Understanding LGBTQ+: An exhaustive explainer on gender and sexual identities

There's a lot more to LGBTQ+ than the rainbow filter in your profile picture. Here's your key to really understand what it stands for.
Understanding LGBTQ+: An exhaustive explainer on gender and sexual identities
Understanding LGBTQ+: An exhaustive explainer on gender and sexual identities
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Why LGBTQ+ Series? Read here.

Are sex and gender the same? Or are they different? Confused? Read our explainer here.

If you’ve paid any attention to social media in the past couple of years, you know what a rainbow flag means. You’ve heard of ‘LGBTQ+ rights’ and ‘Queer Azadi’. You probably even know people who have attended a pride march in one of the metros. And since it became cool to ‘support gay rights’, you’ve perhaps changed your Facebook DP with the rainbow filter.

But while you ‘know’ all this, do you ‘understand’? What does each letter in LGBTQ+ stand for? What are the differences between these various identities? And are there just ‘L’, ‘G’, ‘B’, ‘T’ and ‘Q’? Are there no other identities in the gender and sexuality spectrum?

Well, here’s the exhaustive primer that you’ve been waiting for. This is Gender and Sexuality 101, and your world can only expand from here on.

Sex, gender and identity

Recall how they use ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably in all the forms you’ve ever had to fill? Well, in real life, they are two different things and unless we get this straight in our heads, we will fail at every attempt to understand gender identities.

While sex is what your doctor says your birth anatomy says about you, gender is how you express yourself in the theatre of life. While ‘sex’ is what makes you ‘male’ or ‘female’ (or ‘intersex’, more on that later), gender is what makes you a ‘tomboy’, ‘macho’, ‘camp’, ‘femme’, ‘butch’ or pretty much anything that defines your personality.

That means you can be a ‘female’ (sex), who is ‘macho’ (a trait traditionally considered masculine). You can have masculinity and femininity to different extents in your personality, and you can then choose to identify more with either the masculine or feminine parts of yourself.

By separating ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, what we’re basically saying is that there’s no one way of being a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’, and that there are myriad of different possibilities in between.

Sexuality and sexual orientation

While sexuality makes a direct reference to ‘sex’ and sexual preferences of an individual, it refers to much more. People express their sexuality in a variety of ways -- while some like to be ‘sensual’, others like to play it ‘modest’.

Sexuality lies at the intersection of sex, gender, expression, attraction, as well as things like body image and self-awareness. Sexuality refers to how you express yourself as a sexual being (or not).

Sexual orientation refers to lasting romantic and/or sexual desire for one or more sexes and/or genders, if at all. It is an important part of your sexuality, but it is not the whole story.

What does ‘queer’ mean and how is it different from LGBT identities?

Now, when the bracket is extended, you arrive at ‘Q’ or Questioning/Queer/Genderqueer. People who identify as queer feel their gender and/or sexual identities falls outside the categories of man or woman. They would either consider themselves as falling between the two, or wholly different from them.

A guide to common LGBTQ+ terms

Gay – Refers to a homosexual man, or a man who is sexually attracted to other men.

Lesbian – Refers to a homosexual woman, or a woman who is sexually attracted to other women.

Bisexual – A person who experiences sexual attraction to both men and women.

Transgender – According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) media reference guide, refers to a gender identity, which is a ‘social or psychological’ rather than a ‘biological’ identity. It may be different from their ‘sexual or biological identity’, which they were born with.

Therefore, a person who is assigned into the male sex but identifies as a woman may be a transgender person. Conversely, a person who has been assigned the female sex at birth and who identifies as a man instead is also be a transgender person (trans-man).

Isn’t ‘Hijra’ just the Indian term for transgender?

Many see the LGBTQ identities as influences of the western world on the pious Indian culture. However, our tryst with alternate sexual and gender identities began much earlier.

Everyone knows about ‘hijras’ – the people who appear ‘masculine’ but dress is ‘feminine’ attire, clapping their hands together in a peculiar way, asking for alms on the streets or on occasions like wedding and childbirth (that, sadly, is the limited perspective in which hijras are predominantly seen). However, the Indian transgender community does not comprise of Hijras alone.

