By Rev. Ann Lock | Download PDF Version

“What the heck are all these letters?”
“How am I supposed to keep track when the rules keep changing?”
“I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid or rude because I’m not sure how to use the terms.”

It is very challenging to enter into any conversation when we don’t have the right words. Most of us were not taught these terms and concepts, so it takes some effort to learn them!

Thank you for making the effort to understand some of what’s going on in this part of our culture and community. Learning this vocabulary is an important way of showing hospitality and respect to others.

The first thing to get one’s head around is that the following five terms all refer to different but related aspects of human sexuality. Human beings are complex, and every human being has all five of these characteristics.

  1. Sex / physical sex / biological sex
  2. Gender Identity
  3. Gender Expression
  4. Sexual Orientation
  5. Sexual Behavior

1. Sex or Anatomical Sex

Sex or anatomical sex refers to biological characteristics. These include internal and external body parts, body chemistry, hormones, and chromosomes. Our dominant culture (western, Euro-American) generally assumes there are just 2 sexes: male and female. But over time, science has shown that this is not actually the case. (There are other cultures in which it’s long been accepted that there are more than 2 sexes.)

In fact, somewhere between .05%-2%[1] of the population has some mix of biological characteristics that don’t fit into this binary either/or of male/female. (It’s about as common as having red hair: 1%-2% of the population.)

Babies born with a mix of these characteristics, or ambiguous characteristics (since some do not emerge until puberty) were once referred to as “hermaphrodites”.
This term has fallen out of use and is now considered offensive. Intersex is now the preferred term for individuals who have some non-binary mix of biological sex characteristics.

2. Gender Identity

Gender Identity is about how a person feels inside, about who they are:
feminine, masculine, neither, or both. Since ideas about gender change over time and culture, this can be a confusing thing to talk about. Most people, from a very young age, clearly identify “I’m a girl” or “I’m a boy.” About .05%-.06%[2]however, feel like the gender they were assigned at birth doesn’t fit them. It doesn’t feel right. A mistake was made, and it’s not really who they are.

Putting sex and gender identity together, we get these Terms for Gender Identity:

  • cis-gender – (pronounced “sis-gender”) refers to someone whose sex (as assigned at birth) and gender identity match.
  • transgender or trans – refers to someone whose sex (as assigned at birth) and gender identity are not a match. A trans person may or may not be choosing to take steps to alter their biological characteristics. It is a mistake to assume that everyone who is trans is interested in or will pursue medical intervention.
  • queer or genderqueer – these are tough terms for people who are over age 35 or so. The word “queer” used to be used only as a slur to insult people who did not conform to gender norms. However, in recent decades, the word “queer” has been reclaimed and now serves as an umbrella term. For many people, saying, “I’m queer,” is the simplest (and least invasive) way to identify as outside the norms of a binary system that doesn’t include everyone.

3. Gender Expression

Simply put, gender expression is how I choose to show up in the world.
Gender expression includes clothing, shoes, jewelry, makeup, accessories, hairstyles, language, behavior—even some professions are still considered gendered.

Gender Unicorn
The Gender Unicorn is alternate take on visualizing Gender Identity preferred by some trans advocates. Click for a larger view.
Terms Related to Gender Expression:
  • male/masculine
  • female/feminine
  • non-binary (NB)
  • gender fluid
  • gender queer
Gender expression is culturally specific and changes over time and place.
  • Example: Tongan men, Indian men, and Scotsmen can wear garments that look similar to skirts (tupenu, vishti, and kilt, respectively) without threat to their sense of masculinity. In some cultures, skirts are not considered only “feminine” clothing.
  • Example: 150 years ago in the United States or England, women wearing pants were scandalous/inappropriate. Women and men ostracized or assaulted women for transgressing that gender expression norm. Now, most women freely wear pants most of the time, and no assumptions about their sexuality or identity are made about it.
Who has freedom to fully ”express”?

In dominant American/white culture, women have a much larger accepted range in gender expression than men do. Any clothing store testifies to this.

