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Labels: they’re everywhere. We use them to identify food, clothing brands, and where to send a package. Labels are also sometimes used to describe ourselves and other people.

Especially if exploring issues of sexuality is new for you, it can be easy to get caught up in the terminology used to identify people’s sexual orientations, genders, and relationships. But discussing these concepts with friends and others you trust can help you get to know other people better, as well as yourself. So, let’s dive in.

Gender Identity

Concepts of sex and gender are usually wrapped up together. Generally, the word sex is used to refer to whether a person is male or female: biologically a girl or boy, woman or man. In contrast, gender identity is related to a person’s sense of him or herself. A person may feel male or female, regardless of physical or chromosomal sex characteristics.

Sex and Gender in the Dictionary

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary,

Sex
is:

The sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics that are involved in reproduction, marked by the union of gametes, and that distinguish males and females.

Gender is:

The behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.

According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, transgender is an umbrella term used to describe someone whose gender identity is different than his or her biological sex. The National Center for Transgender Equality explains that someone who is gender nonconformingcommunicates his or her identity in a way that is different than societal expectations related to gender. It may be helpful to think about this in terms of masculine and feminine norms.

For example:

  • Someone who is physiologically male may wear dresses and makeup, which in western culture are often signifiers of being female, or feminine.
  • People may seek medical intervention to make their physical characteristics correspond with their gender identities. For example, taking testosterone will affect body hair patterns, voice, and musculature. Body modification isn’t necessary to identify as transgender.
  • Some people don’t feel strictly male or female.

Here are some other words people use to describe gender identity: intersex, genderqueer, cross-dresser, drag king, or drag queen. Some of these labels were historically used as insults or originated from negative stereotypes. However, they are now embraced by some and used in an empowering way. If you’re not sure if a word is okay to use, try asking!

More about gender-related terms

Read a personal story about gender identity

Are You in the Right Place?

For people who express their gender identity differently from societal norms, there can be unique challenges. For example, imagine choosing which bathroom or changing room to use at a store or gym. For people who are transgender or gender nonconforming, this can be an everyday struggle.

Jane M.*, a faculty member at a college in Connecticut, explains, “I am faced with many situations when people stare at me. They question if I am in the right bathroom or tell me that I am in the wrong one.”

This can be emotionally painful in addition to logistically difficult. “It can be very uncomfortable to constantly have to explain or reaffirm my gender to those I work with or teach,” says Jane. So what can we do? Here are some ideas:
  • Samira A., a senior at University of California, Davis, suggests, “Some campuses now have signs in and around restrooms that say, ‘Transgender Friendly.’ Hopefully more places adopt this policy.”
  • Melody Y., a senior at Rice University in Houston, Texas, says, “A lot of universities have organizations that foster support for all sexualities.”
  • Sherry H., a junior at Ashford University online, explains, “We should all be aware of how we erroneously hold others to our own expectations.”
  • Jane shares, “People [need] to be sensitive and create safe spaces for those who are gender nonconforming. We are expressing ourselves in the way that feels most true to us, even if it does not match what people expect of our gender.”
*Name changed for privacy.

Read more about the experiences of transgender students on campus.

Sexual Orientation

Though sometimes confused, sexual orientation differs from gender identity, and the two may be experienced independently. The Human Rights Campaign defines sexual orientation as an individual’s physical or emotional attraction to another person: whom a person likes, loves, has relationships with, and/or is involved with sexually. Some students explore their sexual identities while in college.

Here are some common terms:

Straight or Heterosexual:  A man (or person who identifies as male) who is attracted to women, or a woman (or person who identifies as female) who is attracted to men.

Lesbian or Homosexual:  A woman/female who is attracted to women.

Gay or Homosexual:  A man/male who is attracted to men.

Bisexual:  Someone who can be attracted to both men and women.

