Defining Terms

Language is dynamic; it grows, changes and develops. Language also creates and expresses meaning. This is particularly true with the language of diversity and terms (labels) we use to identify ourselves. Language must not demean, exclude or offend. We must allow others to self-identify, for definitions of terms vary for everyone. The following definitions are given to provide a starting point for discussion and understanding.

AG: Slang used by some young black and Hispanic lesbians to indicate the person in a couple who takes the dominant or more traditionally male role in the relationship. AG is derived from the word aggressive.
Ally: Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, whose attitude and behavior is anti-heterosexist and who works toward combating homophobia and heterosexism, both on a personal and institutional level.

Androgyny: Literally means combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.

Anti-gay Violence: Bias-related violence and crimes committed against lesbians and gay males; includes physical assault, abuse, rape, vandalism, terrorism, and murder. (Such crimes are now reportable under federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act.)

Asexual: a sexual orientation describing individuals who do not experience sexual attraction.

Bigenderist: A person who develops and expresses a distinctly male persona and a distinctly female persona. A bigenderist might, for example, work as a woman and socialize as a man.

Biphobia: The irrational fear of, hatred of, aversion to, or discrimination against bisexuals or bisexual behavior.

Bisexual: An individual (male or female) who is attracted sexually and emotionally to both males and females.

Cisgender: An adjective to describe a person whose gender identity is congruent with (or “matches”) the biological sex that they were assigned at birth.

Civil Union: A commitment between life partners of the same sex. Partners have all the same legal protections, rights and responsibilities as male-female married couples.

Coming Out (of the closet): Being “closeted” refers to not disclosing one‘s sexual orientation. “Coming out” is the process of first recognizing and acknowledging a non-heterosexual orientation and then disclosing it to others. This usually occurs in stages and is a non-linear process. An individual may be “out” in some situations or to certain family members or associates and not others. Some may never “come out” to anyone beside themselves.

Cross-dressers: Men and women who enjoy wearing the clothes of and appearing as the other gender. A cross-dresser generally wants to relate, and be accepted, as a person of the gender he/she is presenting. While many are heterosexual, the use of cross-dressing in the gay “drag” culture is well-documented.

Domestic Partners: Adults who are not legally married, but who share resources and responsibilities for decisions, share values and goals, and have commitments to one another over a period of time. Definitions may vary among city ordinances, corporate policies, and even among those who identify themselves as domestic partners.

Drag: Dressing in the clothing of the opposite biological sex in a manner different than how one usually dresses. Drag is often “theatrical,” and presents a stereotyped image. Individuals who dress in drag may or may not be cross-dressers or bigenderists.

Gay: A generic term said to apply to both men and women who are attracted to the same sex. Some people object to the use of gay when applied to lesbians as well as gay men, and use the word only to mean a homosexual male. This is the preferred term (rather than homosexual, which is more often used in a negative context).

Gender, or Gender Identity: An individual‘s basic self-conviction of being male or female. This conviction is not contingent upon the individual‘s biological sex. This also has no bearing on the individual‘s sexual orientation.

Gender Bending: Now considered a defamatory statement. Dressing in such a way as to question the traditional feminine or masculine qualities assigned to articles of clothing or adornment. Gender bending may be part of “fashion,” or possibly a political statement.

Gender Dysphoria: A psychological term used to describe the feelings of pain and anguish that arise from a transgender person‘s conflict between gender identity (internal experience) and biological sex (external experience).

Gender Identity Disorder (GID): The former psychological classification found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) which is used to “diagnose” trans people and children. GID was frequently, abusively and inappropriately used with children to “cure” homosexuality and enforce gender conformity. The DSM-5 (2013) replaced “Gender Identity Disorder” with “Gender Dysphoria,” a more neutral diagnosis of emotional distress over one’s gender.

Genderqueer: A person whose performance of gender is not normative in relation to what is socially expected. This term became popular as increasing amounts of gender variant people voiced discomfort in and exclusion from the transgender community.

Gender Roles: The socially constructed and culturally specific behavior and appearance expectations imposed on women (femininity) and men (masculinity).

Heteronormativity: An (often subconscious) assumption that everyone is heterosexual, and the attitudes associated with that assumption. Heterocentrism often shows up in unintentional ways in everyday life.

Heterosexism: The institutionalized belief that heterosexuality is inherently superior to homosexuality or bisexuality.

Heterosexual: A man or woman who forms sexual and affectionate relationships with members of the other sex; also referred to as “straight”.

Heterosexual Privilege: The basic civil rights and social privileges that a heterosexual individual automatically receives, but are systematically denied to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons on the sole basis of their gender identity.

Homophobia: The irrational fear of, hatred of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuals or homosexual behavior. “Biphobia” and “transphobia” are more specific terms when discussing prejudice toward bisexual and transgender persons, respectively.