The Indian Hijra community itself is over 4,000 years old. Although many of them have biological and sexual identities same as the above-mentioned globally recognized LGBT identities, cultural and behavioral differences make it imperative for their recognition as an identity of their own.

Often, they live together in mid to large sized communities. Many of them end up doing sex-work as they are discriminated against in spaces at other workspaces due to their gender identity. Many of them undergo a ritual known as ‘Nirwaan’, or the removal of their private parts. They have long been a part of Indian culture; though today have been pushed to the margins of society due to discrimination and ill-treatment.

Kothis, Double Deckers, Panthis, Jogappas - who are they?

Now let’s look at the non-mainstream gender and sexual identities particular to India and a few other Asian countries. These are predominantly used to categorise ‘MSMs’ or Men who have Sex with Men.

A Kothi is often mistaken as a Hijra but actually refers to a man or a boy who behaviourally takes on the role of the ‘female’ in same-sex relationships and would usually be the penetrated member during sex.

Panthi, on the other hand, is the term used for someone who takes on the behavioural role of the ‘male’ and would be the penetrator or inserter.

A double-decker is a term used for someone who functions as both. Double-deckers and Kothis have a high risk of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases according to studies among different MSM sub-groups in the nation.

Finally, gay or transgender men ritualistically married to the Goddess Yellama in South India are known as Jogappas. They are often seen handling various temple proceedings.

It is extremely difficult to apply international conventions of sexual identity on such groups, whose existence is guided by their profession, religions belief, and cultural rituals. The Indian law also doesn’t do much to protect their rights, or ensure that they carry on with their trade and livelihood properly. However, cases of STDs and exploitation remains high, and social discrimination is severe.

Who is a transsexual, and how is it different from 'transgender'?

Sex change operations are no longer the hush-hush secret procedures they used to be. Many transgender persons now choose to have their bodies permanently changed through surgery or hormones, or wish to do so. These people may identify themselves as transsexual.

The ‘T’ doesn’t stop there. GLAAD’s guide goes on to tell that both transsexual and transgender can be suffixed by either ‘man’ or ‘women’. A transgender man is assigned the female gender based on the anatomy he was born with, but identifies himself and lives life as a man. A transsexual man was born biologically female, but either underwent a permanent sex change or wishes to go for one. Similarly, a female transgender or a female transsexual identifies herself in the same equation.

Now, you may wonder what this person prefers to be addressed as. Unfortunately, language provides us with limited options therefore, it is imperative to know which pronoun (he/she/him/her) they prefer be used for them.

Did you know transsexual/transgender is different from drag queen?

Drag queen has become something of a popular culture reference which has come to be considered synonymous with people who fall under the ‘transgender’ bracket. However, this term simply refers to someone who enjoys wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex, whether they are heterosexual, gay/lesbian, or bisexual.

Transgender and intersex are not the same

We have established so far that gender is not black and white. In fact, there's a whole lot of grey there, even though social norms continue to try and contain it within arbitrary categories

What about the sexes though? There are only two - male and female - right? Wrong!

Even within assigned sexes, male and female form two ends of the spectrum. There exist many intermediate conditions arising from anomalies in sex chromosome configuration (beyond the XX and XY possibilities), differences in how the fetus or adolescent reacts to hormones, or variances in the mode of sexual development.

These are collectively referred to as intersex variations and may or may not be accompanied by ambiguous genitalia or reproductive organs which are neither strictly male nor female.

Asexual and pansexual

While there is growing awareness of divergent sexualities, there are also persons who feel sexual attraction towards none, and may identify themselves as asexual. Conversely, there are also persons who identify as pansexuals. The prefix ‘pan-‘ means ‘all’, which means that this person experiences attraction towards male, female as well as persons who identify as non-binary like transgender persons, genderqueer or agender persons.

Note: This explainer has not been updated. For an up to date media glossary of LGBTQIA+ terminology and meanings, prepared by  Queer Chennai Chronicles and The News Minute and refer here.

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