Getting Our Definitions Right
We are constantly honing and adjusting language of gender and sexuality to resonate more with folks in our communities. Identity terms are tricky, and providing a discription that works perfectly for everyone who uses that term is not quite possible. This list is not exhaustive, but aims to provide common terms and their definitions to help people understand their rights and responsibilities under various laws. We encourage all individuals to know and understand these terms in an effort to promote engagement and inclusivity within our society. With identity terms, what counts is a person’s self-identification, so trust the person who is using the term and their definition of it. It can be helpful to share with others your preferred pronouns and ask, instead of assume, which pronouns others prefer to use for themselves.
Ally – (noun) a (typically straight- or cis-identified) person who supports, and respects members of the LGBTQ community.
Androgyny/ous – (adj) (1) a gender expression that has elements of both masculinity and femininity; (2) occasionally used in place of “intersex” to describe a person with both female and male anatomy.
Asexual – (adj) having a lack of (or low level of) sexual attraction to others and/or a lack of interest or desire for sex or sexual partners. Asexuality exists on a spectrum from people who experience no sexual attraction or have any desire for sex to those who experience low levels and only after significant amounts of time, many of these different places on the spectrum have their own identity labels. Another term used within the asexual community is “ace,” meaning someone who is asexual.
Biphobia – (noun) a range of negative attitudes (e.g., fear, anger, intolerance, resentment, erasure, or discomfort) that one may have/express towards bisexual individuals. Biphobia can come from and be seen within the queer community as well as straight society.
Bisexual – (adj) a person emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to men and women. Other individuals may use this to indicate an attraction to individuals who identify outside of the gender binary as well and as a way to indicate an interest in more than one gender or sex (i.e. men and genderqueer people).
Cisgender – (adj) a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex, i.e., someone who is not transgender.
Cisnormativity – (noun) the assumption, in individuals or in institutions, that everyone is cisgender, and that cisgender identities are superior to trans* identities or people. Leads to invisibility of non-cisgender identities.
Closeted – (adj) an individual who is not open to themselves or others about their (queer) sexuality or gender identity. This may be by choice and/or for other reasons such as fear for one’s safety, peer or family rejection or disapproval and/or loss of housing, job, etc. When someone chooses to break this silence they “come out” of the closet.
Coming Out – (1) the process by which one accepts and/or comes to identify one’s own sexuality or gender identity (to “come out” to oneself). (2) The process by which one shares one’s sexuality or gender identity with others (to “come out” to friends, etc.).
Fluid(ity) – (adj) generally with another term attached, like gender-fluid or fluid-sexuality, fluid(ity) describes an identity that may change or shift over time between or within the mix of the options available (e.g., man and woman, bi and straight).
Gay – (adj) (1) a term used to describe individuals who are primarily emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to members of the same sex and/or gender. More commonly used when referring to males/men-identified people who are attracted to males/men-identified people, but can be applied to females/women-identified people as well. (2) An umbrella term used to refer to the queer community as a whole, or as an individual identity label for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual.
Gender Binary – (noun) the idea that there are only two genders – male/female or man/woman and that a person must be strictly gendered as either/or.
Gender Identity – (noun) one’s internal deeply-held sense of one’s gender which may be the same or different from one’s sex assigned at birth. One’s gender identity may be male, female, neither or both, e.g., non-binary. Everyone has a gender identity. Gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation.
Gender Expression – (noun) the representation of gender as expressed through, for example, one’s name, choice of pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, or body characteristics. Gender expression may not be distinctively male or female and may not conform to traditional gender-based stereotypes assigned to specific gender identities.
Gender – (noun) an individual’s actual or perceived sex, gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned at birth.
Gender Non-Conforming – (adj) used to describe someone whose gender expression differs from traditional gender-based stereotypes. Not all gender non-conforming people are transgender. Conversely, not all transgender people are gender non-conforming.
Gender Normative – (adj) someone whose gender presentation, whether by nature or by choice, aligns with society’s gender-based expectations.
