In presenting this vocabulary list, it is worth mentioning that definitions are historically constructed and change over time and space. This is particularly evident in vocabularies of sexuality and gender, which have expanded at an extraordinarily fast pace since the nineteenth century. Many of the words below are ones that students, faculty and staff currently use to describe themselves and their place in society—their relationships, identities, practices, communities, as well as the bias and discrimination they experience. This list will continue to evolve, and as such, when in doubt, it is useful to ask questions in service to respect.
Ally – This term describes an individual with social or economic privilege who engages in practices that challenge and transform ideas, values, and behaviors that afford others less privilege. To be a good LGBTIQ ally means that a person is engaged in an ongoing process to (1) understand their own privilege and its effects (2) listen to and learn from those who are most effected by homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, homonormativity, and heterosexism (3) work in solidarity with those most affected by injustice (4) and, foster climates of respect, appreciation, and equity for diverse genders, sexualities, communities, cultures, and histories.
Androgynous – A term used as both a self-description and a means to describe those whose outward appearance, mannerisms, expressions, and/or identifications combine masculine and feminine traits in a way that produces an ambiguity. Because androgyny calls the two-gender system (masculine and feminine) into question, androgynous individuals have been both exoticized and subject to discrimination.
Asexual – A term used as both a self-description and a means to describe those who do not experience sexual attraction and/or lack interest in sex. Unlike celibacy, which people choose, asexuality is an enduring or continuing orientation toward sexuality. Some asexual people experience arousal and attraction, but unlike sexual people they do not desire to act on the feeling with another person. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community, as each asexual person experiences relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently. Most people have been asexual for their entire lives and rarely become sexual or vice versa. A small minority of individuals thinks of themselves as asexual for a brief period of time.
Binary Gender System – A social system in which all people are classified into either one of two categories: male or female. This system is premised on the idea that intersex and transgender people do not exist or that they need to be fixed in order to fit into a binary system. In the United States, the binary gender system is maintained in ordinary ways such as male/female bathrooms, male/female dormitory room assignments, and identification forms.
Biological Sex – A scientific term used to classify bodies by an aggregate of sex chromosomes (XX; XY; XXY; XXY/XY; XXXY; XXX; XO); sex hormonal systems (estrogen/progesterone, testosterone, androgen sensitivity); gonads (ovaries, testes, one each, combination); internal and external genitalia (many variations); and, secondary sex characteristics (hair, breast, and Adam’s apple growth at puberty). It is estimated that 1 in 100 babies differ from standard definitions of male or female and approximately 1 in 1000 babies is subject to surgery to “normalize” genital appearance to either male or female.
Biphobia – A term used to describe the fear of, discrimination against, or hatred of bisexuals. Biphobia can be seen within LGTQ communities, as well as in mainstream society and is characterized by such sentiments as “Bisexuals are just going through a phase.” Those who mischaracterize bisexuals as in “a phase” believe that people can only be heterosexual or homosexual.
Bisexual – A term used as both a self-description and a means to describe those who classify themselves as possessing significant sexual/romantic attraction to individuals who are attracted to men and women, though not necessarily equally or simultaneously. As more people acknowledge that there are more than two sexes (male/female), the term pansexual has come into use to identify those you are who are attracted to people regardless of gender, though not necessarily equally or simultaneously.
Butch – A term used as both a self-description and a means to describe those whose
masculinity is considered physically, mentally, aesthetically, or emotionally significant. Butch is sometimes used as a derogatory term for lesbians, but it is more frequently used as an affirmative self-identification. Butch lesbians are neither “trying to be men” or “imitate” men; rather, they embody an alternative gender and a unique form of masculinity—rooted in their experience as a woman. As the most visible members of lesbian communities, butch lesbians have been subject to significant forms of discrimination and harassment from the police, in the workplace, and in ordinary interactions. They have also experienced discrimination within lesbian and gay assimilationist cultures that value normative gender expressions. As such, butches have played a significant role in creating a public culture and fighting discrimination.
