Before we get into the specific terms, the most important thing you need to know—even if you forget everything else—is gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Conflating the two is one of the biggest misconceptions around gender identity.

The other myth is that gender assignment is a matter of straightforward anatomy. Both the research and medical community now recognize it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s no wonder just two words doesn’t cover it all.

“It can be hard to keep track, and you can inadvertently hurt people’s feelings by using the wrong gender identity term,” says Jack Drescher, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and an adjunct professor at New York University. “Many transgender people grew up with a lot of painful experiences. They may have experienced hardships before they accepted themselves so sometimes an error in using a term can be experienced as painful or even traumatizing.”

Gender Identity Dictionary

While the specific words may evolve and how we describe gender may grow, here are the most important terms to know right now, in alphabetical order.

AFAB: This is an acronym for assigned female at birth.

AMAB: Similar to AFAB, AMAM is assigned male at birth.

Agender: This term refers to individuals who identify as not having a gender. You might also hear gender blank, gender free, and null gender. Someone who identifies as agender may use pronouns him or her, but more commonly use neutral terms like them or their.

Cisgender: When your gender identity matches the gender, you were assigned at birth, you’re considered cisgender. A shortened term would be “cis.” Cisgender is an accepted and appropriate word to use says Louise Newton, MSW, LCSW, SEP, co-founder and clinical supervisor of the Gender and Sexual Diversity Initiative at MindPath Care Centers in North Carolina.

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Cishet: This is a slang term used within the LGBTQ community to identify someone who is both cisgender and heterosexual, says Newton. “It could be considered derogatory,” she says. “A group of queer folks might be having tea and say, I met my landlord, who is such an example of a cishet. It’s kind of an ingroup term used to identify someone who is privileged.”

Gender confirmation: This term indicates that you are now confirming the actual gender you associate with,” Drescher says. “Terms change from time to time, so what used to be called sex reassignment surgery is now called gender reassignment surgery,” he explains. “Some people prefer calling it gender confirmation surgery.”

Gender expression: This refers to the ways people express their experience of their gender explains Newton. It may be how they dress or do their hair.

Genderfluid: “Gender is often thought about in a very binary way,” says Jazz McGinnis, LCSW, Program Coordinator of the Gender Pathways Program at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.

“But we think of gender on a spectrum, with male on one end, female on the other, and various others in between.” Genderfluid is the ability to move anywhere along that line he explains.

Gender identity: Gender identity is not defined by someone’s genitals, secondary sex characteristics, gender expression, but instead by an individual person’s internally felt sense of being male, female, both, or something else according to McGinnis.

Gender nonconforming: A person who is gender nonconforming is someone whose gender expression doesn’t mesh with what is considered ‘normal’ for that gender, Newton says. You can be both cisgender and gender nonconforming.

Genderqueer:  This is a term that some individuals use to make it known that they don’t identify just as male or female, but as both, or neither, or some combination.

Gender questioning: Understanding and accepting your own gender is complicated, and many individuals experience a time of gender questioning during which they explore their gender identity and learn how they would like to express themselves, says McGinnis. “Unfortunately, this can cause people a lot of distress since it can be scary and dangerous to think about being someone else or not being someone else, but having a different way of understanding yourself,” he says.

Gender transition: This is a gradual process in which a transgender person starts to live in a way that is compatible with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth, Newton explains. While transition is something many transgender people choose to do, not all transgender people want to transition or have the financial means to transition, McGinnis adds.

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Intersex: In earlier times, this was known as hermaphroditism, but intersex is used now to refer to diverse presentations of ambiguous or atypical genitals, according to The LGBT Casebook. Today, the umbrella term no longer refers to a person whose biological sex varies from the widespread binary understanding of men’s and women’s bodies, says McGinnis. “Now that we don’t use the term ‘hermaphrodite’ any longer, we refer to intersex people,” he says. “The vast majority of intersex people have had surgery performed on them as children that was not medically necessary but because their caregivers thought, ‘This child needs to be a girl, or a boy.’ There is a lot of activism underway now to prevent these surgeries in children,” The goal, McGinnis says, is to make sure that intersex people are permitted to make their own decision about whether or not to have surgery.

Nonbinary: This is an umbrella term for individuals who do not identify as male or female. When people identify as nonbinary, they may prefer to use the pronouns “they/them” rather than “he/his” or “she/her.”

Queer: This reclaimed word is now used as an umbrella term, Newton says. “It is often times used not just as a personal identity but as a political identity,” she says. “Queer folks are often people who are involved in the community in raising awareness about issues like police brutality and challenges about class, race, and disability.”

Sexual orientation. Separate from your gender identity, this refers to who a person is attracted to. Other terms for this are sexual identity or sexual attraction.

Transgender: A transgender individual is someone whose gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people often go through a process called “transitioning,” where the individual takes steps to align their body with their gender identity. This can include social and medical changes, like changing one’s name and taking hormones, but not all transgender people choose or want to transition.

The specific terminology we use to describe gender will continue to evolve. Some of the words and phrases that seem more on the fringe today may become more mainstream. But one thing that won’t change is the understanding that gender identity has nothing to do with sexual orientation and is a lot more complicated than it may seem of the surface.

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Last Updated: Dec 1, 2020