"What are they saying?" -A lot of people @ the LGBTQ+ community
The Power of Language
Much of the conflict between the church and the queer community could settle if we spoke the same language; it would allow space for understanding even if disagreement continues. However, many people on opposite sides of the queer morality debate often use the same words with different definitions. Sometimes, they’re completely unaware of another person’s vocabulary. In many ways, the church and the queer community don’t speak the same language.
I’m writing this article mostly for Christians because LGBTQ+ vocabulary has developed and changed rapidly in recent years. Feeling overwhelmed is normal (even for people within the queer community): educating yourself on new words for gender and sexuality is difficult because they’re created and refined daily. The queer community was never given the opportunity to define themselves in the past so, now that they have more freedom, words can constantly appear and evolve. It’s a process and it’s ok to make mistakes or changes so long as you work hard to educate yourself and stay humble.
To many cisgender, alloromantic heterosexuals (i.e. people whose gender identity matches their gender assigned at birth, experience romantic attraction, and are attracted to cis people of a different gender), language seems insignificant. Why are there so many new words? Are they all necessary? Why is it important to use “they” instead of “he” or “she”? Why should someone care about the minor distinction between bi and pan if they only believe in two genders anyway? It matters because, for centuries, society silenced queer people and called them insane. With no language to describe or understand queer experiences, no one could comprehend why they felt and acted different. They shamed them for their “unnatural” desires. Queer people felt isolated, misunderstood and hopeless. Many were sent to insane asylums, then psychiatric hospitals, then reparative therapy to be cured, confirming in the mind of the queer person throughout history that they were hopeless and horrific. But now with better understanding and better language, we’ve reached a point in history when the queer community can describe their experience and bond with people experiencing similar things. Language allows them to connect. Language affirms that they’re not alone or insane. Language invites cisgender, alloromantic heterosexuals to comprehend and sympathize.
Language changes over time. This is true of all languages: English is not the same as Beowulf’s English, and Beowulf’s English is unrecognizable from its Germanic roots. Words develop, change, die, reappear, etc. As a result, the LGBTQ+ community continually refines its vocabulary to better articulate the queer experience. Words have changed, become outdated, or become offensive. The most important shift, though, in LGBTQ+ language has been from nouns to adjectives. Many now-outdated terms were used as nouns—i.e. “a homosexual” or “a transvestite.” We still use many of the same words, but they’re exclusively used as adjectives: for example, “a gay man” or “a trans person.” This was an essential shift because a noun reduces a person to a single label, which easily becomes a form of condescension and discrimination. An adjective describes an aspect of a noun, which allows the queer community to label themselves while preserving the wholeness of their humanity. Adjectives allow for acknowledgement without reduction, validation without dehumanization.
Remember, language is strong. It can define, discern and distinguish. It can help people understand themselves and share their identity with the world. Language can connect, affirm and love. On the other hand, language can damage, destroy and dehumanize. It can isolate someone and convince the world they’re crazy. It can silence, suffocate, and drive a person to suicide. Use it with respect, sympathy and love.
Gender vs. Sex
Many people have said it before and I’ll say it again: gender is not synonymous with sex. This is confusing because, for centuries, the English language deemed them interchangeable. But not anymore. Sex refers to a person’s genitalia, but gender refers a person’s identity. Queer people drew this distinction to better describe their gender experience: many people don’t feel at home in their bodies. Gender Dysphoria describes an internal conflict between a person’s physical or assigned sex and their gender identity (according to the APA). As a cisgender person myself, this was impossible to understand at first. However, it’s not uncommon for a person to feel uncomfortable in their body. In a culture of brutal beauty standards, many people develop dissatisfaction—and for some, self-hatred—toward their body. It’s not uncommon for people to feel at odds with their own body, so do your best to imagine what that might feel like regarding your sex. As a person who has never experienced gender dysphoria, I acknowledge that my comparison may be an inaccurate description dysphoria, but what I’m trying to say is that bodily discomfort, dissatisfaction, disassociation and hatred are real human experiences, and they are not outside a cisgender person’s comprehension or sympathy.
