Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Common Terminology
These definitions are widely but not universally accepted. An individual’s self-definition always takes precedence over any dictionary definition, and it is important to understand the terminology preferences and meanings for each individual. Honoring and respecting the expression of people’s deeply held identity(-ies) is the first and most important step to creating an atmosphere of emotional safety that allows them to be authentically seen and heard.
PerformCare and the NJ Children’s System of Care recognize that language is fluid and constantly evolving. Therefore, updates will be made to this listing of common terminology from time to time to advance our collective learning and be respectful allies to individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+.
The LGBTQIA+ acronym is not complete (that’s what the “+” indicates), and it is not perfect. Deciding which identity gets representation in the acronym is always challenging, and there are many identities that are not explicitly included but are still entirely valid. This is particularly true of many culturally specific identities that exist outside Western understandings of gender and sexuality.
For the purposes of this guide, the LGBTQIA+ acronym will be utilized with an understanding that the acronym provides shorthand for a broad continuum of identities, expressions, and orientations that could never be completely captured through abbreviation. Below are some working definitions of frequently used terms as a starting point for dialogue and understanding.
Cisgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity aligns with characteristics that are associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
Gender is often defined as a social construct of norms, behaviors, and roles that vary between societies and over time. Gender is often categorized as male, female, or nonbinary
Gender binary is a system in which gender is constructed into two strict categories of male or female. Gender identity is expected to align with the sex assigned at birth, and gender expressions and roles fit traditional expectations.
Gender dysphoria is clinically significant distress caused when a person's assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify.
Gender-expansive describes a person with a wider, more flexible range of gender identity and/or expression than typically associated with the gender binary system. This word is often used as an umbrella term when referring to young people still exploring the possibilities of their gender expression and/or gender identity.
Gender expression is the external appearance of one's gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, body characteristics, or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially-defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
Gender-fluid describes someone who does not identify with a single fixed gender or someone who has a fluid or unfixed gender identity.
Gender identity is one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither. It is how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One's gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible to others.
Gender non-conforming is a broad term referring to people who do not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category. While many also identify as transgender, not all gender non-conforming people do.
Genderqueer people typically reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and often, though not always, sexual orientation. People who identify as genderqueer may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside these categories.
Intersex refers to a wide range of sexes outside of simple male and female. Intersex individuals are born with a variety of sex characteristics (including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, and/or genitals) that are outside the standard definitions of male and female. Those who are intersex can have a range of gender identities, and some identify as nonbinary while others identify as women or men.
Nonbinary is a term used by individuals who do not describe themselves or their genders as fitting into the categories of either man or woman. Those who are genderqueer can be nonbinary, but nonbinary does not encompass the entire definition of genderqueer.
Passing is a term used by transgender people that means they are perceived by others as the gender in which they self-identify.
Same-gender loving is an Afrocentric sexual identity that refers to an individual who is sexually attracted to the same gender identity.
Sex refers to a person's biological status and is typically assigned at birth, usually on the basis of external anatomy. Sex is typically categorized as male, female, or intersex.
Sex assigned at birth is the sex (male, female, or intersex) that a doctor or midwife uses to describe a child at birth based on their external anatomy.
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.
Transitioning is a series of processes that some transgender people may undergo to live more fully as their true gender. This typically includes social transition such as changing name and pronouns, medical transition, which may include hormone therapy or gender affirming surgeries, and legal transition, which may include changing legal name and sex on government identity documents. Transgender people may choose to undergo some, all, or none of these processes.
Two-spirit is a term coined in 1990 in Winnipeg, Canada, that refers to historical and current First Nations people whose individual spirits were a blend of male and female. This term has been reclaimed by some in Native American LGBTQIA+ communities to honor their heritage and provide an alternative to the Western labels of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Aromantic describes a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others.
Asexual, often called “ace” for short, refers to a complete or partial lack of sexual attraction or lack of interest in sexual activity with others. Asexuality exists on a spectrum, and asexual people may experience no, little, or conditional sexual attraction.
Bisexual describes a person who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity, though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree. This term is sometimes used interchangeably with pansexual.
