Photo: Watsamon Tri-yasakda/Shutterstock

A Rough Guide to the Language of Pride

by Keph Senett Jun 30, 2012
For many of us, the correct terminology might not even be on our radar screens.

IT’S JUNE, WHICH MEANS millions of people are “going to Pride” — shorthand for the party, politics, and playfulness that characterize the annual celebration of LGBTIQQ2S rights. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

The acronym is unwieldy, but it’s also a sign that the “gay rights” movement continues to strive for inclusivity, even 40-odd years after the Stonewall Riots. It’s a good thing. It signals an ethos of human rights for all humans. It’s why straight people are called “allies” and invited to the fun.

Pride is a celebration of subcultures, and like any other culture, there are language cues that the careless or overeager might miss. Here’s a completely non-exhaustive rough guide to the language of Pride* to help you make sure that “Some of my best friends are gay” is the dumbest thing you say all weekend.

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)

All of these terms have to do with sexual orientation, and although they’re used around the world to one degree or another, it’s worth mentioning that they’re rooted in the North American experience. Simply having sex (as a man) with another man does not automatically make you gay. “Being gay” has to do with sexuality and culture, and there are limitless ways this can be expressed.

Lesbians are women who have sex with women. For simplicity’s sake, I’m tempted to say “exclusively,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. As being gay is an identity, so is being a lesbian. Not all lesbians are butch. Being a lesbian doesn’t mean you hate men. Just because she’s a lesbian doesn’t mean she can lend you a hammer (but I’d ask anyway).

Bisexuals get a terrible rep. Scolded on the one hand for “not being able to make up their minds,” and on the other for being sexually greedy, bisexuals are people for whom the sex of their partner is not the determinant of their attraction. If someone tells you they’re bisexual, don’t assume they’re hitting on you (or your partner).

Trans and intersex, and drag queens, oh my! (TI)

There’s a difference between being a drag queen and transgender. Here’s why it’s important to know what it is.

“Trans” is short for transgender, which it is not the same as transsexual. Transsexuals have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS), also sometimes known as sex affirmation surgery (SAS). Transgender people may or may not choose to undergo any hormonal or surgical modifications, or choose only “top” (chest) or “bottom” (genital) surgery. Physical transformation is not a prerequisite of being transgender; being transgender is about gender identity.

In the simplest language, for trans people, their gender identity does not match the sex they were born. Note the language here: gender = masculine/feminine, sex = male/female. A trans person might be heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual or asexual or polyamorous, and so on.

So what do you call a trans person? “Trans,” as I’ve used it here, is pretty common, as is transgender. A person might be a trans woman or a trans man, as in the sentence, “Porn star and self-appointed ‘Man with a Vagina’ Buck Angel is a trans man.” Trans people may define themselves in all sorts of different ways, and this is a very personal — and political — choice. If you’re in doubt about pronouns or labels or names, just ask.

What about “tranny”? This is a historically derogatory term that’s been reclaimed by some — not all — trans people, and it’s one of those names that’s offensive depending on who says it, to whom, and in what context. Although it had fallen out of favour for many years, in 2008, Project Runway designer Christian Siriano mainstreamed it when he coined the term “hot tranny mess” (he later apologized). If you’re tempted to say it, reconsider. Like other reclaimed epithets, tranny is an insider’s word.

People sometimes use the word tranny to describe someone whose gender is indeterminate, or who appears to be dressed as the opposite sex. Don’t do this. If the person you’re describing is dressed up in a theatrical, exaggerated version of a man or a woman, you’re probably talking about a drag king or queen — and you may feel free to call them that. Drag is performance. It’s like calling someone a rock star or a modern dancer.

But if you’re calling a trans person a tranny because you find their gender expression confusing, it’s offensive. Remember, for many (again, not all) trans people, “passing” — that is, passing as the opposite sex — is a big part of transitioning, so calling them a tranny is akin to saying they don’t belong.

“I” stands for intersex, which is the modern term used for what used to be called hermaphrodism. Intersex people are born with “ambiguous” genitals, and this happens much more often than you might think. In the past, delivering doctors would often make a unilateral decision and perform a surgery on the spot. This is no longer the standard. Being intersex has no bearing on sexual orientation, or with being trans. Trans is about gender; being intersex is about sex (plumbing).

Oh, and drag queens are often but not always gay.

Queer and questioning (QQ)

Queer is a classic example of a previously derogatory epithet that’s been reclaimed. It’s commonly used to refer to everyone listed above and everyone who — to drop some women’s studies language on you — exists outside the heteronormative cultural hegemony. In plainer language, this means that queer people’s sexual and/or gender identities exist outside accepted binaries (gay-straight, male-female), and that heterosexuality is but one sexual expression out of many.

Coined to account for sex- and gender-variant youth, “questioning” is what you are while you figure it out. It makes space for the possibilities.

Two-spirit (2S)

For First Nations people, “two-spirit” is the term used to describe those who inhabit mixed gender roles. In common parlance since the early 1990s, it is a distinctly First Nations identity.

Lesson over. Happy Pride! *It’s crucial to be aware that these identity constructions arose in the Americas and Europe. They’re only so useful or relevant in a global context. The same behaviours and identities exist around the world, but the cultures that foster them are different.

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