Heteronormativity – (noun) the assumption, in individuals or in institutions, that everyone is heterosexual, and that heterosexuality is superior to all other sexualities. Leads to invisibility and stigmatizing of other sexualities. Often included in this concept is a level of gender normativity and gender roles, the assumption that individuals should identify as men and women, and be masculine men and feminine women, and finally that men and women are a complimentary pair.
Heterosexual – (adj) a person primarily emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex. Also known as straight.
Homophobia – (noun) an umbrella term for a range of negative attitudes (e.g., fear, anger, intolerance, resentment, erasure, or discomfort) that one may have towards members of LGBTQ community. The term can also connote a fear, disgust, or dislike of being perceived as LGBTQ. The term is extended to bisexual and transgender people as well; however, the terms biphobia and transphobia are used to emphasize the specific biases against individuals of bisexual and transgender communities.
Homosexual – (adj) a medical term used to describe a person primarily emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to members of the same sex/gender. This term is considered stigmatizing due to its history as a category of mental illness, and is discouraged for common use (use gay or lesbian instead).
Intersex – (adj) used to refer to a person whose reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or chromosomal pattern does not fit typical definitions of male or female. There are many different medical diagnoses or conditions that an intersex person may have.
Lesbian – (noun) a term used to describe women attracted romantically, erotically, and/or emotionally to other women.
LGBTQ – (noun) initialisms used as shorthand or umbrella terms for all folks who have a non-normative (or queer) gender or sexuality, there are many different initialisms people prefer. LGBTQ is Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer.
MSM / WSW – (noun) initialisms for “men who have sex with men” and “women who have sex with women,” to distinguish sexual behaviors from sexual identities (e.g., because a man is straight, it doesn’t mean he’s not having sex with men). Often used in the field of HIV/Aids education, prevention, and treatment.
Passing – (verb) (1) a term for trans* people being accepted as, or able to “pass for,” a member of their self-identified gender/sex identity (regardless of birth sex). (2) An LGB/queer individual who is believed to be or perceived as straight.
Questioning – (verb, adj) an individual who is unsure about or is exploring their own sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sex – (noun) a combination of bodily characteristics including chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, secondary sex characteristics, and gender identity. Most people are assigned male or female at birth based on the appearance of their external genitalia.
Sex Reassignment Surgery / SRS – A term used by some medical professionals to refer to a group of surgical options that alter a person’s biological sex. “Gender confirmation surgery” is considered by many to be a more affirming term. In most cases, one or multiple surgeries are required to achieve legal recognition of gender variance. Some refer to different surgical procedures as “top” surgery and “bottom” surgery to discuss what type of surgery they are having without having to be more explicit.
Trans*/Transgender – (adj) used to describe someone whose gender identity or expression is not typically associated with the sex assigned at birth. It can be used to describe people with a broad range of identity or expression. Someone who identifies their gender as androgynous, gender queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, MTF (male to female), or FTM (female to male) may also consider themselves to be transgender.
Transition(ing) – (noun, verb) this term is primarily used to refer to the process a trans* person undergoes when changing their bodily appearance either to be more congruent with the gender/sex they feel themselves to be and/or to be in harmony with their preferred gender expression.
Transphobia – (noun) the fear of, discrimination against, or hatred of trans* people, the trans* community, or gender ambiguity. Transphobia can be seen within the queer community, as well as in general society.
Transsexual – (noun, adj) a person who identifies psychologically as a gender/sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. Transsexuals often wish to transform their bodies hormonally and surgically to match their inner sense of gender/sex.
Ze / Hir – alternate pronouns that are gender neutral and preferred by some trans* people. Pronounced /zee/ and /here/ they replace “he” and “she” and “his” and “hers” respectively. Alternatively some people who are not comfortable/do not embrace he/she use the plural pronoun “they/their” as a gender neutral singular pronoun.
For further definitions utilized by the New York City Human Rights Commission in enforcing the City’s anti-discrimination law on the basis of an individual’s gender, gender identity and gender expression, see The Commission's Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression.