Gender Identity: 10 words to use and 5 to avoid

For those unfamiliar with gender identity concepts, here’s a quick vocabulary lesson.

Author’s note: This article is adapted from my book, Network Beyond Bias.

Gender Identity – Basic Terminology

  • Assigned gender – the gender initially proclaimed at an individual’s birth (typically male, female, or intersex)
  • Gender identity – the gender with which an individual identifies (typically male, female, or nonbinary)
  • Gender expression – the way an individual presents their gender identity (typically masculine, feminine, or androgynous)
  • Cisgender – someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth
    Avoid using the terms “normal,” “real man,” or “real woman” to describe cisgender people. The term “privileged” is acceptable, however (wink!).
  • Transgender, or trans – someone whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth
    Avoid using the terms “transsexual” or “cross-dressing” to describe trans people.
  • Gender confirmation – a complicated and lengthy medical process whereby a person’s physicality is altered to match their gender identity
    Avoid using the term “sex change.”
  • Transition – the process of changing one’s gender identity and/or gender expression, regardless of whether one undertakes the gender confirmation process
    Avoid using the term “sex change.”
  • Gender fluidity – the notion that a person’s gender identity or gender expression is not fixed
  • Gender nonconforming –a catch-all term for gender-fluid and nonbinary individuals, and sometimes for individuals who choose a gender expression that violates societal norms
  • Genderqueer – a term more often used by young, gender nonconforming people, and particularly people of color; this term carries an additional connotation of political activism
    Avoid describing someone as “queer” (adjective) unless you know for sure an individual self-describes that way. Never use the word “queer” as a noun.

When you’re unsure of what words to use, just ask! Most people in the LGBTQ+ community are willing to help you get it right.

More information is available in my article Gender Identity: A primer for people who just don’t get it.

See also this quick introductory video by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).



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