By  Miriam Aliberti —

You and your three best friends are having a sleepover. You’ve already watched three movies and ate your way through a vat of popcorn. You break out the clay face mask and take a couple selfies with you and your three besties. Now you’re sitting in a circle passing around a box of fingernail polish so you can choose a color and paint each other’s nails. Your girlfriend’s brother Alex passes by and says “Hey, can I get my nails painted?  You look at each other and then at your friend. She tells Alex to “Get lost dork” and you go back to digging through the polish. One of you asks “Why would he want us to paint his nails?” Your friend explains that her brother has begun growing his hair out and wearing makeup. Alex identifies as a transgender person.  The term “transgender” means that Alex doesn’t always feel like a boy even though he was born with male genitalia. This can certainly be confusing for both the person and everyone around them. People can become so uncomfortable that they just avoid the subject instead of trying to understand more about the person. Let’s face it…this can be some confusing stuff. Many of us are hearing words that we have never heard before related to how people define themselves and their sexuality. We often don’t understand the meaning. Learning about gender identity and sexual orientation helps people to gain a better understanding of others. Understanding means less discomfort around other people who are different from you and more ability to talk about those differences. Let’s start with clearing up the difference between the term “gender identity” and the term “sexual orientation.”

Gender Identity 

Gender identity has to do with how a person feels inside. It is explained by the Human Rights Campaign as their personal internal sense of being male, female, a blend of both or neither. Sometimes a person will use pronouns to express how they feel inside if they do not feel they are a specific gender. If the individual identifies with a blend of both male and female, they may refer to themselves as “they” instead of he or she. If you’re not sure how a person wants you to refer to them, it’s usually okay to just ask. Most people would prefer that someone politely asks a question rather than make untrue assumptions about them.

Sexual Orientation 

Sexual orientation is about who a person is attracted to outside themselves. The HRC defines sexual orientation as an emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to another person.  Another thing that is important to know is that if a person identifies with a gender that is different from the genitalia they were born with; this does not necessarily mean that they are gay. Sexual orientation is different from gender identity so it’s a good idea to keep those two things separate and not make assumptions based on how a person looks or chooses to dress.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about people who are LGBTQ or have non-conforming gender identities. Sometimes these misunderstandings can be hurtful to people. Everyone wants to feel accepted for the person that they are. As more and more people become comfortable in our society with expressing who they are, it helps to be able to understand the words and meanings people use to describe themselves. That helps us to talk to each other, hear differing viewpoints, and have a greater understanding of ourselves and others. Many of the organizations below exist to help people grow in their understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. Click on the links to learn more.