10 Terms of Gender Identity

By Mark Nichol

Are you confused about the language of gender identity? As we learned from a recent post about ethnic identity, the best way to learn what words to use to distinguish one or more people by their physical characteristics is to ask them.

Unfortunately, this approach is not as easy as it seems. Those who wish to describe ethnic identity or gender identity often have a category, rather than one person, in mind, and any two people with similar characteristics (for example, a pair of American Indians, or two lesbians) are likely to have divergent preferences.

Likewise, any effort to obtain sanction for one term or another from an organization claiming to represent people with nonheterosexual gender identities (or people with a certain ethnic identity) will not result in universal acceptance of the term by those it is meant to refer to.

Why do we even need distinctive terms to discuss intersecting identities with nebulous boundaries? The answer to this question is another question: How can we hope to communicate about sexuality and gender without a common vocabulary? There is such a vocabulary, but, like humanity, it is necessarily fluid. But here are terms and definitions that many people agree on:

1. Bisexual: A term for a person sexually attracted to people of both the same sex and the opposite sex.

2. Dyke: A term for a woman sexually attracted to other women; some people consider it offensive, although many lesbians have reclaimed the word and self-identify as dykes.

3. Fag: A term for a man sexually attracted to other men; some people may consider it offensive, although many gays have reclaimed the word and self-identify as fags.

4. GLBT: An inclusive initialism for those self-identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transsexual. A more inclusive — and as yet uncommon — variant is GLBTQ2IA; the additional elements refer to “queer, questioning, intersex allies.”

5. Gay: An inclusive term for those attracted to people of the same sex or not exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex, although it is often used in the phrase “gays and lesbians,” which places men and women in separate categories, and can thus refer either to both genders or men only.

6. Genderqueer: A term for those who refuse to be confined to a single gender role.

7. Lesbian: A term for a woman sexually attracted to other women.

8. Queer: An inclusive term for those attracted to people of the same sex or not exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex; some people may consider it offensive, although many who that fall under that definition have reclaimed the word and self-identify as queers.

9. Same-gender loving: A self-evident term used by those dissatisfied by traditional terminology.

10. Transgender: A term for a person who presents as having a gender other than their original one. This usage is not to be confused with transsexual, which refers to someone in or beyond the process of gender reassignment involving physiological changes, or transvestite, a word for someone who — whether occasionally or frequently, whether publicly or privately, and for any one of various reasons — wears clothing associated with the opposite gender. (Transgender inclusively encompasses these and other terms.)

In general usage, it is usually safe to refer to “gays and lesbians” to refer to the entirety of people whose sexuality is not strictly heterosexual. GLBT is a more inclusive term, though it is often used fallaciously in the phrase “the GLBT community,” as if such a cohesive entity exists.

The connotation of this phrase seems to be that there is such a community, but only in the sense of people united in solidarity for civil rights for anyone falling under the GLBT umbrella. However, the phrase would seem to exclude heterosexual people sympathetic to the civil rights concerns of GLBT people. It’s perhaps best to restrict use of the initialism to usage such as “GLBT issues.”

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22 Responses to “10 Terms of Gender Identity”

  • Jane

    I believe you’re missing a rather crucial comma in point 4, between “intersex” and “allies.” The “IA” of GLBTQ2IA does not, after all, designate allies who are intersexed; it describes intersexed people, and it describes heterosexual, cisgendered allies.

    Thank you very much for this article. I wish I could hand it out to people before I come out to them, because setting their terminology straight (pardon the pun) is tiring. Would that be terribly awkward of me, I wonder? 😉

  • Stephen

    I’ve never heard of GLBT before, but LGBT is very common.

  • Katrina

    What about intersex people?

  • Paul

    The header of this article is very misleading. The majority of the terms you list relate to sexual orientation and not gender identity. Please consider changing the title to reflect this. LGB are sexual orientations and T (trans) is an umbrella term to describe a range of gender identities.

  • max

    I was thrilled to see this post.

    I would add that transgender is not a noun ( i.e. “He is a transgender”) but an adjective (I.e. “He is a transgender/transgendered man”).

  • Lise

    LGBT was first out of the gate. Some changed it to GLBT later — but LGBT remains the preferred version by most in the community. You’re always safe to useLGBT, but you might be criticized for using GLBT as some say it’s the old “men first” attitude that caused the change and that sort of defeats what we’re trying to do here, right?

  • Bob

    First, thank you for DWT. Great stuff. However, I must take issue with this topic.

