Terminology Basics

Note: This glossary is necessarily limited and incomplete. Language changes, and so do the needs and expectations of our communities. We will do our best to keep this list updated and invite you to contribute if you find that there are things missing!

    • Gender Binary: the assumption and related practices that suggest there are only two possible genders (woman or man/girl or boy), and that each individual inherently fits into one of those two categories.
    • Sex Category: socially constructed category assigned by medical professionals, most frequently based on genitals, though sometimes also determined based on chromosomes and/or hormones. Note: Our society allows for only two sexes: female (associated with the presence of a vagina and labia) and male (associated with the presence of a penis and testes). However, there is a wide range of embodiments and people are also born intersex.
    • Intersex: refers to people whose bodies cannot be easily categorized as either male or female. Often doctors have performed surgeries on intersex people as infants to make them fit into one category or the other. There has been and continues to be a great deal of activism to ensure ethical standards of care. As part of this process, doctors have begun to use the term “disorders of sexual development” (DSD). However, many intersex community members and activists experience this term as pathologizing. For more info: https://interactadvocates.org/
    • Gender Category: The gender category refers to the categories of gender that are socially available. In our society we tend to treat gender as a binary, and presume there are only girls/women and boys/men. More and more, states are beginning to recognize nonbinary categories, but not all do. This category is assigned to individuals on the basis of their sex assigned at birth and carries all of the cultural and social expectations associated with a given sex category. Often gender stereotypes are attached to this category.
    • Sex or Gender Assigned at Birth: This is the category someone is assigned at birth based most often on their genitals. When sex (male, female, intersex) is assigned, doctors also assign a gender category. We use this term instead of “biological sex/gender” “natural sex/gender” or suggesting that a person “used to be” a particular gender, because both sex and gender are assigned to people without knowledge of their gender identities.
    • Gender Identity: Sense of self in relation to a specific gender or genders. This is how we perceive and experience ourselves.
    • Gender Expression: range of external expressions that people occupy/embody. These include ways of dressing, embodied expressions, tone and mode of speaking, as well as other things we tend to categorize as feminine or masculine. Gender expression cannot be used to assume a person’s gender identity.
    • Cisgender (no “ed” at the end): adjective to describe someone who identifies with the sex and/or gender they were assigned at birth. (It is more complex than this, since sex and gender categories are different, but this definition will get you by. For more, you can start with Serano’s discussion of cisgender and cissexual etymology)
    • Transgender (no “ed” at the end): adjective used as an umbrella to describe someone who does not identify with the sex and/or gender they were assigned at birth. Can include people who do or do not wish to pursue medical affirmation of their gender. May also refer to people who are nonbinary, agender, or genderqueer. People in these groups may or may not refer to themselves as transgender
    • Gender Pronouns: these are gendered references that we use to refer to people in the absence of their name. For example: he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. For some people, only one type of pronoun is appropriate but for some multiple types of pronouns apply. Ultimately, it is up to the individual and you should respect their pronouns. They are not “preferred”, they are an important part of acknowledging and respecting someone’s humanity. Here is a quick reference for how to use pronouns.
    • Genderqueer, Genderfluid, and Nonbinary: these are terms that people use to mean a variety of different things. Often they are used to communicate that the person does not identify with a single gender, that their gender is fluid/unfixed, or that they do not identify with the gender binary as a whole. Some people in these groups experience changes in their gender identity and/or expression throughout their lives—sometimes on a day to day basis. People in these groups also may use feminine, masculine, and/or non-gendered pronouns.
    • Agender: this term is used to indicate that a person does not identify with a gender, or experience themselves as gendered.
    • Cissexism: patterned discrimination based on the presumption that cisgender experiences and identities are the norm. This is expressed through language that centers cisness, as well as through everyday phrases and actions that stigmatize, minimize, or invisibilize transness.
    • Transphobia: Anger and fear directed at trans people. This is normalized within a cissexist society and often manifests through anti-trans “humor” and stigmatized representations in the media.
    • Transmisogyny: a specific form of misogyny directed at transgender women based on larger cissexist and sexist ideologies and practice. (for more see Serano’s discussion in the NYTimes)