A Parent's Guide to the LGBTQ Community

Sexual and romantic orientation, gender, and how to support your child

teen LGBT watching TV together

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Whether your child has recently come out to you, or you are wondering if they might one day identify as part of the LGBTQ community, you likely have a lot of questions. There is an entire language and subculture that you may not be familiar with. What does it mean to be part of the LGBTQ community? What is the difference between sex and gender? What do all the different words for sexual and gender orientations mean?

Understanding the general concepts behind gender identity and expression—and sexual and romantic orientation—is key to understanding your child or loved one. Being comfortable with the language of LGBTQ culture can help you have conversations with your child and express that you accept them as they are. 

Sex

A person’s sex is a biological descriptor, usually in reference to the genitals they were born with. A person’s sex can also be referring to their genetic makeup (XX or XY, for example).

Sex assigned at birth” is a phrase used to refer to the sex a baby was assumed to be based on their external genitalia.

Intersex

Intersex refers to people who have biological and physical traits associated with both male and female sexes. Intersex is complex in that it can include a variety of sexual anatomies, reproductive traits, hormones, and chromosomes.

For example, an intersex individual may have outwardly male genitalia, but upon genetic testing, it’s discovered they have female sex chromosomes (XX). Another example, a person may be born with a combination of female and male reproductive tissue—like both a penis and a vagina.

Or, an additional example, they may have outwardly appearing female genitalia but not have internal female reproductive organs like ovaries and may not secrete estrogens as would be expected from a female.    

Intersex individuals may not discover this until puberty or later in life. Sometimes, people can live a full life as an intersex individual and never know. 

Being intersex is not the same as being transgender (which is further explained below.) While intersex is a biological phenomenon, transgender is an identity issue. Some intersex individual’s gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth—but some do not.

In the past, parents of babies with intersex characteristics were encouraged to have surgical changes made to their child in order to have them fit one specific sex or the other. This was intended to protect the child psychologically and protect them from bullying. However, when these children grew up, they may or may not have identified as the sex assigned to them after surgery. The correctional surgery was not as psychologically protective as was once thought.

The current belief on intersex children is that parents should wait until the child is old enough to say whether or not they want surgery on their reproductive or sexual organs, and until the child is old enough to share their felt gender identity.  

Gender

Gender refers to the social construct of what it means to be “male” or “female.” When we talk about gender, we are referring to both society’s view of gender and an individual’s view of gender. Without looking at both aspects of gender, understanding the difference between sex, gender, and the variety of ways it can be expressed is impossible.

Every society has certain traits, looks, or values that they may assign to be male, female, or neither. As an individual, a person may associate more with one gender than another. Or, they may choose to identify with no specific gender. Or, they may move back and forth between different gender identities.

Gender Identity

Gender identity refers to how an individual sees where they fit on the spectrum of male, female, and neither male nor female. Gender identity is internal.

Gender Expression

This is the way a person presents themselves to the outside world. This expression may include the way they dress, their hairstyle, their chosen name, their chosen pronouns, their voice, and more.

For example, a person assigned female at birth may identify as female but choose to express themselves in dress and fashion as a male. They may have a short hair cut, for example, use male deodorants or colognes, and wear clothing typically found in the men’s section of the department store.

If you ask them, their preferred pronouns may be she, her, and hers, or she, they, and theirs, even if outwardly their clothing, hairstyle, and body language fit more closely to what our society thinks as masculine. If you ask them, they may tell you they see themselves as a woman. Their gender identity may be female, while their gender expression is male.  

Another example, a person assigned female at birth may identify as male and choose to express themselves in dress and fashion as male. Like the example above, they too may have a short hair cut and wear clothing typically found in the men’s section of the department store. This person may choose personal pronouns such as he, his, and him, or they, theirs, and them. If you ask them, they may tell you they see themself as a man. Both their gender identity and gender expression are male.  

Gender identity is about their inner belief about themselves. Do they consider themselves male, female, or non-binary? Gender expression is about the way they choose to aesthetically style themself or the gender people assume matches society's beliefs about gender.

Gender identity and gender expression don’t always match.

