Personal Connections: What everyone needs to know about LGBTQ

Not long ago, sex and gender seemed much simpler. As far as most people knew, there were only two genders, male and female. The only romantic relationships anyone talked about were between men and women.

People kind of knew there were men who liked men and women who liked women, but that was mostly avoided, punished or joked about. Folks who didn’t fit society’s expectations about sexuality and gender mostly tried to hide that fact (often at great cost).

There have been a lot of changes in the last couple decades. Much that once was hidden is now out in the open, even celebrated, and that may take some getting used to. It helps that most of us now have neighbors, friends, coworkers and maybe family members who are openly LGBTQIA.

So we know that people with any form of sexual orientation or gender identity are just people, with strengths, weaknesses, annoying habits and endearing qualities, just like everyone else.

With all this change happening, the language is also changing. Especially for those of us over 30, it can be hard to keep up with the vocabulary. So let’s talk about all those letters and how they relate to two separate categories: sexual orientation and gender identity.


Here’s what the letters stand for:

Lesbian: A woman who’s romantically and/or sexually attracted to women.

Gay: A man who’s romantically and/or sexually attracted to men.

Bisexual: Someone attracted to both men and women.

Transgender: Someone who was born with physical characteristics of one sex, but who has a strong, persistent feeling that they’re really the other gender and who moves in some way to live as the other gender.

Queer: A broad term for someone who doesn’t fit gender or orientation binaries. (More on that later.) Sometimes the “Q” might stand for “questioning,” especially if there are 2 “Q”s in the acronym.

Intersex: Someone whose reproductive anatomy has elements of both male and female. (Years ago, this group was called “hermaphrodite.”)

Asexual: Someone who never experiences sexual attraction.

Sexual Orientation

The most important thing to understand about LGBTQIA is that it combines two different kinds of sexual variations. One category involves to whom someone is attracted (their sexual orientation); the other relates to a person’s own gender (their gender identity).

By now, most of us are familiar with what it means to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. You may be less familiar with the orientation called “asexual.” Asexuals are people who never or rarely experience sexual attraction to another person. Sex just doesn’t interest them. Asexual folks may or may not experience romantic attraction.

Just to make this a little more complicated, it’s also true that many people who consider themselves heterosexual (“straight”) are sometimes attracted to people of the same sex, and people who define as gay or lesbian may sometimes be attracted to other-gender people. People may or may not ever act on those feelings, but they’re very common.

They’re so common, in fact, that pioneering sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey, starting in the 1940s, described sexual orientation not as either/or, but as a continuum. The Kinsey Scale [] reflects his exhaustive research, which found that a surprising number of people had sexual attractions and/or experiences outside of being purely straight or purely gay. (And remember, that was at a time when homosexual behavior could get a person in legal or social trouble, or worse.)

Gender Identity, Expression

The other broad category, gender identity and expression, reflects a person’s experience of their own gender and how they choose to present themselves in the world.

For most of us, this is easy. I have female anatomy and I feel like a woman — simple. Those of us whose biological sex aligns with our felt gender are now called “cisgender” or simply “cis.”

For other folks, gender is more complicated. Some people feel profoundly disconnected from their biological sex (their “sex assigned at birth”) consistently over a long period of time.

People who identify as transgender may transition toward living as their felt gender. Sometimes they take sex-related hormones that, over time, make their body more male or more female. Sometimes they have surgery (“top-half” and/or “bottom-half”). Sometimes they don’t change their bodies but live and dress as their felt gender.

Gender identity is also a continuum. Many trans people feel that they were born the wrong gender and want to become the other gender. But other folks don’t quite feel either male or female. Or what they feel can vary from day to day. They generally use terms like “queer,” “non-binary,” “gender-fluid,” or “gender-nonconforming,” which incorporate the ambiguity.

If this range of gender identity doesn’t seem reasonable to you, let me go on the record here: Trans folks aren’t making it up. There’s plenty of scientific research documenting gender variations. It’s not something they take lightly; fear of being accepted is often a major stressor.

Plus, it’s not new. There have always been people who didn’t fit neatly into cultural expectations about gender. After centuries of trying to hide their true gender identities, only recently have trans and gender-nonconforming people started feeling safe enough to be open about their experiences.

You may also have noticed changes in gender pronouns, like someone preferring to be called “they” rather than “he” or “she.” I don’t have space here to talk about this, but you can read my post if you like:

Lots to Learn

Since much of the conversation about sexual orientation and especially gender identity is relatively new, things keep unfolding. There are always new terms and additional nuances to add to the discussion.

If someone close to you is LGBTQIA, be curious about their perspective and preferred language. If not, it’s enough to know the basics and make a good-faith effort. As things continue to change, what’s most important is that we all treat each other with respect, patience and kindness.

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at



Loading comments...
Hide Comments