Our society is currently in a moment when language is catching up with the variety of experiences and expressions of gender. Because of that, the language used by members of the LGBTQ+ community is quickly developing. There are many extensive and frequently-updated glossaries available online, including this glossary from the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at Michigan State University.
While you don’t have to be an expert in gender and sexuality studies in order to support your students, regularly checking in on how conversations about gender are unfolding in the culture—by attending relevant events on campus, following LGBTQ+ and trans-specific advocacy organizations like the Trans Lifeline, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, and Campus Pride, and engaging with journalism and scholarship by and about LGBTQ+ people—puts you in a better position to anticipate possible student needs and feel more comfortable offering support to students.
This page provides an overview of some fundamental terms related to sex and gender that will be useful to know as you explore the rest of this resource.
- Sex is typically assigned at birth and is usually based on external anatomy, sex chromosomes and hormones, and internal reproductive structures.
- Gender refers to the socially constructed norms, roles, and behaviors expected of people, often based on their sex assigned at birth (i.e. girls/women are expected to be feminine and boys/men are expected to be masculine).
- Gender identity refers to one’s internal understanding of themselves as is related to gender. One’s gender identity can align or conflict with sex assigned at birth.
- Gender expression refers to how a person communicates about their gender to others, through style choices, speech patterns, body language, and social behaviors. Most people’s gender expression includes a range of behaviors and aesthetic choices that are considered more traditionally feminine and more traditionally masculine. Gender expression can also shift based on context and gender expression does not necessarily align with a person’s gender identity (e.g. someone who identifies as a woman might have a more menswear-inspired look and might adopt some more traditionally masculine communication patterns).
- Gender attribution refers to attributing a gender to another person without knowledge of that person’s gender identity based on societal expectations of gender, access to data about sex assigned at birth, and/or a person’s gender expression. While gender attribution is something most of us have been habituated to do constantly, it is not possible to identify someone else’s gender identity merely through observable data.
- Cisgender: an adjective used to desribe people whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth. Often abbreviated as “cis.”
- Transgender: an adjective used to describe people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth. Trans people can identify as women or men or identify outside of the gender binary (e.g. nonbinary, genderqueer, etc.). Often abbreviated as “trans.”
- Nonbinary an adjective used to describe people who do not identify with a binary gender category (“man” or “woman”). Some people conceive being nonbinary as a gender identity that is beyond reference to the gender binary while others think of gender as a spectrum with “man” and “woman” as two points on the continuum of gender identities.
- Genderfluid: an adjective used to describe people who understand their gender as variable across time and space.
- Genderqueer: an adjective used to describe people who understand their gender identity to be completely outside of and beyond reference to the gender binary.
- Misgender: the act of consciously or unconsciously attributing the incorrect gender to someone through the use of incorrect pronouns, names, or honorifics. Misgendering someone can cause significant pain and is often one indicator of a broader culture or system that is inhospitable to or dangerous for trans people.
- Deadname: the previously given name of a person who changed their name to better align with their gender identity. As a verb, the act of consciously or unconsciously misgendering someone by using a name they no longer use.