Camp or Campy – This term describes a type of behavior, humor, or style, cultivated in gay cultures (though not exclusively), as a response to heteronormativity and homophobia. Camp is characterized by sharp and cutting wit and often draws attention to artifice, particularly of gender roles and expectations.
Cissexual or Cis-Person – “Trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of.” Someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of another sex, is called “transsexual” (because they are said to have crossed from one sex to another). Someone who lives and identifies as the same sex that they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual.” Most of the population is cis and they receive certain rights and privileges that trans people do not. There is a wide range of cis identities, some traditional and some not traditional.
Cissexism – A term used to describe beliefs and practices that privilege cisgender people over transgender people. Cissexism is rooted in the belief that transgender people are in some way inferior or abnormal; as such it results in systems that marginalize and alienate transgender people.
Ciscentric – A term used to describe a person, idea or system that places the needs and interests of cisgender people at the center and to the neglect of the needs and interests of trans* people.
Closet – A term developed in the post-war period to describe the small amount of space that LGBTQ people could occupy in society. Beginning in the 1930s, a nationwide campaign began to remove LGBT people from the public sphere. Gay-identified people, who had previously conceptualized gay culture as a “Gay World,” increasingly described it as a closet that they were forced to inhabit. In the 1960s, “coming out of the closet” became a rallying cry for those in the LGBT civil rights movement.
Coming Out – A term used to describe the act of leaving the “closet” and disclosing one’s sexual or gender identity, orientation, preference, or variance. Coming out is often an ongoing process that begins with one’s self, close friends and family, and then wider society. Many people have to come out on a regular basis because of the heteronormative presumption that all people are heterosexual unless they say otherwise. Coming out often entails a fear of rejection. As such, regardless of the reaction, it is often experienced as a risky and trying process. Not all people feel safe to disclose their gender or sexuality due to the risk of discrimination they will face.
Drag – This term describes the wearing of clothing associated with one gender by an individual of another gender, often with exaggerated characteristics. Individuals who perform in drag are referred to as Drag Kings and Drag Queens.
Dyke – Originally a derogatory slur to describe masculine women, this term was re-appropriated by working-class women (though not exclusively) to describe their sexual orientation toward other women; it is distinct from the word lesbian in that it connotes a defiance and resistance to middle-class norms of respectability. The term is still used to degrade women.
Faggot – A slur commonly used today by young people, particularly males, to humiliate, degrade or otherwise harass other boys and men by attacking their masculinity. The victim may or may not be perceived as actually gay. While the slur is used to degrade gay males, it is often used as a means to police the gender of all males—attacking those who act too feminine. It is also used as a form of sexism; when a male fails at something or appears weak, the slur functions to associate failure/weakness with femininity or gayness. Masculinity is re-associated with strength and success. Some gay men have re-appropriated the term to diffuse, affirm and resist norms of respectability.
Fag Hag – A term primarily used to describe women who prefer the social company of gay men. While this term is claimed in an affirmative manner by some, others consider it derogatory.
Feminism – A term used to describe people (of any sex or gender sex) who believe people should be treated equally, regardless of sex or gender. Liberal feminism emerged during the 19th century when middle-class women of European descent sought to challenge the systematic and entrenched exclusion of white women from political and economic rights. In response to this more narrow vision, new feminisms emerged rooted in the experiences of African-American, Chicana, Indigenous, Asian-American, working-class, and queer women. These feminisms insisted on an analysis of gender as well as racism, economics, trans* phobia, homophobia, and imperialism. Feminists have worked on such issues as female suffrage, the right to own property, the right to wear pants and self-fashion, access to birth control and other reproductive rights, workplace rights including equal pay for equal work and maternity leave, and ending forced sterilization, incest, domestic violence, sexual harassment, the prison industrial complex, transphobia, sexual assault, and rape as tool of war.
Feminist research and theory – This interdisciplinary field of study seeks to understand the existence and persistence of gender inequality over time and develops conceptual tools to describe the social construction of gender-based discrimination. Concepts such as sexual objectification, intersectionality, heterosexism, gender performativity, cissexism, and the idea that the personal is political all emerged from a convergence of feminist research and broader movements. Most colleges and universities in the United States created Women’s Studies or Gender and Sexuality Studies academic units during the 1980s and 1990s to support scholarship and teaching about gender and inequality.
