Depending on one’s life experiences, it can be challenging to navigate some of the terms of the debate. Informed by the guidance of a number of organizations, including GLAAD, the Trans Journalists Association, InterAct, the American Medical Association and the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, The Washington Post has compiled a glossary of the terms and concepts that show up in our coverage.
The glossary below is not comprehensive, and there is ongoing conversation about which language is most appropriate and accurate. This guide is intended to be a clear and accurate starting point to help readers better understand gender issues.
Some of these terms may seem new — due in large part to increased visibility of LGBTQ communities — but the existence of different gender identities and sexual orientations is not. As with all language, these terms are reflected by our time and culture. This list is specific to the United States; other cultures have different labels and understandings of gender.
Sarah Blazucki, co-editor of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists’ stylebook, said that we can expect to see changes in which words we use and how.
“Language is always evolving,” Blazucki said. “We’re always coming up with new words and new ways to talk about things as our lives change, as society changes.”
Sex is usually assigned at birth and based on the appearance of external anatomy. Sex is typically categorized as male, female or intersex.
Intersex applies to people born with the reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or chromosomes that don’t fit into traditional conceptions of male or female bodies. As InterAct notes, there are a number of naturally occurring intersex variations, some that are identified at birth and others that may be discovered at puberty or later in life.
Intersex is not a gender identity. Intersex people are assigned a sex at birth, one that may or may not match their gender identity as they grow up. Intersex people may have any gender identity or sexual orientation.
Gender covers the behavioral, cultural or psychological traits associated with one’s sex, which can vary widely depending on the time period and place. It is widely held now among medical professionals and gender experts that the terms sex and gender are not interchangeable, though this has not always been the case.
Gender is frequently categorized as male, female or nonbinary.
Gender identity is your internal knowledge of your own gender. For many people, their gender identity will align with the sex they were assigned at birth, but this is not true for everyone — some people’s gender identity may line up with their assigned sex, and others may identify with neither or multiple genders (see cisgender, transgender and nonbinary).
What’s important to remember is that gender identity is not always outwardly visible to others, experts say.
Gender expression is how you present your gender outwardly, including through your behavior, mannerisms, clothing, name, pronouns and other characteristics.
Gender expression in the United States tends to fall on a spectrum from “masculine” to “feminine.”
While gender expression is very specific to the individual, it is heavily influenced by culture, peers and upbringing, said Gillian Branstetter, press secretary with the National Women’s Law Center.
“If you’re a cisgender man and you grow a beard, you’re communicating something about your gender to the world,” Branstetter said. “You’re doing the same thing with your name and pronouns, even if you don’t necessarily realize it.”
No matter what their gender identity is, most people express their gender in a way that aligns with their identity to better communicate to the world how they see themselves.
Cisgender describes someone whose gender identity lines up with the sex they were assigned at birth (this can also be shortened to “cis”). “Cis” comes from Latin, meaning “the same side as.”
Transgender describes someone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth (this can also be shortened to “trans”). For example, a transgender woman is someone who was listed as male at birth but whose gender identity is female.
“Trans” also comes from Latin, meaning “across” or “beyond.”
In its media guidance, GLAAD notes that being transgender is not dependent on physical appearance or medical procedures: “A person can call themself transgender the moment they realize that their gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth.”
As Branstetter said: “Transgender people are not a monolith in how we express or navigate our identities.”
Nonbinary is a term used by people whose experience of gender identity and gender expression do not align neatly as either “man” or “woman,” the two categories Western countries have generally used to classify gender. Both cis and trans people can identify as nonbinary.
In the United States, nonbinary (or non-binary) is a newer term for a concept with a long history. People have also used the term “genderqueer” to describe nonbinary identity. And terms like “agender,” which describes a person who does not identify as any gender, and “pangender,” which describes someone whose identity may encompass all genders at once, may help further describe how someone is nonbinary.
Genderfluid refers to someone whose gender identity is not fixed, but may appear to others as flowing through different gender categories. Imara Jones, founder and chief executive of TransLash Media, describes it as a “weaving together” of different gender identities: “This is just how they experience gender.”
Gender nonconforming, frequently abbreviated to GNC, is a broad term that describes a person who defies gender norms and expectations in their gender expression. This can apply to all gender identities: trans, cis, nonbinary and beyond.
Transphobia refers to prejudice or hatred shown, in speech or actions, toward transgender or gender-nonconforming people. This bias is centered on gender identity.
Sexual orientation describes an enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to a person of the same and/or other genders. It is separate from gender identity, but like gender identity, it is innate.
A cisgender or transgender person can be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, etc. (For example, “lesbian” could apply to both cisgender women and transgender women who are exclusively attracted to other women.)
Pansexual describes someone who is capable of forming enduring physical, romantic and emotional attraction to people of any gender identity.