Gay is predominantly used to describe a man who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to men. However, it can also be used as an umbrella term for homosexuality regardless of gender.
Lesbian refers to a woman who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to women. Women and nonbinary people may use this term to describe themselves.
Pansexual describes someone who has the potential for emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to people of any gender, though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree. Some people who are pansexual see gender, whereas others do not.
Sexual Orientation is an inherent or immutable, enduring, emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. An individual’s sexual orientation is independent of their gender identity. While sexual orientation can be unchanged over a person’s life and something that individuals are born into, the discovery of one’s sexual orientation may also take place over an individual’s entire lifetime.
Other common terminology
Ally is a term used to describe a person who is actively supportive of LGBTQIA+ people. It encompasses straight and cisgender allies, as well as those within the LGBTQIA+ community who support each other’s identities and orientations.
Coming out is the deliberate act of disclosing one’s gender identity or sexual orientation to an individual who previously did not know. Coming out can be a scary and stressful experience but also a beautiful, transformational, and empowering one.
Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, biases, and discrimination in favor of female and male sexuality and relationships, excluding LGBTQIA+ orientation and identity. Heterosexism considers heterosexual relationships and gender normative identity as “normal” and “correct.”
Homophobia is the fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, people who are attracted to members of the same sex.
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual/aromantic/agender” with a "+" sign to recognize the limitless sexual orientations, gender identities, and developing vocabulary used by members of the community.
Outing is the act of exposing someone’s gender identity and sexual orientation to others without their permission. Outing someone can have serious repercussions on mental health, employment, economic stability, personal safety, and religious or family situations.
Queer is a term often used to express a spectrum of identities and orientations that are counter to the mainstream. Queer is frequently used as a catchall term to describe people who do not identify as exclusively straight or do not identify with a specific sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. This term was previously used as a slur and some members of the LGBTQIA+ community still regard it negatively, but it has largely been reclaimed by many parts of the LGBTQIA+ movement.
Questioning is a term used to describe people who are in the process of exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Disclaimer: PerformCare and the New Jersey Children’s System of Care encourage youth and families to visit additional resources and observe how different organizations define and interpret these terms. Acknowledging varying perspectives from multiple sources is an important step to gain a broader understanding of LGBTQIA+ terminology:
- The Trans Language Primer (TLP) is an educational resource that is regularly updated to acknowledge the complexity of gender and expression. It is available at https://translanguageprimer.com/full-index/.
- Human Rights Campaign (HRC) envisions a world where every member of the LGBTQIA+ family has the freedom to live their truth without fear and with equality under the law. They empower their three million members and supporters to mobilize against attacks on marginalized people in the community. You can access their Glossary of Terms at https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms.
- PFLAG Jersey Shore is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community in Monmouth and Ocean counties. PFLAG Jersey Shore recognizes that LGBTQIA+ language and vocabulary continue to evolve, but provides their working definitions of frequently used terms at http://pflagjerseyshore.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Transgender-Terminology-list-UPDATED-11-10-19.pdf.
- The National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center provides a glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms that are relevant to health care and the identities of LGBTQIA+ people because understanding and becoming familiar with these terms can help health centers provide patients with the best quality care. The glossary can be found here: https://www.lgbtqiahealtheducation.org/publication/lgbtqia-glossary-of-terms-for-health-care-teams/
- University of Southern California (USC) Rossier School of Education is one of the world’s premier centers for graduate study in education. For more than 100 years, they have been preparing educational leaders to be change agents, providing them with the skills, knowledge, and determination to create environments in which all students can learn. You can access the Gender Identity Glossary for Schools at https://rossieronline.usc.edu/blog/gender-identity-glossary/.
Please note: PerformCare posts these links for informational purposes only. These external web sites are maintained by organizations over which PerformCare and the New Jersey Children's System of Care exercise no control. PerformCare and the NJ Children's System of Care expressly disclaim any responsibility or endorsement for the content, the accuracy of the information and/or quality of products or services provided by or advertised by these third-party websites. PerformCare and the NJ Children's System of Care do not control, endorse, promote, or have any affiliation with any web site listed unless expressly stated herein.