Boy meets girl.
‘A male baby is born. He grows up to be a man and falls for a woman’. That’s the boy-meets-girl story. (Of course, you could tell it from the girl’s point of view too.)
That’s the script I’ve followed my entire life, and I thought that no other was possible. I was wrong. This story can take every twist and turn that you can imagine. Each twist leads to a unique story with a unique label— intersex, transgender, non-binary, bisexual . . .
And these stories are liberating. How? Because they help you to understand yourself and inspire you to live your own story, no matter how strange it may be.
Beneath the boy-meets-girl story lie three foundational concepts of society: sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Sex is a biological world, gender is sociological, and sexual orientation is psychological. (These three worlds, together, make up the LGBT universe.)
If you’d like to hear some unusual stories, you’ll need to visit these worlds.
Let’s start at the beginning—with sex. Shall we?
I know that biology is boring. It’s just that there is no other way to get to the fun concepts of gender and sexual orientation except through biology. Onward!
The definition of sex is not what you might expect. In The Selfish Gene, the ethologist Richard Dawkins tells us that within a species, the ones who make the smaller sex cells are male and the ones who make the larger sex cells are female.
But what does sex mean for us, humans?
For us the story of sex starts even before we are born—right at the moment we are conceived.
If the father contributes a Y chromosome to the mother’s egg, then the baby’s sex will be male. When he is born, his penis and scrotum would be visible. And inside him would be the rest of his reproductive system, including his testicles.
In his teens, he will develop male secondary sexual characteristics—thanks to testosterone, the male sex hormone. These characteristics include a deep voice, broad shoulders, body and facial hair, a tall stature, heavy bones, and large muscles. Most crucially, he will be able to create small sex cells, called sperm, and fertilize eggs. (I’ve just described puberty for males.)
Let’s now consider the opposite scenario.
If the father doesn’t contribute a Y chromosome, then the baby’s sex will be female. When she is born, her vulva would be visible. And inside her would be the rest of her reproductive system, including her birth canal, womb, and ovaries.
In her teens, she will develop female secondary sexual characteristics—thanks to estrogens and progesterone, the female sex hormones. These characteristics include developed breasts and large hips, thighs, and buttocks. Most crucially, she will be able to create large sex cells, called eggs, and nourish fertilized eggs. That’s puberty for females.
(These were just a few of the many differences between males and females. Here is the complete list.)
Some people, however, are neither male nor female. Rather, they are born in between the sexes—intersex.
We know that sex is determined by the size of your sex cells. But to understand intersex individuals, we would need to trade this simplistic definition for a more technical one—one based on primary sexual characteristics.
There are four primary sexual characteristics:
- The presence or absence of the Y chromosome.
- Your internal reproductive system, including your gonads. (The testicles are the male gonads, while the ovaries are the female ones.)
- Your levels of sex hormones.
- Your genitals.
Primary sexual characteristics are binary—they are either all male or all female for an individual, and exceptions are rare. If the primary sexual characteristics of a person are male, then their sex is male. On the other hand, if their primary sexual characteristics are female, then their sex is female.
Intersex people are the exceptions. They have a mix of male and female primary sexual characteristics.
Hang on. Being Intersex seems to be all about primary sexual characteristics. But what about SECONDARY sexual characteristics?
As their name suggests, they are ‘secondary‘ and don’t determine your sex. A short male is still a male, for instance. The differences in secondary sexual characteristics between males and females aren’t binary, rather they are statistical. In other words, secondary sexual characteristics are about averages—on average, males are taller than females.
While secondary sexual characteristics help you to attract the opposite sex, they don’t play a direct role in reproduction. Primary sexual characteristics, on the other hand, are essential to reproduction.
Alright. What causes a person to be intersex?
Sexual development is a long and complicated process, which means there are several opportunities for something unusual to happen. Nevertheless, Wikipedia tells us there are four broad causes of intersex conditions.
If a person’s sex chromosomes are XY, they are usually male. If they happen to get insufficient testosterone in the womb, then they would develop ambiguous genitals—an unusually tiny penis, a penis that is open down the middle, an empty scrotum.
And, now, the opposite scenario. If someone with XX sex chromosomes gets excessive testosterone in the womb, then they, too, would develop ambiguous genitals—a large clitoris, fused labia.
Other intersex individuals have neither XY nor XX chromosomes. Instead, they have exotic configurations of sex chromosomes such as X, XXX, XYY.
People usually have either ovaries or testicles, but some intersex people have a combination of both. The reasons for this condition are complex.
How does being intersex affect your life?
There will, probably, be lots of visits to doctors and surgeons.
