Words Mean Things: A Resource for Discussing Gender and Sexuality

Hello, beautiful creatures! So, I’m slowly on the mend from the con crud I discussed previously, and doing some unpacking from PantheaCon, both literally and metaphorically. One of the interesting things about the weekend, which I’ve been chewing on ever since, has to do with the understandings of gender and sexuality we have in the modern p-word community, and the words we use to talk about them. It also has to do, strangely enough, with ribbons.

So, quick explanation: at many conventions, there’s a thing where people make and give away satin ribbons to attach to the bottom of your convention membership badge. Some folks collect these ribbons, and wind up with long sashes of ribbons trailing from their convention badges. Some ribbons have funny sayings on them, some indicate association or alignment with a spiritual tradition or group, and some advertise a business, service, or artistic endeavor.

Or, y’know, a blog or something. Ahem.
My partner and I went to PantheaCon with several different ribbons to give away to folks. We had a Chuck Tingle ribbon (“TROT Proudly, Prove LOVE”), a #BlackLivesMatter ribbon, a ribbon with a quote from a Victor Anderson poem, and a poem advertising this very blog. These were all pretty popular, but by far the most popular ribbon we brought was a rainbow-hued ribbon printed, in white letters, with the message “gender is a mess.” (You can see it at the bottom of the photo above.) This is something I’ve been saying for a few years now, and decided on a whim to print as a ribbon. Some people were delighted by that one, and others were perplexed or curious and wanted to talk about it with us. They wanted to talk about gender and sexuality, and about the intersections of those two. One woman said to my partner, with honest confusion, “Things are changing so much! There used to be just two genders, and now there’s more, and I don’t understand it.” My partner pointed out, gently, that there’ve always been more than two genders, and that our culture is just starting to be more aware of it now, a point which the woman seemed to take to heart.

This was a poignant interaction for my partner, and I was quite moved when she shared it with me. We both believe that outreach and education are key in fostering understanding and acceptance, so we were more than happy to have those conversations. However, conventions are notoriously difficult places to have those conversations. They tend to be long and complicated, touching on psychology, gender theory, feminist analysis, sociology, biology, and cultural anthropology. It’s kind of impossible to cover all that ground in thirty seconds on an elevator.

As LGBTQIA+ people become more, and more visibly, a part of the Pagan, polytheist, and occult communities, these kinds of conversations become more common, and more necessary. One of the possible sticking points is the terminology we use to describe and define our identities and experiences, some of which derives from the academic world of gender theory and feminist studies. So, at the risk of waxing overly academic, I’ve defined some of these terms in the hopes of clarifying some of the discourse around these subjects. Feel free to use this as a resource, and as a starting point for discussions, with the caveat that these are my interpretations of these identifiers, as colored by my experiences and background. Other folks may (and will) have their own interpretations, and quite probably their own take on definitions.

(Content warning: Some of these definitions also make reference to deprecated terms and slang words used as slurs, many of which can be deeply hurtful to people against whom those terms are used. Please exercise caution and self-care.)

Straight

This generally refers to people of a binary gender, “male” or “female,” who are sexually and/or romantically attracted to people perceived as being of the “opposite” gender. The technical term is “heterosexual,” sometimes abbreviated as “hetero” or “het” in certain circles.

LGBTQIA+

An acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual/Aromantic, with the plus sign standing in for other identities not addressed by those terms.

Gay

So, this term covers a lot of ground. Let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. Most commonly, it refers to people who are primarily or exclusively sexually and/or romantically attracted to people perceived as having the same binary gender, also known as “homosexuality.” (While “homo” is sometimes used as an abbreviation, be advised that this has highly negative connotations in most circles, equivalent to other homophobic slurs, and should really be avoided unless you’re gay yourself.)
  2. Another common usage refers specifically to men who are primarily or exclusively sexually and/or romantically attracted to other men, though this isn’t universal.
  3. Curiously, it’s also used a blanket term to refer to anyone who isn’t straight. This usage is both historical (as with the Gay Liberation Front of the late 1960s and 1970s) and current, especially among some younger LGBTQIA+ people. (For more on this, see “Queer” below.)

I know it’s confusing. I wish I could say it gets less so, but… well, let’s move on.

Lesbian

This refers to women who are primarily or exclusively sexually and/or romantically attracted to other women.

Bisexual and Pansexual

These terms are sometimes seen as interchangeable, and other times as distinct orientations. Bisexuality refers to people of any gender who are sexually and/or romantically attracted both to people who share their gender and to those who don’t. Pansexuality was coined in response to the perception that “bisexual” reinforced a binary gender paradigm of being attracted to “both men and women,” which would exclude people outside that binary. (As a personal aside, I refer to myself by both terms, depending on the context. Many people have strong feelings about one or the other. When in doubt, ask the person how they’d like to be described.)