Cisgender

Cisgender is the word that refers to someone whose gender identity and expression match the sex assigned to them at birth. For example, a person assigned male at birth who also identifies as male and expresses themselves in traditionally masculine ways.

Transgender

Transgender is the word that refers to someone whose gender identity does not match the sex assigned to them at birth. For example, a person assigned male at birth that identifies as female.

Many transgender people say they feel as if they were “born into the wrong body.” They may describe themselves as being “a man in a woman’s body” or “a woman in a man’s body.”

Non-Binary

Non-binary refers to a person assigned male or female at birth who identifies as neither male nor female. This is sometimes also referred to as genderqueer.

Sexual Orientation vs. Romantic Orientation

  • Sexual orientation refers to whom an individual feels sexual attraction towards. Romantic orientation refers to whom an individual feels romantic feelings towards, which may or may not include sexual desire.
  • Romantic orientation is about who a person would most likely have a deeply intimate relationship with, or who they may “fall in love” with. In contrast, sexual orientation is about who a person would want to have sex with—but this doesn’t necessarily match their romantic orientation.

Society generally assumes that sexual and romantic orientation will be the same. For example, the vast majority of people who identify as heterosexual are also hetero-romantic. Meaning, they are attracted sexually and romantically to individuals of the opposite sex or gender.

The same can be said for the majority of those who have a homosexual orientation—they are both homosexual (sexually attracted to individuals of the same gender) and homo-romantic (romantically attracted to individuals of the same gender).

However, it’s possible to have romantic feelings towards one gender and sexual attraction towards another.

For example, a person may be hetero-romantic but homosexual, meaning that they develop romantic feelings (“fall in love”) to those of the opposite gender but only have sexual attraction for individuals of the same gender.  

Note that you should avoid using the phrase “sexual preference.” Sexual preference implies a person has a choice over the gender they feel sexually attracted towards. Sexual or romantic orientation acknowledges that this is just the way the person is—not something they made a decision about. 

LGBTQIA+… What Do All the Letters Mean?

LGBTQIA+ is an acronym that broadly refers to the gay and trans community at large. Not every gender identity, expression, and sexual and romantic orientation are represented in the acronym—hence, the plus sign at the end. The letters LGBTQIA+ stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, and asexual (or an ally), and more.

There are a wide variety of terms that are used to describe the various gender identities and expressions, sexual orientations, and romantic orientations. Here’s a beginner's guide.

Lesbian: a woman who is attracted to other females.

Gay: generally, a person who is attracted to someone of the same gender. Usually used to refer to men who are sexually attracted to men, but can also be used in reference to women who are attracted to women. The “gay community” can be used to refer to the LGBTQIA+ community at large as well.

Bisexual: a person who is attracted to two or more genders. (Males and females, or females and genderqueer, etc.)

Bi-curious: a person who is generally attracted to those of the opposite gender but may be curious about having sex with someone of the same gender.

Bi-romantic: a person who may have a romantic orientation towards two or more genders.

Coming out: the act of telling a particular individual or a group of people that you identify with the LGBTQIA+ community. Coming out of often thought of as a “one-time” event, but actually is an ongoing process over a queer person’s lifetime. 

Pansexual: a person who is sexually attracted to all or any genders. Sometimes used interchangeably with bisexual, but pansexual indicates an attraction to all genders—male, female, and non-binary—while bisexual can indicate an attraction to “only two” gender identities but not necessarily all.

Pangenered: a form of non-binary gender identity, refers to someone who identifies with all genders.

Straight: a person who is heterosexual, or attracted to those of the opposite gender and sex.

Trans: a word that can be used to reference the entire transgender community.

Transman: a word that may be used by a person who was assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is male. While some may prefer to be called “male,” calling themselves transmale is a way to pay tribute to their previous sex assignment of female.

FTM, F2M: another term that can be used to indicate someone who was assigned female at birth but is a transgender male.

Transwoman: a word that may be used by a person who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female.

MTF, or M2F: another word that may be used by a person who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female.

Queer: formally used in a derogatory sense, queer has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community to be used in a positive way.

Queer can be used to refer to being any part of the gay community. It can also be used as a way to not specify one particular “box” within the LGBTQIA+ rainbow of identities.

