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I have a friend who says she's bisexual, but she just got engaged to the guy she's been dating for a couple years now. Does that mean she's decided she's straight?

Congrats to your friend on her engagement! It’s great to hear happy news, especially during these strange times that we’re all living in. As for your question, it’s a fairly common one, so I’m glad you asked!

When we facilitate LGBTQ Cultural Competency trainings, one of the things we emphasize is the difference between behavior and identity. Sexual orientation is a form of identity. It’s something that’s integral to our sense of self, and our behavior doesn’t dictate our identity. We intuitively know that straight people are still straight, even if they’ve never dated anyone before. The same is true of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Their identity is valid, regardless of their dating history.

Let’s look at this through the lens of ice cream (this may seem like an odd analogy, but stick with me for a second!). 

Imagine for a moment that being straight is like being vanilla ice cream and being gay is like being chocolate ice cream. Some folks mistakenly assume that bisexual people would be a chocolate-vanilla twist in this analogy. As a result, they may think that if a bisexual person is dating someone vanilla, they might as well call it all vanilla (aka straight) because there’s barely any chocolate (aka “the gay part of bisexual”) left. 

In reality, bisexual people are more like strawberry ice cream. They’re not half-straight and half-gay; they’re fully bisexual. Whether you mix strawberry ice cream with chocolate or vanilla, it’s still delicious and still distinctly strawberry. In other words, whether a bisexual person is dating someone of their same gender (or someone of a different gender) they’re still bisexual. They’re also still bisexual when they’re single.

Now granted, this analogy doesn’t account for folks who identify outside the gender binary, but I hope it’s a helpful place to start understanding bisexuality. As for your friend (and congrats again on her engagement!), you can safely assume that she’s still bisexual unless she tells you otherwise.

I have a friend who wants everyone to use the pronouns they, them, and theirs instead of he or she. I want to be supportive, but I’m having trouble with the grammar. Isn’t the word they supposed to refer to multiple people? Am I supposed to say “they is” since I’m talking about one person or “they are”?

This is a great question, and one I get asked often. The good news is, using “they” to refer to one person is more intuitive than you might think. As English speakers, we actually do it all the time, even if we don’t recognize it. 

When I first started working at the Cortland LGBTQ Center, one of my fellow staff members shared an example that I think does a wonderful job illustrating how we all use the singular they in our daily lives.

Imagine you order dinner from your favorite local restaurant, and you even splurge and pay for delivery. You’re waiting at home, and the 30 minute delivery window passes. As it’s approaching an hour since you ordered, your stomach growling, you glance out the window and say:

“This is taking forever. When are they going to get here?”

You know there’s likely only one delivery driver coming to your house, but you still use “they” when referring to that one person. This is a very common way to use a singular they (and notice the use of “are” instead of “is” as well). 

It can feel a little more complicated when you know the person, but the general rules remain the same. If I used they/them pronouns, talking about me might look like this:

“Sam is the Program Coordinator for the Cortland LGBTQ Center. They live locally with their spouse and pets. They are a fan of Halloween.”

For the grammar sticklers out there, a lot of the official style guides (such as APA, MLA, Chicago Style, etc.) have updated their guidance over the past few years to state that using “they” to refer to a singular person is okay, so you’re covered there, too.

It might take a little while for new pronouns to come naturally, but using the correct pronouns is a great way to show your support and care. It’s an important component of allyship.

We have a new policy at work that encourages people to include their pronouns in the email signature line. I don’t understand why we’re supposed to do this. I’m not transgender, and my name is traditionally feminine, so people aren’t likely to get confused about who I am. Should I still include them?

This is a great question, and one that comes up more often than you might think. 

First, I want to give your company some kudos. It’s encouraging to see more organizations normalizing the sharing of pronouns. We see this most often in the human services field and on college campuses, but it’s spreading into many sectors of work and life, which is wonderful to see. The more people who readily share pronouns, the more comfortable our society will get with asking and using the correct pronouns for everyone.

Up until recently, the majority of people who shared their pronouns (or were asked by others to share them) were transgender and gender non-conforming people. While these questions were often asked with good intentions, singling out transgender individuals can feel othering and, in some cases, can be dangerous. Transgender people--especially Black trans women--are disproportionately victims of violent crime in the US.

So, what does all this have to do with putting your pronouns in your email signature? As a cisgender person (someone whose gender matches their assigned sex at birth), publicly stating your pronouns helps reduce the stigma of sharing that information. It also helps signal to transgender people that you’re someone who will respect their pronouns and be conscious about trying to get them right. This can go a long way to helping a client or co-worker feel more at ease with you.