Transgender

If you don’t identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, you’re transgender, sometimes abbreviated as “trans.” The Latin prefix trans- means “on the other side” or “across,” and can be found all over the place: transmission, translate, Transylvania, and so on. There’s no slur, criticism, or judgment inherent in the term, but certain colloquial abbreviations of it, such as “tranny” or “transie,” are often used as highly offensive slurs, and should be avoided by anyone who isn’t themselves transgender. The older term “transsexual” has largely been deprecated, but is still used by some trans people to reflect their personal experience of being transgender, especially for those who’ve opted to pursue medical transition. Again, I suggest avoiding this term unless you are trans yourself, or (in this case) you’ve been explicitly asked by a particular person to use this term to refer to them.

Cisgender

If, on the other hand, you do identify as the gender you were assigned at birth, you’re cisgender, sometimes abbreviated as “cis.” That’s it. That’s all it means. There’s no slur, criticism, or judgment built into the term, honest. The Latin prefix cis- means “on the same side,” and can be found in various other words and phrases, such as Cisalpine Gaul (“the part of Gaul on the same side of the Alps as Rome”).

Queer

I talked about my definition of the word “queer” in my belated introductory post, but to recap: “queer” is a reclaimed slur used by some people within the LGBTQIA+ community as an umbrella term to cover all of us whose gender and sexual identities exist outside the “charmed circle” of cisgender heterosexuality. Note that not all LGBTQIA+ people identify as queer, and some find the term distasteful or contentious.

Nonbinary, Agender, Neutrois, Androgynous, Genderqueer, Gender-nonconforming, and more!

These are all terms referring to people whose experiences of gender don’t fit neatly within the binary male/female gender paradigm common to Western culture. Some of these folks identify as transgender, while others don’t; as ever, it’s always a good idea to find out how an individual person identifies before using that term. There’s a bit to get a handle on here, so take a deep breath and let’s dash through it!

“Nonbinary” refers to people who don’t identify with either of the binary gender options in Western culture, “male” or “female,” regardless of what they were assigned at birth. Related terms include “agender” and “neutrois,” which both refer to people who view themselves as genderless, and “gender-fluid,” which describes people whose experience of gender can be variable, depending on mood, context, and any number of other factors.

“Androgynous” is a term which is sometimes used for people whose experience and expression of gender incorporates attributes commonly ascribed to both men and women. It’s less common than it used to be, and I’d avoid using it unless someone has told you directly that this is the term they use. Are you spotting a theme here?

“Genderqueer” describes people whose identities and expressions of identity play with or “queer” gender, while “gender-nonconforming” describes people whose outward expressions of identity don’t match their gender identity.

For reference purposes: your humble author identifies as a nonbinary, agender androgyne, all under the transgender umbrella.

Intersex

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines intersex as follows:

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.
Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.

The term “hermaphrodite,” from the Greek deity Hermaphroditus, has been used in the past to refer to intersex people, but as this term is stigmatizing and often used as something of a slur, I’d strongly recommend avoiding it. It’s also worth noting that being intersex is not the same as being transgender. While some intersex people may identify as transgender, the majority of them do not, and the issues each group faces are distinct.

Asexual, Demisexual, and Aromantic

Simply put, people who are asexual don’t experience sexual attraction. Some lack any sort of sexual inclination or arousal, while others may experience arousal, but without a concomitant desire to have partnered sex. A common misconception is that asexuals suffer from some past trauma which has rendered them phobic about sex. In reality, most asexuality has no causal link to trauma. It may help to think of asexuality as the sexual orientation that isn’t. Most asexuals are perfectly well-adjusted people who happen to lack any interest in sexuality and, in my experience, tend to find the whole thing somewhat bemusing.
Demisexuality is sometimes seen as a subset of asexuality, and refers to folks whose sexuality is only engaged in the context of an emotional bond or relationship. This isn’t about a “save it for marriage!” sort of morality; demisexuals literally don’t feel sexual attraction to a person unless they feel something emotionally for them first.
Aromantic folks don’t experience what we tend to think of as “romantic” love. Note: this doesn’t mean they don’t love! Aromantic people can have a wide range of loving relationships, just not romantic ones.

Resources

The following is a quick list of resources to learn more about many of the sexual and gender identities described above. Please note that a listing here does not necessarily indicate endorsement of any organization’s full platform or dealings. While I’ve done my best to vet all of these sources, a complete exploration of their doings and goings-on is beyond my means.

