Understanding gender and sexual identities

In Opinion
The genderbread person is a useful resource for understanding the different spectrums of gender, sexual and romantic identities. (Courtesy of Itspronouncedmetrosexual.com)

Many aspects of a person’s life exist within a spectrum; political affiliation, taste in music and–contrary to some beliefs–sexual and gender identities.

The concepts of sexual orientation and psychological gender are not always rigid binaries, but rather nuanced spectrums. Understanding these nuances is crucial to developing a dialogue about them.

While the most common points on the identity and orientation spectrums include male, female, gay, straight and bisexual, many individuals identify themselves with less common titles that still deserve attention.

Certain people consider their sexuality to be fluid, which is a kind of sexual attraction that fluctuates between genders: male, female or otherwise. Some consider themselves to be genderfluid or genderqueer, meaning they fluctuate psychologically and don’t necessarily think of themselves as exclusively male or female.

Queer has also been sometimes used as a flexible term for describing one’s gender, sex or sexuality.

This idea of fluidity is important to understanding these parts of identity as spectrums.

“We’re inventing words all the time to try and capture the incredible diversity and this range of differences that are appearing,” said Karyl Ketchum, Ph.D., associate professor in the women and gender studies program and queer minor program.

Transgender is another term used for an individual whose psychological gender is not in alignment with their physical sex (their body parts and hormones).

This can be different than transsexual which can relate more to biological sex, and it is different from tranvestite, which is an individual who dresses in the opposite gender expression for a number of reasons.

Another point on these spectrums is for those who experience little to no sexual attraction or connection with a gender identity. These folks are asexual and agender, respectfully.

Along with all this is a spectrum of romanticism. For example, a person could experience sexual attraction but no emotional attraction. This person might describe themselves as aromantic.

These examples only scratches the surface of the possible kinds of identities that deal with an individual’s gender, sex, sexuality and romantic capabilities. There are many other terms that get used to describe the further nuances that exist.

It may seem like quite a lot for anyone who is not regularly exposed to these more nuanced identities, but the key to understanding them is being respectful and open-minded.

To put it simply: Do your homework. Stay engaged in the social issues which these groups face and why they matter.

Many people ask about what words or acronyms they can and cannot use. The all-encompassing acronym has seen some changes as well as some confusion: LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+, etc. People want to be sure they are being inclusive and not offensive when talking about this diverse group of people.

The fact that more letters have been added shows a sign of progress, Ketchum said. It shows that more identities are becoming visible and understood, despite the acronym being somewhat inefficient.

Despite this, making sure to use a perfectly crafted acronym is less important than truly understanding what the letters themselves really mean. More often than not, “the queer community” is a sufficient enough term.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions as long as they are respectful. It is okay to ask what a word means, or what an individual prefers to be called. As long as the question is purely inquisitive and does not come from a place of judgement or inappropriate curiosity, then it is acceptable.

Anyone who identifies with a non-cisgender and/or non-heteronormative identity and takes great offense with a respectful and honest question clearly does not have the level of understanding to answer the question, nor should they be seen as representative of their community.

The key to gaining understanding is open-mindedness and open interaction between all the different points on any and all spectrums of identity. Only when this happens can we truly learn about what makes us different, what makes us similar and that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t always have to matter.

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