Intersex babies with ambiguous genitals undergo cosmetic surgeries to make their genitals appear either male or female—a practice called sex assignment. (If the surgeon had tried to create female genitals, for example, then the intersex individual’s assigned sex would be female.) Parents often keep these surgeries a secret from their children, which adds to the confusion faced by intersex kids. The now-defunct Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) calls this the Concealment-Centered Model of treatment.
Preventing sex assignment is the key human rights issue for intersex advocacy groups, like ISNA. They insist that cosmetic surgeries should only happen once intersex kids are old enough to know what they want—of course, they could choose to skip these surgeries altogether. Surgeons, in turn, insist that these operations are less traumatic for infants than for adults and that they have helped many intersex individuals.
Ultimately, this fight between activists and the medical community is philosophical. While activists consider being intersex a healthy variation, doctors see it as a disorder of sexual development. For some intersex infants, though, surgical intervention is unavoidable—for instance, to reduce the risk of cancer or to provide an outlet for menstruation.
The intersex advocacy group interACT tells us that being intersex affects fertility as well. While some intersex individuals can’t have children at all, others can with medical assistance.
Some intersex people happen to be born with unambiguous genitals, i.e., male genitals or female genitals, so their intersex conditions would only be detected later in life. ISNA explains this under their FAQ:
Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
Our tour of the world of sex has come to an end, but don’t forget your two souvenirs. First, you now know what it means to be male and to be female. Second, you know that some people are neither male nor female.
It’s time to visit a very different place.
We need to change gears now—bye-bye biology, and hello sociology—because we will be talking about gender. Gender is vague and complex. It’s tough to understand and near-impossible to explain. But I’ll try my best.
Here is a rundown of the three major concepts of gender.
Concept 1: Gender is a Social Role. Traditionally, we have had two such roles and they have been opposites—masculine and feminine. Just as a play has roles that actors perform, genders are the roles that people perform in society. The descriptions of the masculine and feminine roles are called gender stereotypes.
And everyone is capable of performing either gender. Females are capable of being feminine as well as masculine. Ditto for males. The social role that you do perform is called your gender expression.
Don’t forget that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are the sexes and are biological concepts, whereas ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are the genders and are social concepts. A person whose gender is masculine would be called a boy or a man. And someone whose gender is feminine would be called a girl or a woman.
These words will come up again and again in this article, but their meanings won’t change—thank God!
Concept 2: Gender is Assigned at Birth. Traditionally, males have played the masculine role and females have played the feminine one. One of the foundational assumptions of society is that a person’s gender depends wholly on their sex.
Parents, doctors the world over assign genders to babies right when they are born based on their sex. For example, a male baby would always be assigned the masculine gender. And every individual faces social pressure to express their assigned gender throughout their life.
I guess we all knew that gender is a social role and that it is assigned based on sex—nothing too surprising. The radical bit comes next.
Concept 3: Gender Identity is the Real Gender. Each person is instinctively drawn to a particular social role. This is the true gender of the individual and is called their gender identity.
If your gender identity clashes with your assigned gender, then your gender identity should be considered. Therefore, society’s foundational assumption that gender is based on sex is flawed, and the practice of assigning gender at birth is harmful.
Whoa! Are you saying that a female baby can grow up to be a man?
Although it sounds like an Orwellian misuse of language, the answer is ‘Yes’. ‘Female’ refers to a person’s sex and ‘man’ to their gender. And since sex and gender are separate, females can very well grow up to be men.
A male whose gender identity is feminine can still be forced to express the masculine gender, but they would be distressed. Similarly, females whose gender identity is masculine would be miserable if they were required to express the feminine gender. Doctors call this distress gender dysphoria, which is treated by helping the individual transition to expressing their gender identity.
While sex doesn’t dictate your gender, expressing your gender identity may involve changing your sexual characteristics. This is done through medicines and surgeries.
In case you were wondering—it’s impossible to turn someone into the opposite sex. All medicines can do is give you the opposite sex’s secondary sexual characteristics, and surgeries can only partially change your primary sexual characteristics. For example, a male can have their testicles removed, but there is no way to get ovaries transplanted in their place.
Unlike sex which can be verified based on primary sexual characteristics, there is no way to measure gender identity. It follows that the only way to know someone’s gender identity is to ask them.
(For a colourful illustration of the three concepts of gender, check out the gender unicorn.)
How sociologists have determined these facts is unclear to me, but without these concepts it’s impossible to understand this section on gender. Onward!
We’ll now have a look at the ways in which assigned gender can interact with gender identity.
A cisgender person is someone whose assigned gender and gender identity match.
