Maybe you’re familiar with the definition of gay and lesbian but don’t know what it means to be intersex or nonbinary. Maybe you want to be more comfortable and respectful in conversation, or you might want to learn more about LGBTQIA+ culture.
Though not a comprehensive list of every term out there—language evolves constantly!—hopefully, these definitions will help you understand and feel more comfortable and respectful talking to people who express their sex, gender, or sexual orientation differently from you.
Remember: no community is a monolith; these words may mean something different for everyone. And as time passes, these definitions will change, because they evolve as people and cultures do. So keep your mind open, keep learning, and get ready to queer your vocabulary!
Androgyny | People who express or present themselves as genderneutral (androgynous) or possess masculine and feminine characteristics.
Asexual | People with little to no interest in having sex. Or a person with no libido, desire, or sexual attraction for other people.
Cisgender | An adjective to describe people who exclusively identify with the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. Cisgender does not convey any information about a person’s sexuality.
Femme | Traditionally used in lesbian culture to describe lesbians who express a gender identity that is or leans feminine. Can also refer to people (of any sexual orientation or gender) who identify with femininity or feminine self-expression.
Gay | Primarily refers to homosexual men, but can also be people (of any gender) who experience sexual or romantic interest towards those who share their sex or gender identity. Many prefer gay to homosexual as “homosexuality” can feel overly clinical and holds historical associations with homophobic medical abuse. In contrast, the word “gay” has another meaning: cheerful, lively, and joyful.
Gender | Socially-constructed identity, expression, behaviors, and roles. Examples include male, female, nonbinary, trans, two-spirit, and androgynous.
Gender dysphoria | The distress people experience due to a mismatch between their gender identity and assigned gender, sex, and/or sexual characteristics. Some experience freedom from gender dysphoria by adopting a new name and pronouns. Others need hormones, treatments, therapies, and surgery to alleviate gender dysphoria. While some disagree with diagnosing gender variance, others note that medical classification is the only way to ensure health insurance reimburses gender-affirming treatments as medically necessary rather than cosmetic.
Genderfluid | People whose gender identity changes over time. While many see gender as a fixed identity, genderfluid people experience and express qualities across or outside the broad spectrum of gender.
Heterosexual | People who experience sexual or romantic interest towards those with a different—usually “opposite”—sex or gender identity. However, “opposite” fundamentally relies on binaries and heteronormativity, which promotes heterosexuality as the norm and reinforces strict gender roles—erasing people with gender-variant experiences.
Intersex | People with physical sex characteristics that do not fit the typical binary ideas of male or female, including atypical chromosome patterns, gonads, or genitals. After birth or later in life, intersex people often face controversial medical treatments (with questionable success) to give them more socially-acceptable sex characteristics.
Lesbian | Colloqiually described as “women who love women,” lesbian primarily refers to homosexual women who experience sexual or romantic interest toward those who share the same sex or gender identity. Some lesbians use terms like “butch” or “femme” to convey a masculine (butch) or feminine (femme) identity expressed through their gender performance—including style, self-perception, relationships, and behaviors.
2SLGBTQIA+ | An umbrella initialism with various interpretations, one being: two-spirit, lesbian, gay/genderqueer, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/aromantic, and the “+” is meant to acknowledge others who experience sexuality or gender that diverges from mainstream norms (cisgender heteronormativity). However, some Indigenous people dislike the inclusion of two-spirit, seeing it as colonial assimilation of a gender experience that only makes sense in a Native American or First Nations framework and traditional cultural understanding. Other popularized initialisms include LGBT, LGBTQ, and LGBTQIA+.
Nonbinary | People whose gender exists outside socially-constructed sex and gender binaries.
Queer | An umbrella term used when someone’s experience with gender identity, sexual orientation, or romantic attraction is not cisgender or heterosexual.
Sexuality | The way people experience and express interest, affection, desire, and love through emotional, psychological, physical, and erotic feelings or behaviors.
Third-gender | An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and gender role cannot be categorized by the binary experiences of either a man nor a woman. Can also refer to a specific community in societies with three or more genders. In some cultures, being third-gender may entail traditional and spiritual duties (i.e. hirjas of South Asia, Indigenous māhū of Hawaiʻi, fa'afafine of Polynesia, and more across the world). May also refer to eunuchs, intersex, nonbinary, trans, and/or genderqueer people.
Trans | People whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Some trans people experience freedom from gender dysphoria by adopting a new name and pronouns. Others seek treatment, therapies, and surgery to alleviate gender dysphoria.
Two-spirit | An umbrella term some Indigenous North Americans (i.e. Ojibwe, Lakota, Cree, Métis, and other Indigenous communities) use to describe Native people who fulfill a traditional third-gender/gender-variant–ceremonial and social role in their cultures. It is a sacred, spiritual, and ceremonial role recognized and confirmed by the Elders of the Two Spirit's community.
Intro to Queer Ecology | Atmos
Deliverance | Willow Defebaugh
Queer Nature | Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd
Cis Hetero Supremacy is a threat to Trans, Non-Binary, and 2Spirit Livelihood | Demian Dinéyazhi'
The Insitute of Queer Ecology
the invention of the sex binary | Alok Vaid-Menon
gender non-conformity isn't news: a history of the fairy | Alok Vaid-Menon
the hidden history of gender | Alok Vaid-Menon
debunking myths of sex chromosomes | Alok Vaid-Menon
Written by Jocelyn "Josse" Gee for Youth To The People