[Content warning: This is a 101 guide to the current preferred terms for sexualities and genders. We’re going to talk about slurs here, in order to be clear about what terms are considered offensive. We know these terms are hurtful to many people. However, we also know that there are people who want to do better, but aren’t sure which words are appropriate. This section is at the end of the article; reader discretion is advised.]
Not so long ago, most of the population thought there were only two genders, and maybe three sexualities. You were either a man or a woman, and you were either straight, gay, or bisexual. (That last one was even up for debate.)
In recent times, more sexuality terms have popped up, as people have needed words that better describe desire. Even more gender words have emerged, as a larger population felt limited by the two-gender binary.
It can be hard to keep track of all of this, and terminology changes all the time. But here’s an attempt to cover the ones you’re likely to hear about.
Gender identity: A person’s internal sense of their own gender, whether male, female, neither or a combination.
Gender expression or gender presentation: The clothing, hair, mannerisms, and other outward ways a person chooses to signal their gender. Gender presentation is about how you look to others, or how you want them to see you. Gender presentation does not always match gender identity.
Transgender: Describing a person whose gender identity does not match the one they were assigned at birth. A transgender person may transition from one side of the gender binary to the other (male to female, female to male), or may be non-binary (see below).
Trans man/trans woman: Words used by some trans people to refer to themselves. A trans man is a man who was assigned female at birth; a trans woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth.
Transmasculine/transfeminine: Someone who presents masculine or feminine of center, and who was not assigned that gender at birth.
AMAB/AFAB: Assigned male/female at birth.
Cisgender (Male/Female): relating to a person whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth.
Non-binary: a word that covers a wide range of identities outside the male/female gender binary. Non-binary folks may feel elements of both or neither or may shift over time. Many use pronouns other than “he” or “she.” The current most popular is the singular “they/them.”
Enby: Non-binary (N.B.), or a non-binary person.
Genderqueer: Not subscribing to male or female gender norms, having a gender identity that contains elements of both or neither, or exists on a spectrum. Similar to non-binary.
Genderfluid: Having a gender identity that is not fixed. A type of non-binary gender, genderfluid means that a person moves between different experiences of gender identity throughout their life.
Androgynous: Presenting as neither male nor female, or as a mixture of both.
Agender: Not identifying as male, female, or any gender.
Intersex: Denoting a person born with ambiguous sex characteristics. About one in a hundred children are intersex, and doctors and parents have often chosen their gender for them, sometimes performing surgery to make their genitals conform to societal standards. Intersex people are fighting for a ban on this practice.
For further reading, check out TransEquality.org, the LGBT Foundation, Bodies Like Ours, and The GLAAD Media Reference Guide – and listen to trans, non-binary, and intersex people when they tell you about who they are.
Heterosexual/Straight: Desiring sex and relationships only with people of the “opposite sex”: men with women, and women with men. Usually, hetero refers to cisgender people who only partner with other cisgender people of the other binary gender.
Cishet: Cisgender heterosexual.
Homosexual: Desiring sex and relationships with people of the same gender.
Gay: Homosexual, usually male. This word became associated with male homosexuals sometime in the 1920s, and has remained popular as an identifier. Some homosexual women self-describe as gay, too.
Lesbian: A homosexual woman, or a word describing her. The word comes from the Greek island Lesbos, where the woman-loving poet Sappho lived and wrote.
Bisexual: Attracted to both men and women. The “bi” (meaning “two”) can also refer to “both my gender and not my gender.”
Heteroflexible: Describing someone who is basically straight, but open to sexual activity with people of the same gender under certain circumstances.
Pansexual/Omnisexual: Attracted to people of all genders. This can mean either “gender-blind” – “I don’t really notice gender, I’m just attracted to people” – or the opposite – “I notice gender, and I like all of them!”
Asexual: Not having sexual desires or feelings towards others. Some asexual people have no interest in sex or romance at all. Others desire romantic partnership without sex, or with little sex. Still others may have sex sometimes for various reasons, but generally identify as not sexual. Asexuality is an evolving identity; learn more at asexuality.org.
Ace: Short for “asexual.”
Aromantic: Asexual, and not interested in romantic relationships.
Demisexual: Only interested in sex with strongly emotionally bonded partners.
Queer: A reclaimed slur which serves as an umbrella term for many within the LGBT+ framework. A person may be gay or lesbian and also identify as queer; bisexuals, pansexuals and others also use the term. Queer is sometimes used as a blanket term for all people identified with the movement for LGBTQIA rights – e.g., the “queer community.”
Slurs and Older Terms – What Not to Say
Tranny: Some transgender people still use this word for themselves, but others are deeply hurt by it. Just don’t.
She-male/he-she: This is a negative term used for trans-folk that does not reflect how they see themselves. It denotes that the trans person to whom it refers is just “confused,” and that’s insulting. Avoid these words.
Pre-op/post-op: These words talk about whether a trans person has had genital surgery, which first of all is pretty rude, and second, doesn’t define a person. When in doubt, think about whether the words you’re using are reducing a person to their body parts.
Transgendered: To transgender is not a verb, and people do not transgender or become transgendered. A person is also not “a transgender.” Use “trans” or “transgender” as an adjective only, as in “a transgender person.”
Transsexual: This older term is not much in use anymore, but some people may still prefer it. Avoid it unless a transgender person tells you to use it for them.
Hermaphrodite: This older term for intersex people is no longer in use and may be seen as offensive.
Dyke: A slur for lesbians, partially reclaimed. Lesbians generally only use “dyke” among themselves or in political context. There are “Dyke Marches” in various cities. But don’t use the word casually, as it can still be offensive.
Faggot: Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column used to be called “Hey, Faggot!” but the reclamation of this hateful word for a gay man hasn’t been as successful as some others, and it should not be thrown around casually.
Using the words that people of other genders and sexualities prefer is a simple way to show them basic respect. Language is evolving rapidly, and there’s now a whole new set of words you can use. This cheat sheet of terms and definitions will help you know which words to use – and maybe even help you make a few new friends along the way.