Put another way, if your sex is male and your gender identity is masculine, then you are a cisgender man. Similarly, a female whose gender identity is feminine is a cisgender woman. (As you have probably guessed, this label applies to most people.)
Once the transgender movement became popular, we needed a word for people who were not-transgender. And ‘cisgender’ is the word that was picked.
A transgender (trans) person is someone whose assigned gender is the opposite of their gender identity.
If you were born a male (natal male) but your gender identity is feminine, then you would be a trans woman. A natal female whose gender identity is masculine would be a trans man.
I think the meaning of my words is lost thanks to all the jargon—assigned gender, gender identity, natal sex. Perhaps, I could tell you a story instead?
A healthy male baby was born, and his parents named him John. When he was three, he started trying out clothes from his mom’s closet.
John is five now, and he is very unlike the other boys in his school. His favourite toys are Barbies, and all his friends are girls.
What John hasn’t told anyone is that he hates being called a boy. He fantasizes about cutting off his penis, and he is worried that he will one day have a beard and a deep voice like his father. All he wants is to be just like the girls in his class—’I was born in the wrong body’ is how he sees it. (These are all signs of gender dysphoria.)
It’s clear that John’s gender identity is feminine, so we will shift to the feminine pronouns (she, her). We’ll also need to use the name that she has chosen for herself: Jane.
Like Jane, most trans individuals know that something is wrong from a young age. Yet telling the world that you are a girl when everyone thinks that you are a boy isn’t easy. A trans person can spend decades hiding their gender identity—some even get married and have kids before coming out of the closet. Caitlyn Jenner is an example.
Once Jane is ready to tell her parents, teachers, and friends that she is trans, she can begin transitioning. That’s the long process of moving away from her assigned gender and towards her gender identity.
Whether Jane can transition at all depends on where she lives. In Saudi Arabia, she won’t even be allowed to wear women’s clothing. In Norway, by contrast, an application is all that it will take to change her gender on her passport.
Jane starts her transition by telling everyone her new name and preferred pronouns. No haircuts for a long time—she needs to grow her hair—and lots of shopping—she needs dresses, skirts, frocks, makeup. And, of course, she would use the girls’ bathroom in school from now on.
She is 13 now and a bit worried. Some girls in her class have started showing signs of female secondary sexual characteristics. Plus, Jane hates the slight bulge that her genitals make through her clothing. Luckily, there are do-it-yourself solutions to her problems: breast padding, cleavage enhancement, hip and buttock padding, genital tucking.
We have reached the end of the first stage of Jane’s transition—her social transition. Phew! It wasn’t easy, and she was lucky to have supportive parents and friends. By the way, you need to be at least three years of age to start your social transition.
Next is Jane’s medical transition. She’s now going to need a supportive healthcare system (specifically psychiatrists and endocrinologists).
The first thing that doctors will do is stop her from developing male secondary sexual characteristics. This is done through medicines called puberty-blockers. (You need to be at least nine to start taking puberty-blockers.)
A few years later, Jane would start taking cross-sex hormones—i.e., estrogens—to develop female secondary sexual characteristics. (You need to be at least 16 to start taking cross-sex hormones.)
Finally, Jane would surgically transition. Since surgeries are irreversible, she will need to wait until she is 18 before taking this serious step. Once she is an adult, here are the two operations that she would have.
Although cross-sex hormones would have developed Jane’s breasts, she would still be left with smaller breasts than most cisgender women. Surgeons can help her out with a top surgery—which is the standard boob job.
Finally, Jane can have a bottom surgery—which would remove her male genitals and create female genitals. This surgery is also called sex-reassignment surgery.
I guess you can be truly trans only once you’ve had your bottom surgery.
No, you don’t have to do anything to be trans. If your assigned gender is the opposite of your gender identity, then you are trans—no questions asked.
Moreover, everyone’s transition is different since each individual has different options and would make different decisions.
A medical transition is expensive. A surgical transition is even more so, and it can lead to complications. Some end their transition after socially transitioning, while others go on to medically transition. Very few choose to get surgeries.
I created Jane’s story to talk about the major options that trans women have. (To understand these options, I read the Standards of Care published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.) A trans man would have a similar experience, just in the opposite direction.
Even Jane’s story would have been different if she had made different decisions. For example, if she had not taken puberty-blockers, then she would have developed male secondary sexual characteristics. And she would have had to consider her options to hide these unwanted characteristics—electrolysis to remove facial and body hair, voice therapy to counter her deep voice, and facial feminization surgery.
Can trans people have children?
The trans community faces reproductive problems, because of their transition.
Cross-sex hormones will reduce your fertility, and a bottom surgery will make you infertile, so it’s a good idea for trans women to freeze their sperm and for trans men to freeze their eggs before starting their medical transition.