In other words, an individual may not want to say explicitly what their sexual orientation is, but by calling themselves queer, they are indicating they are not exclusively straight (or heterosexual).  

Questioning: a term used for someone who isn’t sure what their sexual orientation or gender identity is. 

Asexual: an individual who has no sexual attraction to others. They'll likely still develop relationships or even romantic relationships, but they do not have feelings of sexual attraction. This is not a medical condition.

Aromantic: an individual who doesn’t form romantic attachments with other genders.

Ally: someone who advocates for or supports the LGBTQIA+ community, but doesn’t consider themselves to be queer or trans. 

Polysexual: an individual who develops sexual and sometimes also romantic relationships concurrently with multiple partners. The open, honest decision to have sexual and/or romantic relationships with multiple people may also be referred to as polyamory or ethical non-monogamy. This is not unique or exclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community and also exists among heterosexual partners.

Demisexual: an individual who does not experience feelings of sexual attraction without first developing romantic feelings. 

Same Gender Loving / All Gender Loving: a term used in the African American community for same-sex attraction, instead of the more European Greek-based term like lesbian.

What Terms Should I Avoid?

There are some terms and phrases that should be avoided and are considered offensive. An excellent resource for understanding words to avoid is GLAAD’s media reference pages. (GLAAD is the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.) They have one for general LGBTQ terms and one specific to the trans community.

Gender Identity/Expression vs. Sexual Orientation

Being transgender doesn’t say anything about a person’s sexual or romantic orientation. There is an assumption in society that transwomen will be attracted to men, and transmen will be attracted to women, but this is not necessarily the case.

For example, let’s say an individual assigned male at birth identifies as a transwoman and that their gender identity is female.

If this transwoman finds herself attracted to women, she may consider herself to be homosexual or lesbian—because she identifies as a woman and is attracted to the same gender. Or, this transwoman may be attracted to men. In this case, she may choose to identify as heterosexual—because she is attracted to the opposite gender. Alternatively, this transwoman may feel sexual attraction to all genders and identify as pansexual. 

Just like we can’t assume a person’s sexual or romantic orientation based on their outwardly cisgender appearance, we also can’t assume what a transgender individual’s sexual orientation will be. The only way to know is if they share their orientation with you.

What Does “Fluid” Mean?

The term fluid can be used in the context of gender identity and sexual orientation. Fluid refers to the way a person may shift along the spectrum of gender identity or sexual orientation. 

This may refer to shifts along an extended timeline—for example, someone in their teens may have one sexual orientation but later in life find themselves to have a different sexual orientation.

Alternatively, fluidity can apply on a continual basis. For example, some genderqueer or non-binary individuals may consider themselves to be gender fluid, meaning that one day they feel more female, another day they may feel more male, and another day they may feel like they are neither.

Research has found that our desire to put one orientation label on a person forever may not accurately represent the experience of all people. A person’s sexual orientation may change over time, and this may not be an uncommon experience. 

For example, a person who identifies as female may exclusively be attracted to other females in her teens and 20s, but sometime in her 30s may find herself attracted to some men. This shift in orientation doesn’t mean the shift is a “choice” being made.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are more complex and complicated than an individual “being born” one way and one way only. This is what sexual fluidity refers to.   

Sexual fluidity should not, however, be used to argue that a person will “grow out” of their orientation or gender identity, or used as a way to label a person’s struggle with identity or orientation as a “phase.”

Drag vs. Cross-Dressing vs. Transgender Identity

Drag, cross-dressing, and transgender expression are frequently confused with being one and the same. In fact, these are three very different concepts.

Drag

Drag has become popularized from the reality TV show RuPaul's’ Drag Race. Drag is a form of entertainment and theater where an individual dresses up in an exaggerated, highly styled way as a female or male. 

Most people are familiar with drag queens, or men who use exaggerated make-up, fashion, and mannerisms to express themselves as women. There are also drag kings, which are women who use exaggerated make-up, fashion, and mannerisms to express themselves as men, though this is less common.

Being involved in drag does not indicate a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. While the majority of drag performers are gay, there are heterosexual drag queens.

Drag also doesn’t indicate gender identity. Most drag queens identify as male, but some are transgender. While drag is a persona put on by the performer, transgender identity is a person’s expression of their true self.

