A new gender/sexuality lexicon

(Photo by Torbakhopper)

(Photo by Torbakhopper)

It’s no secret that the Hudson Valley – and in particular, Ulster County – is a community that is largely inclusive of LGBTQ persons. The Valley is home to multiple pride festivals and its own LGBTQ Community Center, and the website Big Gay Hudson Valley even has a feature called “What’s in Your Gayborhood?” that allows visitors to search for LGBTQ-friendly hangouts by location.

But even in a place that is, on the whole, welcoming, there remains a need for individuals and organizations to understand the language needed to create a comfortable atmosphere for LGBTQ persons. After all, being an ally doesn’t automatically instill in one the knowledge needed to create that environment. That’s where the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center’s Cultural Competency Training comes in.

The program, which is funded primarily by the New York State Department of Health, is taught at various organizations by educators from Kingston’s LGBTQ Center. It aims to help create welcoming environments for the LGBTQ community by educating people on language and practices that are inclusive. Fred Mayo, acting executive director and president of the Board at the LGBTQ Center, says that organizations often “realize they don’t have the skills or language” to create that welcoming environment. Says program specialist Tess Martin, “a lot of social service organizations and nonprofit organizations” make use of the program. Common among those clients are healthcare providers.

The Competency Training materials advise trainees to “Think inclusively, confront bias and question commonly held assumptions.” In practice, this includes such actions as using inclusive language. On an intake form, for example, a doctor’s office might opt out of the traditional relationship categories of “husband/wife” and “mother/father,” instead providing options like “partner” and “parent.” Materials distributed by the Center advise that organizations “provide a blank line” whenever possible, allowing patients to describe their own gender and relationships. Perhaps most significantly, the Center’s materials instruct trainees to “Be sensitive to the words the client uses and reflect them back. If your client says ‘my friend’ or ‘my partner,’ use those same words in follow-up questions.” It’s a helpful guideline in any scenario, regardless of person or setting. It’s not uncommon for unwed couples beyond adolescence to prefer the term “partner,” regardless of sexual orientation.

While the use of inclusive actions and language to acknowledge possibilities outside of heterosexuality is still an issue, Mayo says that it has made great progress. Now, he says, “The challenge that is very hard for some people is how to address trans people.” This brings to light one of the crucial distinctions that is commonly misunderstood. “Sex is an activity; gender is an identity,” says Mayo. While many people have no problem understanding same-sex relationships, those same people may be uncertain of how to address individuals who do not fit the traditional gender norms of “male” and “female,” and may confuse a person’s sexual orientation with their gender identity.

While it’s important for medical professionals to be respectful, it’s also vital for doctors to know intimate information about their patients as soon as possible, so they (or at least their intake forms) are afforded a bluntness that doesn’t apply in a social setting. Their paperwork will ask for a patient’s gender before a person has ever stepped into an examination room. A similar frankness in a different context might, understandably, be off-putting. Instead, Mayo reiterates one of the training principles: “Respond to the person and how they identify themselves.” He advises that one “respond to clues” and “let it unfold.”

Knowing a person’s gender, sexual orientation and preferred pronouns is not essential to acquaintanceship. “If they’re Pat, they’re Pat,” says Mayo, implying that, while gender-neutral names may not indicate gender, it’s okay not to know that information immediately. One notable benefit of meeting someone in a social context is that you may have a mutual friend or acquaintance who already knows how the individual prefers to be addressed.

Mayo says that one of the most helpful things that a person can do is to simply acknowledge that there is a reality outside of the heteronormative one that is culturally dominant. If Mayo is teaching a class on customer service, he says, he’ll explain to students, “You can’t assume two men checking into a hotel want two beds. Ask them, ‘Two beds or one?’” That way, says Mayo, you keep the conversation open to possibility.

While gender identity and sexual orientation/identity are highly individual, there are certain terms that it is useful to know. We’ve provided the following as a guide to some common and contemporary words as a primer of sorts, but it is by no means comprehensive. Thank you to the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, whose Glossary of Terms (provided by GLSEN Hudson Valley) has provided the basis for several of the terms adapted here.


Gender/sexuality Lexicon

Asexual: Describes someone who is not sexually attracted to anyone and/or someone who has no desire for sexual activity. Some asexual persons may still have a desire for romantic partnerships.


Assigned (“biological”) sex: A determination of sex at birth based on chromosomes, hormones and genitalia. This assignment may or may not be consistent with an individual’s gender identity.


Bisexual: Indicates a sexual orientation in which a person feels physical attraction to both men and women.


Cisgender: Term for a person whose gender identity agrees with their assigned sex, such as a self-identifying woman whose birth certificate reads “female.”


Gender Expression: The external indicators that an individual presents to others to communicate gender identity. This may include such things as voice, hair and clothing.


Gender Identity: An individual’s self-perception of their gender as male, female, both or something else.


Genderqueer/Genderfluid: Genderqueer is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity is neither exclusively masculine nor exclusively feminine. Genderqueer people may perceive themselves as genderless, embodying qualities of both/multiple genders, being of a gender that is entirely separate of the male/female binary or having a fluctuating gender identity. The latter is often referred to as “genderfluid.”


Heteronormativity and Cisnormativity: Refer to traditional concepts of sexuality and gender that exclude persons who do not fall into the binary and complementary roles of “male” and “female” with regard to sexuality, gender identity or gender roles.


Intersex: Refers to a person whose biological sex is neither wholly male nor wholly female. From birth, they do not fit the typical binary of “male” or “female” sex assignment.


Pansexual (omnisexual): Refers to a person who feels physical attraction to people regardless of gender identity or sex. This term differs from bisexuality in that it does not allude to a gender binary.


Polyamorous: Describes a person who engages in intimate sexual relationships involving more than two people, with all parties knowing and consenting. It does not indicate a person’s gender identity nor to whom they are attracted.


Queer: A blanket term that was originally used pejoratively, but is now used positively by many people to describe persons whose sexualities and/or gender identities do not conform to heterosexual or cisgendered concepts.


Questioning: People who are uncertain of their sexual orientation or gender identity.


Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS): A surgical procedure or series of procedures that a transgender person may undergo to match their bodies to their gender identities. A person may choose not to have these procedures (or may not be able to have these procedures), but may still identify as transgendered.


Sexual Behavior: Refers to a person’s sexual activity. For various reasons, this may be inconsistent with their definition of their own sexual orientation. For example, a person from a culture or family that is not accepting of homosexuality may engage in heterosexual sexual activity.


Sexual Identity: How a person defines their sexual orientation. These definitions can include “gay,” “lesbian,” “bi,” “straight” and others.


Sexual Orientation: Describes to whom a person is physically attracted. May or may not be consistent with sexual behavior.


Transgender: People whose gender identities run contrary to the cultural norms of their assigned sex. Often, a transgender person will be transitioning toward the “opposite” sex of the one they were assigned at birth. In this case, use the pronouns that they have chosen. A trans-man will likely prefer pronouns like “he/him,” while a trans-woman will likely prefer “she/her.”


Trans*: Similar to transgender, but typically used as an abbreviation or a more inclusive alternative that includes people who are genderqueer, genderfluid, transitioning or of any variation of identity that does not conform to the traditional gender binary.


To schedule a Cultural Competency Training, contact Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, 300 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 331-5300, https://lgbtqcenter.org.


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