This blog series will provide an in depth exploration of the coming out process and is intended to serve as a resource for individuals who are interested in learning more about sexual orientation and gender identity formation. I will begin by introducing some basic terminology to serve as an important foundation for beginning to understand the multiple factors involved in coming out. For some, this may be the first time you are hearing (or, in this case, reading) these words and definitions, and for others, these may be a review. When learning about and understanding any culture, it is helpful to first become acquainted with its language. The following is a comprehensive compendium of several relevant terms borrowed from the University of Michigan Student Life Spectrum Center’s website:
- “LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQA, TBLG: These acronyms refer to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Asexual or Ally. Although all of the different identities within “LGBT” are often lumped together (and share sexism as a common root of oppression), there are specific needs and concerns related to each individual identity.
- Asexual: A person who generally does not feel sexual attraction or desire to any group of people. Asexuality is not the same as celibacy.
- Ally: Typically any non-LGBT person who supports and stands up for the rights of LGBT people, though LGBT people can be allies, such as a lesbian who is an ally to a transgender person.
- Biphobia: Aversion toward bisexuality and bisexual people as a social group or as individuals. People of any sexual orientation can experience such feelings of aversion. Biphobia is a source of discrimination against bisexuals, and may be based on negative bisexual stereotypes or irrational fear.
- Bisexual: A person who is attracted to both people of their own gender and another gender. Also called “bi”.
- Cisgender: Types of gender identity where an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Coming Out:The process of acknowledging one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity to other people. For most LGBT people this is a life-long process.
- Gay: A person who is attracted primarily to members of the same sex. Although it can be used for any sex (e.g. gay man, gay woman, gay person), “lesbian” is sometimes the preferred term for women who are attracted to women.
- Gender expression: A term which refers to the ways in which we each manifest masculinity or femininity. It is usually an extension of our “gender identity,” our innate sense of being male, female, etc. Each of us expresses a particular gender every day – by the way we style our hair, select our clothing, or even the way we stand. Our appearance, speech, behavior, movement, and other factors signal that we feel – and wish to be understood – as masculine or feminine, or as a man or a woman.
- Gender identity: The sense of “being” male, female, genderqueer, agender, etc. For some people, gender identity is in accord with physical anatomy. For transgender people, gender identity may differ from physical anatomy or expected social roles. It is important to note that gender identity, biological sex, and sexual orientation are separate and that you cannot assume how someone identifies in one category based on how they identify in another category.
- Genderqueer: A term which refers to individuals or groups who “queer” or problematize the hegemonic notions of sex, gender and desire in a given society. Genderqueer people possess identities which fall outside of the widely accepted sexual binary (i.e. “men” and “women”). Genderqueer may also refer to people who identify as both transgendered AND queer, i.e. individuals who challenge both gender and sexuality regimes and see gender identity and sexual orientation as overlapping and interconnected.
- Heterosexual: A person who is only attracted to members of the opposite sex. Also called “straight.”
- Homophobia: A range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). It can be expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred, may be based on irrational fear, and is sometimes related to religious beliefs.
- Homosexual: A clinical term for people who are attracted to members of the same sex. Some people find this term offensive.
- Intersex: A person whose sexual anatomy or chromosomes do not fit with the traditional markers of “female” and “male.” For example: people born with both “female” and “male” anatomy (penis, testicles, vagina, uterus); people born with XXY.
- In the closet: Describes a person who keeps their sexual orientation or gender identity a secret from some or all people.
- Lesbian: A woman who is primarily attracted to other women.
- Queer: 1) An umbrella term sometimes used by LGBTQA people to refer to the entire LGBT community. 2) An alternative that some people use to “queer” the idea of the labels and categories such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. Similar to the concept of genderqueer. It is important to note that the word queer is an in-group term, and a word that can be considered offensive to some people, depending on their generation, geographic location, and relationship with the word.
- Questioning: For some, the process of exploring and discovering one’s own sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
- Pansexual: A person who experiences sexual, romantic, physical, and/or spiritual attraction for members of all gender identities/expressions, not just people who fit into the standard gender binary (i.e. men and women).
- Sexual orientation: The type of sexual, romantic, and/or physical attraction someone feels toward others. Often labeled based on the gender identity/expression of the person and who they are attracted to. Common labels: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc.
- Transgender: This term has many definitions. It is frequently used as an umbrella term to refer to all people who do not identify with their assigned gender at birth or the binary gender system. This includes transsexuals, cross-dressers, genderqueer, drag kings, drag queens, two-spirit people, and others. Some transgender people feel they exist not within one of the two standard gender categories, but rather somewhere between, beyond, or outside of those two genders.
- Transphobia: The fear or hatred of transgender people or gender non-conforming behavior. Like biphobia, transphobia can also exist among lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as well as among heterosexual people.
- Transsexual: A person whose gender identity is different from their biological sex, who may undergo medical treatments to change their biological sex, often times to align it with their gender identity, or they may live their lives as another sex.”
Theoretical Models of Identity Development: There are multiple theoretical models proposed which explain the process by which gender identity and sexual orientation develop (Cass, 1979; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996). Often, in the development of a “queer” identity, there may be a phase of confusion/questioning one’s identity, meeting people within the LGBTQ community, trying on new behaviors/ideologies associated with a particular identity, identifying with the community and developing a sense of pride, and ultimately, accepting one’s identity and integrating it into one’s overall sense of self (Cass, 1979; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996).
Respect how people self identify: It is key to respect the ways in which individuals self-identify with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. For example, if a woman prefers to label herself as gay, she should not be called a lesbian. Likewise, if a woman identifies as bisexual, but she has exclusively dated men (or women), she should not be presumed to be heterosexual/straight or a lesbian/gay, respectively. Some labels feel more or less comfortable and fitting depending on the person. Some “Roberts” like to be called Robert, whereas others may prefer that you call them Bob, Bobby, Rob, and so on. It is a matter of personal preference how someone identifies/labels oneself. Ultimately, it is important to not impose a label or identity on someone else.
Make sure your language is inclusive: If you are unsure about how a person identifies or prefers to be called (i.e., which gender pronouns to use in interacting with this person—i.e., “he/him,” “she/her,” “they/their,” etc), consider asking the person in a genuinely curious and respectful manner (if it seems appropriate to do so). Making assumptions based on how someone looks, dresses, or acts can be harmful, as it may pigeonhole someone and make you feel foolish. Rather than asking a female relative whether she has a boyfriend, consider asking, “Are you dating anybody?” or “Are you in a romantic relationship?” This is just one example of how to be more LGBTQ-affirming and inclusive. Stay tuned for more on coming out….
Dr. Jacquie Talesnick is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine who has trained in both cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapeutic approaches. She considers herself to be an integrative therapist, pulling from different methodologies and theories to tailor treatment to each individual with whom she works. She offers psychotherapy services to late adolescent and adult populations in individual, couples, and group modalities. She specializes in working with individuals in the LGBTQ community. Her other specialties include treatment of relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, and anxiety. She has a special interest in the benefits of animal companions, as well as supplementing traditional “talk therapy” with creative approaches (i.e., writing, art).
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email
Cass, V. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.
Mccarn, S., & Fassinger, R. (1996). Revisioning Sexual Minority Identity Formation: A New Model of Lesbian Identity and its Implications for Counseling and Research. The Counseling Psychologist, 508-534.
International Spectrum. (n.d.). Retrieved January 11, 2016, from https://internationalspectrum.umich.edu/life/definitions