Trans individuals who take puberty-blockers can never have children—sadly, Jane is among them. These medicines prevented her reproductive system from becoming functional. In other words, her body never produced any sperm at all.
How does Jane’s story end?
During her transition, Jane’s gender expression would become more and more feminine. At some point, people who meet her for the first time won’t be able to guess that she is trans. In other words, she would start to pass as a cisgender woman. (Passing will be a piece of cake for Jane since she started her transition so early. The later you start, the tougher it gets.)
After passing, Jane can choose to be open about being trans—be visible. Or she could choose to hide the truth—be in stealth—in some situations, say at her job.
Sadly, not all trans women are as lucky as Jane. Many are abandoned by their families. These trans women travel to cities where people are liberal and where they can meet others like themselves.
Here are two examples of communities for trans women. In India and Pakistan, you have hijra communities where young trans women are lead by veteran ‘gurus’. The documentary Paris is Burning gives us a look into ball culture in New York City, where recruits live in ‘houses’ governed by ‘mothers’. Many women in both of these communities work as prostitutes.
A few trans women even de-transition. This means they were really cisgender men who transitioned under the mistaken belief that they were trans, and have now returned to expressing the masculine gender.
Every trans person deserves love and respect—that’s not up for debate. However, some experts question the beliefs and practices of the trans movement.
When Harry Became Sally is a book which argues that sex and gender are the same thing. It’s by Ryan Anderson who is a conservative thinker.
Who Knows Best is a BBC documentary which says that young kids shouldn’t be allowed to transition. It features Kenneth Zucker who is the world’s leading expert on gender dysphoria.
The Man Who Would Be Queen is a book which holds that transgenderism is to do with sexual orientation and not gender identity. It’s by Michael Bailey, the former head of Psychology at Northwestern University.
Here are the labels from the trans community.
Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) is a mismatch between a person’s assigned gender and gender expression. Minus the jargon—any natal male who breaks the masculine stereotype is GNC, and so is any natal female who breaks the feminine stereotype.
Right off the bat we know that trans people are GNC since they embrace the opposite of their assigned genders. But even a cisgender person can be GNC. For example, a cisgender man with pink hair is GNC.
Genderfuck is to be GNC in an obvious way and with the spirit of rebellion. A muscular man with tattoos on a Harley Davidson who sports pink hair is genderfucking.
Crossdressers are males who occasionally express the feminine stereotype, particularly by dressing as women. They are, both, cisgender and GNC.
Drag queens are professional entertainers who crossdress. They genderfuck as their gender expression is hyper-feminine—massive wigs, thick makeup, high heels, flamboyant outfits. Drag queens sing and dance at nightclubs and events that pay them.
Transvestite is a psychiatric diagnosis for a male who is sexually aroused by his crossdressing. Outside of a medical context, it’s an offensive term for a crossdresser.
Sissy is a crossdresser with a sexual flavour—someone who likes being dominated and humiliated. It’s also an offensive term for a young male who is GNC.
Transsexual is a transgender individual who has had (or wants to have) a bottom surgery. It’s an outdated term, and most transsexual people prefer the label ‘transgender’.
Tranny is an offensive term for a trans woman or crossdresser.
Trap is an offensive term for an attractive trans woman or crossdresser.
Ladyboy is an offensive term for a trans woman in Thailand.
Shemale is an offensive term for a trans woman who has a penis as well as developed breasts.
TERF stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’. It’s used by supporters of the trans movement to refer to those feminists who insist that trans women aren’t really women. An example is J. K. Rowling.
Most people don’t spend much time thinking about their gender. Well, the non-binary community has, and it has identified the unspoken assumptions about gender that we all take for granted.
Here are the four big assumptions about gender that the non-binary community challenges.
Gender binary is the assumption that there are only two genders: masculine and feminine. However, this community believes that gender is a spectrum with masculinity on one extreme and femininity on the other. Between them would lie infinite and unexplored non-binary genders. In other words, the gender identity of a non-binary person (enby) can be a unique blend of masculinity and femininity.
Gender-staticism is the assumption that an individual would carry the same gender throughout their life. However, this community believes that we can be gender-fluid. In other words, the gender identity of an enby can keep changing—a man today, woman tomorrow.
Mono-genderism is the assumption that an individual can have only one gender at a particular time. However, this community believes that we can be polygender. In other words, the gender identity of an enby can encompass two, three, or even thousands of genders at the same time.
Genderism is the assumption that everyone has a gender. However, this community believes that we can be agender. In other words, an enby may not have a gender identity to begin with.
