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These documents are for informational purposes only and are not intended to constitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Sexual Orientation & Gender

LGBTQ ... The Labels and Their Meaning

LGBTQ ... Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender. Questioning. Queer. Straight. Sissy Boy. Metrosexual. Gayish. ... We have many labels to describe the diversity of sexual identities and orientations. That's why some of us are more or less able to embrace the labels that have become mainstream descriptors of our sexualities. But some of us find the labels totally lacking in their ability to describe our sexualities in the ways we understand them.

In her 2001 study of how some women label themselves, Paula Rodriguez Rust found they used these descriptions:

 attracted to females
 attracted to the person
 attracted to a special woman
 bisexual, depends on person
 bisexual in lesbian relationship
 bisexual transgender
 dating/loving a woman
 female-identified bisexual
 fluid bisexual
 heterosexual, lesbian tendencies
 heterosexual-identified bisexual
 heterosexual with bisexuality
 heterosexual with questions
 lesbian-identified bisexual
 lesbian who has sex with men
 not straight

This diversity in labels suggests that people have come a long way since Alfred Kinsey and his associates designed a scale in the late 1940s and early 1950s to demonstrate the range of sexual orientation. The seven points on the scale show the range of sexual orientation that people reported in Dr. Kinsey's surveys. Dr. Kinsey used the word heterosexual to describe people who desire sex with people of the other gender. He used homosexual to describe people who desire sex with people of the same gender. The Kinsey scale categories are

0 exclusively heterosexual
1 predominantly heterosexual, infrequently homosexual
2 predominantly heterosexual, but more than infrequently homosexual
3 equally heterosexual and homosexual (bisexual)
4 predominantly homosexual, but more than infrequently heterosexual
5 predominantly homosexual, infrequently heterosexual
6 exclusively homosexual

Today, many sexologists see the Kinsey scale as simplistic. They suggest that sexual orientation and sexual identity are more complex and varied. It seems the women Dr. Rodriquez Rust surveyed would agree.

Like the Kinsey scale, the acronym LGBTQ and the labels it represents have some value in casual conversation and in scientific research to describe sexual orientation and sexual identity. But we are learning that labels have limited value.

Internalized Homophobia

Homophobia is the fear of homosexuality. Our society has developed such negative attitudes about homosexuality that many people have come to fear homosexuality within themselves whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, or transgender. This fear is called internalized homophobia. It can cause sexual inhibition in women and men, although it may occur more often in men.

Internalized homophobia is so powerful that up to 30 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents attempt suicide. It can also cause severe depression. Community groups for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people can be very helpful in building support and self-esteem for these young women and men. Professional counseling is also helpful.

Internalized homophobia may make it very difficult for gay men and lesbians to develop intimate relationships with their sex partners. It can also create such fear that they will go without sex, pretend to be straight, or force themselves to have frustrating and disappointing sexual relationships with people of the other gender.

Straight men who worry that some of their sexual desires and fantasies may be homosexual may be less able to develop intimate relationships with women. They may develop "tough guy" or "macho" attitudes in their sexual relationships with women. Men with internalized homophobia may also be more likely to commit gay-bashing and other forms of sexual assault. Internalized homophobia can be treated with professional counseling and psychotherapy.

Coming out is the process of accepting and being open about one's sexual orientation and gender identity. It is also the process of challenging social and internalized homophobia. There are many stages. The first is coming out to one's self. This may happen during adolescence, but it may not happen until a person is older. The next steps involve coming out to other people friends, family, neighbors, schoolmates, coworkers, and others.

The coming-out process helps build self-esteem and a capacity for intimacy, but it can be very stressful. The people we come out to are all influenced by homophobia in one way or another. A few of them can help make the process easy, but many won't. Despite its stresses, coming out offers great relief from internalized homophobia, although it is not a cure-all. Many people who have been "out" for most of their lives still suffer sexual and social inhibitions associated with internalized homophobia. Ridding ourselves of it may be a process that continues most of our lives.

Gender Identity

Many people find comfort in the feminine and masculine gender scripts dictated by social norms. Many other people are made uncomfortable by them. Many people accept their gender roles. Many people don't. They may become sexually inhibited by their conflict about gender identities.

Some feel that they have aspects of both genders. This sense of sexual self is called androgyny. Some feel they have nothing in common with either gender. And some transgender and transsexual women and men may choose to live the role of the opposite gender because their sexual anatomy conflicts with their gender identity.  Trans women and men may become more comfortable with themselves through psychotherapy, hormonal treatments, cosmetic surgery, and support from family and friends. Despite these supports, however, they face serious emotional struggles because of the sexual norms of our culture. Those that choose surgery to reassign their genders undergo a process that is difficult and expensive.

Most of us do not experience such severe conflict with our culture's gender norms. But each of us is so unique that we may feel conflict between the gender norms of our communities and some of our own sexual desires. For example, women may not know that it is okay to be sexually aggressive, and men may not know it's okay to be passive. Many women and men try very hard to overcome the gender inhibitions they may feel by becoming hyperfeminine or hypermasculine.

Hyperfemininity is the exaggeration of gender-stereotyped behavior that is believed to be feminine. Hyperfeminine women, as well as some gay men and male-to-female transgenders, exaggerate the qualities they believe to be feminine. They believe it is their job to boost men's egos by being passive, naive, innocent, soft, flirtatious, graceful, nurturing, and accepting.

Hypermasculinity is the exaggeration of gender-stereotyped behavior that is believed to be masculine. Hypermasculine men, as well as some lesbian and female-to-male transgenders, exaggerate the qualities they believe to be masculine. They believe it is their job to compete with other men and dominate women by being aggressive, worldly, sexually experienced, hard, physically imposing, ambitious, and demanding.

Hyperfeminine women often seek out hypermasculine men for sexual relationships. Hypermasculine men often seek hyperfeminine women. They are likely to have rocky relationships, however. Hyperfeminine women are more likely to accept physical and emotional abuse from their sex partners. Hypermasculine men are more likely to be physically and emotionally abusive to their partners.

Although most of us are not hyperfeminine or hypermasculine and do not have a gender disorder, many of us may have anxieties and inhibitions about femininity and masculinity that make sex less pleasurable for us than it might be.


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