Used correctly, the language describing sexual and gender diversity can prevent miscommunication, misperceptions, stereotypes and discrimination.
Terminology around sexual orientation and gender identity changes frequently, as language evolves. It is always best to check more than one source for terminology. These definitions are adapted from Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities (Religious Institute, 2014), the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Transgender Terminology, and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Transgender 101 web pages.
Biological sex refers to physical characteristics such as external genitals, sex chromosomes, sex hormones and internal reproductive systems that inform whether a person is male, female, or intersex.
Intersex a term for people who has physical sex attributes or chromosome patterns that are not easily classified with typical definitions of male or female. Some intersex characteristics are recognized at birth; others do not become apparent until puberty or later. An outdated term for intersex individuals is hermaphrodites. Intersex conditions are also known as differences of sex development (DSD). (1)
Sexuality. The sexual knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors of individuals. Its dimensions include the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the sexual response and reproductive systems; gender identity, sexual orientation, roles and personality; as well as thoughts, attachments, physical and emotional expressions, and relationships.
Sexualities. A sociological term for the many ways human beings engage in physically, emotionally and spiritually intimate behaviors and relationships. The term is typically used to suggest a diversity of sexual identities, rather than a single sexual norm.
Sexual Identity. An individual’s sense of self as a sexual being, including gender identity, gender role, sexual orientation and sexual self-concept. Sexual identity may also refer to the language and labels people use to define themselves. Sexual self-concept refers to the individual’s assessment of his or her sexual identity. Development of sexual identity is a critical part of adolescence.
Sexual Orientation. An individual’s enduring romantic, emotional or sexual attractions toward other persons. “Heterosexual,” “homosexual” and “bisexual” are examples of specific sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is a complex interaction between sexual attractions, behaviors, and self-identity. Sexual orientation refers to feelings and identity, not necessarily behavior. Individuals do not always express their sexual orientation through their sexual behaviors.
Asexuality. Experiencing little or no romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction or eroticism. Asexuality is different from celibacy, which is a decision not to engage in sexual behaviors with another person.
Bisexuality. An enduring romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction toward people of more than one sex or gender. A bisexual person may be more attracted to one sex than another, equally attracted to all sexes and genders, or may consider sex and gender unimportant. The intensity of a bisexual person’s attractions toward one sex or gender or another may vary over time.
Homosexuality. An enduring romantic, emotional or sexual attraction toward people of the same sex or gender. The term “gay” can refer to homosexual women or men, while the term “lesbian” refers only to homosexual women. Homosexual is increasingly seen as a medical/scientific and is used less frequently to refer to individuals.
Heterosexuality. An enduring romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction toward people of another sex. The term “straight” is common term used to refer to heterosexual people.
Gender. An individual’s personal, social, and/or legal status as female, male or transgender. Words that describe gender include “feminine,” “masculine” and “transgender.” Gender is largely a cultural construct that reflects a society’s expectations for feminine and masculine qualities and behaviors.
Gender Identity. An individual’s own sense of self as a woman, man, transgender, or none or other gender identitites. Gender identity may or may not conform to an individual’s biological sex.
Gender Expression. The outward expression of an individual’s gender, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice and/or body characteristics.
Gender Role. The cultural expectations of female and male behaviors.
Gender non-conforming. A term for individuals whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.
Transgender. An umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from those associated with their assigned sex at birth. The term “transgender” does not provide information about a person’s sexual orientation. Transgender is a broad term and is good for non-transgender people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for “transgender.” (Note: Transgender is correctly used as an adjective, not a noun, thus “transgender people” is appropriate but “transgenders” is often viewed as disrespectful.)
Cisgender. A term to describe people who are not transgender or gender-variant. In other words, those whose gender identities, expressions, and behavior “match” those expected, according to cultural norms, of the sex they were assigned at birth. “Cis” is shorthand for “cisgender.” Both trans and cis are neutral descriptors. Transition. The time when a person begins to living as the gender with which they identify rather than the gender they were assigned at birth, which often includes changing one’s first name and dressing and grooming differently. Transitioning may or may not also include medical and legal aspects, including taking hormones, having surgery, or changing identity documents (e.g. driver’s license, Social Security record) to reflect one’s gender identity. Medical and legal steps are often not accessible or affordable for all people.
Transsexual. A term no longer in use for people whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth who seeks to transition from male to female or female to male. Some use the term as an affirming self-identification. but many see it as overly clinical and pathologizing. Use transgender unless the person identifies as transsexual.
Coming out. Short for “coming out of the closet,” the term refers to the period when an LGBTQ person acknowledges and/or embraces their sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share this information with others. Coming out is not a one-time event but an ongoing process and can involve “coming out to” family, friends, colleagues, clergy and other significant people in an individual’s life. Some transgender people who have transitioned prefer the term “disclosure” since it does not imply that they are hiding something or trying to deceive others by living as their authentic gender.
Heterosexism. Similar to racism or sexism, this term refers to the systemic privileging of heterosexuality over other sexual orientations, or to the assumption or assertion of heterosexuality as the preferred cultural norm.
Homophobia. Fear, dislike, hatred or prejudice toward homosexuality and homosexual persons. Related terms are Biphobia and Transphobia.
Queer. Once a negative term for a lesbian or gay man, “queer” has recently been reclaimed by some LGBTQ people as a self-affirming term referring to anyone who is not heterosexual or cisgender. Depending on the user, this term may have a derogatory or an affirming connotation. It is best not to use this word to refer to specific individuals without their consent.
Questioning. Some individuals do not identify with any of the current terms that define sexual orientation or gender identity; others are still in the process of understanding their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They may choose to refer to themselves as “questioning,” “third gender,” “genderqueer,” or they may choose no term at all.