked about the potential confusion, Hitchens approaches the answer in an attempt to educate. “Well, if Shakespeare kept to only the currently imagined words, we would be missing such wonderful, beautiful, and influential texts. Language is an art and culture. As we evolve, we need to encourage people to use words that make sense to them in an effort to better connect to each other.”
For many in the LGBTQ community, the words that we put to our identities are an attempt at gaining power of our identities, our lives, and a way to speak out loud our truths. We want others to understand this. We want people to ask, “I don’t understand that term. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?”
What people learn and how they interact can build bridges.
Visit transstudent.org for more information.
LGBTQ gender identity terms excerpted from the website of Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER):
AFAB/AMAB: Acronym for “assigned (female/male) at birth.” A term preferred to biological female/male, born female/male, and other terms considered defamatory and inaccurate.
Agender: An umbrella term encompassing many different genders of people who commonly describe themselves as gender-neutral.
Aromantic: A lack of romantic attraction towards others, and someone identifying with this orientation.
Asexual: The lack of sexual attraction, and someone identifying with this orientation.
Bigender: Those who identify as two genders.
Bisexual: An umbrella term for people who experience sexual and/or emotional attraction to more than one gender.
Cisgender/cis: Someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth.
Demisexual: A sexual orientation in which one does not feel sexual attraction without a strong emotional bond. As an umbrella term, sometimes associated with “aromantic” and “asexual.”
Gender Expression/Presentation: The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc.
Gender Fluid: A changing or “fluid” gender identity.
Gender Identity: One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither, or both.
Genderqueer: A person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.
Heteroflexible: Sexual orientation or situational behavior characterized by minimal homosexual activity in an otherwise primarily heterosexual orientation.
LGBTQQIAPP+: Short for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, aromantic, pansexual, polysexual” (sometimes abbreviated to LGBT or LGBTQ+).
Monosexual: An umbrella term for orientations directed towards one gender.
Multisexual: An umbrella term for orientations directed towards multiple genders.
Nonbinary: Preferred umbrella term for all genders other than female/male or woman/man. Not all binary people identify as trans and not all trans people identify as nonbinary.
Pansexual: Capable of being attracted to many/any genders. This term is being used more and more frequently.
Polysexual: Sexual attraction to more than one gender. Bisexuality and pansexuality are forms of polysexuality.
Queer: A term for people of marginalized gender identities and sexual orientations. The term has a complicated history as a reclaimed slur.
Sexual Orientation: A person’s physical romantic, emotional aesthetic and/or other form of attraction to others.
Transgender/trans: A term encompassing many gender identities for those who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth.
Transition: A person’s process of developing and assuming a gender expression to match their gender identity. This includes coming out to one’s family, friends, and/or coworkers; changing one’s name and/or gender on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly surgery.
Transsexual: A depreciated term (often pejorative) similar to transgender in that it indicates a difference between one’s gender identity and sex assigned at birth.
Two Spirit: An umbrella term indexing various indigenous gender identities in North America.
*Correction: The July/August 2016 print edition incorrectly identified QTS as Queer and Trans Spectrum Student Agency.
To read more about the recent transgender bathroom controversy, see the current issue of Omaha Magazine: https://omahamagazine.com/2016/06/tracking-the-controversy/
To read more about Dr. Jay Irwin, see his profile in Omaha Magazine‘s January/February issue: https://omahamagazine.com/2016/01/trans-logic/