Gender and Sexual Minorities 101


“Gender and sexual minority” is a loose, flexible term. It roughly refers to people with minority sexual orientations, sexual behaviors, gender, and gender/sex-based expression. It embraces many different communities, who all have different needs and experiences.

Many are familiar with the term “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) and the various alphabet soups that have emerged from LGBT. “Gender and sexual minority” shortens to GSM, so it’s shorter. GSM is also broader than LGBT.

GSM includes…

  • sexual orientation: lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual…
  • romantic relationships: non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging…
  • sexual behaviors: “kink”, BDSM, fetishes…
  • biological sex variations: intersex, disorders of sexual development…
  • gender/sex mismatches: transgender, transsexual…
  • gender variations: gender fluid, genderqueer, neutrois/agender, two-spirit…
  • gender behaviors: cross-dressing, drag…

And that’s a lot of different stuff. Sound confusing to you? Welcome to GSM 101, where I’ll be unpacking that giant list of big words in a way that (hopefully) makes sense. Please be aware that there are many, many variations to all of these categories. Everyone’s experiences are different. To keep this from becoming a confusing morass of contradictions and exceptions, this is heavily simplified.

I’ll go through it category by category. Ready? Let’s jump right into it!


Sexual orientation

sexual attraction based on sex or gender

This is the part of gender and sexual minorities that most people are familiar with. Sexual orientation refers to the gender or sex of the person or people we’d like to go to bed with. Most people in the world identify as heterosexual or straight. They’re only sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex.

Other people are homosexual or gay. They’re only sexually attracted to people of the same sex. Bisexual and pansexual people are sexually attracted to both/all sexes. Asexual people, in contrast, are not sexually attracted to anyone.

Sexual orientation cannot be changed. Efforts to change sexual orientation, whether by conversion/reparative therapy or corrective rape, do not work. They cause intense distress which can lead to substance use, depression, and even suicide.

It’s important to remember that sexual orientation and behavior are not always the same thing. A straight person can choose not to have sex with people of the opposite sex. Most bisexual people choose to be monogamous, and thus do not have sex with both sexes at the same time. Many gay women (lesbians) have had sex with men before. Those free decisions do not change the person’s underlying sexual orientation.



Who, how many, and open or closed?

Monogamy is being in a sexual and/or romantic relationship with only one person at a time. Specifically it refers to marriage to one person at a time. The term is often used to refer to long-term relationships that may or may not be marriage. It’s the “standard” relationship style in the United States and much of the western world. An alternative to monogamy is polygamy, or having more than one spouse. Polygamy is illegal in many countries. Polygamy can be further subdivided into polyandry and polygyny. Polyandry is having more than one husband. Polygyny is having more than one wife.

Other forms of non-monogamy exist today in the United States. In large part these started during the 60’s and 70’s, in the era of “free love.” One example is called polyamory. Polyamory literally means “many loves.” It refers to a person having multiple romantic relationships which are not legal marriages. Unlike a cheating situation, everyone in a polyamorous relationship knows about and consents to everyone else being part of the relationship. Polyamorous relationships vary widely. Some are close-knit groups of three. Others are groups of 5 or 6, and take a whiteboard to draw out. The key to a polyamorous relationship, however, is that it’s based in romantic relationships and affection. Remember: polyamory means “many loves“.

Other forms of non-monogamy focus on sharing sexual experiences with more than one person. People who participate in “swinging” and partner swapping may have one romantic partner but may have consensual sex outside of that relationship.

One of the keys to non-monogamy is communication. One of the jokes in the polyamorous community goes like this: “What are the three rules of polyamory?” “1. Communication 2. Communication 3. Communication!” Because of this focus and need for communication, people who practice consensual non-monogamy tend to be more likely to practice safe sex.


Sexual Behaviors

If you can think of it, someone enjoys it…

and is probably doing it right now

Human sexuality is far, far broader than penis-in-vagina missionary position sex in the dark. Thanks to popular books and movies, one set of sexual likes has gotten a fair bit of attention: BDSM.

