The power of language to shape our perceptions of other people is immense. Precise use of terms in regards to gender and sexual orientation can have a significant impact on demystifying many of the misperceptions associated with these concepts. However, the vocabulary of both continues to evolve, and there is not universal agreement about the definitions of many terms. Here are some working definitions and examples of frequently used (and misused) terms as a starting point for dialogue and understanding.
A - F
AFAB: Acronym meaning Assigned Female at Birth. AFAB people may or may not identify as female some or all of the time.
Agender: Refers to a person who does not identify with any gender.
Ally: A term used to describe someone who is supportive of LGBTQIA+ individuals and the community, either personally or as an advocate. Allies include both heterosexual and cisgender people who adovocate for equality in partnership with LGBTQIA+ people, as well as those who are LGBTQIA+ who are supportive of other identities within the community.
AMAB: Acronym meaning Assigned Male at Birth. AMAB people may or may not identify as male some or all of the time.
Androgynous: Expressing elements of both femininity and masculinity. There are androgynous individuals of all different gender identities.
Aromantic: Refers to an individual who does not experience romantic attraction. Sometime abbreviated as aro.
Asexual: Refers to an individual who does not experience sexual attraction. Each asexual person experiences relationships, attraction, and arousal differently. Asexuality is distinct from celibacy or sexual abstinence, which are chosen behaviors, in that asexuality is a sexual orientation that does not necessarily entail either of those behaviors. Sometimes abbreviated as ace.
Assigned Gender/Sex: The sex that is assigned to an infant at birth based on the child’s visible sex organs, including genitalia and other physical characteristics (see AFAB/AMAB).
Assumed Gender: The gender others assume an individual to be based on the sex and gender they are assigned at birth, as well as apparent societal gender markers and expectations, such as physical attributes and expressed characteristics.
Binding: The process of tightly wrapping one’s chest in order to minimize the appearance of having breasts, often by using a binder.
Biological Sex: Refers to anatomical, physiological, genetic, or physical attributes that determine if a person is male, female, or intersex. These include both primary and secondary sex characteristics, including genitalia, gonads, hormone levels, hormone receptors, chromosomes, and genes. Often also referred to as “sex,” “physical sex,” “anatomical sex,” or specifically as “sex assigned at birth.” Sex is often incorrectly conflated or interchanged with gender, which is more social than biological, and involves personal identity factors as well.
Bisexual: Refers to an individual who has the capacity for attraction—sexually, romantically, emotionally, or otherwise—to people with the same and/or different gender identities as themselves. People who identify as bisexual do not need to have equal levels of attraction to or experience with people across genders: it is attraction and self-identification that determine orientation. Sometimes referred to as bi.
Cisgender: Refers to an individual whose gender identity aligns with the gender assigned to them at birth.
Closeted: Describes a person who is not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Coming Out: For people who are LGBTQIA+, coming out is the process of self-identifying and self-acceptance that continues throughout one’s life, and the sharing of their identity with others. Sometimes referred to as disclosing (see Disclosure below). There are many different degrees of being out: Some may be out to friends only, some may be out publicly, and some may be out only to themselves. It’s important to remember that coming out is an incredibly personal and transformative experience. Not everyone is in the same place when it comes to being out, and it is critical to respect where each person is in that process of self-identification. It is up to each person, individually, to decide if and when to come out or disclose.
Demiromantic: Used to describe an individual who experiences romantic attraction after an emotional connection is formed.
Demisexual: Used to describe an individual who experiences sexual attraction after an emotional connection is formed.
Disclosure: A word that some people use to describe the act of revealing one's identity, whether gender or sexuality, to another person.
FTM: Acronym meaning female to male; describes a trans masculine person who was assigned female at birth. Some prefer not to use this designation because it is often considered an over medicalized and somewhat outdated term.
Gay: The adjective used to describe people who are emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to people of the same gender (e.g., gay man, gay people). Lesbian is often the term for used for women, though many women use the term gay to describe themselves. People who are gay need not have had any sexual experience; it is the attraction and self-identification that determine orientation.
Gender: A set of social, psychological, and/or emotional traits, often influenced by societal expectations, that classify an individual along a spectrum of man, woman, both, or neither.
Gender-Affirming Surgery (GAS): Surgical procedures that can help people adjust their bodies to more closely match their innate gender identity. Not every transgender person will desire or have resources for surgery. This term should be used in place of the outdated term sex change. Also sometimes referred to as sexual reassignment surgery (or SRS) or medical transition.
Gender Binary: The disproven concept that there are only two genders, man and woman, and that everyone must be one or the other. Also implies that gender is biologically determined.
Gender Dysphoria: The distress caused when a person's assigned gender at birth and gender identity are not the same. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV), the term "...is intended to better characterize the experiences of affected children, adolescents, and adults." An individual’s dysphoria may be so intense that it leads to depression and anxiety and has a sustained negative impact on the individual’s daily life.
