People often confuse terms used to describe sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Here are some definitions and explanations to help you better discuss these topics respectfully with others and identify any questions you may have about yourself.
Sex and Sexual Orientation
A person’s sex or assigned sex at birth refers to their physical anatomy or genetics and is usually assigned based on the individual’s genitalia when they’re born.
Sexual orientation describes a person’s emotional and sexual attraction toward others. Although there are many different sexual orientations, some of the most common include:
- Heterosexual or straight – Men attracted to women, and women attracted to men.
- Gay – Men attracted to men. Gay is used more often for men attracted to men, but women attracted to women use the term as well.
- Lesbian – Women attracted to women.
- Bisexual – A man or woman who is attracted to both men and women.
- Asexual – A person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction to others.
The term homosexual (meaning gay or lesbian) has become outdated.
Some people feel they were born with and have always known their sexual orientation, while others feel that their sexual orientation evolves over time.
Sexual behavior doesn’t always define sexual orientation. For example, a heterosexual male may engage in sexual behaviors with another male while still primarily being attracted to females and identifying as straight. The same is true of heterosexual females.
The term gender identity describes a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, a combination of both or neither.
Nonbinary is a common gender identity. People who describe themselves as nonbinary don’t identify as exclusively male or female; in other words, they don’t fit into the gender binary structure, which is the idea that people can only be male or female.
A nonbinary person may identify as both male and female, neither, some combination of the two or anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. A nonbinary person may feel more masculine on some days and more feminine on other days.
Nonbinary gender expression (see below) may fluctuate, or a person may choose to dress more androgynously (not distinctly masculine or feminine). Some nonbinary people prefer the typical masculine or feminine pronouns: he/his or she/hers. Others prefer gender-neutral pronouns, including they/them and ze/hir (pronounced “hear”).
Queer is an umbrella term that is intentionally open-ended, referring to someone who views their gender as being outside the binary structure and/or their sexual orientation as being outside societal norms. Someone who identifies as queer may identify as gay, lesbian, nonbinary, transgender, etc. Queer used to be a derogatory term, but many people in the LGBTQ community are reclaiming it. To be sensitive, only refer to a person as queer if they use the term first.
Gender expression describes how someone communicates their gender identity to others. It is how they present themselves to the world, often through “masculine” or “feminine” behavior, clothing and other personal characteristics, like hairstyle and makeup use. Some people have the same gender expression every day, while others change it based on how they’re feeling or what they’re doing.
Transgender and Cisgender
A person’s gender identity and/or gender expression may or may not align with their assigned sex at birth.
A transgender (trans) person’s biological sex, including genitalia and hormones, doesn’t match their gender identity, or internal sense of self. For example, a transgender person may have been assigned male at birth based on anatomy but identify as a woman. This transgender person may choose to live her life as a woman.
A cisgender (cis) person’s gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth. For example, a cisgender person whose assigned sex at birth was male also identifies as male.
Remember, being transgender – or cisgender – doesn’t determine that person’s sexual orientation.
- It Gets Better Project
- National LGBTQ Health Education Center Glossary
- Gender Odyssey
- The Trevor Project – Coming Out Handbook
NOTE: PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
Youth reviewer: Lillian Fong
Reviewed by: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last reviewed: February 2020