Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sexual orientation and gender identity: Does the "T" fit?

During a meeting a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Sara Oswalt, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, was asked to give a brief explanation of the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, so why not point that out here. These terms tend to be confusing and misunderstood at times, so here is a brief definition:

Sexual orientation - the attraction to someone of the same sex, opposite sex or both sexes. Most commonly understood as homosexuality (same sex attraction), heterosexuality (opposite sex attraction) and bisexuality (attraction to both sexes), sexual orientation allows a person to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual (GLB) or straight. It is important to realize that identity and behavior are separate concepts, and behavior may not accurately describe someone's identity or vice-versa.

Gender identity - a person's sense and feeling of being male, female or transgender. Cultural norms and beliefs create expectations of how a person will express a gender in association with that person's sex (most commonly male or female); however, someone's gender identity or gender expression may not conform to these masculine and feminine expectations associated with sex.

There is much more detail that will help a person understand the importance of these components, but that could be a semester course or more. Because of a lack of understanding, a fear of difference or for other reasons, subtle to hostile and violent forms of harassment and discrimination occur against people who do not fit the expected heterosexual orientation and male or female gender identities and expression.

As a reaction to harassment and discrimination, the Stonewall riots, marches on Washington D.C. and other activism and advocacy efforts have brought us to where we are today in the United States - a time where we find some of the most accepting attitudes towards gays and lesbians and some protections for GLBT people at local, state and national levels. Still, as our society becomes more accepting of people whose sexual orientation differs from established norms, and equality organizations include Transgender issues with GLB concerns in their advocacy initiatives, the question of does the "T" fit seems to arise. It is something that lawmakers (and their constituents) must contend with right now in relation to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and leaders of the nation's largest GLBT advocacy group - the Human Rights Campaign - have been divided about. Even you may be wondering how important the "T" is, and that is okay.

Part of being an Ally is to learn about the issues and concerns of the community or communities you support. Just as we are all different, we all have something in common and that is why the Allies Program includes and supports the "T."

Hopefully you can join the NASPA webcast - The Lives of Transgender People Today - hosted at UTSA by the Allies Program on October 16 from 2:30 - 4 p.m. in FS 2.518 at the Downtown campus or when it is shown at the 1604 campus later in the academic year.

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