As there are so many different ways to be an enby, it’s difficult to define them. Perhaps, it’s best to define what they are not. An enby is someone whose gender identity is neither completely masculine nor completely feminine. (It goes without saying, all enbies are GNC.)
Understandably, enbies want society to use gender-neutral pronouns for them. So he-his and she-her are out. Instead, you’ll need to use they-them pronouns (although some enbies prefer more exotic options.)
Here are the labels from the non-binary community.
Androgynous refers to people whose gender expression is right in the middle of the gender spectrum. This creates a gender-neutral look, making it difficult for people to guess whether the person is a man or a woman.
While it’s true that many enbies are androgynous, some have gender expressions that lean either towards the masculine or the feminine end of the spectrum.
Intersex people can also be called androgynous. But for them, this label has nothing to do with gender expression, as it is being used to describe their position in between the sexes.
Genderqueer and non-binary essentially mean the same thing, but there is a slight difference. While non-binary is simply a descriptive term, to be genderqueer implies being non-binary with a rebellious attitude.
Two-Spirit is a Native American enby.
Our tour of the world of gender has come to an end. Figuring out the nuanced concepts of gender is enough to give anyone a headache—luckily, our final destination is easy-peasy. Onward!
Are you attracted to members of the opposite sex or your own sex? The answer to this question is your sexual orientation.
But what makes an individual heterosexual and another homosexual—is it their genes, is it what happened in the womb, or, perhaps, their childhood?
I don’t know. No one does.
We do know that your sexual orientation would reveal itself during your teens and that you can’t change it—you don’t get to choose.
All of us already understand heterosexuality—thanks to our families, friends, novels, movies— and I have nothing to add (although I do have an article explaining the dating preferences of the heterosexual community.)
Here are the non-heterosexual orientations.
A homosexual (gay) person is attracted to members of their own sex.
That’s simple enough. Now, let’s take a closer look by breaking up homosexuality into three separate concepts—orientation, behaviour, and identity.
Meet Joe, a teen male, who is attracted to other males and has fantasies about them. Joe’s sexual orientation, by definition, is gay.
Despite his desires, Joe asks himself ‘Could I really be gay?’ He doesn’t act on his fantasies and, instead, starts to date a female. In other words, Joe’s sexual behaviour is heterosexual (straight).
Finally, there is the question of how Joe sees himself. When he asks himself what his own sexual orientation is, Joe answers ‘I guess, I’m straight’. And, so, Joe’s sexual identity is straight.
What’s your point?
Sexual orientation, behaviour, and identity don’t always match. Sometimes even people who have had gay sex continue to see themselves as straight. Furthermore, over a lifetime, a person’s sexual behaviour can change, and so can their sexual identity. Their sexual orientation, however, doesn’t change.
I don’t think anyone believes their sexual identity is separate from their orientation.
I admit, it feels odd to separate your own sexuality into three concepts that don’t always match. But sex researchers are well aware of the differences. For example, when trying to understand the risk of HIV spreading, they will measure sexual behaviour. On the other hand, if they needed to understand society’s opinions on sexuality, then they would measure sexual identity.
So when people talk about sexual fluidity, it’s really just sexual behaviour and identity that change —not orientation?
And what about Joe? How does his story end?
Once Joe acknowledges to himself that his sexual orientation is indeed gay—thereby making it a part of his sexual identity—his story can go several different ways.
Some people are ashamed of their homosexuality to the point of considering suicide: ‘It’s impossible for me to imagine my life as a gay man’. Fortunately, counsellors and support groups can help Joe see that he isn’t the only one and that he is going to be fine.
Even after making peace with his homosexuality within himself, Joe may still worry about the acceptance of the people around him—his family, friends, employer. He may decide to lead a double life by carefully hiding his gay behaviour. Donald Cory describes such a life with haunting words: ‘Society has handed me a mask to wear . . . Everywhere I go, at all times and before all sections of society, I pretend’.
Or Joe can choose to be open about his sexual orientation and come out of the closet. Of course, being openly gay comes with its own challenge—dealing with homophobia.
Homophobia is anything that is anti-gay people. It’s a pretty broad term, but here are the important bits.
An article criticizing homosexuality is homophobic, and so is bullying and violence against gay people. These were examples of explicit homophobia, but we also have implicit homophobia: believing that being straight is somehow better than being gay.
There are religious groups that forbid gay sex. Similarly, some governments have made it illegal. Even governments that do allow gay sex may be anti-gay in other ways: they can stop gay people from joining the military and gay couples from getting married or adopting kids. These were examples of institutionalized homophobia.