Homosexual: Men and women who are attracted sexually and emotionally to persons of the same sex. The word “homosexual” is often used as a descriptor when discussing concrete behaviors (e.g., to describe same-sex sexual behaviors). The LGB community does not embrace this term as it is more often used in a negative context.

Internalized Homophobia: The experience of shame, aversion, or self-hatred in reaction to one‘s own feelings of attraction for a person of the same sex.

Intersex: Formerly known as “hermaphrodites” (a term that is now considered offensive), this term refers to people who have traits of both male and female sexual organs or have ambiguous sexual organs.

LGBTQIA: Sometimes referred to as “alphabet soup,” this acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and ally. Some people will change the order of the letters in this acronym and some will only use some of the letters. Recently, people have moved to putting the “L” at the front of the acronym as a way of addressing multiple areas of oppression that lesbians face as both women and homosexuals.

Lesbian: A woman who is attracted sexually and emotionally to some other females.

Mahu :In traditional Hawai’ian culture these are considered the third gender, individuals considered to be neither women nor men. In modern day Hawaii it is a commonly used slang word for transvestite and transgender persons. Asian and Pacific Islander students will sometimes adopt this term in place of gay or lesbian.

MSM: Men who have Sex with Men – the term is often used when discussing sexual behavior. It is inclusive of all men who participate in this behavior regardless of how they identify their sexual orientation. The acronym MSM is conventionally used in professional literature, and some gay men object to the term as it may obscure their gay identity.

Othering: Language that refers to “them” or “others;” typically used to identify a separation between and among groups. It has been used in social sciences to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude ‘Others’ whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society.

Outing: Outing refers to revealing someone else‘s sexual orientation or gender identity to others without the consent of the person.

Pansexual: characterized by the potential for aesthetic attraction, romantic love, or sexual desire for people, regardless of their gender identity or biological sex.

Partner or Significant Other: Primary domestic partner or spousal relationship(s). May be referred to as “girlfriend/boyfriend,” “lover,” “roommate,” “life partner,” “wife/husband” or other terms.

Queer: Used by some within the LGBT community to refer to a person who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex or transgender, or someone who is supportive of LGBT issues. This term is often as much a political statement as a label. Those who use the term feel it is more inclusive, allowing for the variety in race, class, ability, age, and gender that is present in LGBT communities. Many are offended by this word and view it as a pejorative.

Sex, or Sexual Identity: The identification of being biologically a man or woman, this is different from gender and gender identity.

Sexual Orientation: The inclination or capacity to develop intimate emotional and sexual relationships with people of the same sex, the other sex, or either sex. One‘s sexual orientation therefore may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.

Transgender: A broad term used to encompass all manifestations of crossing gender barriers. It includes all who cross-dress or otherwise transgress gender norms, and all others who wish to belong. Also, a person whose self-identification challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality (e.g., transsexuals, others) and who do not conform to traditional understandings of labels like male and female, homosexual and heterosexual.

Transgender (also Trans): those who transgress societal gender norms; often used as an umbrella term to mean those who defy rigid, bipolar gender constructions, and who express or present a breaking and/or blurring of cultural/stereotypical gender roles. Includes: androgynes, cross-dressers, gender-benders, intersexed individuals, shape shifters, transvestites, and transsexuals.

Transition: The time period when a transgender individual shifts from expressing one gender to another in her/his personal life and workplace; involves several elements such as alternate dress, hormone therapy, voice training, and possibly surgery. For most individuals, the workplace transition is carefully planned; the planning will often include appropriate levels of management in the discussion, and the transition process may be weeks or months in length. The personal life transition may be more sudden.

Transsexual: An individual who presents him/herself and lives as the genetic “opposite” to his/her genetic gender at birth. Transsexual people adapt their gender role and body in order to reflect and be congruent with their gender identity. Includes: cross-living, synthesized sex hormones, surgery and other body modification which may or may not lead to the feeling of harmony between a person’s body and gender identity.

Transgenderist: A person who lives full time as the other gender, but who has not made any anatomical changes.

Transphobia: The irrational fear of, hatred of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender people.

Transvestite: A person who chooses to dress in the sex-role clothing of the other gender. Some believe that, unlike cross-dressers, transvestites have a genuine emotional need to cross-dress. Transvestites are generally heterosexual, married, and well educated.

Two-Spirited: Native persons who have attributes of both genders, have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes, and are often involved with mystical rituals (shamans). Their dress is usually mixture of male and female articles and they are seen as a separate or third gender.

Ze / Hir: Alternate pronouns that are gender neutral and preferred by some gender variant persons. Pronounced “zee” and “here,” they replace “he”/”she” and “his”/”hers” respectively.

Some definitions adapted from:

  • Outfront Minnesota, 310 38th Street East, Suite 204, Minneapolis, MN 55409
  • Cooper Thompson and the Campaign to End Homophobia: .A Guide to Leading Introductory Workshops on Homophobia.
  • The Gender Education Center, and The Intersex Society of North America


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