BDSM stands for “Bondage, Dominance/submission, SadoMasochism”. BDSM is roughly synonymous with “kink”, though connotations may differ between groups. It’s important to remember that BDSM is a rough lumping, like “LGBT”. “BDSM” refers to a number of subgroups, all with different preferences and culture. “BDSM” is also broader than the 4 terms within its name.

BDSM often involves themes that can carry physical or psychological danger and that require a lot of trust. To keep people safe, basic rules have been established. There are multiple sets of rules that have been used, but most center around a “Safe, Sane, Consensual” attitude.

  • Safe means that the activities are done as safely as possible. Risk is minimized as much as possible. Gloves and other barriers are used to prevent disease transmission, for example. Or a cushion is provided in case a person falls.
  • Sane means that the activities are done without mind-altering drugs or other altered states. All participants are of the age of consent and able to give consent.
  • Consensual means that all participants consent. If someone says “No” or gives a “safe word” to indicate that the scene should end, it ends. Nothing is done without the consent and will of all parties involved.

What’s typically involved in BDSM? Common themes include…

  • Power play. Participants may roleplay, or truly adopt, stylized explorations of social power. A common dynamic is that of a Master and slave, where the master gives orders to the slave that are obeyed. These orders can be sexual or nonsexual, depending on preferences. A slave “contract” can even be signed, and slaves are often “collared”. These relationships are typically very loving ones, where all participants enjoy giving or receiving power within the relationship.
  • Pain or intense sensation. This can vary from spanking or other forms of consensual hitting to using hot/cold objects to using pins or needles or electricity. Remember: intense sensations can feel pleasurable.
  • Bondage. Participants are restrained. Sometimes the restraint alone is pleasurable. Others may use restraint during sex.
  • Fetishism. Foot fetishes are the most common, but leather and vinyl are fairly common as well.

Core to all of these activities is exploration of limits, boundaries, safety and pleasure in a safe environment. A lot of negotiation should take place to ensure the safety and happiness of all involved.

BDSM is very different from abuse. BDSM is a consensual and often very loving and fulfilling experience between partners who can and do give consent. Abuse is not consensual.



When your body isn’t “normal”…

Intersex is roughly synonymous with “disorders of sexual development” or “differences of sexual development”. DSDs, or intersex conditions, are medical conditions that cause differences in physical sex. Each condition is different with different effects. Some result in ambiguous genitals, that look somewhere between male or female. Others are hidden and not diagnosed until puberty doesn’t happen as expected.

Historically, intersex people have had their conditions hidden from them and have been given genital surgeries without their consent as children. Such treatment is no longer the standard of care, thanks to organizations like the Accord Alliance.

Some fairly well known intersex conditions include Klinefelter Syndrome, Turner Syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and complete/incomplete androgen insensitivity syndrome.



When body doesn’t match mind…

Transgender/transsexual is when a person’s innate sense of gender doesn’t match the body they were born with. Unlike with intersex people, there’s no physical condition. There can be profound dysphoria or distress, to the point where self injury or suicide can be the final resort.

Trans women are assigned as male at birth and identify as female. Trans men are assigned as female at birth and identify as male. Some can be genderqueer or identify as another gender.

Typically the only way to relieve the dysphoria is to transition — a process of physical, legal, and behavioral change from one gender to another. Different trans people need different parts of transition. Some need medical care complete with surgeries, others just need social acceptance.

It’s important to remember that both intersex and transgender is about who people are. It’s different from having a sexual fetish about gender.


Gender variation

Male? Female? Why not both?

Not everybody identifies as a man or a woman. There are some people who identify as both. Others identify as gender neutral (agender or neutrois).

A common term that includes many variations of gender is “genderqueer”. Some genderqueer people prefer pronouns other than “he” or “she”. “Ze” and “They” are some options.


Hopefully that should give you a big of an introduction. Confused? Have further questions? Please ask! Consider this a safe place to ask any and all awkward questions.

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