The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Sex - A medical term that refers to a person’s assigned sex at birth. Sex refers to certain combinations of chromosome, hormones, genitalia, and primary and secondary sex characteristics. In the case of transsexuals, sex might not be what is assigned at birth but what is constructed using hormones and surgery.

Gender Identity - Refers to a person’s internal, deeply felt sense of being either man or woman, or something other or in between.

Gender Expression - Refers to how an individual presents through the use of gender cues (e.g. appearance, behavior, and mannerisms). A person’s expression may or may not be analogous to their identity.

Sexual Orientation - A term that refers to the emotional, romantic, and/or sexual desires that one person might have for another person or people. It also may refer to a person’s choice of whether or not to engage in sexual relationships and practices.

Terms to Use Usage Example Terms to Avoid Explanation
  • Gay (adj.)
  • Lesbian (n. or adj.)
  • Bi
  • Bisexual
  • Two Spirit
  • "gay people"
  • "gay man/men"
  • "lesbian couple"
  • "homosexual"
  • "gay" (n.) (as in, "He is a gay")
  • "fag" "faggot" "dyke" "homo" "queen" or similar epithets

Gay is an adjective, not a noun; it is sometimes used as a shorthand term encompassing gay, and bisexual orientations (though not transgender people or gender identity). Also, while many lesbians may identity as gay, the term lesbian(s) is clearer when talking only about a woman or women.

Two Spirit is a contemporary term that refers to multiple gender traditions in First Nation cultures. Two Spirit carried both great respect and additional commitments and responsibilities to one’s community.

Anti-gay activists often use words like “homosexual” to stigmatize gay people by reducing their lives to purely sexual terms.

  • Orientation
  • Sexual Orientation
  • “a person’s orientation”
  • “Sexual orientation can be a complex topic. A person’s orientation is…”
  • “sexual preference”
  • “gay lifestyle”
  • “homosexual lifestyle"
  • “same-sex attractions”

The term “sexual preference’ is used by anti-gay activists to suggest that being gay is a choice and therefore can be changed or “cured.” Similarly, the term “gay lifestyle” is used to stigmatize gay people and suggest that their lives should be viewed only through a sexual lens.

  • Openly gay
  • “She is openly lesbian.”
  • ”He is openly bi.”
  • “admitted he was gay”
  • “avowed she is bi”

The words “admitted” and “avowed” suggest prior deception or that being gay is shameful.

  • Gay and transgender
  • “laws that protect gay and transgender people”
  • “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender”

Reference sexual orientation and gender identity when talking about issues pertaining to the LGBTI community.

  • Fairly and equally
  • Fairness and equality
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Movement (when discussing the historical context”)
  • “Everyone should be treated fairly and equally.”
  • “She supports fairness and equality.”
  • “The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Movement began…”
  • Gay Agenda” “Homosexual Agenda” “Civil Rights” “Gay Rights”

“Rights” language is generally unpersuasive with most audiences, and civil rights comparisons can be especially alienating to African Americans.

  • Transgender (adj.)
  • “transgender person” “transgender advocate” “transgender inclusion
  • “transgendered”
  • “a transgendered” (n.)
  • “transgenders” (n.)
  • “transvestite”
  • “tranny”

Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. Be careful not to call someone “a transgender.” Do not add an unnecessary ‘-ed’ to the term (“transgendered”) which connotes a condition of some kind. Never use the term transvestite to describe a transgender person.

The shorthand trans is often used within the LGBT community.

Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Also, a person who identifies as a certain gender should be referred to using pronouns consistent with that gender. When it isn’t possible to ask what pronoun a person would prefer, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression.

(Adapted from: An Ally’s Guide to Terminology)