Cross-dressing

Cross-dressing is the act of wearing clothing of the opposite gender or sex. Unlike drag, this isn’t necessarily a performance or form of entertainment. Cross-dressing is a form of personal expression.

Cross-dressing doesn’t necessarily indicate a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. There are straight men who enjoy wearing women’s clothing and straight women who enjoy wearing men’s clothing.

Using Proper Pronouns

Using the pronouns preferred by an individual is an important part of showing that person respect and support.

If you’re unsure of what pronouns a person prefers, ask them. If you’re unsure which pronouns to use, use the plural gender-neutral pronouns (they/theirs/them), even if you’re referring to a singular person.

Some possibilities include:

  • He/his/him
  • He/their/them
  • She/her/hers
  • She/theirs/them
  • They/theirs/them
  • Zie/Zir/Zirs/Zirself

Zie, zir, zirs, and zirself are gender-neutral singular pronouns that some prefer in the trans community. Zie is pronounced /zee/, and zir is pronounced /z-ir/, like sir but with a z.

If your child has asked you to use pronouns that differ from the ones typically associated with their sex assigned at birth, let them know you will do your best to use them as requested.

Of course, you will sometimes make a mistake and use the wrong pronouns. Changing the way you’ve referred to a person for many years isn’t easy. But making an effort to use the pronouns they request is an important part of supporting your child.  

Supporting Your LGBTQIA+ Child

The day your child comes out to you is an emotional day for both of you. Whether you had a feeling all along, or the news was a surprise, the most important thing for you to do is to listen, accept them for who they are, and do your best to be there for them. By seeking out and reading this article, you are already showing supportive, loving actions.

What else can you do to support your child?

Let them know you love them as they are. Tell them you love them. Tell them you accept them for who they are. Reassure them that nothing has changed because they came out to you. You might assume that it’s obvious you would still love and support your child, regardless of their orientation or identity, but your child needs to hear you say the words. Say them, and say them often.

Use their chosen pronouns. If your child has come out to you as transgender, ask them what pronouns they want you to use. Use them. Their preferred pronouns may change over time.

Use their chosen name. Many transgender individuals change their names to match their gender identity better. Use the name they have chosen. Research has found that using a transgender teen’s chosen name reduces their risk of depression and suicidality. Using their chosen name may literally save their life.

This can be emotionally difficult for a parent since you gave them their birth name. However, when they were born, you had no way of knowing what their gender identity would be in the future. You haven’t done anything wrong. They, too, are not rejecting you by choosing another name. 

Go to Pride with them. Look up when there is a Pride parade or festival in your area and go to Pride with your child. Allies attend Pride, as well as the gay community. You will be welcome there. As a parent of a queer or trans child, going to Pride to support your child will be celebrated.

Advocate for them. Sadly, bullying can be a major challenge for LGBTQIA+ children. Be their advocate. Watch for signs of bullying, and follow-up if you think your child is being mistreated.

Educate yourself on the LGBTQIA+ world. Reading this article is a start! Learn the terms, history, and culture. Your child will see your effort to educate yourself as a deep form of support.

Refer to their partner as their partner—not their “friend.” Or refer to their partner in whatever way they have asked you to. If they come home with a same-gender partner, for example, calling this person their “friend” instead of their partner or their boyfriend or girlfriend can be hurtful.

Don’t imply or say to them that it’s “just a phase” they will outgrow. Their gender identity or sexual orientation may change (see above, under “What Does Fluid Mean?”), but the odds are, it won’t change. When you indicate to your child that they will “grow out” of their current orientation or gender identity, you are unintentionally implying that who they are now is not acceptable. 

Get them in a support group or get them counseling if they are struggling. The risk of suicide and depression is high in the LGBTQIA+ community. Seek out support for your child. Look for support groups, meet-ups, or gay youth groups. Get them a private counselor.

Find counseling for yourself. You can love and accept your child for who they are, but still struggle with having an LGBTQIA+ child. You may be fearful of their future or worry about the discrimination they may experience. You may grieve over what you imagine their lives to be. If you’re going to support your child fully, you need support, too.

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Article Sources
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