Sharing pronouns is also helpful for people who have names that aren’t traditionally gendered. As someone who goes by “Sam,” people often assume I’m a man. By including “pronouns: she/her/hers”under my name in my email signature, I’ve effectively cut down the number of times I’m wrongfully addressed as “Mr. Adams.”

Ultimately, what you decide to do with your email signature is up to you, but if you want to signal your support for the transgender community, adding your pronouns is a great way to do that. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one that can offer more comfort than you might guess. Happy emailing!

My school is supposed to reopen for in-person learning soon. Is the Cortland LGBTQ Center going to reopen, too? Will you still come to our schools to visit our LGBTQ groups? If not, how can we talk to you if we have questions?

I appreciate your question, and I wish I had a more definitive answer for you. With our understanding of COVID-19 changing as scientists complete more research, and with positive test rates in flux throughout the country, it’s hard to say for sure how anything will look this fall.

We don’t yet have a timeline for when the Cortland LGBTQ Center will reopen to in-person visitors. While we’re closed, though, we remain available for you remotely. Our staff is committed to finding creative ways to provide resources and connection. 

For LGBTQ students in 7-12th grade, we have a virtual meeting every week from 3-4pm on Wednesdays. Monthly, we have a group for trans and gender diverse folks ages 13-20 (GEAR Teens) and another group for trans and gender diverse folks 18+ (GEAR Adults). We also have a Women’s Book Club for those 18+. To get connected to any of these meetings, you simply need to email me (sadams@familycs.org) and ask to join. We use Zoom and Google Meet for our meetings, and we’re open to trying different dates and times to try to accommodate as many schedules as possible.

As for visiting schools, we’ll have to follow the lead of teachers and administrators. We’re committed to being available for questions, but we want to ensure we’re keeping public health in mind and following guidelines. That might mean we provide support virtually for a while longer.

If you have questions, there are still a number of ways to get answers. If you think your question would help lots of people, you can submit it to this column via my email. Or, if your question is more personal, you can email or call (607-756-8970 ext. 253) to set up a time to talk over the phone or via Zoom or similar service. 

While it sounds like you’re likely a student, I also want everyone to know that we’re here for the entire community—LGBTQ people, their friends and families, and anyone who has questions about how to better support the LGBTQ members of our community. All are welcome to reach out for support and resources.

Stay well out there friends.

I’ve been following the Black Lives Matter protests, and I noticed that a lot of LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ organizations, have gotten involved. Is there a reason for that?

In my experience, there are several reasons why you’re likely to find many LGBTQ people in activist movements, including the current Black Lives Matter protest sweeping the nation (and the world).

Before I explore those reasons, I do want to acknowledge that the LGBTQ community is not immune to subtle--and more outright--forms of racism itself. It’s not uncommon to see requests like “no Asians” on dating profiles or to see white LGBTQ people fetishizing their Black peers by treating them like an exotic travel experience rather than a person with feelings. Being part of the LGBTQ community doesn’t automatically make someone anti-racist (someone who actively works to undermine racist systems). 

Back to your initial question, despite the pitfalls within our community, many LGBTQ people do advocate for social justice on many levels and for many reasons. 

First, the LGBTQ community is vast and diverse. There are people of every race, ethnicity, and religion without our community, so opposing racism, anti-semitism, and Islamophobia is important to many LGBTQ people. There are LGBTQ people who have disabilities, so supporting disability rights is also important to many of us. Because of discrimination--both on a society level and by family members--LGBTQ people also face higher rates of poverty and homelessness, which makes employment protections and other services important to many of us. Again, being LGBTQ doesn’t automatically make someone a social justice advocate, but it is important to many of us.

That said, LGBTQ people are drawn to the Black Lives Matter movement for more reasons than to support Black LGBTQ people (Which is important in itself, given how frequently Black trans women are murdered in this country.) Black people in the US, and LGBTQ people, share a history of being unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

When we reflect on the start of LGBTQ Pride Month, the Stonewall Riot in 1969, it wasn’t a fight for marriage equality or employment protection. The riot started as a protest against the abuse LGBTQ people suffered at the hands of police and a legal system that declared same-gender relationships against the law. While certainly not exactly equivalent to the profiling, targeted harassment, and police brutality faced by Black citizens, it is a struggle with which many LGBTQ relate. This shared history draws many LGBTQ people into the Black Lives Matter movement.

My daughter told me that one of her favorite authors posted an anti-transgender article online. My daughter is part of the LGBTQ community, and she seems really affected by what the author said. I’m trying to help my kid feel better, but since I’m not part of the LGBTQ community myself, she says I don’t get how much it hurts. How can I better support her?

