Gender and Sexuality: Defining Key Terms for Everyday Use

Navigating the dialogue that surrounds gender and sexuality can be difficult. The terminology used by and for individuals along the gender spectrum is specific, and preferred usage can vary from individual to individual. Consider the acronym LGBT, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It’s used all the time in phrases like “LGBT community” and “LGBT rights.” Yet, some people and groups include a “Q” in the acronym to stand for questioning, while others include an “I” to stand for intersex. The language is adaptable and it is always evolving.

Fortunately, there are useful guidelines that can be followed when discussing and writing about gender and sexuality. The Associated Press includes plenty of entries in its stylebook and offers guidelines on topics like when it is appropriate to reference someone’s sexual orientation. If you don’t have an AP Stylebook or access to one, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association provides a free stylebook on LGBT terminology. Unlike a dictionary, stylebooks provide detailed guidance on how and when to use words. This is especially useful when it comes to gender and sexuality because a lack of knowledge can undermine conversations about important social issues.

To help you stay informed, we’ve defined a few commonly used terms with added usage guidance from the NLGJA and AP.

Cisgender individuals are those whose gender identity matches the gender and sex they were assigned at birth. The NLGJA notes it can be shortened to “cis” in reference to a cis woman or cis man, and is a useful term because it “distinguishes without assuming that cisgender is the neutral or normal state.”

Gender Dysphoria
Gender dysphoria is a medical diagnosis that, according to the NLGJA, “identifies the unhappiness people experience when they feel their outward appearance of gender does not align with their mental and emotional state.” The diagnosis is often a prerequisite for transgender people to receive transitioning treatments.

Gender Expression
Gender expression is an extension of an individual’s gender identity; it is the outward manifestation of gender. The NLGJA says masculine, feminine, and androgynous traits “can be present in people of any gender or gender expression” and “may or may not match biological sex.”

Gender Identity
According to the NLGJA, gender identity is an “individual’s emotional and psychological sense of having a gender; feeling like a man, woman, both, or neither.” It has nothing to do with sexual orientation or even an individual’s sex at birth.

Gender Nonconforming
Gender nonconforming is a term that can be used to describe individuals who do not subscribe to the generally accepted cultural definition of gender. In other words, the NLGJA says it’s “when a gender identity or expression does not necessarily conform to the traditional view of two genders.”

Genderqueer refers to someone who experiences gender identity and expression as neither male nor female. Guidelines, including ones from the NLGJA and AP, say the term should only be used self-referentially or in a direct quotation if there is a compelling reason.

Intersex is a general term used for varying physical conditions where someone is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male. The NLGJA points out that “the outdated term ‘hermaphrodite’” should be avoided.

Sex is a combination of the physiological and biological characteristics and traits that define men and women. According to the NLGJA, this includes chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics. It is not a synonym for gender.

Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation is defined by the NLGJA as a person’s “innate sexual attraction.” Sexual orientation involves the emotional, romantic, and sexual affection or attraction to another person.

Transgender is a term for individuals whose gender identity and/or expression differs from what is considered common with the sex they were assigned at birth. Both the AP and NLGJA clearly state to use the pronouns that are preferred by a transgender person, and if this preference is not expressed, to use pronouns that match how the individual lives publicly. The NLGJA also says to avoid the word “transgendered,” which is offensive when used as a noun. Instead, use “transgender man,” “transgender woman,” and “transgender people.”

Transition, or “gender transition,” is the term used for the process by which transgender people alter their birth sex. According to the NLGJA, the process involves changing physical and sexual characteristics and occurs over time. It may include adopting the appearance of the new gender; telling family members, friends, and coworkers; changing legal documents; hormone therapy; and sometimes surgery or body modification.

Both the AP and NLGJA say to avoid this term in favor of transgender. The NLGJA notes that it can be used if a person or community prefers the term, but be aware that it carries misleading medical connotations.