Words & Definitions
The English language is constantly evolving. The purpose of this list is to help people support each other by providing a common language. TCC hopes that by making these words and definitions available on our website, we can help people talk to and understand each other in ways that are respectful and helpful.
GENDER vs SEX
GENDER -- An individual’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Since it is internal, a person's gender is not necessarily visible to others.
SEX -- (aka "sex assigned at birth") This is the label that everybody is given when they are born that defines them as male or female based on the appearance of their external anatomy. (This is what is written on the birth certificate.) Sex can also be assigned before birth by ultrasound or chromosome analysis.
IDENTITY vs EXPRESSION
GENDER IDENTITY -- Identity, in general, is an experience of having specific, persistent characteristics that define us. Gender identity is our sense of "who we are" regarding our maleness and femaleness. It is a label we use to describe ourselves to ourselves and to others. Most people have a gender identity of "man" or "woman" (boy or girl). However, for some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two categories. ("Gender identity" is often used interchangeably with "gender.")
GENDER EXPRESSION -- This is the manner in which people choose to communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, and voice or body characteristics. While most people’s understanding of gender expression relates to masculinity and femininity, there are many combinations that may incorporate both masculine and feminine expressions. (NOTE: What is considered masculine and feminine changes over time and varies by culture.)
TRANSGENDER vs CIS-GENDER
TRANSGENDER -- “Transgender” generally serves as an umbrella term to refer to the full range and diversity of gender identities and expressions. It is currently the most widely used and recognized term. “Transgender” is an adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth or a person whose gender expression does not conform to societal norms for male and female. [Note: Since "transgender" is an adjective, it is best not to say “transgenders.” “Transgender people” is generally viewed as the more respectful term. Also, "transgendered" is not a preferred term because it implies that something happened to a person to make them abnormal as opposed to transgenderism being a normal variation of human morphology.]
CIS-GENDER -- "Cis-gender" is the opposite of "transgender." It is a term used to describe people who are not transgender. ("Cis-" is a Latin prefix meaning on the same side as, and is the opposite of "trans-.")
TRANS, MTF & FTM
TRANS -- This is popular shorthand to mean "transgender" in all of its variety.
MTF -- This is an abbreviation for “Male-To-Female.” It is a synonym for “transgender woman” or "transgender girl" and is used to designate a person who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity and expression are female. This designation is used less frequently because it implies that the person was once male, which in terms of gender identity, may not be true. It is still widely used in clinical settings as is "natal male," which means "born male." It is far more accurate to say "assigned male," as many transwomen have never experienced themselves to be male.
FTM -- This is an abbreviation for “Female-To-Male.” It is a clinical term and synonym for “transgender man” or "transgender boy." [See MTF.]
SEXUAL ORIENTATION -- This is the term for whether a person is sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender (heterosexual); the same gender (homosexual); or both (bisexual). Sexual orientation is an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to other people. Gender identity and sexual orientation are entirely separate. All people have a sexual orientation independent of their sexual anatomy or gender identity. [NOTE: Some people do not experience primary sexual attraction, and may identify their sexual orientation as "asexual."]
LGBT (LGBTQIA) -- "LGBT" is an abbreviation for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender." The term represents the banding together of diverse groups of people who have traditionally not fit society's norms for gender expression and/or sexual attraction. In the spirit of inclusivity, this abbreviation has been expanded to include:
- “Q” = questioning—People who are unsure and therefore questioning which label best describes them. [In some groups, “Q” stands for “queer.” "Queer" has come to mean people—including "straight" people—who repudiate traditional societal norms for sexual behavior and/or gender expression.]
- “I” = intersex—People who naturally (that is, without any medical intervention) develop primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into society's definitions of male or female.
- “A” = asexual—This is a sexual orientation generally characterized by not feeling sexual attraction to or a desire for sex with a partner. Asexuality is not the same thing as celibacy, which is the choice to abstain from sexual activity.
[NOTE: LGBT is often erroneously used to mean "the opposite of heterosexual.” This is wrong because many trans people are heterosexual. Remember: Transgender is not a sexual orientation.]
GENDER DIVERSE - A broad term for individuals whose gender expression does not conform to a culture's expectations for dress and behavior based on sex assigned at birth and/or gender identity. (Gender non-conforming is a term that is also used.) [NOTE: It is good to remember that not all trans people are gender non-conforming, as some transgender people firmly embrace societal expectations for their true gender. And not all gender diverse people consider themselves to be transgender.] Gender diversity can take many forms. Here are some related terms:
- non-binary - describes a person who does not apply "either/or" categories of male/female identity and expression to themselves. "Gender binary"—the assumption that people are either all male or all female—is often considered to be limiting and problematic for everybody, especially for those who do not fit neatly into either category.
- agender - describes a person does not identify as a specific gender.
- gender fluid - describes a person whose gender identity or expression is not fixed. Their gender identity and expression may change from time-to-time between masculine and feminine, or fall somewhere in between.
- bigender - having two genders; exhibiting cultural characteristics of masculine and feminine identity or expression at the same time.
- gender expansive, gender variant - synonyms for gender diverse.