Gender Expansive: An umbrella term sometimes used to describe people that expand notions of gender expression and identity beyond what is perceived as the expected gender norms for their society or context. Some gender-expansive individuals identify as a man or a woman, some identify as neither, and others identify as a mix of both. Gender-expansive people feel that they exist psychologically between genders, as on a spectrum, or beyond the notion of the man/woman binary paradigm, and sometimes prefer using gender-neutral pronouns (see Personal Gender Pronouns). They may or may not be comfortable with their bodies as they are, regardless of how they express their gender.
Gender Expression: The manner in which a person communicates about gender to others through external means such as clothing, appearance, or mannerisms. This communication may be conscious or subconscious and may or may not reflect their gender identity or sexual orientation. While most people’s understandings of gender expressions relate to masculinity and femininity, there are countless combinations that may incorporate both masculine and feminine expressions—or neither—through androgynous expressions. An individual’s gender expression does not automatically imply one’s gender identity.
Genderfluid: Describes a person who does not consistently identify with one fixed gender, and who may move between gender identities.
Gender Identity: One’s deeply held core sense of being a woman, man, both, or neither. One’s gender identity does not always correspond to biological sex. Awareness of gender identity is usually experienced as early as 18 months old.
Gender Neutral: Not gendered. Can refer to language (including pronouns and salutations/titles—see Gender-neutral salutations or titles), spaces (like bathrooms), or identities (being genderqueer, for example).
Gender-Neutral Salutations or Titles: A salutation or title that doesn’t identify the gender of the person being addressed in a formal communication or introduction. Also used for persons who do not identify as a binary gender, addressing someone where the gender is unknown, or if the correspondence-sender is unsure of the gender of the person to whom the correspondence is being sent. Mx is the most commonly used gender-neutral salutation (e.g. “Dear Mx. Smith…”).
Gender Nonconforming: An umbrella term used to describe those who view their gender identity as one of many possible genders beyond strictly man or woman. Other terms include gender expansive, gender creative, gender variant, genderqueer, nonbinary, agender, gender fluid, gender neutral, bigender and androgynous. PFLAG National uses the term gender expansive.
Genderqueer: Refers to individuals who identify as a combination of man and woman, neither man nor woman, both man and woman, or someone who rejects commonly held ideas of static gender identities. Is sometimes used as an umbrella term in much the same way that the term ‘queer’ is used, but only referring to gender, and thus should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as genderqueer.
Gender Socialization: The process by which an individual is taught and influenced on how they should behave as a man or a woman. Parents, teachers, peers, media, and books are some of the many agents of gender socialization.
Gender Spectrum: The concept that gender exists beyond a simple man/woman binary model, but instead exists on a continuum. Some people fall towards more masculine or more feminine aspects, some people move fluidly along the spectrum, and some identify off the spectrum entirely.
Gender Variant: A term, often used by the medical community, to describe individuals who dress, behave, or express themselves in a way that does not conform to dominant gender norms. People outside the medical community tend to avoid this term because they feel it suggests these identities are abnormal, preferring terms such as gender expansive and gender creative.
Heteronormativity: The assumption that everyone is heterosexual and that heterosexuality is superior to all other sexualities.
Heterosexual: Refers to a person who is emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to a person of a different gender.
Homophobia: An aversion to lesbian or gay people that often manifests itself in the form of prejudice and bias. Similarly, biphobia is an aversion people who are bisexual, and transphobia is an aversion to people who are transgender. Collectively, these attitudes are referred to as anti-LGBTQIA+ bias.
Homosexual: An outdated clinical term often considered derogatory and offensive, as opposed to the generally preferred terms gay, lesbian, or queer.
Intersex/Differences of Sexual Development (DSD): Refers to individuals born with ambiguous genitalia or bodies that appear neither typically male nor female, often arising from chromosomal anomalies or ambiguous genitalia. Medical professionals often assign a gender to the individual and proceed to perform surgeries to ‘align’ their physical appearance with typical male or female sex characteristics beginning in infancy and often continuing into adolescence, before a child is able to give informed consent. interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth opposes this practice of genital mutilation on infants and children. Formerly the medical terms hermaphrodite and pseudo-hermaphrodite were used; these terms are now considered neither acceptable nor scientifically accurate.
Latinx: An inclusive, gender-neutral term, sometimes used in place of the gendered, binary terms Latino or Latina, used to describe a person of Latin-American origin or descent.
Lesbian: Refers to a woman who is emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to other women. People who are lesbians need not have had any sexual experience; it is the attraction that helps determine orientation.
LGBTQIA+: Acronym that collectively refers to individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual. The + is used to indicate that there are many more identities within the community that are not accurately captured or reflected by the letters LGBTQIA.
Lifestyle: A negative term often incorrectly used to describe the lives of people who are LGBTQIA+. Some dislike this term because it implies that being LGBTQIA+ is a choice.
G - L
M - R
Misgender: To refer to someone, especially a transgender or gender-expansive person, using a pronoun or form of address which does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify.
