by Joe Kort, Ph.D.

For a generation that doesn’t like labels, Gen Zs and Millennials certainly are creating a lot of them! Years ago, when kids were growing up, they talked about being a fireman or an astronaut. Today, they are talking about their sexual and gender identities, and in terms we don’t understand. The traditional labels of gay, bisexual or straight, man or woman, have been replaced by what I call “boutique” sexual and gender identities.

The days of “one-size fits all” or even “one-size fits most” orientation and identity labels are a thing of the past.

Recent studies, for example, show the younger generation have more permission to identify openly as LGBTQ. Young people also tend to identify outside the traditional bineries.

Millenials now represent the largest generation of Americans, and they are by far the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the country. Millennials realize they’re pushing the boundaries of the sexual revolution beyond what their parents might have expected. Millennials are somewhat like pioneers, entering uncharted territory and navigating a wide-open sexual terrain that no previous generation has encountered; one with more opportunity, but also more ambiguity as they explore their sexual identity, and create these new labels such as pansexual, demisexual, gender fluid, heteroflexible, and a multitude of others. In addition, the cultural taboos against talking about sex are rapidly breaking down, and this often presents challenges for older adults.

Our culture once provided only narrow definitions of acceptable sexuality and gender, but now teens, Gen Zs and Millenials are immersed in new ways to think – and talk – about sexual and gender expression.

So, what does all of this labeling mean, and how can older adults – as well as therapists who are helping clients with their sexual and gender identity issues – respond positively, effectively and nonjudgmentally to whatever gender or sexual identity the younger generation wants to explore?

As a therapist, I often say to parents, “Have you thought about what you are going to say if your child comes out to you as LGBTQ because this is happening more and more.” Parents should be prepared for this possibility. What is important to remember is that if your child comes to you and wants to talk about his or her sexual and gender identity, you have done a good job as a parent because they trust you and want a closer, more truthful relationship with you. How you respond can have a long-lasting impact on your child.

In reality, your child may be exploring various identities. As parents and therapists, we should not challenge these new identities, but welcome an open discussion. You don’t have to celebrate each identity, but accepting them can be very helpful. By letting our kids express what they are thinking about their sexuality and gender, you are giving them an opportunity to get it out in the open and examine it more fully in the presence of someone who is willing to listen and ask thought-provoking and nonconfrontational questions.

Remember, these identity labels are ever-changing and shifting as your child grows and gains more knowledge.

Also, when your child (or a friend or family member) announces his or her new gender identity label, it’s important to ask exactly what it means because their definition may not be exactly what you find on the internet.

It is important to ask and listen, and allow your child (or family member or friend) to reveal this information in their own time frame.

We live in challenging times, and now, more than ever, we should be prepared to embrace change, be willing to explore these new labels, and adapt. In the long run, this will only improve your relationship with this individual.

Here are a few more tips for older adults who are juggling the new world of sexual and gender identity and all of the labels attached:

  • Avoid labels unless someone uses one. Then ask how they define that label so you don’t misrepresent how they are using it. Do not assume you know what that label means.
  • As an older adult, if you want to find out what the new labels mean, go online and do a little research, but, better yet, just ask.
  • Remember that sexual orientation and sexual identity are different; just because someone is attracted to the same sex or opposite sex doesn’t necessarily mean that is how they identify.
  • Be open to Millenials and their new identities. Millenials are not squeezing themselves in a pre-identified box as the older generation has for years. These pre-designed boxes don’t fit the younger generation.
  • Remember to respect the way in which other people identify themselves and behave. There is no universal way of defining sexuality or gender.
  • The younger generation is not having more sex than the previous one. Think of it as cultural change; youth are more open when it comes to discussing sexual identity; this doesn’t mean they are having more sex.

Here are a few of the “new” labels you may hear from time to time. Remember to ask what they mean because they may mean something different to the person using them. These definitions can be creations through emails, online discussions and in-person chats.

Coming out: the process by which one accepts or comes to identify one’s own sexuality or gender identity; the process by which one shares one’s sexual or gender identity with others

Demisexual: a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless he/she forms a strong emotional connection with someone

Gender binary: the idea that there are only two genders and that every person is one of those two

Gender expression: the way individuals dress and exhibit their own personality through body language, speech, clothing, etc.

Gender identity: one’s sense-of-self as predicated by societal and cultural norms, in terms of gender expression; it usually matches biological sex

Gen Zs: the generation after Millennials, Generation Zs are people born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, making up 25 percent of the US population

LGBTQ+: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and plus (other sexual identities including pansexual, asexual and omnisexual)

Millennials: those born between 1981 and 1996 (also known as Generation Y); in 2019, they will overtake Baby Boomers as the largest living generation

Nonbinery: a person with no (or very little) connection to the traditional system of gender identity; no personal alignment with the concepts of man or woman; someone who sees themselves as existing without gender

Pansexual: a person who experiences sexual, romantic, physical or spiritual attraction for members of all gender identities and expressions (often shortened to “pan”)

Sexual orientation: the gender in which a person prefers to have sexual or romantic relationships

Sexual preference: the types of sexual intercourse, stimulation and gratification one likes to receive and participate in. Generally when this term is used, it is being mistakenly interchanged with “sexual orientation,” creating an illusion that one has a choice or preference in who they are attracted to

Transgender: people whose gender identity differs from the societal and cultural norms of the biological sex assigned at birth

Transitioning: the process by which someone defines his or her gender differently from what was assigned at birth

If you hear a term you don’t recognize, or think someone is using a term in a new way, it is OK to ask.

Founding director of the Center for Relationship and Sexual Health, Joe Kort, PhD, LMSW, has been in practice for more than 30 years. He earned a master’s degree in social work and psychology, both from Wayne State University in Detroit. He obtained his doctorate in clinical sexology from the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists. Dr. Kort is an adjunct professor at Wayne State University’s School of Social Work. He also is a published author and recognized national speaker. In addition, he is a certified Imago Relationship therapist, a modality designed for couples to enhance their relationship, and for singles to learn relationship skills. He specializes in sexual health therapy, including dysfunctions, out-of-control sexual behavior and sexual identity issues.