- gender queer - see below
GENDER QUEER -- This term is more-or-less synonymous with "Gender Non-conforming," but with the added implication of political awareness and activity. Historically, "queer" has been used as an epithet/slur against people who are "different" or "odd,"especially with regard to their gender expression and/or sexual orientation. Some people wish to reclaim the original meaning of "queer" to mean "odd or unusual" and use it as a celebration of individualism and as an affirmative statement that, "It is OK not to fit society's norms." [NOTE: Some "straight" people also identify as queer.]
SOCIAL & MEDICAL TRANSITION
SOCIAL TRANSITION - This is the individualized process whereby a transgender person creates a life that affirms their gender identity. This process can include any or all of the following:
- using a different name and new pronouns
- dressing differently and/or using makeup
- adopting different mannerisms and ways of speaking
- telling one's family, friends, and co-workers
- changing one's name and/or sex on legal documents
MEDICAL TRANSITION - This is the process of changing one's gender expression through a series of physician-assisted interventions that alter the body so that it better matches one's gender identity. Medical transition involves some combination of hormone treatments (estrogen for trans women and testosterone for trans men) in order to reduce or develop one's secondary sex characteristics and surgical procedures (face, Adam's apple, vocal cords, including breast enlargement or reduction; creation of a neo-vagina; or creation of a penis). The exact steps and interventions vary from person to person. See "gender affirming surgery."
DRAG vs CROSS DRESSING
DRAG QUEEN -- Drag queens are men, typically gay men, who dress like women usually for the purpose of entertainment. Drag performers typically use exaggerated dress and makeup, often in parody of societal norms of femininity. Many drag queens seek "realness" in their performances, meaning they wish to approximate cis-gender femininity as closely as possible. Drag queens may or may not identify as transgender. While some live the role full-time and may even opt for surgery to enhance their appearance as a member of the opposite sex, most put on their drag personas only when performing. [NOTE: There is a long tradition in stage entertainment of female impersonation. Dame Edna, the comedian, is a good example of a female impersonator who would not be considered either a drag queen or transgender.]
DRAG KING -- Drag kings are women who dress as men generally for the purposes of entertaining others. [See Drag Queen.]
CROSS DRESSING -- This term is used in different ways. In general, it describes people who on occasion wear clothes and accessories associated with the opposite sex. Some people cross dress as a step toward a fuller transgender self-expression. Some people cross dress as an expression of being “gender queer.” Some people cross dress because wearing clothes of the opposite gender improves their sexual enjoyment. Cross dresser is used in favor of the older, outdated word "transvestite," which is more frequently associated with cross dressing as a sexual fetish.
GENDER AFFRIMING SURGERY & TRANSEXUAL
GENDER AFFIRMING SURGERY -- This term refers to doctor-supervised surgical interventions that change a person's body to better reflect their gender identity. There are different procedures available, including those sometimes referred to as “top surgery” (breast augmentation or removal) or “bottom surgery” (alteration of genitals). Not all people want, need, or can obtain surgery as part of their transition. Some may not be able to afford it; Some may not be in good enough general health to allow it; And some simply don't want it. Gender affirming surgery (also known as sex reassignment surgery, or SRS) is generally considered to be a very personal, private matter and not appropriate for casual conversation.
TRANSEXUAL -- This is an older term that has been used to refer to transgender people. It generally refers to people who have had hormonal or surgical interventions to change their bodies to be better aligned with their gender identities. Some people still use "transsexual" as a social identity label, however "transgender” has generally become the preferred term.
GENDER DYSPHORIA & TRANSPHOBIA
GENDER DYSPHORIA -- This is the term for the distress that transgender people sometimes feel when they think about the fact that their sex as assigned at birth does not match their gender. It is generally thought to be a reaction to societal disapproval, stigma, and transphobia (see below). For some people, gender dysphoria is very painful and can cause many, serious problems in their lives. The term is included here because it is the term psychologists and physicians use to indicate that a person meets criteria to engage in medical transition or psychotherapy. Gender Dysphoria as an official diagnosis is controversial because it implies that being transgender is an illness, which it is not. Nevertheless, since a formal diagnosis is generally required in order to get medical or psychological treatment in the US—and have it paid for by insurance—the diagnosis provides access to medical care for some people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get it.
TRANSPHOBIA -- This is a term used to describe the feelings of disapproval, anger, fear, or hatred directed towards transgender and gender diverse people and is typically the basis for discrimination and prejudice against them. Transphobia is a sort of portmanteau word used in much the same way as "homophobia" is. Transphobia tends to be expressed in three ways:
- Irrational fear of how trans people might cause harm that typically manifests as disgust and anger.
- Learned judgments and disapproval regarding trans people that justify any negative feelings toward them and actions taken against them.
- Fear of transgender feelings in oneself (insecurity in one’s own gender identity) that is projected outward.
- Teaching Transgender Toolkit - Glossary of terms targeted for trainers in transgender issues
- GLAAD Media Reference Guide - Transgender Issues - Glossary targeted to people in the media (with useful tips for usage in writing)
- UC Davis - LGBTQIA Resource Center - Glossary targeted to college students
- The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People
- Laura's Playground Glossary of Terms - Glossary targeted to the trans community