 This is a great question. You’re probably right; your daughter is likely very affected by what she read. Learning that someone she looked up to has anti-transgender views can be very painful. It sounds like you’re taking her concerns seriously, and I commend you for that. Not every adult validates the feelings of children or teens. That said, it can be hard as a cisgender straight person to fully understand the hurt and fear that comes when a public figure shares hateful messages about the LGBTQ community.

Part of what makes it hurtful, is that anti-LGBTQ messages aren’t just “mean.” They have dangerous, real-world consequences. In many cases, anti-LGBTQ sentiments go beyond basic “name-calling” and can lead to physical violence or push forward legislation that hurts the community. In this case, the author used a public platform to target and hurt an already vulnerable community, which feels especially damaging during LGBTQ Pride Month. 

Thankfully, there are some tangible things you can do to support your daughter. It sounds like you’re already doing the first step: letting your child share how this is impacting her. It’s important to withhold judgement and avoid downplaying the hurt she’s feeling. Let her know that her feelings are valid. It’s normal to feel hurt by such things. It’s normal to feel betrayed or angry.

After validating her feelings, you can educate yourself about why those anti-transgender remarks are incorrect. This can help you provide your daughter with the tools to refute these claims if her peers repeat them. You can also ask your daughter if she’d like to do something to help make the world a little safer for transgender people. Depending on your resources, you could consider donating to a cause that supports trans youth (such as The Trevor Project). If your budget is tight, you could call your elected officials, asking them to support LGBTQ people. Depending on your daughter’s age and interest level, you could work together to research the folks up for election and find out which ones have the best track record of supporting LGBTQ people.

Regardless of which path you choose, owning that you may not understand completely but that you still love and support your daughter and her community, can go a long way. You can also connect her with the Cortland LGBTQ Center if she wants to talk with folks in her community. Stay well, and happy Pride!

I’m having a really hard time dealing with self-isolation. I was out about being gay at college, but now that I’m home, I feel like I have to go back in the closet. My family is always making jokes about gay and transgender people, and I don’t want to risk coming out to them when I’m stuck living here. How can I cope?

I’m sorry that you’re going through this. Please know that you’re not alone in this feeling. NBC News reported at the beginning of this month that many LGBTQ college students are facing similar struggles of returning home to unsupportive (and even hostile) family situations. The shift to home can be especially hard if you had a strong support network on campus—such as an LGBTQ club or lots of LGBTQ-identifying friends.

Going back into the metaphorical closet is hard, no matter how necessary it feels. It’s normal to feel a sense of grief or anger at having to hide a part of yourself to maintain your safety. Though it may feel unfair, there is no shame in doing what you can to protect yourself from people who may not accept you. This is especially true when you have to live with those individuals for an unknown amount of time. 

Knowing others are currently sharing your struggles isn’t always enough to find a sense of inner strength, and that’s okay, too. There are places you can turn to seek support and a sense of community. If your school had an LGBTQ organization, you can reach out to see if they’re hosting virtual video calls. If they don’t, we’re hosting online events through Google Hangouts and Zoom here at the Cortland LGBTQ Center. You can find out more about our online events via our website and social media pages.

If you don’t have the space in your home to talk about your experiences without family members overhearing, The Trevor Project, the leading organization that provides crisis support and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ people under 25 years old, offers free text and chat services for those who can’t comfortably speak about their concerns without being overheard. From your computer, you can go to www.thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now to access the online chat. From your phone, you can text START to 678678 to get connected to support.

Please reach out if you need support. At the Center, in addition to our online groups, we’re available by email, phone, GroupMe chat, and Google Hangouts chat, too. Stay well out there.

I’m stuck at home now because of COVID-19, and I’m really stressed about not being in school and not being able to visit my friends. I’m gay (and my parents aren’t supportive), and I’m not sure how to stay connected when we’re supposed to all stay apart. How do I get through this?

First, I want you to know that it’s totally normal to feel stress and fear right now. What’s happening in our community (and the country and world as a whole) hasn’t happened on this scale in any of our lifetimes. It can be scary to think about businesses and schools being closed down or worrying about who might get sick. There’s also a lot of uncertainty that adds to those negative feelings. While all those feelings are normal and expected, it’s important to find ways to feel other emotions, too. Your instinct to connect with other people is a great one. The key is finding ways to connect emotionally while staying physically apart. The need for community can be especially important for LGBTQ people if our families aren’t supportive.

