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A Dictionary of Gender

A Dictionary of Gender

A topically arranged guide to common (and sometimes controversial) terms.

Some gender terms are subject to intense debate. Words like queer are celebrated by some groups and considered defamatory by others. Words like transvestite and homosexual were in common use a generation ago but are now generally considered offensive.  This dictionary is organized topically. It borrows heavily from the PFLAG National Glossary of Terms and from the GLAAD Media Reference Guides.


  • Sex: Refers to biological, genetic, or physical characteristics that define males and females. These can include genitalia, hormone levels, genes, or secondary sex characteristics.
  • Assigned Sex: The sex (male, female, intersex) that is assigned to an infant at birth.
  • Intersex: Individuals born with chromosomal anomalies or ambiguous genitalia. They have both male and female characteristics, making binary identification impossible.


  • Gender: A set of social, psychological, or emotional traits, often influenced by societal expectations that classify an individual as either feminine or masculine.
  • Affirmed Gender: The gender to which someone has transitioned.
  • Assigned Gender: The gender label assigned to someone at birth.
  • Gender Binary: The concept that there are only two genders, male and female, and that everyone must be one or the other.
  • Gender Dysphoria: A persistent unease with having the physical characteristics of one gender, accompanied by strong identification with the opposite gender. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association replaced the earlier diagnosis code, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) with gender dysphoria. To call it an identity disorder is to impose a value judgment—much as when the medical establishment regarded being gay as a mental disorder. This disorder isn’t a matter of gender identity. The disorder lies in the intense discomfort experienced by people who feel that their body and gender identity don’t match.
  • Gender Expression: The manner in which a person chooses to communicate their gender identity to others through external means such as clothing and/or mannerisms.
  • Gender Identity: One’s deeply held personal, internal sense of being male, female, some of both, or neither. A common shorthand used to distinguish gender identity from sex is to describe sex as what’s between your legs and gender identity as what’s between your ears (in your mind).

Common Gender Identity and Gender Expression Labels

  • Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Can be applied to anyone who does not conform to the binary gender norms. Some people object to this term because it consolidates groups that have very different experiences of gender and gender expression.
  • Cisgender: The opposite of transgender. An individual whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth. Cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis-, meaning “on this side of”, which is an antonym for the Latin-derived prefix trans-, meaning “on the other side of”. Cisgender people’s minds and bodies are on the same side of the gender binary.
  • Agender: A person who does not conform to any gender.
  • Androgynous: A non-binary gender identity. Can also be used to describe people’s appearances or clothing.
  • Crossdresser (generally preferred to Transvestite): Typically, a heterosexual man who periodically wears women’s clothes, makeup, and accessories as a form of gender expression. Crossdressers do not wish to permanently change their sex or to live full-time as women.
  • Drag: Originally used in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to mean DRessed As Girl, referring to male actors planning female roles. Drag Queens are men who dress like women for the purpose of entertainment. Drag Kings are their female counterparts.
  • Gender neutral: Not gendered. Can refer to language (including pronouns), spaces (like bathrooms), or identities (being gender queer, for example).
  • Gender nonconforming: A person who views their gender identity as one of many possible genders beyond strictly female or male.
  • Gender queer: A person who has a fluid gender identity. Generally, refers to someone who takes a more defiant view against the gender binary than someone who is simply considers themselves androgynous. They often prefer to express themselves in ways that incorporate both sides of the binary in order to call the very concept into question.
  • Trans. Used as shorthand to mean either transgender or transsexual.
  • Transsexual: A person who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex or a person who has undergone treatment in order to acquire the physical characteristics of the opposite sex. People who identify as transsexual do not necessarily identify as transgender and vice versa. There is some debate about whether it is appropriate to use transsexual by itself or whether it should always be used as an adjective in conjunction with man or woman.
  • Transsexual Man (Trans Man, FtM, Transgender Man): People assigned female at birth who identify and live as a man. Some prefer transgender because it focuses attention on gender identity rather than sexual anatomy. Others consider transgender an overly broad term.
  • Transsexual Woman (Trans Woman, MtF, Transgender Woman): People assigned male at birth who identify and live as a woman (see Transsexual Man, above).


  • Transition: The process one goes through to discover and/or affirm their gender identity. Transition can include a variety of personal, medical, and legal steps: telling one’s family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; one or more types of surgery. GLADD suggests that the phrase sex change be avoided.
  • Coming out: The process of disclosing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity to a chosen circle of friends, communities, or networks. GLAAD describes it as a lifelong process of self-acceptance in which an individual decides whom to disclose what to.
  • Not Out (preferred to closeted): A person who is not open about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
  • Out: Describes people who openly self-identify as LGBTQ in their public and/or professional lives.
  • Questioning: Someone who is in a process of discovery and exploration about their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.
  • Stealth: A term used to describe transgender individuals who do not disclose their trans status in their public lives.


  • Gender-affirming (or confirming) surgery: Surgical procedures that help people adjust their bodies in a way that more closely matches their gender identity. GLAAD also supports the use of sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), but many transsexuals find this term uncomfortable.
  • Pre-Op / Post-Op / Non-Op: Transsexual men and women face a variety of surgical decisions when they transition. Some elect to have no surgery (non-op). Those who decide to have surgeries are pre-op before their surgeries and post-op after their surgeries. Most transsexual men and women prefer to keep their surgical status confidential. Their surgical decisions may be motivated by their own sense of identity, by financial constraints, by medical considerations and a host of other factors. It is generally considered rude to inquire.


  • Sexual orientation: An individual’s emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings toward other people. GLAAD suggests that this be used instead of “sexual preference” as the latter implies that orientation is a matter of choice.
  • Asexual: An individual who does not experience sexual attraction.
  • Bisexual: An individual who is emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to both men and women.
  • Gay (preferred to Homosexual): Adjective used to describe people whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to people of the same sex.
  • Heterosexual: A person whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to people of the opposite sex.
  • Lesbian: A woman whose enduring emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to other women.
  • Pansexual: A person whose emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction is to people of all gender identities and biological sexes.


  • Ally: Someone who does not identify as LGBTQ but who is supportive of LGBTQ individuals and the community.
  • Homophobia: An aversion to lesbian or gay people that often manifests itself in the form of prejudice and bias.
  • LGBT: An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender that refers to these individuals collectively. Some people append Q (LGBTQ) to be inclusive of people who self-identify as gender queer, I for those who are intersex (LGBTQI), and A for people who consider themselves allies (LGBTQIA). I don’t mind any of these acronyms. They serve a purpose. But, if my condition has taught me anything, it is that we should focus on people’s humanity.
  • Lifestyle: A negative term often incorrectly used to describe the lives of people who are LGBTQ. The term is disliked because it implies that being LGBTQ is a choice.





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Picture of Tina White

Tina White

I like to write and speak on issues of identity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. I believe that, when we learn to see and embrace the person inside one another, our lives, communities, and organizations are all the richer.
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