As an expert on the topic of sexual and gender identity, Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan is able to explain unfamiliar terminology in a non-judgmental, accessible way.Submitted photo

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Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan presented the September Levy Lecture, “Understanding Sexual Identity and Gender Identity,” on Sept. 10 at the Levy Senior Center to a room full of eager listeners. For more than an hour, Ms. Lindsay-Ryan explained unfamiliar terminology, gave examples of situations and scenarios and advice about how to handle them, and answered questions from grandparents trying to understand loved ones in their lives. It was a remarkable afternoon, and the audience was delighted, if not relieved, to have someone who was kind and non-judgmental explain things that were confounding.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan’s speaking style is humorous, gentle and self-depreciating. She is an expert in this topic and happy to share her knowledge with her university students, clients and at public speaking forums like the Levy Lecture. She speaks publicly about 75 times per year. One of the attendees, Marion Flynn, shared her impression of the presentation, saying “She was wonderful! A great communicator, relaying very complex thoughts in such an accessible way.”

The presentation began with a discussion about how, in a society, language evolves based on behaviors and context. All the new terms people hear today are part of an evolution to try and honor people’s identities and experiences.

Another point Ms. Lindsay-Ryan made early on is that everyone has biases, whether or not they realize it. No one is immune. One clue in uncovering one’s own biases is to note whether someone or something is surprising. “If you are feeling surprised when someone tells you part of their story, or shares a part of their life you had made assumptions about and now the narrative you have created is being challenged, chances are you are confronting a bias,” she says. When speaking about groups, it is important to remember nothing one attributes to a group is true for all of its members. Also, a bias might not be rational, but it is based on the holder’s experiences and interpreted through their own point of view.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan also talked to the audience about privilege. “If we don’t understand how privilege works, then we assume that everyone has the same experience and options that we do. But that is unrealistic, because we experience the world in different ways based on our identity and what we present to the world.” In the United States, the norms are based on being white, male, heterosexual and Christian.

Another way to look at privilege is to consider who is given the benefit of a doubt. Are some people given (or not given) the benefit of a doubt based on characteristics that having nothing to do with the quality of their character? Many see the world based on factors such as family, place, class, religion, race, body, gender, sexuality and experiences. It is important to ask, “How do those factors affect how others make decisions about us?”

As the vocabulary used to describe sexuality and identity expands, the idea of a simple binary system is challenged and incomplete. The world is more than just male and female, even though the majority of people fall into one of those two groups. There are many identities outside of this system and people who identify this way want to be seen and valued.

The audience was hanging onto Ms. Lindsay-Ryan’s every word. Now the lecture moved into explaining and discussing terminology related to sexuality and gender.

“Sex” is what we are assigned at birth, usually by doctors, based on observing a baby’s genitals. Most people are classified as male or female. “Gender” is how someone identifies, how they feel about themselves, which could be masculine, feminine or some combination. Gender is socially constructed; what is determined to be masculine or feminine varies by country around the world. “Cisgender” is the term used to describe someone whose gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan explained, “Once assigned a sex, there are a host of gender expectations that occur through gender socialization that impact our experience. While rigidity in gender roles and expectations is harmful to everyone, it is particularly harmful for people who identify as transgender or intersex. ‘Transgender’ refers to someone whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. Transgender is a word that is used as an umbrella term for many different identities across the gender spectrum. ‘Intersex’ describes when a person has both male and female sex organs or characteristics.” Ms. Lindsay-Ryan noted the term “hermaphrodite” is no longer used and is considered derogatory.

Human bodies vary greatly in both chromosomes and genitalia. Intersex people have always existed, but they have not always been informed of or consented to medical intervention.

As recently as the late twentieth century, these cases were ‘decided’ surgically by doctors, with disastrous results. Once the children reached puberty, the sex determined for them often did not match their gender identity. Now the medical profession favors waiting until the child is old enough to know and articulate their gender identity before any surgery is contemplated.

“Homosexual” refers to someone attracted to members of the same sex; heterosexual refers to someone attracted to members of the opposite sex. “Homophobia is fear of homosexuals.” “Heterosexism” means one assumes everyone is straight. “Bisexuals” are attracted to both sexes; “pansexual” refers to someone who is attracted to people regardless of their sexual identity, gender or gender identity.

“Queer” is an umbrella term used by people of varying identities along the gender identity and sexual identity spectrum who feel the current norms do not apply to them, or those who reject the gender binary. As the terminology evolved, some members of the community have reclaimed this term and use it to refer to themselves. However, it should not be assumed that everyone in the LGBTQ+ community uses this term to describe their identity or wants it used to refer to them.

Someone in the audience asked about pronouns and how to use “they” when referring to one person, inquiring if their relative was “just going through a phase.” Ms. Lindsay-Ryan advised, “The singular ‘they’ might not be something you have used, but it has always existed in language, and in the end, if someone you loved has requested you use a pronoun for them, that is the pronoun you should use. Using the correct pronouns demonstrates your respect and care for the person you love.”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan acknowledged this process and language can feel unfamiliar, and will be confusing and difficult at times.

She counseled, “You are going to make mistakes, but how you handle those mistakes is what’s important. Do you own the mistake, apologize and say you need to work on this more? Or do you get exasperated and blame the person for your inability to use the correct pronouns?  The first scenario is acceptance, the second is demeaning.”  

An inability to support people along their journey has dire consequences, and support from loved ones can make the difference between life and death. Transgender teens without parental support are more likely to commit suicide than any other group.

A few times during the lecture Ms. Lindsay-Ryan referred to her wife and three children. As a parent, she tries to teach her children how to navigate the world as it is, but also feel supported and safe. She wants them to be who they are and sees it as her responsibility to create the spaces where this is possible.

She encouraged the many grandparents in the audience to try and take the same approach with their children or grandchildren who are on this journey of self-discovery: “Be present. Love, embrace and accept them for who they are.”