Sexual Identity


American culture has traditionally divided people into two sexual camps: “gay” and “straight.” This division is largely the result of patriarchal masculinity, which relies on homophobia, as well as sexism, to establish the foundation of “real” manhood—a real man is not gay, and he isn’t a woman. Men are expected to prove their manliness by repeatedly proving their heterosexuality. Being “straight” is also portrayed as the norm for women—Betty Friedan’s famous reference to the “lavender menace” summed up homophobia within the women’s movement, and the population at large. Despite patriarchy’s insistence on the clear divisions of a binary sexuality, however, people have always been people—and, as Alfred Kinsey first demonstrated in 1948, sexuality is a continuum.

Never—or only vaguely—heard of Kinsey?  He was a researcher and writer who studied human sexuality extensively in the 1940’s, publishing a report in 1948 that rocked the sexual world. As C.A. Tripp explains in Before Stonewall, “The publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, popularly known as the Kinsey Report, ignited a firestorm among scientists, psychiatrists, clergy, moralists of every stripe, and, not least, the general public. Indeed, the report raised a furor the likes of which had not been seen since the debut of Darwin’s theory of evolution. [The report] put under the microscope a world of sexual experience that never before had received rigorous scientific scrutiny. In the process it demolished many myths about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular.”

Among those myths was the idea that people are only gay or straight—or, that if you have any sexual attraction to those of the same sex, you must identify as homosexual.  With fellow researchers Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin, Kinsey created the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, sometimes called “The Kinsey Scale.” The scale asks respondents to self-identify on a scale from 0 to 6—are you heterosexual, homosexual, or somewhere in between?

The results of Kinsey’s research provided a basis for changing the way we think about sexuality: “…for many people, sexual behavior, thoughts and feelings towards the same or opposite sex was not always consistent across time. Though the majority of men and women reported being exclusively heterosexual, and a percentage reported exclusively homosexual behavior and attractions, many individuals disclosed behaviors or thoughts somewhere in between.”

From Kinsey to LGBTQIA

Despite the many changes since 1948, our culture still treats sexuality as binary—if someone is attracted to the same sex, we tend to place that person in the “gay” category rather than considering (or listening for) other alternatives.  Homophobia is still a cornerstone of masculinity, and heteronormativity—the idea that “straight” is normal, and everything else is deviant—is still the order of the day.  But the times, they are a-changin—again.  And people are still being themselves.

Since the 1990s, the acronym LGBT—lesbian, gay, bi, and trans—has been in wide use. And in recent years, the acronym has been expanded to LGBTQIA. This expansion is taking place among young people who are finding—and expressing—their sexual identities. As Michael Schulman explains in an article for The New York Times, “ If the gay-rights movement today seems to revolve around same-sex marriage, this generation is seeking something more radical: an upending of gender roles beyond the binary of male/female. The core question isn’t whom they love, but who they are—that is, identity as distinct from sexual orientation.”

So, what is sexual identity, exactly? As Kinsey found, it can be fluid over time, and it involves both our sex, or biology, and our gender, or social expression of sexuality. Sexual identity is about attraction—sexual, emotional, and romantic—as well as self-definition.  Here’s a breakdown of the evolving LGBTQIA spectrum in the current moment:

Lesbian: A woman who is attracted to other women.

Gay:   Usually refers to a man who is sexually attracted to other men; sometimes refers to anyone who is attracted to people of the same sex.

Bisexual: People who are attracted to people of the same sex and people of the opposite sex.  Some bisexual people are married to people of the opposite sex and  faithful to their partners while continuing to explore identity internally, as this article by Jen Simon demonstrates. Others never marry, and spend their lives exploring attractions with both men and women. See the American Institute of Bisexuality for more information—and an update to the Kinsey Scale known as the Klein Grid.

Transgender: People who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—they feel they were born into the wrong body.

Transsexual: An older term for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, and alter or wish to alter their bodies through hormones or surgery in order to make it match their identity. Many do not currently identify with this term, as they feel it is too clinical.

Note: Although Laverne Cox and Bruce Jenner have courageously insisted that our culture recognize what it means to be trans—and theirs are just the most visible voices in a movement that is gaining momentum—trans people are still deeply misunderstood and marginalized.  See the National Center for Transgender Equality for more information.

Queer: People who don’t conform to “straight” norms or gender expressions. Sometimes used as an umbrella term for anyone in the LGBTQIA community; sometimes used to refer to a person who rejects the idea of a specific sexual identity, pushing back against the idea that one identity can say it all. (See Jacob Tobia’s great article at .Mic for more information.)

Intersex: People who are born with external genitalia, chromosomes, or internal reproductive systems that do not fit into the male/female binary. Historically, doctors made decisions for intersex people at birth, forcing them into one category or the other. The intersex community has pushed back against medical intervention at birth, with some success—see Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work.

Asexual: People who do not experience sexual attraction, although they do have emotional needs for friendship and connection. See the Asexual Visibility and Education Network for more information.

Not all people feel they fit into these categories—the list is expanding, and it is as varied as humanity, and sexuality, itself.

One thought on “Sexual Identity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s