The acronym of sexual identities continues to grow, but our understanding frequently lags far behind. Sexual orientation and gender identity are often conflated in popular representations. But those five short letters encompass a vast diversity of experiences, and the people who lived them are ready to speak.
Sexual identities have never been constant. Since ancient times, ideas on gender and sexuality have fluctuated. What do gender and sexuality mean? “Every time I hear the acronym there is a new letter,” stated Dr. Jennifer Cavalli, a professor in the College’s history department, on the term LGBTQ. Every day, gender and sexuality can be looked at in a new light. The advent of social media has accelerated these new interpretations and opened conversations about gay and lesbian relationships and other facets of the LGBTQ community.The variety of opinions, experiences and identities can spark controversy.
Sex, gender and sexuality have definitions that tend to get blended together. It turns out they are polar opposites. Sex describes what humans are born with physically. Our genitalia places us in one sex or the other, male or female. Gender is the social construct of male, female or non-binary self-identification. Sexuality refers to what gender we are attracted to. Occasionally these definitions can build up into something more abstract, such as using the words gender identity to expand on the definition of gender. With this in mind, it can be concluded that while there are only two types of genitalia, or sex, there are an infinite number of minds and therefore an infinite amount of genders or gender identities.
In addition to understanding the definitions of sex, gender or gender identities and sexuality, it is also important to break down the LGBTQ acronym. The Human Rights Campaign is “the largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ equality.” Their goal is to create a world without discrimination through education and activism. They officially define LGBTQ as an “acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning.”
“It was actually really great.”
Freshman Catt Weglicki, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, expressed what it is like to be bisexual. During the art major’s teenage years, Weglicki was raised in an all-girls Catholic high school. “Anytime I tell people that they initially think it must have been difficult, but in fact, it was actually really great,” Weglicki said.
After coming out to her class during her senior year, she finally opened up to her mom. “In the car just driving, I told her I wanted to take a girl to prom.” After the initial shock, her family was fully supportive and has been ever since. “At first my mom told me she would not tell anyone because she wanted me to take my time, but very suddenly my whole family knew and they were so supportive.” Yet, Weglicki still faces some controversy within herself about being bisexual. She states that it feels “like you’re stuck in the middle, you are your own little thing and people don’t always get it.” With her positive coming-out experience, she tells people who feel stuck to “take your time cause the whole process is scary, [when] the balloon is about to burst, just let [the air] out.”
Not everyone has is so easy. An anonymous source, who we will refer to as , described her journey as a challenging one. A crush on fictional Lizzie McGuire opened her eyes to her sexual orientation at age 13.
“I wanted to look gay but not come out.”
Realizing her attraction to women, K cut her hair short and began dressing differently, because she “wanted to look gay but not come out. I guess I wanted people to ask me or just assume so I did not have to say it.” When K’s mother finally asked her if she was gay, K “was not ready to explain bisexuality to her.” Her mother’s response was “good, because I would disown you.”
After this response from her mother, she felt she was “pushed back further into her box.” K planned to come out later, “either my junior or senior year of high school.” Then her grandmother was diagnosed with both dementia and Alzheimer’s. K became her grandmother’s caretaker and her personal issues “got put on the back shelf.”
She has never officially come out, but rather has kept it to herself. She continues to live her life normally, dating who she wants to date, but keeping it secret. All seemed well, but there were dangerous cracks below the surface. When describing one of her relationships, she stated “I did not realize it was abuse because it was not always physical. I experienced a relationship where she threatened suicide everyday.” It took K several months to realize the state she was in, and get herself out of it. She realized that “maybe the reason my relationships have never been healthy is because there are not a lot of healthy gay or lesbian relationships portrayed on television.”
As a scholar of European history with a concentration in gender history and religious studies, Cavalli discussed how important it is for human beings to find connections through our sexualities. Unfortunately, this connection is typically only through “like minded security,” as Cavalli explained. Humans find safety in people with our own sexualities and comfort zones. She elaborated, stating that humans also only read and interact on social media with people who have similar opinions. This can be compared to K’s situation; an example of misinformation and misinterpretation where her surrounding community lived a life of “like minded security.” With no one for her to relate to and no one willing to expand their comfort zones to accept her lifestyle, there was no acceptance for K.
Despite the progress made over recent decades, LGBTQ people still often lack allies in their home communities. This makes the need for authentic representation in social media and popular culture even more urgent.
*This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Yard.