Ally Training Week 2: Language and Bias

Acts 10:45-48a: the Holy Spirit has descended on the Gentiles

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

I chose these verses because they demonstrate Peter’s openness to inclusion of those who are on the outside. As we discussed last week, sometimes LGBTQ+ people are sent the message that they are not welcome, or are only welcome if they fulfill certain criteria, such as leaving their sexual orientation or gender identity at the door. Peter’s welcome of the Gentiles became whole-hearted, welcoming them just as they are. Christ calls us to do the same for all people.

A couple of notes about sexual orientation and gender identity: first these, lists are divided up into separate categories because they are separate categories. A somewhat crude way of differentiating between the two is to think about sexual orientation as who you go to bed with, and gender identity to think about who you go to bed as. 

Additionally, the most key piece of information to keep in mind about any of these definitions is that they are generalized. The best way to know what a specific word or label means to any one person is to ask that person. 

Words related to sexual orientation:

  • Asexual: a person who does not experience sexual attraction
  • Bisexual: an individual who is emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to men and women. Not necessary to have had had sexual experience with both men and women (or any sexual experience at all); it is attraction that determines orientation
  • Gay: adjective used to describe people whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to people of the same sex. Contemporarily, lesbian is often a preferred term for women. Again, no sexual experience necessary. Attraction determines orientation.
  • Homosexual: outdated clinical term, often considered derogatory and offensive
  • Heterosexual: used to describe people whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to people of the opposite sex. 
  • Lesbian: a woman whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to other women. No sexual experience necessary. Attraction determines orientation.
  • Pansexual: a person whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to others is not based on gender identity, but on other characteristics (differs from bisexual in that bisexual recognizes gender binary; pansexual does not – includes transgender people, agender people, gender queer people, etc.
  • Sexual orientation: Emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings toward other people. Sexual orientation is part of the human condition; sexual behavior is the choices we make in acting on our sexual orientation. Sexual activity does not define who we are in regard to our sexual orientation.

Words related to gender identity:

  • Affirmed gender: the gender to which someone who is transgender has transitioned. Better language to use than “new gender” or “chosen gender”, which imply that the current gender was not always their gender, or that they made a choice
  • Agender: a person who does not conform to any gender
  • Assigned gender: the gender given to an infant at birth typically based on external genitals; may or may not match gender identity 
  • Assigned sex: the sex (male, female, intersex) that is assigned to an infant at birth
  • Biological sex: sex determined by the physical characteristics of the body at birth, such as genetic markers and internal/external genitalia; may differ from identity
  • Cisgender: a term used to describe an individual whose gender identity aligns with the one typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth. Preferable to “non-trans,” “biological,”, or “natal”
  • Gender: a set of social, psychological, or emotional traits, often influenced by societal expectations that classify an individual into the binaries of either feminine or masculine
  • Gender-affirming surgery: surgical procedures that help people adjust their bodies in a way that more closely matches their gender identity. Not every transgender person will desire or have resources for surgery. This should be used in place of the older and offensive “sex change” or “gender reassignment”
  • Gender binary: the concept that there are only 2 genders, male and female, and that everyone must be one or the other
  • Gender expression: the manner in which a person chooses to communicate their gender identity to others through external means such as clothing and/or mannerisms. May be conscious or subconscious; may or may not reflect their gender identity or sexual orientation. While most people’s understandings of gender expressions relate to masculinity and femininity, there are countless combinations that may incorporate both masculine and feminine expressions – or neither – through androgynous expressions. The important thing to remember and respect is that every gender expression is valid.
  • Gender identity: one’s deeply held personal, internal sense of being male, female, some of both, or neither. Does not always correspond to biological sex. Awareness of gender identity is usually experienced in infancy and firmly set by age 3-4.
  • Gender neutral: not gendered. Can refer to language (ex. Pronouns), spaces (bathrooms), or identities (such as genderqueer)
  • Gender nonconforming: a person who views their gender identity as one of many possible genders beyond strictly female or male. Umbrella term that can emcompass other terms (below): these folks feel they exist psychologically between genders, on a spectrum, or beyond the binary gender model

Gender creative

Gender expansive

Genderqueer

Gender fluid

Gender neutral

Bigender

Androgynous

Gender diverse

  • Sex: refers to biological, genetic, or physical characteristics that define males, females, and people who are intersex. Can include genitalia, hormone levels, genes, or secondary sex characteristics. Sex is often compared or interchanged with gender, which is thought of as more social and less biological, but a lot of overlap
  • Transgender: a term that may be used to describe people whose gender expression does not conform to the cultural norms and/or whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth. Transgender is also considered by some to be an “umbrella term” that encompasses a number of identities which transcend the conventional expectations of gender identity and expression, including trans men, trans women, genderqueer, and gender expansive. People who identify as transgender may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity.
  • Transition: The process one goes through to discover and/or affirm their gender identity. This can, but does not always, include taking hormones, having surgeries, or going through therapy.