Because dysphoria can lead to a change in identity, it is essential to use correct names and pronouns. Dysphoria is traumatic, filling a person with painful memories of a strained relationship between their body and identity. Changing names and pronouns is a simple way to ease dysphoria and explore identity. When you use incorrect names and pronouns, you invalidate them and trigger traumatic memories; but when you use correct names and pronouns, you actively support them in their coping process.
Since the definition of “gender” has changed in English and western culture, I’ve met Christians who vehemently disagree with the phrase, “Gender is a social construct.” However, I think that’s because Christians still define “gender” differently than queer people. To Christians, this sentence sounds like, “Genitalia is a social construct; it’s a construction of the human imagination,” but that’s not what the phrase means. Because “gender” refers to personal gender identity and expression, the queer community means to say, “The things typically associated with gender identity and expression—like pink, blue, dolls, sports, minivans, trucks, etc.—come from culture, not a natural biological tendency.” If you think about it, a person’s genitalia doesn’t influence their color preferences or hobbies. So, gender expression isn’t limited to the things our culture deems appropriate for people of differing genitalia. I am not less of a woman because I like trucks. This understanding of gender and cultural influences makes room for any form of gender expression and resembles eastern gender philosophies that have existed since the first civilizations. The gender binary (two genders) is a recent idea on the timeline of human history and it’s unique to western culture. Many Asian cultures, Native peoples, and Hawaiian traditions (to name a few) have a third, fourth, or fifth gender, and an expansive vocabulary to describe what westerners would view as a mixture of masculinity and femininity (see this interactive PBS map).
My parents become uncomfortable when I say “queer” because its definition changed between our generations. “Queer” is derogatory in their mind, but for me, it’s a catch-all term for someone who’s not cisgender or heterosexual. A cisgender person is someone whose gender and reproductive organs have matched since birth—i.e. you were born with a penis and you identify as male. Heterosexual describes a person who’s sexually attracted to a cis person of a different gender. My parents know “queer” as a derogatory term because it implied that any LGBTQ+ person was weird or unnatural. However, the LGBTQ+ community reclaimed and normalized the word during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s as an angry cry to bring attention to injustice. “Queer” is now a general term for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s also a safe word to use if you’re not sure of someone’s identity.
With these main ideas on language, sex, gender, and identity in mind, here are some common identifying vocabulary among the LGBTQ+ community.
An Insufficient, Bare Minimum List of Sexualities and some Notes
Homosexual: attracted to the same gender
- Synonym: gay, can be gender neutral or male-specific
- Synonym: lesbian, female-specific, sapphic
- Offensive: faggot, dyke
- As mentioned previously, it’s important to use these words as adjectives or descriptors. Note that it’s not common anymore to say, “He’s homosexual” because of its distant formality; many people prefer “She’s lesbian,” or “He’s gay.” But most importantly, don’t call someone “a homosexual” because it’s outdated and dehumanizing.
Bisexual: attracted to different genders
- Slang: bi
- Most commonly known form of bisexuality is attraction to men and women, but some instead describe it as attraction to people of same and different genders from their own. This definition makes space for attraction to genders other than men and women, but it still differs from pansexuality because gender is a factor in attraction. “Bisexuality” originally developed as a term to describe attraction to men and women, but because of the word has evolved alongside gender identities, bisexuality may eventually include attraction to more than two genders. It’s not necessarily the number that sets it apart from pansexuality, but the preference for specific genders.
- Many bisexual people aren’t equally attracted to various genders; they can prefer one gender over another and still use the “bisexual” label to indicate they have some attraction to different genders.
- If a person is attracted to a trans-man or trans-woman, they are still bisexual and not pansexual. More on this later.
Pansexual: attraction regardless of gender
- Slang: pan
- No, they’re not attracted to cookware. But they will make jokes about it.
- Different from bisexuality because they will be attracted to people regardless of gender
- The distinction between pansexual and bisexual is important for affirming gender identities. This goes back to the importance of self-identification. By ignoring the distinction between bi and pan, you invalidate the gender identities of the people they’re attracted to, as well as ignore the significance of a person’s self-identified sexuality.
