A note about the glossary

Following are some words that can cause confusion, so we present them here as a way to bring clarity. If they are still not clear, though, please feel free to bring your questions to the Forum.

Some of the words are often thought of as “binary” terms, defined by only two categories such as male–female or gay–straight. Many scientists think it is more appropriate to consider a range of possibilities rather than the rigid categories to which many of us are accustomed.


The biological characteristics that define human beings as male or female or intersex. Biological sex refers to physical characteristics such as external genitals, sex chromosomes, sex hormones and internal reproductive systems. Natal sex is the sex assigned at birth, which is typically based on the appearance of the external genitals. In cases where the genitals appear ambiguous, the chromosomes and hormones are then assessed to make the most appropriate sex assignment. Words that describe sex are female, male, and intersex. “Sex” is often, and inaccurately, used as a synonym for sexual intercourse.


Female                              Intersex                              Male


An individual who has atypical development of physical sex attributes, including (but not limited to) external genitals that are not easily classified as male or female, incomplete development of internal reproductive organs, variations of the sex chromosomes, overproduction or underproduction of sex-related hormones, and variant development of the testes or ovaries. Some intersex characteristics are recognized at birth; others do not become apparent until puberty or later. Intersexuals were previously known as hermaphrodites. Some individuals now prefer the term DSD (disorders of sexual development) to refer to intersex conditions.


The sexual knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors of individuals. Its dimensions include the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the sexual response and reproductive systems; gender identity, sexual orientation, roles and personality; as well as thoughts, attachments, physical and emotional expressions, and relationships.

Sexual Identity

An individual’s sense of self as a sexual being, including natal sex, gender identity, gender role, sexual orientation and sexual self-concept. Sexual identity may also refer to the language and labels people use to define themselves. Sexual self-concept refers to the individual’s assessment of his or her sexual identity. Development of sexual identity is a critical part of adolescence.

Sexual Orientation

An individual’s enduring romantic, emotional or sexual attractions toward other persons. “Heterosexual,” “homosexual” and “bisexual” are examples of specific sexual orientations, although sexual orientation falls along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality. Many people are attracted in varying degrees to people of the same sex and people of the other sex. It is important to note that:

  • Sexual orientation refers to feelings and identity, not necessarily behavior. Individuals do not always express their sexual orientation through their sexual behaviors.
  • Sexual orientation is not a choice. It is determined by a complex interaction of biological, genetic and environmental factors.


Little or no romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction toward other persons. Asexuals may also be described as nonsexual. Asexuality is different from celibacy, which is a choice not to engage in sexual behaviors with another person.


An enduring romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction toward people of all sexes. A person who identifies as bisexual may live in relationships with a partner of the other sex or of the same sex. A bisexual may be more attracted to one sex than another, equally attracted to women and men, or may consider sexual orientation and gender unimportant. The intensity of a bisexual’s attractions toward one sex or another may vary over time.


An enduring romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction toward people of the other sex. The term “straight” is commonly used to refer to heterosexual people.


An enduring romantic, emotional or sexual attraction toward people of the same sex. The term “gay” can refer to homosexual women or men, while the term “lesbian” refers only to homosexual women.

Heterosexual                     Bisexual                  Homosexual 



An individual’s personal, social and/or legal status as female, male or transgender. Words that describe gender include “feminine,” “masculine,” and “transgender.“ Gender is a cultural construct that reflects a society’s expectations for feminine and masculine qualities and behaviors.

Gender Identity

An individual’s own sense of self as a woman, man or transgender. Gender identity may or may not conform to an individual’s biological sex.

Gender Expression

The outward expression (behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice and/or body characteristics) of an individual’s gender.

Gender Role

The cultural expectations of female and male behaviors.

Gender Variance

Gender identities, expressions or roles that do not conform to what society typically expects from an individual based on his or her biological sex.

Feminine                   Gender Variant                   Masculine


An umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the cultural expectations of their biological sex. Transgender people seek to make their gender expression match their gender identity, rather than their biological sex. The term “transgender” does not provide information about a person’s sexual orientation; transgender people can be bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual or asexual.


A term for persons who believe that their natal sex is incompatible with their gender identity. Biological females who live as men are called female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, transsexual men or transmen. Biological males who live as women are called male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals, transsexual women or transwomen. Transsexuals often pursue medical procedures such as hormone treatments or gender confirmation surgery (also known as sex-reassignment surgery) to make their physical attributes conform more closely to their gender identity. Transsexuals who pursue sex-reassignment surgery may refer to themselves as pre-operative (“pre-op”) or post-operative (“post-op”) transsexuals. Others dislike this terminology and prefer to say they are in transition.

Cross Dresser or Transvestite

An individual who regularly dresses in attire associated with the other gender, either for sexual excitement or emotional release, or in some cases, for performance art. Cross dressers can be any sexual orientation, but are primarily heterosexual men. Transvestites differ from transsexuals in that they do not want to alter their bodies. In the U.S., the older term “transvestite” is considered by many cross dressers to be offensive, but the usage and connotation vary by culture.


A collective acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Lengthier versions include “LGBTQ” to include people who identify as “queer,” and “LGBTQQIA,” to include “queer, questioning, intersex and asexual.” The “a” may also be used to refer to “allies,” heterosexuals who support justice for LGBT persons.


Similar to racism or sexism, this term refers to the privileging of heterosexuality over other sexual orientations, or to the assumption or assertion of heterosexuality as the preferred cultural norm.


Fear, dislike, hatred or prejudice toward homosexuality and homosexual persons.


Once a negative term for a lesbian or gay man, “queer” has recently been reclaimed by some gay people as a self-affirming reference for anyone of a non-heterosexual orientation or gender identity. It is best not to use this word to refer to specific individuals without their consent.


Some individuals do not identify with any of the current terms that define sexual orientation or gender identity; others are struggling to understand their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They may choose to refer to themselves as “questioning,” “third gender”, “gender queer”, or they may choose no term at all.

Adapted from A Time to Seek by Debra Haffner and Tim Palmer.