    As a member of the GLBT/LGBT community — and yes, there is one — and with friends and associates who self-identify in most of the classifications you list, I think you are way off based on your blanket categorizations of these as being “gender identity” terms.

    Most of the terms you list are not gender-related, but sexual orientation-related. There is a huge difference. Gender identification terms would include Male and Female, Boy and Girl, Transgender and Intersex. Terms like Gay and Queer and Dyke have nothing to do with gender identity. In each of these classifications, the individual strongly identifies as male or female in keeping with his or her physical anatomy; the term you’ve applied deals only with the person’s attraction to others.

  • Jerry E. Stephens

    I know that I’m a hopeless idealist. Even at my very advanced age and worldly experience, I find lists of this kind to be terribly disappointing. I might even consider it outright depressing that we feel the need to facilely label others for matters like race and gender identity. To be described as homo- or hetero- tells me nothing about the character of the person. But then neither does the inane phrase “person of color”. “Person of color” describes everyone human being. Even those of us with pinkish skin color. Not “white” at all. If only we had really listened to Martin Luther King and his content of their character speech and ideas. How much better off would we be today.

  • mattack

    Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but genderqueer and transgender are are the only *gender identities* on the list. The others describe *sexual preference*. Gender identity and sexual preference are not the same.

  • thebluebird11

    I’m with Jane on that comma thing. Also, since saying each letter of GLBTQ2IA is a real mouthful, is there a better way to “say” it?
    Here is sort of one more term for you: I have some male friends who are gay, and they used to jokingly call me a “fag hag” (a straight woman who hung out with her gay male friends). Actually I was honored by the fact that there was a name for “people like us”!

    As to “Why do we even need distinctive terms to discuss intersecting identities with nebulous boundaries?” Maybe that is just at the root of giving terms to these sorts of things…people have a need to be recognized, and they don’t want to feel alone, wrong, odd, weird…a name gives a person a “place,” a position, a sense of identity, a sense of humanness, a definition…they are no longer nebulous. And they are no longer alone; there are others just like them. And while the GLBTQ2IA “community” may not exist as a cohesive faction, each person within that community knows what he/she is about, and can choose his or her own moniker and niche (if so desired). At the end of the day, basically we are all just people (I guess at least until we step into the bedroom…and close the door!) 😉

  • Jane

    Response to thebluebird11:

    I like your idea that people need labels to feel a sense of definition, of belonging, of identity, and I think it’s true, to a certain extent. I also like the article’s explanation that we need labels to act as “a common vocabulary” in order “to communicate about sexuality and gender.” Life would be great if that was all labels did, but unfortunately, it’s not.

    IRL, labels about my gender identity or sexuality were never important to me. I had exactly one label that accurately and concisely described everything that I was (at least to myself, which was all that concerned me): Jane. I was me, and that was all I needed.

    When I started coming out as both non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered, however, other people began demanding that I label myself– or, worse, labelling me without my consent. It wasn’t because they wanted to help me gain a sense of identity, or because they wanted to have a conversation about sexuality and gender. It was because they needed me to fit into a box that they understood and could deal with. For a long time I went with “bisexual” out of sheer self-defence, so that I wouldn’t have to explain my label every time I was forced to share it.

    Unfortunately for those people (which is most of the world, in my experience), neither of the labels I eventually found that correctly describe my gender identity and sexuality are common vernacular. They don’t appear on this list. I am now back at square one, explaining my labels every time I use them, and, bizarrely, this has made people angry– because I’m giving them concepts that aren’t already comfortable in their brains. Because the labels I use force them to realise that human gender and sexuality are far, far more fluid things than popular vocabulary would have people believe.

    So, in short answer to the question, “Why do we even need distinctive terms to discuss intersecting identities with nebulous boundaries?” I thnk it’s not only because they give people a sense of identity (true) or because they enable communication (also true), but also because they can remove the nebulousness of real-life boundaries and impose false, comforting ones, which is often well and fine for the people who do the imposing but damaging (and incredibly *annoying*) to people who are imposed upon.

  • Chris

    In my understanding, LGBT is preferred to GLBT as placing gay before lesbian is seen as reinforcing patriarchal values.

  • Jessica

    The Human Rights Campaign uses LGBT, and InterPride (the International Association of Gay Pride Coordinators) uses LGBTI.

  • Jimbo in Thailand

    Mark, sorry to have to say this but “Gender Identity” was certainly a poor choice for a title that doesn’t accurately relate to the content. You should have titled it Homosexual Identity, which would have been much more apropos. I admit that when I first glimpsed the title I was curious about the possible contents. After reading the lesson I am wondering why the mismatch? Anyway, keep up the good work.