Pansexual:  A person who has the potential to be attracted to another person who is male, female, gender nonconforming, intersex, etc. This doesn’t mean being attracted to “everyone.” Just as a straight or heterosexual male is not attracted to all women, a pansexual person isn’t attracted to all people.

Queer:  This word historically had derogatory connotations, but is now sometimes used as an affirming descriptor by people of many gender identities and sexual orientations.

Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays explains that queer can describe anyone who “feels somehow outside the societal norms [of] gender, sexuality, or/and even politics–and wants to identify as queer.” Some straight allies and others who prefer to avoid labels also use queer as an identifier. The key is that the label is used by choice to describe oneself and one’s community.

Information about asexuality, and one student's story

Asexuality & Kaylee’s Story

According to the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, an asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. But as with other sexual orientations, people’s experiences and feelings are on a continuum.

Some asexual people may experience sexual attraction at some points in their lives but not all the time. Others experience attraction but don’t feel the need to act on it sexually. Some people who are asexual have a minimal level of attraction and sex drive.

Though an asexual person may not experience attraction, he or she may want intimacy and/or relationships. There isn’t anything wrong with asexual people. They don’t need to be “fixed” or “cured.”

Kaylee P., a student at Utah State University in Logan, has identified as asexual since the summer after her senior year in high school. She explains, “I noticed that I wasn’t the same as all my classmates in the eighth grade.” During a school trip, some other girls were talking about their sexual experiences. “After I got home, I wondered what was wrong with me. The girls all wanted so much, but I didn’t. [At first] I pushed it out of my mind. Maybe I was too young to be thinking of sex. After all, I was [only] almost a freshman [in high school],” she says.

During her last year in high school, people started teasing. “I don’t even know what you are,” one person said. “You hit on guys and girls but don’t even seem interested in it.” Kaylee says she tried to play it cool and laugh it off, telling herself, “I’ll just put sex and all that confusion in a box off to the side. It can wait until I’m out of college.”

Then Kaylee met her very best friend, whom, as she says, “I’m lucky to call my boyfriend.” He identifies as asexual. She explains, “We clicked instantly and became friends. He was very open about being ‘ace’ [asexual], but I had no clue what it was. Was it a choice? I didn’t want to seem silly or dumb, so I looked into it. I found comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who felt like that. It made me feel like I was okay, and that it was fine if I wasn’t into guys or girls in the way everyone else was.”

Common Misperceptions

Unfortunately, not everyone has been comfortable with her identity, including her mother. Kaylee explains, “I let her use my computer once, and she found The Asexual Visibility & Education Network (AVEN) in the search history. Later, she asked me about it and just as I [started to explain], she started yelling. It felt awful. I learned that not everyone will be happy that you are comfortable with this orientation.”

Kaylee even has a top 10 list of the sorts of things people say to her. Here they are, along with her responses:

10. You hate men.
“This is a drag, because I have always hung around other guys. All my siblings are male.”

9. You can’t “get a man.”
“People think the reason asexuals say they are asexual is [that] they don’t look ‘good enough’ to get a date. This isn’t true; we all look like average people.

Some asexuals are aromantic, meaning they don’t want a relationship like that. Some asexuals are like me and want a romantic relationship with others.”

8. Did you get your hormones checked?
“This one is fun. I have gone to a doctor [for] blood testing, etc. You know what? I’m a normal, healthy human being. But despite having this evidence, others feel like my hormones are wrong.”

7. You’ve just never had me in your bed.
“I can’t believe a guy actually told me that. Ew ew ew. People take others being asexual as a challenge. They think they’ll be the one to rescue us and make us into ‘normal’ sexual people.”

6. You’re just afraid to get into a relationship.
“It’s assumed that we just got out of bad relationships so we’re swearing off all love and putting up walls.”

5. You can’t be asexual. Humans can’t reproduce by themselves.
“They mix up the biology term with the orientation term.”

4. Were you sexually abused?
“No, I haven’t been sexually abused, and most asexuals will tell you that, too. There are a handful who may have been [just like anyone else], but this is not an appropriate question to ask anyone.”