MTF: Acronym meaning male to female; describes a trans feminine person who was assigned male at birth. Some prefer not to use this designation because it is often considered an over medicalized and somewhat outdated term.
Nonbinary: Refers to individuals who identify as neither man or woman, both man and woman, or a combination of man or woman. It is an identity term which some use exclusively, while others may use it interchangeably with terms like genderqueer, gender creative, gender nonconforming, gender diverse, or gender expansive. Individuals who identify as nonbinary may understand the identity as falling under the transgender umbrella, and may thus identify as transgender. Sometimes abbreviated as NB or Enby.
Out: Generally describes people who openly self-identify as LGBTQIA+ in their private, public, and/or professional lives.
Outing: The deliberate or accidental sharing of another person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression without their explicit consent. Outing is considered disrespectful and a potentially dangerous act for LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Pansexual: Refers to a person whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to people inclusive of all genders and biological sexes. People who are pansexual need not have had any sexual experience; it is the attraction and self-identification that determines the orientation.
Pronoun: A gender pronoun—sometimes called proper gender pronoun—is the pronoun or set of pronouns that an individual personally uses and would like others to use when talking to or about that individual. Individuals, both trans ans cis, should always have their proper pronouns respected and used.
In English, the singular pronouns that we use most frequently are gendered (she/her and he/him) so some individuals may prefer that you use gender neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns when talking to or about them. In English, individuals use they/them/their as gender-neutral singular pronouns. Others use ze (sometimes spelled zie) and hir/zir or the pronouns xe/xer. Replaces the term Preferred Gender Pronoun, which incorrectly implies that their use is optional.
Queer: A term used by some people to describe themselves and/or their community. Reclaimed from its earlier negative use, the term is valued by some for its defiance, by some because it can be inclusive of the entire community, and by others who find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities. Traditionally a negative or pejorative term for people who are gay, queer is still sometimes disliked within the LGBTQ+ community. Due to its varying meanings, this word should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer (i.e. “My cousin identifies as queer”).
Questioning: Describes those who are in a process of discovery and exploration about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or a combination thereof. For many reasons this may happen later in life and does not imply that someone is choosing to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer.
S - Z
Same-Gender Loving: A term sometimes used by some members of the African-American/Black community to express an alternative sexual orientation (gay/bisexual) without relying on terms and symbols of European descent.
Sexual Orientation: Emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings toward other people. While sexual behavior involves the choices one makes in acting on one’s sexual orientation, sexual orientation is part of the human condition. One’s sexual activity does not define one’s sexual orientation; typically, it is the attraction that helps determine orientation.
Stealth: A term used to describe transgender or gender-expansive individuals who do not disclose their transgender or gender-expansive status in their public or private lives (or certain aspects of their public and private lives). The term is increasingly considered offensive by some as it implies an element of deception. The phrase maintaining privacy is often used instead, though some individuals use both terms interchangeably.
Transgender: Often shortened to trans. A term describing a person whose gender identity does not necessarily match their assigned sex at birth. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity. This word is also used as an umbrella term to describe groups of people who transcend conventional expectations of gender identity or expression—such groups include, but are not limited to, people who identify as transsexual, genderqueer, gender variant, gender diverse, and androgynous. See above for common acronyms and terms including female to male (FTM), male to female (MTF), assigned male at birth (AMAB), assigned female at birth (AFAB), genderqueer, and gender expansive.
Transition: A term sometimes used to refer to the process—social, legal, and/or medical—one goes through to discover and/or affirm one’s gender identity. This may, but does not always, include taking hormones; having surgeries; and changing names, pronouns, identification documents, and more. Many individuals choose not to or are unable to transition for a wide range of reasons both within and beyond their control. The validity of an individual’s gender identity does not depend on any social, legal, and/or medical transition; the self-identification itself is what validates the gender identity.
Transsexual: An outdated, and now considered offensive, term which refers to people who use medical interventions such as hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries (GAS) as part of the process of expressing their gender. Some people may identify themselves as transsexual but the term should not be used to refer to anyone who does not explicitly identify as such. The term is now considered outdated and offensive because not only does it place emphasis on the physical body in determining gender, but it also carries with it a history of violence against trans women.
Two-Spirit: According to the Two Spirit Society of Denver, “two-spirit refers to another gender role believed to be common among most, if not all, first peoples of Turtle Island (North America), one that had a proper and accepted place within native societies. This acceptance was rooted in the spiritual teachings that say all life is sacred.” Though different nations have different definitions of the term Two-Spirit, it is widely understood to refer to an Indigenous person who identifies as having both a male and a female essence or spirit. The term--which was created in 1990 by a group of Indigenous activists at an annual Native LGBTQ conference--encompasses sexual, cultural, gender, and spiritual identities, and provides unifying, positive, and encouraging language that emphasizes reconnecting to tribal traditions. (With thanks to Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board [NPAIHB].) For more information, go here to listen to educator and storyteller Geo Soctomah Neptune explain how the term came to be and the cultural significance it holds.