  • Deva

    It is important to avoid referring to people as ‘gays’, in the noun form, as opposed to ‘gay people’, in the adjectival form. Calling people ‘gays’ reduces them to that one aspect of their identity.

  • Renée

    Always good to educate on terms some may not be familiar with! Though I agree with Jimbo; nos. 6 and 10 relate to gender identity, and the rest of it has to do with sexual orientation. Acknowledging these two subjects as discrete makes a difference in furthering understanding. It would also be nice if more people began to recognise asexuality as a legitimate orientation. We do tend to fall through the cracks. 😉

  • thebluebird11

    @ Jimbo: Sorry to have to say this, but you completely missed the point. This is not about “homosexual” identity. This is about terms to describe people who may or may not be “homosexual”! That is WHY there are many terms…because ONE term does not describe all people and their preferences. Hello?! Oy!

  • SW

    All I have to say is I’m glad people talk about it at all and that there are forums where we can intelligently and sensitively “label” each other in such a way that it leads to understanding. And SO glad no one has mentioned “PC”.

  • Bent

    While it is true that the terms “dyke” and “fag” and “queer” have been “reclaimed” by some gay women and men, and, as stated, may be used by some people to “self-identify”, it should be made clear there is a significant difference in the use of those words:

    – “queer” has been reclaimed enough to be used by non-queers, as in “Queer Studies” offered at some colleges(!)

    – “dyke” and “fag” are still only used within the confines of the LGBT community and generally only appropriate when used by people who self-identify with those words; the use of those words by others would still be considered offensive. It’s one of those “I can say it, you can’t” things. But, I don’t hear them used much anymore (compared with when they were “being reclaimed” in the ’70s and ’80s) even within the queer community, and there is much more comfort with “queer” than there is with the others.

  • Bent

    Response to Jane:

    You say, “neither of the labels I eventually found that correctly describe my gender identity and sexuality are common vernacular. They don’t appear on this list.”

    Wouldn’t it help enlighten us if you told us what those “labels” are and explained them? Maybe they could be included on future lists.

    To people who question why people seek to “label” others regarding gender: Unfortunately, English, like most languages, uses gender-defined prepositions (she/he, her/him, hers, his), so it is natural for people to use the word that matches the gender that they perceive or assume someone is. It seems unnecessary for others to refer to someones gender, but we don’t have a good way around it.

    Personally, I think fighting the words that are used to match our chromosomes/sex is short-sighted. If you don’t conform to the conventional definitions and assumptions around the gender that you were “assigned” at birth, don’t buy into them–it’s not the word that’s the problem, its what it implies. Change the DEFINITION, not the word used! (As in, “who says a ‘she’ doesn’t wear pants or really short hair, or play rugby or do math, or run for President…? Some ‘shes’ do!” And vice versa for ‘hes’.)

  • thebluebird11

    @Renee: Good point, that last bit. Never really thought about it, I guess, because if I’m “asexual” it’s involuntary and hopefully temporary LOL. But your post made me consider that point, and file it away mentally for future reference. One should try to assume things as rarely as possible.

  • Jane

    Response to Bent:

    ACK, I am so late on replying to this; I wouldn’t have even seen it if I hadn’t come back to re-read this article. The labels that correctly describe my sexuality and gender identity are “pansexual” and “genderfluid.”

    “Pansexual” means having the potential for sexual attractions, sexual desire, romantic love, and/or emotional attraction towards people of all gender identities and biological sexes; or, in the words of the OED, “not limited or inhibited in sexual choice with regards to gender” or sex. It has the effect of deliberately rejecting the sex/gender binary. This effect is rather important to me, as my gender doesn’t fall into said binary.

    Hence, “genderfluid,” meaning that my gender is unfixed and fluctuates on what can be a daily basis, from woman to man and occasionally in between. It leaves me in the position of having no option but to alter the gender presentation of my body as necessary, without the possibility of ever having a body that is always right (barring, of course, the discovery of at-will sex-shifting 😉 ).

    I fall under the umbrella of both transgender and genderqueer, although I’d say that this list actually offers an extremely poor definition for the latter: I certainly don’t choose to “refuse” a fixed gender identity. 😐

    I am also disappointed that the numerous (particularly considering the shortness of the list) failings of this piece, notably in regards to the TITLE, haven’t been corrected since being pointed out.

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