FTM – “Female-to-Male”. This is an acronym for the term “female-to-male” and is used to describe transgender individuals who were assigned the sex of female at birth, but express masculine gender identities through aesthetic, surgical, social, and/or behavioral changes. Not all transgender masculine people identify as FTM because not all people conceptualize their gender as a transition from one binary sex to another. Some understand themselves to be transgender, neither male nor female, some combination of both, or a third or alternative gender, such as genderqueer or trans.
Femme – This term describes a gender identity, historically embraced by lesbian or queer- identified women, who identify, stylize and/or express themselves in a feminine manner. Femme identities, communities and cultures emerged from the shared social experiences of lesbian and queer women whose gendered interactions with society were distinctive from both hetero-feminine and masculine women.
Gay – A term used mostly in reference to men who have significant sexual and/or romantic attraction and relationships with men and only men. At times gay is used to refer to all people, regardless of gender, who have primary sexual/romantic attractions to people of their same gender.
Gender – Whereas sex (M or F) is a term to classify people biologically (often based on physical anatomy, reproductive capabilities, chromosomes, etc.), gender is the social meanings, obligations, and expectations ascribed (by one’s self or society) to sexed bodies. Any given society, in any particular moment, has a variable number of genders that are considered appropriate. Children often come to embody the gender that society assigns to their sex. In Western societies, babies have traditionally been sexed as either male or female (gender binary) and have correspondingly been socialized and obligated to fulfill masculine and feminine roles. Though Western societies increasingly recognize gender variation as an ordinary feature of being human, many children are still expected to adopt a heteronormative gender.
(Mis)Gendering – A term used to describe the process by which people categorize other people’s gender, based on perceived morphology, without regard to how the other person self- identifies. These misperceptions can cause the mis-gendered person to feel distress, anxiety, depression, and invisible. To avoid misgendering someone who is androgynous, genderqueer, or trans, simply ask what pronouns they prefer.
Gender Bending – A term used to describe the practice of playing with or blurring of binary gender roles.
Gender-Confirming Surgery – A term used to describe the surgery that trans* identified individuals undergo to modify their body to better fit their identity.
Gender Expression – A term used to describe how a person embodies and/or presents their gender. Most people have complex gender expressions that do not fall neatly into masculine, feminine or transgender. Over the course of a day, for instance, one may embody a more or less feminine gender depending on a variety of social factors. A woman, for instance, may identify as androgynous or gender non-conforming but feel obligated to express herself as highly feminine on the occasion of a wedding. Her gender expression shifts depending on time and place.
Gender Identity – A term used to describe the gender that an individual identifies with, which may or may not align with their prescribed physical sex. It is a person’s sense of their own gender.
Gender Non-Conforming – A term used to describe people who do not conform to the traditional gender binary of male and female. One may identify as male, female, or trans* and also as gender non-conforming.
Genderqueer – This term describes a gender identity that is embraced by people whose genders are unconventional or non-normative. A genderqueer identity often emerges from a political resistance to the gender binary system and is generally, but not always, embraced by people of younger generations.
Gender-Variant – This term describes people who by chance or choice do not conform to gender norms associated with their assigned sex.
Heteronormative – This concept describes actions, institutions, ideologies, and systems that assume heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation. As such heteronormative ideas and behaviors deem other sexual identities and practices as less normal, valuable and/or healthy; certain sex is deemed good (reproductive, monogamous, married, male female sex) and other sex is deemed bad (gay, lesbian, transgender, polysexuality, pansexuality, etc.). Heteronormativity not only places expectations, demands and constraints on the sexual subject to act in specific ways, it stigmatizes, pathologizes, criminalizes and marginalizes other forms of sexualities. This ideological structure carries into the workplace, legislatures, and prisons and other significant sites, producing discrimination, misconduct, bias and heterosexual privilege.