GLAAD
PFLAG
The Advocate
Lesbian.com
BiNet USA
National Center for Transgender Equality

Genderqueer and Non-binary Identities
Neutrois.com
Intersex Society of North America
Asexual Visibility and Education Network
Demisexuality Resource Center

Until next time, dear ones, be sweet to each other. ♥


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • When I see that you’ve posted a new blog, I read it straight away.I very much enjoy your articles. They are always so thoughtful and thought-provoking. I am grateful to you for the content you provide us in the pagan community with. This article is no different – you’ve expertly detailed the various labels that are being used to describe the “types” of biological sexes, gender identities and sexual orientations. I appreciate it. What’s more I’ve learned something. I wasn’t using the most up-to-date acronymn, so thanks! Here’s the thing that bothers me about all these labels. I don’t like labels being applied to me. Going over your thorough list, there’s at least four or five that I could adopt. But I’m not going to. Calling myself a cis-gendered pansexual aromantic seems a bit too heavy for me. I’m just me. Perhaps it’s because as an academic, I’ve taught gender courses for over 15 years. It could be that I’ve been writing about gender issues for twenty years. Maybe it’s because I’ve been involved in activism for even longer. Perhaps it’s because my focus is on the problem of the patriarchy. I’ll gladly go to battle to protect your right to call yourself whatever you want, but I’m equally defending my right to not identify myself in categories of sex, gender or sexual behaviors. So, while I applaud your list, I would suggest adding one final label: “those who don’t want to be labelled.”

    • Hi, Cyndi! Thank you so much for your kind words! ^_^ I love the work you’re doing over at Holding Her Keys, as well. (And anyone else reading this exchange, go check out Cyndi’s blog at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/keepingherkeys/ post-haste!)

      I sympathize with your resistance to labels, especially labels imposed from the outside. I also see how labels can be a powerful tool of self-possession and self-definition. As the title of this piece says, words mean things, and in a world which tells us in every moment who and what we are, the ability to use words to define who we are for ourselves can be incredibly liberating. The key there, of course, is the ability to define ourselves rather than being defined. I see no reason why anyone should be forced to adopt or accept any of the terms I’ve outlined here… with one caveat. That caveat has to do with the terms “transgender” and “cisgender.”

      Judith Butler suggested, almost thirty years ago, that gender is a performative cultural construct… that gender is a thing we do, rather than an intrinsic quality essential to our nature. Her work and thought in this line has revolutionized feminist studies, queer theory, and gender theory (as I’m sure you’re aware!). Moving from that position, I would posit that, rather than being gender identities, “transgender” and “cisgender” are descriptors of identities. While I think it’s possible to talk about being cis or trans as a part of one’s gender identity, first and foremost they’re technical terms which say something about the cultural context of the genders they describe. A person’s gender is not “cisgender male” or “transgender female.” Their gender is male, or female, or something which partakes of both, or of neither. “Cisgender” and “transgender” can tell us something useful about how a person came into their understanding of gender, and even about their experience of gender, but not about gender itself.

      The question comes up sometimes, “Why should I agree to be called a cis woman or man? Why can’t I just be a woman or a man?” The answer has to do with structures of power in our culture, and the normalization of privilege. As a comparison, many white people feel uncomfortable when “the race card” is played, suggesting that we can all just be people. The trouble here is that in this culture, whiteness has privilege and power built into it, which white people can’t simply wish away by denying their whiteness.

      Just so with being cisgender. Those of us who work with magic understand that power incurs responsibility and accountability, and there’s power intrinsic to the privilege of having your gender identity affirmed by the culture around you, even when—as is so often the case—there is oppression built into having and living as that gender. That’s part of why I mentioned in my definitions that “cis” and “trans” aren’t slurs. Being cis, like being white, isn’t an indictment; it’s an observation.

      (As a flipside, all too often the refusal of “cisgender” is linked to a belief that being cis is “normal,” with the corrollary that being trans is “abnormal.” I probably don’t have to tell you what I think of that framing.)

      Like you, my focus is on the problem of patriarchy. I don’t see my work for queer and trans people, both here and in the rest of my life, as a sidebar to opposing patriarchy; on the contrary, it’s just another front in that struggle. Patriarchy is such a corrosive, destructive, and wide-ranging problem that there are multiple fronts on which to combat it. Working with and for cisgender women is so completely valid and necessary, and I hope it goes without saying that I support that work. I also hope that, in supporting and working for cis women, we’re not invalidating and disempowering trans women, trans men, and nonbinary folks, all of whom are oppressed by patriarchy and empowered by feminism.

      Thank you for commenting! I hope this all made sense. ♥

      • Yes! I was going to say that I failed to mention the difference between identity and labelling! I feel like I was a bit of a grump in my original comment. You are so correct about the risk of some being left behind when one group – even a closely connected one – starts to move forward. I like to think there’s room on the bus for everyone, but sometimes my own biases cause me to miss things. Like intersectionalies and lived experiences. This is why your writing is so important!

  • Kate Pennington

    Actually Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction not a lack of sexual desire/drive. A person may be both asexual and uninterested in sex, even sex repulsed, or they may have no sexual attraction and still have desire for sex. Sexual attraction and sexual drive are two related parts of how humans interact, but they are not the same thing.

    • Thanks for the correction! I’ve modified the definition I gave accordingly. This gets filed under “the perils of trying to explain something outside my own experience.” 😛

      • Kate Pennington

        awesome, thank you.