Ironically, even a gay person can be homophobic, and this leads to tragic results: internalized homophobia and horizontal homophobia. If a gay person hates their own homosexuality (like Joe initially did), that’s internalized homophobia. If a closeted gay person goes so far as to attack the gay community, that’s horizontal homophobia.
One last bit about homophobia—it isn’t really a ‘phobia’. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. As we have just seen, homophobia has nothing to do with panic attacks and fainting. Instead, it has everything to do with prejudice and hatred.
Sounds rough. Do all gay people lead unhappy and difficult lives?
No, not at all! Gay people are perfectly normal, healthy, and capable of leading happy lives.
They are a sexual minority, however, and that comes with its challenges. It also makes a difference where you live—Sweden is a great place to be gay, Iran not at all. Joe’s fictional account was meant to highlight these challenges.
One last question: doesn’t Joe’s story mean that everyone is secretly gay?
No, the vast majority are straight. Joe’s story simply tells us that coming out is a process which starts with self-acceptance and ends with self-disclosure. And it can be a long one—some come out in their teens, some in middle-age.
Wikipedia says it best with these words about coming out:
Framed and debated as a privacy issue, coming out of the closet is described and experienced variously as a psychological process or journey; decision-making or risk-taking; a strategy or plan; a mass or public event; a speech act and a matter of personal identity; a rite of passage; liberation or emancipation from oppression; an ordeal; a means toward feeling gay pride instead of shame and social stigma; or even career suicide.
I guess it’s impossible to write about sexual orientation without talking, at least a little bit, about sexy stuff. So here goes!
Here are the labels from the gay male community.
You can label gay males according to the roles they play during sex. Top is a gay male who is the penetrative partner, and bottom is the receptive one. Being versatile means you are open to both roles. (Gay male sex is way more expansive than what this top-bottom dichotomy might suggest. Have a look: Gay Male Sexual Practices.)
There are even labels based on body type. Twink is a gay male who is young, slim, and has no facial or body hair. Bear is its opposite—a large and hairy gay male.
Finally, we have labels based on gender expression. Masc is a gay male whose gender expression is masculine, and femme is one whose gender expression is, unsurprisingly, feminine. Femboy is a young femme.
Mascs don’t face a lot of homophobia since they pass as straight. The opposite is true for femmes as they are GNC. Sadly, femmes have a tough time even within the community, as most online dating profiles declare ‘No femmes’.
Faggot, fag are offensive terms for a gay male.
Both, gay male and lesbian communities use many of the same labels, but each community uses them slightly differently.
Here are the labels from the lesbian community.
Top is a female who plays the dominant role during sex—initiating sex, controlling its direction, and making sure that both partners have a good time. Bottom is, of course, its opposite. She plays the submissive role during sex—following the lead of the top. Switch is open to both roles.
So, here is a weird analogy.
If we talk about gay male couples (or even straight ones), sex is a one-act play. The top orgasms (comes), and that’s the end of the whole production.
But lesbian sex is more like a two-act play. The top pleasures the bottom—through licking, rubbing, fingering, using a dildo, or a strap-on dildo—and the bottom duly comes. End of act one.
And now what? Will the bottom now pleasure the top?
Maybe, but maybe not. Some bottoms don’t like to reciprocate; they are called pillow princesses. Some tops don’t want reciprocation; they are called stone butches. Although pillow princesses and stone butches say ‘No’ to an act two, other couples continue their play.
Why the weird analogy?
It’s to better understand the top-bottom dichotomy in lesbian culture. Through a sex survey, the lesbian publication Autostraddle found out that being a top isn’t just about being dominant. It also implies that you enjoy giving your partner an orgasm more than you enjoy having one yourself. ‘The bottom comes first’, emphasises Autostraddle. (You can visit the varied world of lesbian sex here: Lesbian Sexual Practices.)
Another way to label lesbians is to look at their gender expression. Butch is a lesbian whose gender expression is masculine—like Ellen Degeneres. Most butches are tops and are attracted to femmes. Dyke is an offensive term for a butch.
We have already met stone butches during my ‘weird analogy’—they don’t like their genitals to be touched during sex. Stud is a fashionable black butch.
Femme is a lesbian whose gender expression is feminine. Most femmes are bottoms and are attracted to butches. Lipstick lesbian is a femme who is attracted to other femmes.
Not all lesbians fit into the butch-femme dichotomy. Some are right in the middle with an androgynous gender expression—chapstick lesbians. They are also called stems.
Butches, studs, chapstick lesbians, and stems are all GNC.
One final label: lesbian bed death. That’s a long-term relationship between two lesbians who have stopped having sex. Sigh.
Here are some additional differences between the sex lives of gay males and lesbians.
