The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Evanston Pride hosted an online forum the evening of Oct. 21 to discuss the diversity of expression inherent in gender identity and sexual orientation.

Among the topics in the discussion, led by Evanston Pride co-founder Rada Yovovich, an Evanston native who also co-founded the equity- and diversity-centered consultancy The Darkest Horse, were the meanings behind the initials that have come to abbreviate the LGBTQ+ community. She also described the factors that have come to define various gender identities and sexual orientations within contemporary culture.  

Yovovich began by acknowledging that remembering the intricacies of gender expression and its accompanying nomenclature can at first be overwhelming. As such, she emphasized that making mistakes, such as with pronoun use, is likely inevitable.

“Everybody starts at ‘zero,’” she said. “…The goal is to be OK even if you make a mistake. Even if we hurt somebody, we can recover from that.”

A complicating factor is that terms evolve over time. Yovovich said some older community members are triggered by the word “queer,” since they grew up in an era when it was considered a slur. But in recent years, she said, younger people have reclaimed the word, with some deploying it to connote difference in their own sexual orientation and/or societal beliefs, among many other possible factors.

Yovovich said that she used queer “as a very expansive term, across a spectrum rather than a binary.”

She further discussed how perceptions of a person are shaped by preconceived ideas about their gender, sexual orientation, gender expression and the sex they were assigned at birth. Each one of those categories can in turn represent multiple spectrums far more expansive than contemporary culture acknowledges, she said.

Rada Yovovich of Evanston Pride describes various Pride flags. (Screen capture by Matt Simonette)

A person assigned a male identity at birth, for example, might view themselves as straight and live as a male, but they know in their mind they are a transgender female. Individuals who identify as gay might be asexual or have had romantic relationships with a member of the opposite sex.

“You cannot guess one thing about somebody just because you know the rest,” said Yovovich.  “… My invitation is not to try to figure it out.”

While the multiple initials that have come to represent the LBGTQ+ community have been derided by some, Yovovich said that including initials affords dignity and a sense of inclusion for individuals who feel marginalized when people make more simplistic references.

Defining the alphabet

“When you are intentionally inclusive about a piece of the population, include their letter,” she said. Using the abbreviation “LGBTQIAA2+” for an example, she explained that it acknowledged lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, aromantic and two-spirit individuals, among others.

The following excerpts of definitions are from a glossary compiled by the LGBTQIA Resource Center at the University of California, Davis:

Lesbian: Usually, a woman whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same gender. However, some nonbinary people also identify as lesbians, often because they have some connection to womanhood and are primarily attracted to women.

Gay: A sexual and affectional orientation toward people of the same gender.

Bisexual: A person whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same and other genders, or towards people regardless of their gender.

Transgender: An adjective used most often as an umbrella term and frequently abbreviated to “trans.” Identifying as transgender, or trans, means that one’s internal knowledge of gender is different from conventional or cultural expectations based on the sex that person was assigned at birth. 

Queer: Historically, queer has been used as an epithet/slur against people whose gender, gender expression and/or sexuality do not conform to dominant expectations. Some people have reclaimed the word queer and self identify.

Intersex: An umbrella term to describe a wide range of natural body variations that do not fit neatly into conventional definitions of male or female. Intersex variations may include, but are not limited to, variations in chromosome compositions, hormone concentrations, and external and internal characteristics.

Asexual: A broad spectrum of sexual orientations generally characterized by feeling varying degrees of sexual attraction or … desires for partnered sexuality. Asexuality is distinct from celibacy, which is the deliberate abstention from sexual activity, despite sexual desire.

Aromantic: A romantic orientation generally characterized by not feeling romantic attraction or a desire for romance. Aromantic people can be satisfied by friendship and other non-romantic relationships. Many aromantic people also identify with a sexual orientation, such as asexual, bisexual, etc.

Two Spirit: An umbrella term encompassing sexuality and gender in Indigenous Native American communities. … It may refer to an embodiment of masculinity and femininity but this is not the only significance of the term.

Yovovich closed the conversation by again mentioning the importance of trying to understand the spectrums of representation and acknowledging their expansiveness in language choices. 

“The biggest piece is noticing assumptions,” she said. “… You’ll find that there are a lot [of them] in language.”