There is little in the LGBTQ+ community that is black and white. We picked a rainbow as our symbol for a reason. Every aspect of the LGBTQ+ community involves a spectrum, and keeping track of it all can be difficult. While it may be complicated, spectrums are a wonderful way to appreciate the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and the world as a whole. Not everything has to be set in stone. Realizing that the vast majority of the world is on a spectrum is a wonderful way to keep from separating things into “us” versus “them”.
Sexual orientation, romantic orientation, gray scale, and gender identity are just some of the many ways people identify themselves. Each person falls somewhere on each of these spectrums, and more detailed levels allow more and more diversity to emerge. While some spectrums influence one another, they do not always correlate. There are hundreds of different possible combinations, creating an amazing rainbow of sexual and gender identities.
Sexual orientation is the most commonly discussed spectrum. It refers to levels of sexual attraction to various genders. Most people are willing to accept that there are two ends of the scale: heterosexual and homosexual. While occasionally still contested, most people also recognize bisexuality, an attraction to two genders, as the center of the spectrum. Beyond these three points, many people are not familiar with sexual orientations.
In 1948 Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a prominent sexologist, published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” followed in 1953 by “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.” At the time, these were groundbreaking insights into the nature of human sexuality. In these works, he introduced what is now known as the Kinsey Scale. The Kinsey Scale ranges from 0 to 6, and denotes the level of attraction that an individual feels toward each gender. A Kinsey 0 is exclusively heterosexual; a Kinsey 6 is exclusively homosexual. Kinsey 1 and 5 refer to someone with occasional homosexual or heterosexual tendencies, but who is still primarily heterosexual or homosexual. A Kinsey 1 is what is now sometimes referred to as “heteroflexible.” Kinsey 2 and 4 refer to individuals with more than incidental homosexual or heterosexual tendencies. In modern language, this would be bisexual with a preference for one gender. A Kinsey 3 is a modern-day bisexual. The Kinsey Scale is a good start. It reveals the diversity of sexuality within the human population.
One of the main problems with the Kinsey Scale is its focus on action over attraction. More modern spectrums recognize that those who fall in the middle of the scale don’t have to act on their attraction to identify as queer. The other part of the Kinsey Scale that needs to be updated is the lack of room for fluidity. Sexuality can develop over a lifetime, and not everyone stays in exactly the same place over time. Many people who don’t feel any label in particular fits them simply use the word “queer” to identify themselves. These issues with the Kinsey Scale means that it is not a perfect representation of human sexuality and certainly not of the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, it provides a general idea of the range of sexual attraction.
Scales that are similar to the Kinsey Scale have been introduced more recently, but the idea holds steady. More levels of interest can be added to make the scale more specific. As we get more specific, it becomes clear that sexual attraction is not simple enough to fit into three categories.
Romantic orientation can be split into similar categories as sexual orientation. It refers to romantic or emotional attraction to people of various genders. Like sexual orientation, people can be interested in romantic relationships with only people of the same gender, only people of another gender, or some combination of the two. For those who prefer a more exact scale, something similar to the Kinsey Scale can be used for romantic orientation, ranging from exclusively heteroromantic to exclusively homoromantic.
Romantic orientation is most often used alongside sexual orientation, in order to explain a different interest in romantic partners than sexual ones. Usually these overlap partially, if not completely. For instance, if someone is bisexual homoromantic, they are interested in sexual relationships with multiple genders, but only interested in romantic relationships with the same gender. The spectrum of romantic orientation further diversifies the LGBTQ+ community, providing space for people who don’t want the same thing in sexual and romantic relationships.
The gray scale refers to the scale of asexuality and libido. Those who are asexual do not experience sexual attraction. They range from disinterest in sex to avoidance of it. Those who are not fully asexual, but don’t always experience sexual attraction fall into the gray-A range. There are very few defined places on the gray scale, as it is something that is still coming to public attention.
People who are asexual or somewhere in the gray-A range do not fit onto a linear scale as easily as other spectrums. While the scale can be said to range from experiencing sexual attraction often to asexuality, space must be made for fluidity and conditional sexual attraction. Some people in the gray-A range can only experience sexual attraction after a significant emotional connection has been formed, usually called demisexuality. Other people in the gray-A range only experience sexual attraction occasionally, or experience sexual attraction but no libido. People who fall into this range are harder to place on a line, but still fall in the gray scale.
The gray scale allows us to see how some people’s romantic and sexual orientation might interact. For those who are asexual or gray-A, sexual orientation might not be significant. Asexuality is another aspect of the LGBTQ+ community.
Gender identity refers to a person’s gender, related to various levels of masculinity and femininity. Sex is often confused with gender. Sex refers to characteristics of the physical and chemical body, while gender refers to a person’s identity. Cisgender people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. (Editors note: for a discussion of binary and non-binary genders, see the comments below!) Gender is usually assigned to a baby based on what sex they are perceived to be: a baby with a vagina will be raised as a girl and a baby with a penis will be raised as a boy. Both sex and gender are much more complex than male/female and man/woman.
There exist less commonly known genders along the spectrum of gender identity. Bigender people and genderqueer people fall between or outside of man and woman. They do not identify with one or the other, and may prefer they/them pronouns or other alternate pronouns. They may vary their gender expression to express who they are. Agender people do not identify with any gender and tend to be ambivalent about their association with one gender or another. These are identities that are still gaining recognition, allowing even broader diversity to be recognized in the LGBTQ+ community.
Gender identity intersects with sexual and romantic orientation because those definitions are dependent on the genders of the people involved. By recognizing the importance of gender identity, you can better understand how various aspects of gender and sexuality interact.
When white light passes through a prism, it scatters, revealing the spectrum of visible light. This spectrum ranges from red to violet, and we usually refer to it as a rainbow. The LGBTQ+ community has adopted the rainbow as their symbol; this is more than appropriate. Like the rainbow, the LGBTQ+ community is a collage of different spectrums, with an incredible variety of intersections. Acknowledging spectrums places everybody on the same scale, LGBTQ+ and allies alike. This makes it easier to recognize differences without shunning them. By embracing the diversity of the community and making an effort to understand individual identities, this rainbow becomes consistently more diverse and more beautiful.