Heterosexism – A term used to describe beliefs and practices that privilege heterosexuals over homosexuals. Heterosexism is rooted in the belief that homosexual people are in some way inferior or abnormal; as such it results in systems that marginalize and alienate LGBTQ people.
Heterosexual – A term that came into common usage during the mid-twentieth century to describe men who have emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions and relationships with women—exclusively; the term also describes women who have emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions and relationships with men—exclusively.
Heterosexual Privilege – This term describes the social, political, and economic advantages and privileges afforded to people who engage in heterosexual practices and relationships. For example, through the institution of marriage, heterosexuals are afforded economic and political advantages and rights that others are not.
Hir – Pronounced “here”, this term is a non-gendered pronoun used by some trans* people to connote one’s identity as both male and female. It corresponds to “his, her, and him”.
Homophobia – A term initially used to describe the fear and hatred of, or the discomfort around, those who identify as gay, lesbian, homosexual, or queer. While the term has been extended to include bisexual and transgender people two new terms emerged, biphobia and transphobia, to describe the specific character of hatred of bisexual and transgender com- munities. These terms are often used interchangeably to describe discriminatory bias, harassment and violence.
Homosexual – A term that came into common usage in the mid-twentieth century to describe (1) men who have emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions and relationships with men— exclusively (2) and, women who have emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions and relationships with women—exclusively. Given its use in pathologizing and criminalizing same- sex relations, many prefer the terms “gay” or “lesbian” to describe their identities.
Hormone Therapy – A medical term used to describe the use of testosterone or estrogen/progesterone/anti-androgens by trans* and/or gender non-conforming individuals. Hormone therapy stimulates the development of secondary sex characteristics. Many trans* people choose not to undergo hormone therapy or surgical procedures.
Internalized Homophobia – A term used to describe an LGBTQ person who has adopted degrading societal stereotypes about LGBTQ people, causing them to dislike and resent their sexual or gender identity; it also causes a disdain for LGBTQ people who do not assimilate into heterosexual gender norms.
Intersexed Person – Formerly described by scientist as hermaphrodites, intersex is the preferred term used by intersexed people to describe their biological sex, whose combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal sex organs, and genitals differs from one of the two expected patterns, either male or female. It is estimated that 1 in 100 babies differ from standard definitions of male or female and approximately 1 in 1000 babies is subject to surgery to “normalize” genital appearance to either male or female. Intersex people are increasingly speaking out against these normalizing surgeries and report that there are no known cases of individuals who feel that their lives were made better as a result of medical body modifications. Avoid using the clinical term “hermaphrodite,” which is generally found offensive.
Lesbian – A term used to describe women who have significant sexual and/or romantic attraction and relationships with women—exclusively. People variously self identify as women loving women, dyke, and queer. Because gender is distinctive from sexual desire, lesbians may also have gender identities such as butch, soft butch, stone butch, femme, and high femme.
LGBTQIA – LGBTIQA is an acronym for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersexed, and Allies” and is sometimes referred to as the “alphabet soup” because the number of genders and sexualities represented in the acronym have grown over time.
MTF – “Male–to-Female”. This is an acronym for the term “male-to-female” and is used to describe transgender individuals who were assigned the sex of male at birth, but express feminine gender identities through aesthetic, surgical, social, and/or behavioral changes. Not all transgender feminine people identify as MTF because not all people conceptualize their gender as a transition from one binary sex to another. Some understand themselves to be transgender, neither male nor female, some combination of both, or a third or alternative gender, such as genderqueer or trans.
Outing – A term used to describe the act of exposing someone, without their consent, as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or questioning; in essence “outing” them from the closet. It is considered disrespectful and potentially harmful to “out” someone has not given their consent to do so.
Pansexual – A term used as both a self-description and a means to describe those who classify themselves as possessing significant sexual/romantic attraction to individuals regardless of their sex or gender, though not necessarily equally or simultaneously. Pansexuality is premised on the idea that there are more than two biological sexes and gender expressions and includes trans* and intersexed people into its scope.