Asexual, which is sometimes shortened to “ace,” is an umbrella term for people who do not experience sexual attraction. This can also include people who are demisexual — experiencing some sexual attraction, but only in certain situations; for example, only after establishing a strong emotional connection.
Out describes a person who self-identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender or nonbinary in their personal, public and professional lives.
Queer is an overarching term describing anyone whose sexual orientation isn’t exclusively heterosexual. It’s not unusual for older generations of LGBTQ members to reject the term, which was once considered a pejorative, said Branstetter. But in recent years, younger members have sought to reclaim the word.
“The word ‘queer,’ I think, is increasingly embraced in terms of expressing your own sexuality because it speaks to an openness. It speaks to growing comfortable with ambiguity,” Branstetter said.
For some people, “queer” carries with it an additional meaning as a political identity, Jones said — one that challenges the ways LGBTQ marginalization and inequality are upheld by legal, political and social systems. In recent years, some heterosexual people have also embraced this identity.
Homophobia refers to prejudice or hate expressed, in speech or actions, toward gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer people. The intolerance is based on sexual orientation.
Terms in the news
Gender transition refers to the multilayered process of aligning one’s life with one’s gender identity. While much of the news focuses on the medical process of transitioning (in large part because of the states that have proposed or enacted bills that restrict these treatments), transition can and does happen on many other levels.
“There’s a wide range of things that involve transition, and they’re not the same for everyone,” said Jones.
Social transition includes actions like coming out to family and friends, and changing how one dresses or talks, the name they go by and the pronouns they use. Legal transition involves updating documents like birth certificates and identification cards to reflect one’s name and gender marker. Medical transition includes hormone replacement therapy and could include additional surgical procedures as well.
Transition is a highly individualized, personal process. A person who is transitioning could employ all — or none — of these methods.
Gender dysphoria is the medical term for the psychological and physical distress that happens when one’s sex assigned at birth does not align with their gender. How people experience gender dysphoria — and its severity — varies from person to person, noted Jones.
In a clinical context, a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria is often necessary to access medical treatment. This practice is controversial on a couple of fronts: Some say that it inappropriately pathologizes gender incongruence, and some also critique it as a form of medical gatekeeping.
According to the Trans Journalists Association, gender dysphoria can also happen in a social context and can refer to the discomfort many trans people feel when their correct gender is not recognized by others.
Gender euphoria refers to the satisfaction and happiness people feel when their gender is affirmed. A trans person may experience this kind of euphoria when their correct names and pronouns are recognized or when their physical appearance aligns with their gender identity.
Branstetter adds that this kind of feeling is something cis people experience, too: “Cis women oftentimes will enjoy feeling feminine, whatever that may mean to them, in the same way cis men will oftentimes enjoy feeling masculine in whatever way that may mean to them.”
Gender-affirming care describes medical care that affirms or recognizes the gender identity of the person receiving medical care. Also known as “gender-affirmative” or “gender-confirming” care, such medical care for minors can include puberty or hormone blockers and is closely monitored by their doctors. For adults, this could mean hormone therapy and various surgical procedures, such as breast reconstruction (also known as “top surgery”), speech therapy, genital reconstruction and facial plastic surgery.
These treatments have been linked to better health outcomes for the transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people who seek them, and can help protect them against discrimination and violence.
But gender-affirming care goes beyond medical treatments that assist people in transitioning, said Jones. She views gender-affirming care as care that recognizes and values the gender identity of the patient, no matter what they’re seeking treatment for.
Jason Rafferty, a child psychiatrist and pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., described it similarly to the American Medical Association: It is “a model of care and an approach to the patients and families that we work with,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily a protocol. It’s not guided steps,” Rafferty added.
Misgender refers to an action in which someone addresses or refers to another person by the wrong gender — either accidentally or intentionally. This can include referring to someone by the wrong pronouns or honorifics or using a trans person’s deadname (the name they used before transitioning).
To understand and avoid misgendering, it’s important to recognize how often we gender the world around us, said Branstetter: We project gender onto animals, objects and even weather events.
“It’s something that people do and they don’t realize that they do it. It happens very swiftly,” Branstetter said.
For many transgender people, misgendering can feel like a form of violence, Jones added: “It’s violent because it’s a form of erasure.”
Marginalized gender is an umbrella term, most frequently used in academic and activist circles, describing anyone who is not a cis man. The term points toward the ways cisgender women and LGBTQ individuals, historically and currently, have experienced systemic inequities and greater regulation over their rights.
Because of discrimination and stigma, LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers. States have prevented pregnant people from accessing expanded postpartum care, despite evidence that it could save lives. And trans people are more than four times as likely to be victims of a violent crime.
“It’s not just that their bodies are regulated,” Branstetter said, “but their bodies are regulated as a means of regulating their life path.”