Very little can make you feel older than realizing that language is evolving and leaving you behind. This becomes especially apparent when it comes to the vocabulary used to define gender and sexuality.
You may wonder why we need more than the terms “gay”, “straight”, and “bisexual” to describe sexuality, and you may not understand the need for more terms than male” or “female” to delineate gender. But if we’re learning anything as we evolve as a culture, it’s that there is a lot of fluidity and gray area in all things, including matters of sexuality and gender.
And because our teenagers are growing up in an era when matters of sexuality are more widely discussed and understood that they were even a decade ago, you may find their knowledge far outstrips yours. If you find yourself overwhelmed, refer to the following glossary for some of the most essential
When people are born, they are assigned a gender at birth. This gender assignment is made based on the anatomical sex of the newborn. Essentially, if you are born with a penis, you are assigned a gender of male at birth. If you are born with a vagina, you are assigned a gender of female at birth. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that sex is not necessarily the same thing as gender: a person’s biological sex (their anatomy and reproductive system) is not always the same as their gender identity.
Someone who identifies as a member of a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth is transgender: for example, a person who was assigned male at birth (AMAB) but identifies as
Some people don’t think that being transgender is a valid identity. They believe that biological sex and gender are essentially the same. Not only does this attitude ignore the science that says gender exists on a spectrum, but it also discounts the existence of intersex individuals.
“Intersex” is an umbrella term describing several conditions in which a person’s reproductive and/or sexual anatomy doesn’t fit into the usual definitions of male or female. In some cases, a person might be born with female external genitalia, while inside they have anatomy that is predominately typical to males. Other people are born with external genitalia that is in between male and female genitalia. While others may be born with XXY chromosomes instead of the typical XX and XY. And those are just a few examples. There are many ways to be intersex.
For many years, when intersex children with differing external genitalia were born, the general idea was that it was essential that gender assignment was decided upon early. Cosmetic genetic surgeries were often performed on infants, while endocrinologists manipulated children’s hormones. Thankfully, these practices have since been deemed unethical and unscientific: however, the mainstream population still doesn’t really understand the experience of intersex individuals, and they are often not considered when people talk about the validity of gender identity.
Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming/Gender Fluid
Because we’ve been raised to think of gender as being binary (read: male or female), we often think of transgender identity as similarly binary. But there is a whole spectrum of gender identity, and there are many terms that try to encapsulate the multitude of experiences and existences along that spectrum. Here are a few major ones:
Genderqueer: Genderqueer is a catch-all term used to describe individuals whose gender doesn’t fall into typical definitions and constraints. There are more specific terms that fall under that umbrella as well.
Gender non-conforming: Gender non-conforming, appropriately enough, can have multiple meanings. It can specifically mean someone that presents outside of traditional gender presentation, like a woman who dresses and acts typically male, or vice versa. More generally, it can refer to anyone who identifies outside of the gender binary.
Gender fluid: Gender fluid individuals don’t commit to one single gender. At any given time, they may feel male or female or somewhere in between.
Pansexual people have the ability to fall in love with and/or be attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or expression. How is this different to bisexuality? Well, it’s not really. Many people think bisexual people are only attracted to cisgender men and women, but many people who identify as bisexual are also attracted to trans and nonbinary individuals. Pansexual just tends to be a more inclusive term and encapsulates the fact that love, like gender, exists on a spectrum.
People who are asexual experience little or no sexual attraction and/or have little or no interest in sexual relationships. Some asexual people may experience no sexual desire at all: others may have limited levels of sexual desire in certain circumstances. People who experience sexual attraction only on some occasions are often known as gray asexual or demisexual.
Aromantic people experience little or no romantic attraction to anyone and neither do they
You’ll notice that many of the terms defined here don’t own their own spots on the list. That’s because so many of these terms rely on context for a greater understanding. There’s no shame in not knowing some of the terms that describe gender and asexuality, especially as the language around these terms has evolved so much in recent years and continues to change every day. Staying informed, being open-minded, and talking to your teenager is the real key to understanding how they feel about themselves.