Here are some of the things that can help:

Reading novels about LGBTQ main characters can be a great escape and a way to find a sense of community even if you’re alone in your room. Two of my favorites include Reverie by Ryan La Sala (a contemporary fantasy novel about a gay teen with missing memories and unexpected magic) and Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan (a summery romantic comedy about a bisexual girl who tries to save an amusement park and win the heart of her crush all while wearing a hot dog costume). There are lots of great LGBTQ books, and we’ll be featuring some of them on our Instagram while our staff is working from home.

Searching for the things in your life that have stayed the same can also help all the changes feel more manageable. Perhaps you have more time to listen to your favorite music, maybe even while you’re still doing homework for school. Or maybe you have a sibling who is still trying to learn all those TikTok dances. If you’re still struggling with difficult emotions, journaling about those feelings can be a helpful way to process them if you feel up to it.

You can also try setting up calls or group video chats with your friends. It’s great to see a familiar face, even if it’s through a screen. I’ve found hearing someone’s voice (especially if you can also see them) helps me feel more connected than just seeing words on a screen, such as texting. Additionally, you can use a service like Netflix Party to watch a show or movie with your friends. It may not be as fun as going to the theater together, but at least you get to bring your own snacks! 

If your friends aren’t available, you can also chat with staff from The Cortland LGBTQ Center. While we’re working from home, you can set-up a one-on-one video call by going to the website hangouts.google.com and sending a chat request to cortlandLGBTQcenter@gmail.com We also have group video meetings on Tuesdays (for middle schoolers) and Wednesdays (for high schoolers). 

Not a fan of technology? You can still get in touch by leaving me a message at 607-756-8970 extension 253 or emailing me at sadams@familycs.org I’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

Finally, there are a lot of wonderful resources that you can reach out to for additional help. The NYS Office of Mental Health has set up a phone line (1-844-863-9314) where you can access free and confidential support from a counselor. For LGBTQ-specific support, The Trevor Project is available by phone (1-866-488-7386), texting (text START to 678678), or online chat (www.thetrevorproject.org)

Stay well out there, wash your hands, and reach out for support. We’re here for you.

I’m having a hard time remembering the difference between a transgender guy and a transgender girl. Do you have any tricks for remembering what each term means? Also, who do transgender people date? Are they all gay? I’m not sure how that works.

I get questions like these often, so I’m glad you asked! Before we define those terms, I want to go over two others. The first is “biological sex.” When a baby is born, doctors assign a biological sex based on the infant’s visible anatomy and check a box indicating whether the baby is male or female. The second term we need to know is “gender identity,” which refers to a person’s internal sense of their gender. This is your inner feeling of “I’m a man” or “I’m a woman.” For some people, neither of those options fit, so they might have gender identities like non-binary or genderqueer. 

Now, on to your initial question. A transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man. In other words, when this person was born, the doctor said, “she’s a girl!” However, as this person grew up, he realized he was actually a man. For transgender women, it’s the opposite. A trans woman is someone who was assigned male at birth (the doctor said, “he’s a boy!”) but as she grew up, realized she was actually a woman. 

Many cisgender people (people whose biological sex matches their gender identity) have a hard time remembering the difference between a trans man and a trans woman. They struggle with whether a trans man means someone who was assigned male at birth (biological sex) or someone who is transitioning to being a man (gender identity). 

Here’s my best tip for remembering: the gendered term (man/woman) should always match the person’s gender identity. With this in mind, it’s easier to remember that a trans man is someone who identifies as a man and a trans woman is someone who identifies as a woman. It can also be helpful to know that you don’t need to include “trans” in most situations. If you know a trans person, you don’t need to say they’re a “trans man,” you can just call them a man.

As for who trans people date, it depends on the person. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate, so people of any gender can have any sexual orientation. A trans man may be gay (attracted to other men), straight (attracted to women), bisexual (attracted to more than one gender), or any other orientation.

My brother’s child recently came out as transgender. She now asks that we use she/her pronouns and that I refer to her as my niece. I’m okay with all this, but I’m not sure how to explain it to my kids, who are in elementary school. They’ve known Sally (name changed for privacy) as a boy their whole lives. How do I help my young kids understand this change?

Children are learning how the world works every single day. If adults present new information in a relaxed way, with calm explanations to their curiosity, these kinds of conversations go more smoothly than many parents fear. I hear stories all the time that go something like this:

Child: Wait, how can Uncle Timmy have a husband? Boys can’t marry boys.

Parent: Actually, they can. You can marry anyone you love, no matter their gender.

Child: Oh. Cool. What’s for dinner? 