Other terms to be aware of:

  • Coming out: for LGBTQ+ people the process of self-acceptance that continues throughout one’s life. People often establish an LGBTQ+ identity first to themselves and then may decide to reveal it to others. Coming out can also apply to the family and allies of people who are LGBTQ+. There are many different degrees of being out: some may be out to friends only, some may be out publicly, some may only be out to themselves. Important to remember that not everyone is in the same place when it comes to being out, and to respect where each person is in that process of self-identification. It is up to each person, individually, to decide if and when to come out or disclose. It is also important to note that this is a life-long process, and everyone handles it differently. Every time I enter a new environment, I have to make the decision about whether to come out or not. For me, this gets easier every time. That may not be the case for everyone.
  • Disclosure: the act or process of revealing one’s transgender or gender nonconforming identity to another person in a specific instance. Some people who are trans-identified dislike the term and prefer “coming out” so it is a best practice to ask which term an individual uses in their personal lexicon.
  • LGBTQ+: an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning which refers to these individuals collectively. Occasionally, it is stated as LGBTQIA to include intersex and asexual. The plus symbol signals a recognition of all identities not mentioned in the acronym.
  • Queer: a term currently used by some people – particularly youth – to describe themselves and/or their community. Some value the term for its defiance, some like it because it can be inclusive of the entire community, and others find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities. Traditionally a negative or pejorative term or people who are gay, “queer” is disliked by some within the LGBTQ+ community, who find it offensive. Due to its varying meanings, this word should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer.
  • Questioning: a term used to describe those who are in a process of discovery and exploration about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or a combination thereof.

Other language to be aware of:

  • Wife, husband, spouse, partner
  • Brother, sister, sibling
  • Pronouns: he, she, they, others?

What terms are appropriate, and when should they be used? It is always appropriate to mirror the words that people use for themselves. For example, when I refer to my wife, that is a clear indication that this is my preferred term, rather than “spouse” or “partner”. 

During sermons, I substitute the word “siblings” for “brothers and sisters” to be inclusive of those for whom gender binary words (exclusively male/female) are not appropriate. 

As we started last week and again this week, we went around the room and introduced ourselves using names and the pronouns we prefer. The reason for this is because it is important for the majority of us who use she/her and he/him to make it clear to people who use they/them that they are welcome to be themselves in our midst.

We also discussed the challenges some people have using “they” as singular. The Oxford English Dictionary now includes a definition for the singular they; we also discussed that this has been common usage in the English language for a long time; many of us did this on the schoolyard, when we said things like, “I don’t like that kid; they threw a ball at me.” What we have done is merely formalized this long-time informal usage. 

Implicit bias

  • What is it? According to Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, “implicit bias refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control….These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages.”
  • Characteristics:
    • Pervasive – everyone has them. Last week, I suggested that most people think of white people when they think of LGBTQ+ people. This is an example of implicit bias.
    • Distinct from, but related to, explicit bias – Implicit biases do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or reflect stances we would explicitly endorse. Going back to the example of the ethnicity of LGBTQ+ people – I don’t think many of us would be surprised to meet an LGBTQ+ person of color, or find anything wrong with that. 
    • Does not necessarily agree with our stated beliefs
    • Malleable – we can unlearn these biases, but this takes time and work.
    • Does not govern an individual’s behavior but may relate to a group’s

Challenging implicit bias

  • Become aware of it – implicit.harvard.edu offers testing that can show you what biases you hold that you may not have been aware of. I recently took test re: sexual orientation to determine where my implicit bias is: at the end, you get not only your results, but a graph showing the results of others who have taken the test
  • Accountability – you can hold yourself accountable/ask others around you to hold you accountable, if implicit biases that you don’t agree with consciously start showing themselves in your words

Minority Stress – “events or conditions that minority populations experience that exceed the average person’s ability to endure, and that can then cause mental or physical illness. These events and conditions can include things like a lack of social structures that include other people like you; lack of access to institutions and resources because of your identity; experiencing verbal, physical, or mental abuse because of your differences; being subjected to stereotypes; internalizing other people’s negative views; and the lack of hope for these conditions to change in the future.” (Transforming 37)

As we discussed, this is a very real thing. In talking about the way that medical forms have been updated to reflect changes in gender and affirming transgender people, we discussed that this is important because transgender men are at risk for diseases such as ovarian cancer, while transgender women are at risk for diseases such as prostate cancer. Utilizing a medical system that does not honor and respect diversity of gender identity can be a form of minority stress.

Also as we discussed, if you call a kid stupid often enough, the kid will start to believe it. The same is true with the church and LGBTQ+ people – if we are told often enough that we are not welcome, or that we are welcome as long as we leave our sexual orientation or gender identity at the door, we will start to believe that. We counter that message with the Pride flag and with our Reconciling in Christ status, but how else do we do it? Do we do it well enough?

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