Passing – A term first used to describe the experience of light-skinned African Americans who were perceived as white, the term is now also used to describe the experience of trans* people who are perceived as cisgender. The experience of passing is complicated, affording certain privileges while creating other forms of stress, isolation, and invisibility. Thus, while a trans* person might feel relief when passing (as they can avoid overt experiences of transphobia), they may also feel that the full range of their experiences are hidden.
Polysexual – A term used to describe someone who has an enduring or continuing orientation toward sexual encounters and/or intimate relationships that include more than two people. Polyqueer sexualities are sexual encounters/interactions or intimate relationships that, through plurality, challenge heteronormativity.
Queer – Originally a derogatory slur, this term has been reclaimed since the 1980s, primarily among middle-class European Americans in activist, artistic, and scholarly communities, as an umbrella word to encompass all people who diverge from hetero- and homonormative genders and sexualities. Because of its original derogatory nature as well as the theory it has come to embody, it has remained a controversial term in LGBTIQA communities.
Questioning – This term describes people who are curious about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and do not feel that they fit neatly into any one classification system.
Rainbow Flag – This symbol was designed in 1978 in San Francisco by artist Glibert Baker to signify the diversity and unity of the LGBT movement. Originally, there were eight colors in the flag; pink for sexuality, red for light, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for natural serenity, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. In 1979, the flag was modified to its current six-stripe format (pink was omitted, blue was substituted for turquoise and indigo, and violet became purple).
Sexual Identity – This is a term to describe the identification groups of people have with other members of society based on various dimensions of their sexual and social lives, such as desires, feelings, practices, fantasies, relationships, expectations, roles, belief systems, etc. In our current society, young people may identify as “asexual,” “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “bi,” “queer,” “questioning,” “heterosexual,” “straight,” “polysexual,” “pansexual,” “polyamourous”. Depending on the individual, sexual identity evolves in a variety of ways and may transform over time.
Sexual Orientation – This concept describes the idea that people have an intrinsic and enduring or continuing attraction to people of a particular gender and/or sex. While some feel that sexual orientation is primarily genetic or biological, others argue that biology and desire is shaped by social, cultural and political norms, expectations, and obligations—making orientation and identity also historical.
Sex Reassignment Surgery – Popularly known as a “sex change operation,” “sex reassignment surgery” is the medical term to describe these surgical procedures. While many trans* people do not surgically alter their physical anatomy, some seek to modify their body to be in concert with their gender identity. This surgery, which is not covered by most health insurance plans, is not as common as hormone therapy.
Transgender or Trans* – Transgender or trans* is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender/Trans* is often mistakenly understood to mean “transsexual.” The following identities may fall under the transgender umbrella: transgender, transsexual, FTF, FTM, crossdresser, butch, fairy, stud, bulldagger, gender non-conforming, and gender queer.
Transition – A term used to describe the process by which a transgender and/or gender non- conforming person begins to embody their gender identity, which often diverges from the sex they were assigned at birth. Transition can, but does not necessarily include, coming out, changing gender expression, beginning hormone therapy, using gender pronouns different from ones used before, having gender confirming surgery, etc. Transition does not have any required steps or any particular order; it is unique to the individual.
Transphobia – This term describes the irrational fear and hatred of people who are gender non- conforming.
Transsexual – A term used to describe a person who (1) identifies as a gender/sex other than the one they were given at birth and (2) who seeks or is seeking body modification (such as hormones, surgeries) in order to express their internal sense of gender.
Two-Spirit – An umbrella term applied to Indigenous North Americans who embody one of many traditional mixed gender roles found among Native American and Canadian First Nation cultures. Two-spirited persons do not fit neatly into Western transgender categories. It is a term of reverence, traditionally referring to people who display both masculine and feminine characteristics who are thought to have higher spiritual powers. As such they may play significant roles in society as healers or leaders.
Ze – Pronounced “zee” or “see,” this term corresponds to “he and she” and is used as a gender-neutral pronoun.
Thank you to the Office of Gender & Sexuality at Tulane University, who compiled this list, ©2013