Gender Terms You Must Know

Be Sensitive, Be Accurate

There's a rich, new lexicon out there related to gender identity. It’s amazing to watch language stretch and evolve to help us better describe ourselves and our world.

Let’s walk through some of the terminology that’s becoming more widely used. There are many more words and phrases that are entering (and exiting) common use, and depending on how they’re used, they may fall in or out of favor very quickly. Remember: definitions can, and will, change!

Gender

It seems wise to start with the word gender, which is sometimes confused with “sex.” “Sex” is biological; gender is complex and somewhat amorphous, and relates to behavioral and psychological traits. Gender is primarily applied to human beings.

Sex Assignment

Sex assignment is the determination of an infant’s sex at birth. Generally, it’s unambiguous, but there may be complications in making that assignment if a baby is intersex. (People born with genital ambiguity were previously referred to as “hermaphrodites,” but that term is considered outdated and “intersex” is now preferred.) On occasion the sex that a child is assigned at birth doesn’t conform with that person’s innate gender identity.

Cisgender

Cisgender, or just cis, is a term for a person whose gender identity corresponds with their biological sex assigned at birth. It’s the opposite of transgender. German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch used the term in his 1998 essay “The Neosexual Revolution.” The prefix cis is Latin for “on this side of,” whereas trans means “on the other side of.”

Cisgender is favored over another term, gender-normative, which can be seen to imply that transgender identities are not “normal.”

Transgender and transsexual

Transgender has long applied to people whose gender identities do not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth. It can be used for those who have sex reassignment surgery, or for those who present and live publicly as a different gender than they were assigned at birth.

Transgender is the “T” in the acronym LGBTQ. The term is an adjective, not a noun. The advocacy group GLAAD explains: “Trying to change a person’s gender identity is no more successful than trying to change a person’s sexual orientation -- it doesn’t work. So most transgender people seek to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. This is called transition."

The “T” in LQBTQ also refers to transsexual, people who emotionally and psychologically feel they belong to the opposite sex. It’s an older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities. The umbrella term transgender refers to people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people use transsexual to refer to a person who physically transitions from male to female or female to male.

Like transgender, transsexual is an adjective. So, someone is a transsexual woman or a transsexual man.

Gender Identity

Gender identity is a person’s self-perception of their gender as male, female, a mix of male and female, or as something else beyond the gender binary. It may differ from their sex assigned at birth.

Do you remember the first time you thought about whether you were a little girl or a little boy? Most of us don’t, but for some, there is a moment when a disconnect is recognized, between an individual’s self-perception of their gender, and what is decided, by doctors, family, and society. A range of identities are now being recognized.

Binary/Non-Binary

Binary, in the context of the gender lexicon, refers to the view of gender as consisting of only two identities: man or woman, male or female.

Nonbinary refers to a gender identity outside of those two categories: not exclusively male or female, perhaps both, neither, or something else entirely. The state of California is the first in the country to introduce legislation that would allow non-binary as a legal gender status.

Actor Asia Kate Dillon (“Billions” and “Orange is the New Black”) has declared their non-binary status, and prefers the pronouns “they/their/them,” while actor and model Ruby Rose says her gender “fluctuates,” and she prefers female pronouns for now.

Genderqueer/Genderfluid

Genderqueer and genderfluid are often used in similar contexts (along with “third gender”), all relating to a person who does not have a consistent or specific gender identity or recognizable gender expression. Genderfluid people tend to move between genders while genderqueer is a term for people who reject notions of static gender categories. It is an umbrella term for many non-binary identities. 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. They feel restricted by gender labels and reject them.

Some may see themselves as genderless (agender), other-gendered, having two or more genders (bigender, pangender), or gender fluctuating. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation uses the term gender-expansive to convey "a wider, more flexible range of gender identity and/or expression than typically associated with the binary gender system.”

NoteAgender should not be confused with asexuality, characterized by a lack of sexual attraction to people of any gender. Some agender people may be asexual, and some may have various desires and attractions. And, bigender should not be confused with bisexual, meaning being sexually attracted to both men and women. A person may be bigender and not bisexual, or bisexual and not bigender.

Gender Dysphoria

Dysphoria is a Greek word meaning "a state of dissatisfaction, anxiety, or restlessness,”; it can refer to severe unhappiness or depression (any emotion that is the opposite of “euphoria” might fit the bill).

In gender dysphoria, the distress is caused when a person’s gender identity doesn’t match their physical attributes. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the term – which, in 2013, replaced Gender Identity Disorder – “is intended to better characterize the experiences of affected children, adolescents and adults.”

Them/Ze

Gender-neutral pronouns are sometimes preferred in place of “he” and “she” by genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender people. Ze is derived from the German pronoun sie and seems to be catching on as a contender: “Kashi was prompt—I was so grateful ze could give me a ride!”

The singular they has been used for centuries, usually when with an antecedent of indeterminate gender: “Each teacher needs to know how many students they have on the bus.” Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh believes singular they will continue to spread, calling it “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Deadname

When a person transitions to a different sex and they move ahead with officially changing legal documents, some transgender people refer to their given name at birth as their deadname.

Gender Neutrality

In addition to gender neutral words and restrooms, gender neutrality can refer to the concept of ending the branding and discrimination related to gender and sex in society. Gender neutrality also encourages the idea that we should end the practice of giving roles or making rules based on sex or gender. MTV broke with tradition in 2017 by giving awards without gender designations like “Best Actor in a Movie,” insisting that their younger audience “doesn’t see gender lines.” Are the Oscars headed down the same path?

To outsiders, the evolving labyrinth of gender lexicon might seem complex or intimidating. Just remember, when in doubt...ask! Opening up a respectful dialogue about gender identity can help form a safer and more inclusive community.

Two-spirit

Two-spirit refers to historical and current First Nations people whose individual spirits were and are a blend of male and female. The term is a direct translation of the Ojibwe term Niizh manidoowag.

Two-spirit has been reclaimed by some in Native American LGBT communities to honor their heritage and provide an alternative to the Western labels of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The modern use of the term “is attributed to Albert McLeod, who proposed its use during the Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference, held in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1990. McLeod is a Status Indian with ancestry from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and the Metis community of Norway House in northern Manitoba.

Some say if you’re not a member of a First Nations tribe, you’re not at liberty to use this term because it’s sacred to Native Americans.

aromantic

An aromantic person is someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction. Being aromantic is not the same as being asexual, and it’s certainly not about smelling nice, which is being aromatic.

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