It may sound like an amusing anecdote, but it truly does happen. Explaining that someone is transgender can feel trickier, since many adults are still learning what it means for a loved one to be trans themselves. As a parent, you may not feel knowledgeable enough to have those conversations, but it can be simpler than you might expect. You don’t need to know the answer to every question to help your child understand a relative who has changed their name, pronouns, or appearance. The conversation might look something like this:

“We all thought your cousin was a boy, but she let us know that she’s actually a girl. We’re going to call her Sally from now on.”

For some kids, that might be all you need. Other children may be curious about how Sally knows she’s a girl. You can talk about how we all have a sense of who we are inside, and for most people, that feeling matches what everyone already thought. For some people, like their cousin Sally, the inner feeling doesn’t match the gender everyone guessed that they were, and they might change their name and pronouns to better fit with how they feel inside.

To help set the stage for this conversation, there are some wonderful picture books about being transgender that can help. At the Center, we have two favorites. The first is Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall. It tells the story of a crayon with a red wrapper, but inside, the crayon itself is blue. It’s a beautiful metaphor for what it can mean to be trans. Another great option is When Aiden Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, which tells the story of Aiden, a young trans boy who is about to become a big brother. As he helps his parents prepare for his new sibling, readers learn about Aiden’s life as a trans kid.

My daughter is fifteen and recently told me that she's bisexual and has a crush on a girl at school. I want to be supportive, but my gut is telling me this is just a phase. A lot of her friends came out this year, and I think she's trying to fit in. I'm not sure how to even talk to her about this. What should I do?

Before we begin, I think it’s important to point out the significance of your daughter coming out to you. For her to be willing to share something so important with you, something that causes great stress and fear of rejection for a lot of teens, there has to be a strong level of trust and safety in your relationship. That’s an amazing place to start, and it’s something you’ll want to safeguard going forward. How you react to this news can impact whether your daughter continues to be so open with you in the future.

For some, sexuality is fluid. This means that our understanding of our sexuality, and who we’re attracted to, can shift and change over time. Some people may initially come out as bisexual and later realize that they’re gay. Other people may identify as straight until adulthood, when something shifts in their life and they realize they’re actually part of the LGBTQ community. For others, they come out early in life and stay solid in that identity. Your daughter may identify as bisexual for the rest of her life, or she may later find that a different term under the LGBTQ umbrella ultimately fits better. There’s no way to know how the future will unfold. As such, it’s important to understand that just because our identities may fluctuate and change over time, that doesn’t make our past a “phase.”

Just for a moment, though, let’s pretend this is a phase. Let’s imagine that in six months, your daughter comes to you and says, “I tried dating a girl and it wasn’t for me. I actually think I’m straight.” There are two ways you could spend the next six months until that point. You could support your daughter’s stated identity and strengthen your bond and trust, proving through your words and actions that you’ll love her, no matter who she dates. Then, when she comes out as straight, you can continue to support and love her unconditionally. Or, you could spend the next six months trying to convince your daughter that she’s wrong about who she is. Even if you’re ultimately correct, you’ve unintentionally shown that your love and support is dependent on your daughter acting or being a certain way. She may be less inclined to tell you other feelings she has in the future, because she may be afraid that if she’s ever wrong about herself, she’ll get an “I told you so” instead of compassion and understanding.

Ultimately, only you can decide how you proceed, but I’ll always support the path that makes LGBTQ+ youth (even if they’re questioning and may ultimately decide they’re straight) feel as loved and accepted as possible.

What do all the letters in LGBTQ stand for? How come sometimes there’s also an “IA” at the end?

The acronym LGBTQ (and its variations), refers to the diverse community of people whose gender and/or sexual identity is outside what some might consider the “mainstream.” People in the LGBTQ community have historically faced social and legal discrimination, and many still face harassment today for who they are. The specific letters stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer. The Q can also stand for those who are questioning their gender or sexual identity. While there are other identities that aren’t explicitly listed in the acronym (such as people who are non-binary, which means their gender isn’t man or woman, but somewhere in the middle), LGBTQ is used as an umbrella term meant to include all those identities.

Sometimes, the letters IA are also added at the end so the acronym reads LGBTQIA. These additional letters stand for Intersex and Asexual. It’s important to note that being intersex and being transgender is not the same thing. Someone who is intersex is born with a mixture of male and female biology, while someone who is transgender has a gender identity that does not match their biological sex.

The LGBTQ community, and the terms that we use to describe our experiences, are continually changing and shifting over time. This evolving language allows people to more accurately describe and understand their experiences and identity, but it can be confusing. If you have questions about the community, you can contact the Cortland LGBTQ Center for help!