Kelly Haworth

Author of Queer Speculative Romance

How Terminology Changes Identity


As my son and the children of my generation slowly reach the age of attending school, I’ve been starting to think back to some of the things I learned. Specifically what I want to talk about today is what, in hindsight, was an abysmal sex education class I attended in 5th grade, and the fact that I never had any additional formal education after that. I was essentially on my own. I hope that our generation will do better for our children in this regard, because I want my child and his friends to have the proper tools as they grow up.

Language is a tool. And if you don’t have a full toolbox, there’s certain things you won’t be able to do. Likewise, if you don’t have the language to express certain ideas, you’re going to have a nasty time trying to understand some things in your head.

Personal example time!

When I was growing up, my “sexuality and identity” toolbox was limited. I had a 2-session sex ed class of which all I can remember is the typical “here’s how babies are made” and maybe a bit about menstruation and pregnancy. Eventually, I learned about the concepts of “gay” and “lesbian”. There was an LGBT group in my high school, but I didn’t know what it was all about. Some stuff about the “day of silence” and kids who were in an even weirder social circle than mine. I was dreadfully introverted and was terrified to branch out of my small friend circle to find out. So when I started finding myself attracted to girls, I didn’t know what to do about it. Especially because I was still attracted to boys as well. I had no concept that one could be attracted to both and that such was a valid sexual identity. I felt like I had to choose one or the other, and stay that way forever, and I didn’t know what to do.

From as far back as about fifteen, I considered myself “a boy in a girl’s body”. But without any concept of “transgender” in my mind, I could do nothing with this feeling. I couldn’t even describe it in better terms than that. I thought I was just quirky, or crazy, and that it was just a fleeting fancy that I would grow out of. So I ignored it. In fact, I absorbed myself in academia for so long that I didn’t take the time to fully explore what “transgender” meant until I was in my early twenties. I had “cross-dressed” several times by that point, each time frustrated by my inability to describe how right I felt when I looked in the mirror and finally saw “me”. And I know I’m not alone in having such experiences, in locking up the real me in lieu of the one that fits in society’s nice little boxes.

Your reality changes when you have the language to express what you are feeling. When I learned what bisexuality and transgender meant, when I learned what nonbinary meant, I finally felt some validation for parts of me that I had long ago written off as “wrong”. There’s a possibility that if I would have known what these words meant in high school, I wouldn’t have felt so alienated, or weird. My concept of myself changed, it expanded, when I learned what these words meant. I could finally describe myself more accurately. (I’d like to talk more about my personal identity, but I’ll save that for a future post.)

I want our children to know what these words mean. I want them to have the freedom to decide who they are without feeling they’re a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. And that starts with all of us, teaching our children. All of us, supporting the programs at their schools, if we can. It starts with all of us supporting and loving our children for who they are.

If, one day, my son decides he’s straight, I want it to be because he’s genuinely attracted to girls, not because he didn’t know he could pick something else.

If, one day, my cousin’s daughter decides she might actually be “a boy in a girl’s body,” I want her to have the resources to properly explore the possibility, so she can make an educated decision on what fits best with her internal image.

And the same goes for anything else they may decide about their identities and what defines them as unique human beings.

I think things are better now than they were when I was a kid. I think kids these days (hah, once you use that phrase you know you’re old) have a much better language toolbox. I hope things keep getting better, and that our push for equality continues to lead us toward harmony.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Worry, worry, worry! 🙂
    Mothers always worry. The fewer children they have, the more they worry. It’s instinct to make sure if they have few children, that one or those two, actually survive and make it.

    Children find it in themselves to be fucked up. They find it in wonderful circumstances, with love all around them. They find it in horrible surroundings.
    They also find ways to adapt and be ok with themselves. Or not.

    Your child is strong. He will make it. His sexual identity will be his to tussle with, and most likely, he won’t tussle with it much at all. Most likely, he will just know and that will be that. There is a roughly 19 in 20 chance that he will not have a complicated time figuring out who he is.

    Which is not to say that being straight is a picnic in the park.

  2. This is interesting, but I finally figured out what’s bothering me. In an article on words, you use a very problematic one: decide. You talk about being able to decide one’s identity, but that makes it sound a lot like one “chooses” to be gay or straight or whatever. This flies in the face of the “it’s not a choice” argument.

    Maybe we choose who we are, maybe we don’t. What we do choose is what we will accept. Perhaps a better word would be “discover,” or “realize.” Or “accept.” Accepting yourself, and being accepted by others, is the goal, right?

    • Hi RP! You actually make a really great point. I think my phrasing was skewed by my own situation – I didn’t know what to do with my internalized gender, so I chose to ignore it when I was younger. That’s what I meant by saying that I want people to be able to decide their identity – I want them to have the freedom to decide to act on it instead of thinking it doesn’t fit into what it means to “be a girl” or “be a boy” and regrettably reject it.
      And I hope we all can accept who we are as human beings! Ourselves first and foremost, and of course others. Thanks!

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