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Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender – What’s the difference?

Person facing away, looking upwards.

A new friend recently invited me to meet another friend saying "She’s a LGBT too!" I returned her beaming smile thinking to myself, “What does that mean?” Nowadays people often hear and even use the phrase LGBT but have little idea what it means, or realize they may be conflating different identities, concepts, and terms.

Not because they are bad, or homophobic, or transphobic… but because these realities are not their own lived experience, or because working alongside these groups may be a newer experience for them.

Becoming familiar with some terms and concepts can be useful to better understand the complexities of sex, gender identity, and sexuality, and will also allow individuals to further support colleagues and team members who may be different than them. The language we use goes a long way to help us break down barriers. It is a critical tool in communicating that we recognize what people are going through and we value what their identity means to them.

Every individual has a:

  • Biological sex, assigned at birth by others based usually on cursory examination—such as male or female, and more rarely indeterminate;
  • Gender identity, referring to a person’s internal sense of their role in their culture’s system defining the traditional behavioral differences between men and women. Examples include identifying as a boy or a girl or rejecting the sense of a gender binary in some way.
  • Sexual orientation, which is the emotional and sexual attraction they feel for others—i.e., bisexual, gay, straight.

The first is assigned and the latter two usually come to us through exploration and life experience, and can be fluid. In other words, they can change over time. Culture, beliefs, peers, geographic location, age, etc. can all influence a person’s sexual identity and behavior. This doesn’t insinuate a “choice” as much as illuminates how a person’s stage of development, cultural environment, etc. shapes their own awareness and self-acceptance. As external factors change, so too can sexual identity, behavior, and even attraction.

When using terms currently in common use, it is still important to remember that what is considered acceptable may differ regionally, or by ethnicity, age group, country, etc.

Last year, the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) had the honor of sharing and learning from the experiences of members of NIH’s own LGBT or Sexual and Gender Minority (SGM) community and their allies through video testimonials and written accounts in the Telling Our Stories campaign.

Hearing these stories from some of our colleagues is a valuable learning and discovery experience for many of us and, like understanding certain terms, gives an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of SGM people also in our workplace.

We can also recognize and celebrate the diversity of our workforce and the principles of equal employment opportunity and inclusion by participating in one of the Safe Zone sessions at NIH.

Stay tuned for a future blog post that will take a closer look at the experiences of communities under the transgender "umbrella."

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