Using respectful and appropriate language is an important benchmark to set a tone of respect and understanding.
Language is important but don’t let it become a barrier. Learn the following words and definitions and you will be able to have conversations and put people at ease. As long as you are respectful, do not be afraid to ask if you are unfamiliar with a word or how it is used.
Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation refers to one’s romantic, emotional and sexual attraction. All people have a sexual orientation. You can be attracted to people of the opposite gender (straight) or people of the same gender (gay or lesbian). You can also be attracted to people of either gender (bisexual). Orientation does not equal action – you do not need to have had a sexual experience to know your orientation. Avoid using sexual preference, as it implies a choice, or homosexual, as it is a dated term that focuses on sex only rather than love and relationships.
Gender Identity: Gender identity refers to a person’s internal, deeply-felt sense of being male, female, something other, or in between. Everyone has a gender identity. For many people, one’s gender identity corresponds with their birth-assigned sex (i.e., a person assigned, or “born” female identifies as female or a person assigned, or “born” male identifies as male). For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their own internal sense of gender identity do not match.
Gender Expression: Gender expression relates to how a person chooses to communicate their gender identity to others through clothing, hair, styles, mannerisms, etc. This may be conscious or subconscious. While most people’s understandings of gender expressions relate to masculinity and femininity, there are countless permutations that may combine both masculine and feminine expressions.
Gay: Refers to a man whose primary emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction is to other men. Gay is sometimes used interchangeably as an inclusive term encompassing gay men, lesbians, and people who identify as bisexual.
Lesbian: Refers to a woman whose primary emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction is to other women.
Bisexual: An individual who is physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to men and women. Bisexual people need not have had sexual experience with both men and women; in fact, they need not have had any sexual experience at all to identify as bisexual.
Transgender: A broad term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from their birth-assigned sex. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies through hormone therapy or surgical procedures.
Queer: Some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people use the word queer as an umbrella term to embrace all the members of the community including the children of LGBT parents and other allies. Be careful when using this term - there are still plenty of people in the community who find this term offensive or degrading.
HELPFUL HINT: It is important to hear and understand terminology from the perspective of those you are engaging in conversation with. For young people, the terminology presented here is often about emotional and romantic notions, ideas of identity and self-discovery, rather than the political or sexual context these words may evoke for older audiences. Using the chosen term, without judgment, can make all the difference in the world to a questioning young person.
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