Patterson: In order to understand, ask the right questions

Columnist Sara Patterson answers common questions regarding the LGBT community.

Sara Patterson

Sara PattersonI was talking to a friend recently about how busy I’ve been this semester, with class and work and writing this column. At the mention of my column — which I force all of my friends to read, of course — her face changed.

“Oh! I have a question,” she said. She then leaned in close to me and whispered, embarrassed, “This is probably really stupid, but what do all those letters mean?”

I realized all this stuff that I considered common knowledge maybe wasn’t so common. So, I asked my friends, “What do you want to know about the LGBT community? What have you always been curious about, but never asked because you were embarrassed or thought it might be politically incorrect?”

Q: What’s the deal with all those letters and what do they mean?

A: I use the term “LGBT” because it’s the quickest to write and the simplest to say, but the more inclusive term for the entire community is LGBTQIA. It’s a mouthful.

The first two are the easiest to decode: The “L” stands for lesbian, or homosexual women; the “G” stands for gay, or homosexual men. The “B” stands for bisexual, people attracted to both sexes, while the “T” stands for transgender — someone who identifies with a gender different from the one they were born as or, potentially, one that doesn’t necessarily fit into what the general public considers male or female. “Q” has been used as questioning or queer. Someone who is questioning is still trying to figure out their sexuality and doesn’t really know where they fit between straight and gay.

Queer is kind of an all-inclusive term, it refers to pretty much anyone who doesn’t fit into a strict heterosexual stereotype. “I” stands for intersex, which is, according to the Intersex Society of North America, a person born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. “A” can stand for ally or asexual. An ally is a heterosexual person who supports and advocates for gay rights and an asexual person is someone who doesn’t feel sexually attracted to either sex.

Q: “Queer”? But isn’t that used as an insult?

A: Yeah, in the past, “queer” has been used as an insult or a slur directed toward the gay community. In recent years, however, it’s been reclaimed. Today, you are much more likely to see someone proudly calling themselves “queer” rather than someone else saying it as an insult.

Queer is also the term used by a lot of LGBT groups, like Temple’s Queer Student Union, for example, because it covers pretty much everyone in the community with just one word.

Q: How do you know if someone is transgender? And what do you refer to them as?

A: As a rule, I wouldn’t assume someone is transgender unless they flat out tell you. Making an assumption in that case will lead to an awkward, and sometimes offensive, situation.

Use common sense and manners. Refer to him or her using whatever pronouns he or she gives you. Most of the time, you will be able to tell from names or clothing what gender someone is expressing. But if you really don’t know and really don’t want to make an assumption, just ask.

Q: What’s the deal with gay marriage? Why is it taking so long? 

A: Same-sex marriage has been a major political issue since at least 1996 and the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA is a federal law that reserves same-sex marriage rights to the state, which means that a state that hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage cannot recognize a marriage performed in a state that did. So, if a couple gets married in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal, and moves to Pennsylvania where it is not, it is like they were never married in the first place. That’s why it’s taking so long, because we have to wait for each individual state to legalize it. DOMA also defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, although that part has been found unconstitutional in many courts and is set to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

How do you meet other gay people to go out with?

I have no idea. And, quite frankly, if anyone has suggestions, I’m open to them.

Q: Why did they have to kill off Willow’s girlfriend on “Buffy”? 

A: I don’t know. It’s been 10 years and I’m still not over it.

Now, this nearly doesn’t cover every question someone might have, but hopefully it’s a start. Hopefully I answered some question that you never felt comfortable to ask. If anyone has any more, you are more than welcome to ask me.

The biggest threat to the LGBT community has always been ignorance and fear, and the way to fight that is through education and understanding. Maybe I’m a little optimistic, but I’d like to think that if everyone just asked a question about something they didn’t understand rather than making assumptions based on stereotypes, everybody would get along much better. But that’s just me.

Sara Patterson can be reached at

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