“All too often, people feel uncomfortable with language regarding the LGBTQ community (the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning),” says Louise Newton, MSW, LCSW, SEP, co-founder and clinical supervisor of the Gender and Sexual Diversity Center at MindPath Care Centers in Durham, North Carolina. People will stumble over the words and get confused whether what words are derogatory and which are not. Putting the right words into your vernacular is a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
I have personally dealt with confusion from people trying to put “the right words” when it comes to understanding my gender identity and sexual orientation. These two terms are among the sixteen terms that the providers at MindPath’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Center think are essential to any allies interested in knowing and doing better as well as for those questioning their personal relationship to gender.
Gender identity: When someone uses this term, they are describing themselves based on their personal understanding of who they are. This is not defined by someone’s sex, their physical appearance, or how they dress and groom themselves. Your sex, not to be confused with sexual orientation, is what is assigned to you by medical instituitons based on what genitalia you are born with and it is not the same thing as your gender.
Sexual orientation: This refers to the gender someone is attracted to and is separate from their personal gender identity, says Newton. “I actually prefer the term ‘sexual identity’ to ‘sexual orientation,’ ” she says. “The word ‘orientation’ is kind of like using the word homosexual. There is nothing wrong with it. But it’s just not used very much anymore.” Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, and pansexual are all examples of different sexual identities that people use to describe their attractions.
Gender expression: Gender expression refers to the ways in which people affirm and express their experience of their gender externally, Newton says. “If a child is expressing characteristics of a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, some families will double down and put their son in football or say they can’t put on Grandma’s heels anymore. But in an ideal world gender expression should be a fun thing, a way to express and present yourself the way you want to.” Variances of gender expression allow for people to have fun with their presentation while they navigate their inner dialogues about their gender.
Gender questioning: Navigating these inner dialogues can be a time of gender questioning, during which someone learns about how they would like to express themselves and explores their gender identity, says Jazz McGinnis, LCSW, program coordinator of the Gender Pathways Program at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Unfortunately, this can cause people a lot of distress since it can be scary to think about being someone else or [rather], having a different way of understanding yourself.” A way we can overcome this is by being more open-minded when it comes to people’s presentation and feelings regarding gender.
Intersex: As was mentioned earlier, your sex is what is assigned to you by medical institutions based on your genitalia. Intersex is used to refer to the array of ambiguous or atypical genitals that vary from the binary understanding of male and female bodies. In the past, people referred to intersex people as hermaphrodites, but this term has since become outdated.
Transgender: Transgender is the term used by people whose gender identity differs from the one that was assigned to them at birth based on their sex. For example, I was assigned male gender when I was born due to my male sex. However, I am transgender because I identify as a non-binary person who uses she/her/hers pronouns. When talking to someone who is trans, it is most respectful to use the terms used by them. Previously, the term transsexual was used to identify transgender people but these days the more common term is transgender.
Cisgender: Cisgender is used for people whose gender identity doesn’t differ from the gender that was assigned to them at birth based on their sex. Therefore, someone is either cisgender or transgender.
Nonbinary: Nonbinary is an umbrella term used by people whose gender identity exists outside of the traditional male:female binary. These people might feel like they are neither male or female or composed of both male and female parts. Nonbinary p
eople may use they/them/their pronouns, but this is not always the case.
Gender nonconforming: “A person who is gender nonconforming is someone whose gender expression doesn’t mesh with what is considered normal for that gender,” says Newton. You can be both cisgender and gender nonconforming.
Genderfluid: In order to properly understand this term, we have to conceptualize gender on a spectrum. In the gender spectrum, male is on one end and female is on the other end. Therefore, there are infinite possibilities available in between these two. Genderfluid means someone’s gender isn’t fixed to a single point along the gender spectrum. Their gender varies throughout time, and can fluctuate all along the gender spectrum.
Gender transition: “This is a gradual process in which a transgender person starts to live in a way that is compatible with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth,” Newton explains. Transitioning looks different on an individual basis. For example, someone might only feel the need to clarify what pronouns they prefer when people are addressing them.
Gender confirmation: This term is an example of gender transition. Previously, this used to be called sex reassignment surgery, and then it became gender reassignment surgery. Today, the process of confirming the gender you associate and identify with is called gender confirmation surgery.
Agender: Agender is the term used by people who identify as having no gender. Some other terms used by agender folks are gender blank, gender free, and null gender. Agender people commonly use gender neutral pronouns, such as they/them/theirs, but that is not always the case. It is best to always ask what pronouns someone prefers.
Queer: This reclaimed term is used as an umbrella term, says Newton. “It is often times used not just as a personal identity but as a political identity,” she says. “Queer folks are often people who are involved in the community in raising awareness about issues like police brutality and challenges about class, race, and disability.”
Genderqueer: This term is used by people to make it known that they don’t identify with just being male or just being female, but rather as some combination of both or neither.
Cishet: This term is mostly used inside the LGBTQ community to identify someone who is both cisgender and heterosexual, explains Newton. “It could be considered derogatory,” she says. “It’s kind of an ingroup term used to identify someone who is privileged.” Among the terms explained in this article, it is the only slang term.