Asexual: does not experience sexual attraction
- Slang: ace
- Asexuality is not abstinence because it’s not an intentional avoidance of sex. It can be a lack of desire for sex or a lack of sexual attraction to others. They can still be sexually active to express love to a significant other or for some other reason if they so choose.
Aromantic: does not experience romantic attraction
- Asexual and aromantic make an important distinction between sexual and romantic desires. A person may not experience sexual attraction but still desire a romantic relationship with a significant other. Or vice versa, a person may experience sexual attraction but not desire a romantic relationship. Or a person can be both ace and aro.
- Identifying as aromantic isn’t an excuse for commitment issues or casual hook-ups. Aromantic people lack a desire for romantic connection or lack an ability to connect romantically.
There are many, many other sexualities that articulate more specifics on a person’s identity, but these are the most common because they effectively cover a lot of sexualities. If someone uses different language than the examples I’ve given, you can ask them why they prefer the label, then be certain to use that label out of respect. I would recommend only asking a person for specifics on their sexuality (and gender for that matter) only if they bring it up because, by initiating the conversation, they show they’re willing and prepared to share with you.
An Insufficient, Bare Minimum List of Genders and some Notes
Gender dysphoria: an internal conflict between a person’s physical or assigned sex and their gender identity
Male: a man
- Because there’s a distinction between sex and gender in English now, a male gender identity does not require male sex characteristics, and therefore includes all trans-men.
- For that reason, bisexuality includes attraction to transgender men and women because, according to the definition of gender, trans-men are men and trans-women are women.
Female: a woman
- Includes all trans-women for the same reasons above.
Gender non-conforming: a catch-all word for someone who does not comply with the cultural expectations of their assigned sex
- Non-conforming gender expression does not directly reflect gender identity. For example, a person may dress feminine and identify as male, or vice versa. Therefore, a non-conforming gender expression does not necessitate a transgender identity. Gender expression is not for the purpose of proving gender, rather, it’s for exploring identity.
Genderqueer: similar catch-all word for someone who does not comply with the cultural expectations of their assigned sex
- The definition of this word is still developing. It may be synonymous with gender non-conforming, or it may be different by insinuating some form of a transgender identity.
Transgender: a person who does not identify with their assigned identity at birth
- Slang: trans
- Offensive: tranny, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser
- Includes people who don’t transition medically (i.e. hormone replacement therapy, surgery, etc.)
- Includes any gender identity different from that assigned at birth (for example, nonbinary or genderfluid)
Nonbinary: a person who does not identify as male or female
- Slang: nb (enby)
- Nonbinary is an umbrella term used to describe genders that are not strictly female or male. This includes genderfluid, agender, demigender, bigender, polygender, and many more.
- Many nonbinary people use gender neutral pronouns like they/them. The single “they” is officially recognized by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary. The definitions of pronouns can change too and it is correct English.
Agender: no gender
- They don’t have a gender. That’s it. No preference, no nothing. Their gender is no. Even if their gender expression leans feminine or masculine, their gender is still no.
Genderfluid: a person whose gender changes
- Their gender is a continuous flow that they follow to alleviate dysphoria or to be most comfortable with themselves.
- Sometimes she identifies as she. Sometimes he identifies as he. Sometimes they are they. Depends on the day. Ask them.
Intersex: someone with biological sex characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions of male and female bodies
- Offensive: hermaphrodite
- There is a wide range of intersex characteristics and identities. Many intersex people differ from each other. A person may be intersex because they have a mixture of X and Y chromosomes, of testosterone or estrogen, of male and female genitalia, portions of male and female genitalia, or no genitalia. Because intersex people exist, there’s a wide variation of sexes just as there are genders.
- An intersex person decides how they would like to identify their gender just like anyone else. They don’t have to use “they” pronouns; they can prefer “he” or “she.”
Deadname: when a transgender person changes their name as a part of their transition, their former name assigned at birth is their deadname. Don’t use their deadname.
Even if your theology conflicts with the beliefs of the LGBTQ+ community, I hope these explanations bring some clarity on their philosophy. Respectfully speaking the same language helps build better relationships and trust while opening our minds to experiences outside of our own.