What Do Our Labels Mean?

Gay, straight, bi, oh my! What do all these different labels, such as GBLT, really mean?

By Analise Pendergast

n the old days, the gay/straight question seemed pretty clear-cut: Is she, or isn’t she? But nowadays, the idea of sexual identity seems to have become more of a fluid concept, even incorporating newly-coined designations such as “transgender.” As the traditional term “Gay Pride” morphed into the modern mouthful “GLBT Pride,” the traditional line between gay and straight has become blurred and taken on new twists.

When it comes to sexual orientation in the new
Clearly, ours is a culture that loves duality.
millennium, do the traditional labels really mean anything these days?

A better question might be: Did the traditional labels ever really mean all that much? Clearly, ours is a culture that loves duality. Paper or plastic; red state or blue state; gay or straight. But as early as 1948, Alfred C. Kinsey challenged the black-and-white model of human sexuality when he published the first of his controversial and ground-breaking studies, under the auspices of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Rather than an either/or model of straight vs. gay sexual orientation, Kinsey proposed a seven-level continuum. At one end of the Kinsey Scale are individuals who are exclusively heterosexual in thought, word, and deed; at the other end, exclusively homosexual. That puts the majority somewhere along the spectrum. Not that the majority of people are practicing bisexuals—but, according to Kinsey’s theory, most have at least some capacity for having feelings for members of the same gender at some point in their lives.

Current sexuality theory takes the continuum concept one more step, proposing a similarly-fluid model of gender and gender identity. A boy may have been born male, but there may be aspects of maleness — cultural, sexual or social — that have never felt like a good fit to him. He may choose to live with his private inner conflict, or he may opt to bend the traditional rules in order to realign his physical gender with the blend of gender qualities in his soul.

This is where the term transgender comes into play. (Latin etymology of trans: Across, beyond.) Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to any number of activities, behaviors, or
The meaning of the word transgender is as diverse as the millions who embrace it.
self-concepts that defy the traditional boy/girl, man/woman definitions. These could include anything from the occasional cross-dressing frolic to adopting an androgynous demeanor, even going so far as undergoing gender reassignment surgery. The meaning of the word transgender is as diverse as the millions who embrace it.

As the Gay Pride movement gained momentum in the 70’s and 80’s, so, too, did the awareness that while it was a powerful advocate for gays and lesbians, it did not necessarily extend a welcome to members of other sexual and gender minorities who shared many of the same struggles. This became a topic of considerable debate within the community: Should Gay Pride reserve itself for the unique concerns of gay and lesbian people? Or, should the movement expand its scope and mission to become more inclusive? Though not without ruffling a few feathers, inclusiveness ultimately won out, and the acronym GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) has become the operative term.

Complicated? Maybe a little. But so is human nature. When it comes to the complexities of human sexuality, trying to fit everyone into one tidy box or another has never really been all that successful. As we come to understand more about the permutations of human sexuality, sometimes our language has to scramble to keep up.

Analise Pendergast is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Happen magazine.
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