3. You’re a closet lesbian or gay person.
“Some feel as though asexuality is an escape from facing who we really are–that we’re suppressing a part of ourselves because we, or people we’re around, view it as wrong–so it’s ‘easier’ to be asexual than gay. I’m not a lesbian. I like guys.”

2. You haven’t met the right person.
“It’s a common belief that someday I will meet the one person who I will want to [be sexual with]. I have met the right person, and I love him dearly. I just don’t see him in that way. That doesn’t mean I love him any less.”

1. How do you know if you haven’t tried it?
“That question can be used for anything: How do you know you’re straight if you’ve never [been] with someone of the same sex? How do you know you don’t like socks in your mouth if you’ve never put them in there? It’s one of those things that you just know.”

Finding Support

Kaylee has found AVEN to be very helpful. She says, “It’s full of information and a great community. It’s what I lean on for just chatting with others. It’s nice to know you’re not the only one out there that feels like this.”

Visit AVEN

Kaylee also feels fortunate to have her best friend. “My boyfriend has been with me ever since [we met], to share the ups and downs of people’s reactions when they find out,” she says. And Kaylee has some advice: “You may get burned when you come out of the closet to some people. Some just won’t accept you and it will hurt a lot, but you can’t let that get you down. Be thankful for every person that supports you, and be patient with everyone that doesn’t.”

She also says, “Even though asexuals are a tiny part of the population, it doesn’t mean we don’t exist. If you’re lucky enough to have someone feel safe and come out to you, don’t push the person away. Try to understand where the person is coming from. Of course, that should [be true for] every orientation.”

What Seems Clear May Be Unclear

While all of these terms and descriptions can be helpful, many people don’t fit squarely in one “box” or another of gender identity or sexual orientation. A person can embody qualities of both genders and have varying levels of emotional or sexual intimacy with different people. As Brooke M., a sophomore at University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, says, “Some people aren’t even sure how they see themselves yet.”

Labels also may not indicate anything about actual behavior. Here are some examples:

  • A person can identify in a certain way without having had any particular sexual experience. Many people know to whom they are attracted before they become sexually active at all.
  • A person who says he or she is straight may have sexual encounters with people of the same sex, etc. Melody Y., a senior at Rice University in Houston, Texas, says, “I genuinely believe that there are very few people that are 100 percent heterosexual.”

It may be useful to think of gender and sexual identity as existing on two continua, which may intersect for some and feel distinct for others. For some people, sexuality is fluid. Plus, how somebody identifies today may be the same later in life, or may look and feel different.

Using Labels Constructively

So you may be wondering, “Do we need all of these labels?” The answer is: yes and no.

For some people, labels are empowering and help them to feel part of a community. They can be used as a quick way to find other people who may feel or identify in the same way.

For others, the words are limiting. Some people would rather create their own definitions or reject labels entirely. Sherry H., a junior at Ashford University online, says, “Labels can assist us when we choose to use them but we don’t need to allow them to define us.”

Either way, exploring our society’s vocabulary for talking about gender and sexuality can offer a starting point for conversation. On many campuses, this type of discussion is encouraged through gender studies and other courses. Also, as Brooke notes, “Many schools have gay/straight alliances. We have one!” Programs like this offer opportunities for dialogue.

Sherry says, “We are all individuals and deserve respect for our individuality.” Embracing the diversity of human experience can allow you to think beyond ideas that may restrict people’s behavior and thoughts. Ultimately, this can allow everyone, including you, to feel comfortable and accepted no matter how you identify.

Take Action!

  • Talk with friends and others you trust about gender and sexuality.
  • Consider how concepts of gender, sex, and sexual orientation intersect.
  • It’s okay to have questions and talk about your own experiences, too.
  • If you’re not sure what words to use, ask.
  • Avoid making assumptions about how someone feels or identifies-or behaves.
  • Help create an accepting atmosphere on your campus. Look for classes and organizations to join.

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