Using accurate and respectful language can help to address many of the misconceptions associated with gender identity and transgender people. Although the vocabulary related to transgender people continues to evolve, here are some working definitions and examples of frequently used (and misused) terms.
Agender — Typically means genderless, without a gender identity, or gender neutral. A person who is agender sees themselves as neither man nor woman, has no gender identity, or no gender to express.
Biological/anatomical Sex — The physical characteristics typically used to assign a person’s gender at birth, such as chromosomes, hormones, internal and external genitalia, and reproductive organs. Given the potential variation in all of these characteristics, biological sex must be seen as a spectrum or range of possibilities rather than a binary set of two options.
Cisgender — An adjective describing a person whose gender identity is consistent with their sex assigned at birth.
Gender — The complex relationship between physical traits and one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both, or neither, as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors related to that perception. Biological sex and gender are different; gender is not inherently connected to one’s physical anatomy.
Gender expression — Refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice and other forms of presentation. Gender expression also works the other way around, as people make assumptions about someone’s gender based on their appearance, mannerisms and other gendered characteristics. Many transgender people seek to make their external appearance — their gender expression — congruent with their internal gender identity through clothing, pronouns, names and, in some cases, hormones and surgical procedures. All people have gender expression, not just transgender people.
Gender identity — One’s inner concept of self as male or female, or both, or neither. One’s gender identity can be the same as or different than the gender assigned at birth. Most children become conscious of their gender identity between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. Most people have a gender identity that matches their assigned gender at birth. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their assigned gender. Some of these individuals choose to live socially as the other gender and may also hormonally and/or surgically change their bodies to more fully express their gender identity. All people have gender identity, not just transgender people.
Genderqueer — Represents a blurring of the lines between gender identity and sexual orientation. Genderqueer individuals typically reject notions of static categories of gender, and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Gender nonconforming/Gender variant — Refers to individuals whose gender identity falls outside what is considered typical for their assigned gender at birth. Someone who identifies as “gender nonconforming” is not necessarily transgender. To the contrary, many people who are not transgender do not conform to gender stereotypes in their appearance, clothing, physical characteristics, interests or activities.
Gender fluid — Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day. Gender fluid individuals do not feel confined by restrictive boundaries of stereotypical expectations for girls or boys.
Non-binary — Any gender that is not exclusively male or female. Non-binary people may feel some mix of both male and female, somewhere in between, or something completely different. Other terms that are similar to 'non-binary' are genderqueer, gender expansive, and gender nonconforming.
Sexual orientation — Refers to being romantically or sexually attracted to people of a specific gender or to people of any gender. Our sexual orientation and our gender identity are separate, distinct parts of our overall identity. Although a child may not yet be aware of their sexual orientation, they usually have a strong sense of their gender identity.
Transgender — An adjective sometimes used as an ‘umbrella term’ to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More narrowly defined, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific gender.) Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify as straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Intersex — People with intersex conditions (or disorders of sex development [DSD]) are born with physically mixed or atypical bodies with respect to sexual characteristics (i.e. chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, and genitalia). These characteristics may not be visible and individuals may not be aware of the condition. Having an intersex condition does not necessarily affect a person’s gender identity. An estimated one in 2,000 babies is born with an “intersex” condition or DSD.
FTM (female-to-male) — Describes a person who was assigned a female gender at birth but has a male gender identity.
MTF (male-to-female) — Describes a person who was assigned a male gender at birth but has a female gender identity.
Sex assigned at birth — Refers to the designation of a newborn child’s sex based on the inspection of their external genitalia.
Transition — The process by which a transgender individual makes changes to live consistently with his or her gender identity. Transition can occur in three ways: social transition through changes in clothing, hairstyle, name and/or pronouns; medical transition through the use of medicines such as hormone “blockers” or cross hormones to promote sex-based body changes; and/or surgical transition in which an individual’s body is modified through the addition or removal of gender-related physical traits. Genital reconstructive surgery is not required in order to transition. Most transgender people in the United States do not have genital reconstructive surgery.
Trans* — An umbrella term that refers to a broad spectrum of gender identities and gender expressions that includes, but is not limited to, people whose gender identity does not reflect the gender they were assigned at birth.
Transsexual — An older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities. Still preferred by some people who have permanently changed — or seek to change — their bodies through medical interventions (including but not limited to hormones and/or surgeries). Unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term. Many transgender people do not identify as transsexual and prefer the word transgender.
Transphobia — Fear or hatred of transgender people. Transphobia is manifested in a number of ways including violence, harassment and discrimination.