“Grandpa, did you know it takes one sperm to fertilize an egg, but if a different sperm fertilizes the egg, it becomes a whole different person?” The question came from my 11-year-old grandson. I said that I did, and then he asked, “What’s the Q in LGBTQ, Grandpa?”
My grandson is bright and inquisitive, but I was surprised to have such an open and sophisticated discussion about sexuality with him. He told me he had participated in a fifth-grade class called FLASH, an acronym for “Family Life and Sexual Health.” He showed me a worksheet that was a crossword puzzle entitled, “Facts About HIV.” At age 11, my grandson had studied more about sex than I had after completing medical school over fifty years ago.
How did you receive your education about sex? My own came from a female classmate between seventh and eighth grade, as we sat late one summer night behind the funeral home in my small hometown in Nebraska. She told me what she could remember from the movie the girls had watched in the fifth grade. Boys got nothing; they were expected either to know it intuitively or to have learned it from the farm boys who knew something about animal husbandry.
My grandson’s 13-year-old brother previously had taken the same course and once said to his mother, “Mom, I don’t think I’m quite through puberty yet; I haven’t had a wet dream.” My grandsons spoke with their parents and me, openly and without embarrassment or shame, about things that I could never have talked about with mine. I remember hearing how frightened some young girls and boys were when they, unprepared, had experienced their first menstrual period or first wet dream.
In speaking with my grandsons about their class, they told me that the very first lesson they had studied was about how one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused, and they learned what they could do if it happened to them. I told my grandson how pleased I was that he had received this educational opportunity. I told him that some parents object to such teaching because they believe that parents should teach their own children about sex, but that the parents often don’t do it. My grandson responded, “I can see how it might be uncomfortable for them.”
When my grandson asked about the Q in LGBTQ, he added, “Some people say that it means ‘queer,’ but some kids don’t think that’s a very nice word.”
I hesitated. “Well, when I was your age, ‘queer’ definitely wasn’t a very nice word, but I’ve come to like it. It is a word that can mean a whole lot of different things.” I explained that the word “queer” is gaining acceptance as a catchall term for a wide variety of sexual and gender expressions, and it has lost much of its original derogatory origins.
I wanted my grandson to know that figuring out one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a process that can occur over a long time, so I added, “Some people also say it means ‘questioning,’ for someone who isn’t quite sure about whether they’re gay, straight, or something else.” He seemed satisfied with that. I knew that at some point he would be asking how I could have been “straight” when I married his grandmother and now define myself as gay and am married to my husband.
“But what about the I then? I know it means intersex, but I don’t know what that is. I’ve seen boys’ penises and girls’ ‘thing,’ and it should be pretty obvious that a new baby is either a boy or a girl.” The questions were getting more complicated. I stumbled through an explanation of embryonic development.
But even as an old, gay psychiatrist who has spent some time researching these issues, I still get confused about the alphabet soup of letters, and I struggle to understand the issues surrounding the correct use of pronouns to describe gender. Pronouns are no longer binary, and the gender-neutral “they/them” is growing in acceptance. Some people have even adopted “rolling pronouns,” using different pronouns in the same sentence.
When I was much younger, the Kinsey scale, a spectrum of sexuality from totally straight to 100% gay, made sense to me. It seemed to explain the changes I’d experienced in my own sexual orientation. I wrote about my struggles to figure out my place on that spectrum in Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight. For many in the LGBTQI community, however, this narrow spectrum is far too limiting. Times have changed, and our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity has evolved. (This link contains a useful list of definitions of the more commonly used terms.)
One major change has occurred in the use of the term “bisexual.” When I came out in the 1980s, there were “lesbians” and “gays,” and “bisexual” was a term that was used to describe a way station from straight to gay or a cover for promiscuity. I wrote in a widely read and controversial essay that the term “lacks clarity,” but it is now defined as a true identity for those who are attracted to people of their gender or other genders, and the less binary, “pansexual,” has entered the mainstream lexicon for someone who is attracted to people of all genders.
The New York Times recently queried their readers to discover how readers defined themselves. A follow-up article described how sexual orientations and gender identities have been evolving. Respondents used a total of 116 different words and phrases to describe their sexual and gender identifies, demonstrating that labels for sexual orientation and gender identities go far beyond the familiar labels, and that generational differences are significant.
As we seek to define ourselves, society seeks to define us first. Labels can be useful in allowing ourselves to be more comfortable with who we are, but they can also be quite damaging when applied to us by others based on their perceptions that we exhibit a limited number of characteristics associated with the stereotypes connected to the label.
Sam Killermann created a useful, free and uncopyrighted tool called the “Genderbread Person,” a diagrammatic representation of variations in gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation. Although a bit too complicated for many young adolescents, it can give insight into this complex subject and can be useful in educating others.
For those of us who are older and struggling to understand sexual and gender identity and for fifth-grade boys and girls, perhaps a limited number of adjectives may be enough: straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Or even just one word suffices: queer. But for the generations between youth and old age, in an era of social media, worldwide Pride events and a growing understanding of gender fluidity, these few words are far too limiting.
A version of this post was previously published on psychologytoday.com and is republished here with permission from the author.”
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