In The Evolution of Desire, the evolutionary psychologist David Buss notes that gay males prioritise physical attractiveness and youth when looking for a partner. In contrast, lesbians place little importance on these qualities.
Gay males also differ from lesbians when it comes to promiscuity. ‘Whereas male homosexuals frequently search for new and varied sex partners,’ writes Buss, ‘lesbians are more likely to settle into intimate, lasting, committed relationships.’
In The Red Queen, the science journalist Matt Ridley points out that when gay males do get into committed relationships, cheating becomes a problem. In lesbian relationships, however, it’s unlikely that your partner will cheat on you.
Are you attracted to members of the opposite sex or your own sex?
‘Both!’ says the bisexual person, although they would probably have a preference for a particular sex.
Meet Emma, a bisexual female whose sexual preference is for a male partner. This means she has happily dated only males her entire life. In other words, Emma’s sexual orientation is bisexual, but her sexual identity and behaviour have been straight.
Sadly for Emma, she has recently been put in prison, and now there aren’t any males around. To her surprise, she adjusts to her new situation and starts to date another female. Once she gets out of prison, Emma would resume dating males exclusively.
My point is that a lot of bisexual people don’t act bisexual because of a strong sexual preference. Additionally, just like gay people, bisexual individuals may change their sexual identity and behaviour but not their orientation—Emma was bisexual even before she went to prison. (School and college dormitories are like prisons in that way: there will be more gay sex than what you would usually find in society.)
Emma would probably not change her sexual identity to ‘bisexual’ even after her prison experience. At most, she may call herself ‘heteroflexible‘ or ‘bi-curious‘.
The story of Emma also tells us the broader story of bisexual erasure—most people don’t believe that bisexuality exists at all and that everyone is either straight or gay. Some of these people may be bisexual themselves.
Why would bisexual people deny their own bisexuality?
Society doesn’t like people who are not-straight—we have already discussed homophobia. And the gay community doesn’t like people who are not-gay. ‘Bisexuals are by definition problematic in this regard, blurring the boundaries between insider and outsider’, says the bisexual activist Robyn Ochs. Essentially, bisexual people are forced to pick a side.
Why does the gay community hate bisexual people?
They think bisexual people are really gay people who are too afraid to call themselves gay. ‘Many lesbians and gay men believe that bisexuals have less commitment to “the community”’, adds Ochs. They even have a name for such individuals: queer apologetic. And being queer apologetic is terrible for the gay community’s fight against homophobia.
That said, gay males and bisexual males do have a common enemy: HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted infections. The HIV-charity Avert tells us that males who have sex with males are ’27 times more at risk of HIV compared with the general population’. That’s because infections spread easier through unprotected anal sex than through unprotected vaginal sex. Plus, condoms break more often during anal sex. (Being a bottom for anal sex is the riskiest sex that you can have.) I don’t mean to scare anyone—all you need to do is take precautions.
Here are the labels from the bisexual community.
Polysexual is someone who is attracted to multiple genders.
Pansexual is someone who is attracted to all genders.
Omnisexual is someone who is attracted to all genders but has a preference for a particular gender.
Notice that the three labels above have considered sexual orientation from the point of view of gender. In contrast, I have defined sexual orientation from the point of view of sex in the rest of the article.
Are you attracted to members of the opposite sex or your own sex?
‘Neither!’ said the asexual person (ace). Asexuality is more a lack of a sexual orientation than one. Aces aren’t attracted to anybody at all.
Asexuality is equally fascinating and confusing. Unfortunately, it hasn’t received any academic interest (beyond being treated as a medical disorder). To make sense of their experiences, the asexual community has had to come up with their own concepts. Here are some of them.
Aces are still interested in dating people. Why? It’s because relationships aren’t just about sex, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) reminds us. Relationships are also about emotional support and companionship—things that even aces need. Everybody needs to cuddle once in a while.
In other words, aces don’t feel any sexual attraction, but they still feel romantic attraction. Hetero-romantic, homo-romantic, bi-romantic, and, even, a-romantic are all romantic orientations that an ace can have.
The idea of a romantic orientation has been applied to people who have other sexual orientations as well. A female who likes to have sex with, both, males and females but exclusively dates males would be bisexual-heteroromantic. Similarly, a male who enjoys having sex with females but doesn’t want to get into a relationship would be heterosexual-aromantic.
Although aces aren’t sexually attracted to anyone, they may still have sex for a variety of reasons. They may want to satisfy their romantic partner, have kids, follow society’s expectations, or they may simply be curious. (Yet another example of the difference between sexual orientation and behaviour.)
AVEN also draws a distinction between ‘having a sex drive’ and ‘feeling sexual attraction’. While a sex drive is the desire to feel sexual pleasure, sexual attraction is what happens when that sex drive is directed towards someone. This, almost philosophical, distinction gives us two types of aces—libidoists and non-libidoists.
An ace with a sex drive is a libidoist—they have sexual fantasies, watch porn, and even masturbate. But all of these happen to be solo pleasures—their sex drive doesn’t make them want to actually have sex.
An ace without a sex drive is a non-libidoist—they never even masturbate. They are a rare breed as the community is mostly made up of libidoists.
Most aces are perfectly content to be asexual. Nevertheless, if an ace happens to be distressed by their inability to feel sexual attraction, then they can get treated for hypoactive sexual desire disorder.
Here are the labels from the asexual community.
Grey-ace is someone who does indeed feel sexual attraction but only rarely or weakly.
Allosexual is someone who is neither an ace nor a grey-ace. In other words, they are people who feel sexual attraction with the usual intensity and frequency. (Needless to say, most of us are allosexual.)
The intensity and frequency of sexual attraction that an individual may feel can be thought of as a spectrum. On one extreme you would have aces, and allosexual people would be on the other. In between these extremes would lie grey-aces. What I’ve just described is the asexual spectrum.
You now know all the concepts from the LGBT universe—but we still need to put everything together.
When we do put all the concepts of sex, gender, and sexual orientation together, we are left with two worldviews. I call them the traditional view of society and the LGBT view of society.
The short version of what I’m trying to say is that the traditional view of society has certain assumptions that the LGBT view challenges. If you’d prefer the long version, here it is.
Here are the five foundational assumptions of society on which the traditional view is built.
Sexual Binary is the assumption that everyone is either a male or a female. The intersex community doesn’t conform to this assumption.
Gender Binary is the assumption that there are only two genders: masculine and feminine. The non-binary community doesn’t conform to this assumption.
Biological Determination of Gender is the assumption that your natal sex determines your gender. The trans community doesn’t conform to this assumption.
Gender Stereotype is the assumption that all men will meet society’s definition of masculinity and all females will meet its definition of femininity. Crossdressers, drag queens, femme males, butch females don’t conform to this assumption.
Heteronormativity is the assumption that everyone is straight. The gay community and the bisexual community don’t conform to this assumption.
All the communities that don’t conform to the five foundational assumptions, taken together, form the larger LGBT community. Although the acronym has initials only for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender subcommunities, it comprises each and every subcommunity that doesn’t conform to these assumptions.
Innumerable, longer names for the LGBT community exist—LGBTQIA, LGBT2Q+, for example—but the relationships between the letters and subcommunities they represent always stay the same.
‘Q’ always stands either for ‘queer’ or ‘questioning’, ‘I’ for ‘intersex’, ‘A’ for ‘asexual’, ‘2’ or ‘TS’ for ‘two-spirit’, ‘H’ for ‘hijra’, ‘P’ for ‘pansexual’, ‘G’ for ‘genderqueer’, ‘U’ for ‘unsure’, ‘C’ for curious, ‘O’ or ‘+’ for any (other) subcommunities that got left out of the acronym. A second ‘T’ in an acronym would be for ‘transvestite’.
I’m happy to say that we have already discussed most of these subcommunities. Here are the two that got left out.
Queer is a label for anyone who is a part of the LGBT community, although it doesn’t reveal which subcommunity they belong to. This label has a long political history during which it’s meaning has kept evolving. Being queer also carries implications of being rebellious.
Questioning, curious, unsure are all labels for a member of the LGBT community who isn’t sure if they truly belong in the community.
Here are some additional labels from the LGBT community.
Pride parade is an outdoor event celebrating the LGBT community.
Pride is the promotion of dignity within and visibility of the LGBT community (in contrast to feeling shame and living closeted lives). It can also refer to a pride parade.
Rainbow flag is the multi-coloured flag of the LGBT community.
Ally is someone who conforms to the five foundational assumptions and who, at the same time, supports the LGBT community.
We have examined the theory of LGBT, but their community isn’t made up of cold concepts—it’s made up of people, with their feelings and their dreams. People who suffer insults, discrimination, and, sometimes, unspeakable violence.
A society where every member of this community is happy and successful would be a wonderful society.
Thanks for visiting the LGBT universe with me.
A word about labels. LGBT labels are still evolving and are tricky to define. To come up with my definitions, I’ve read the discussions in the countless subreddits dedicated to LGBT subcommunities. I’ve tried to keep the definitions narrow so that their meanings don’t overlap.
The definitions in this article are not canonical—in fact, many people would disagree with them. You can, however, use these definitions as a starting point, just keep refining them as you get to know the LGBT community better.