  • Example: Women can wear what’s traditionally men’s clothing (pants, suits, boots, suspenders, fedoras) and still be considered “feminine” or “womanly.”
    However, men and women frequently tease, bully, or physically assault men who transgress the norms of masculine gender expression by wearing traditionally women’s clothing or cosmetics, unless it is done as an obvious joke.
  • People generally dress to express the gender they are. Depending on a person’s physical characteristics, people may or may not perceive a person is “convincing” or “passing”. Unless you want to date them, there is no reason you need to know whether a person you encounter is trans, or a masculine-looking woman, or a feminine-looking man, or androgynous. People are people and deserve respect.
Pronouns
  • If you don’t know what pronouns someone prefers, it is 100% okay to simply ask them, “What pronouns do you use?” Then use what they tell you.
  • If you guess wrong, or forget to use the correct pronoun and the person corrects you, don’t make it a big deal. Just apologize, say “thanks” for the correction, (as you would if you called someone “Dan” whose name is “Stan” and he corrected you) and move on.
  • Many cultures have gender-neutral pronouns for people, in addition to feminine and masculine. In English, gender-neutral pronouns (it/its) are for objects, not people. So, people who don’t identify as a “her” or a “him” are left with “they/them” as the best pronouns we’ve got right now. Many queer people prefer “they/them” as pronouns. For those who have been used to using they/them only as a plural, this can initially feel strange and takes a lot of practice.

Language changes over time; allowing room for pronouns is a simple act of hospitality. It’s worth the effort.

4. Sexual Orientation

The term “sexual orientation” can imply that it’s all about sex acts, which is not accurate because even people who are not sexually active still have an orientation. Orientation is really about what happens in our hearts. Orientation is about who I am romantically attracted to, who I fall in love with, who I want to make a home/family with.

Far more complex than two options (heterosexual or homosexual), sexual orientation is best understood on a spectrum. Very few people are 100% one thing; most of us are more complex, as researchers have continued to discover over the past 70 years.[3]

“The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)

“Many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from one to the other extreme.” –Sexual Behavior of the Human Female (1953)

Within orientation, there is also the distinction between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. For most of us, these can seem like the same thing, because we experience them in concert. Yet, romantic attraction and sexual attraction for some people function independently. Thus, many of the terms below which you may be familiar with when they end in -sexual, can also have the ending –romantic, to indicate something different (e.g., homoromantic, in addition to homosexual; heteroromantic, in addition to heterosexual).

Terms related to Sexual Orientation
  • heterosexual, hetero-romantic – attracted to people who are of a different sex
  • gay– men attracted to men (this term is also used for women attracted to women) 
  • lesbian– woman attracted to women
  • bisexual, biromantic – attracted to men and women
  • pansexual, panromantic– attracted to people along the spectrum of gender
  • asexual, aromantic – not attracted to anyone 
  • queer – don’t fit in these categories or prefer the larger umbrella term 
  • (FYI – “gay and lesbian” are preferred terms rather than “homosexuals”)

5. Sexual Behavior

Notice: All of the above differences and complexities exist BEFORE behavior comes into the question. Without anyone touching anyone else, each human being already is/has 1, 2, 3, and 4.

How a person chooses to express their sexuality is also complex, and a personal matter. This is where we get into questions of ethics, right/wrong, power, consent, mutuality, and personal preferences.

We can identify common and consistent values across all orientations, identities, expressions, and biological differences. Such as:

  • Sexual behavior is positive when it is consensual, mutual, and pleasurable. (Some people choose to have additional criteria, such as marriage.)
  • Sexual behavior is wrong when it is abusive, coerced, or exploitative.
Terms related to Sexual Behavior
  • celibate (no sexual partners)
  • monogamous (single partner)
  • polyamorous, or poly- orpoly-am (multiple partners)
  • non-monogamous (multiple partners)

So, what about that acronym again?

LGBT or LGBTQ or LGBTQIA+ or LGBTQQIA+ or…

Lesbian
Gay
Bisexual
Transgender
Queer or Questioning
Intersex
Asexual
+ plus – making an acronym cover what has taken 5 pages to describe is tough – that’s why this acronym changes over time.

As a way of avoiding the alphabet soup of this abbreviation, many people use the term “queer” as an alternate umbrella term.

Some Important Context and Suggestions for Respectful Interaction with Neighbors

What about surgery and hormones?

Transgender people have characteristics that don’t match who they are inside. Some trans people go through hormonal treatments and medical procedures to make their bodies more closely reflect their identity. Some trans people do not go through medical interventions. Some prefer to accept themselves as they are, others are limited by the expense, lack of insurance coverage, or lack of providers.

NOTE: People often let their curiosity get ahead of their manners. We do not ask people about their genitalia. It is very rude to ask a trans person about their experience of transitioning (scars, hormone treatments, etc.) or their plans around transitioning. It is private medical information. (Imagine someone asking you about the shape of your penis or vagina in casual conversation. Outrageous, right? None of their business, right? Right. Don’t do that to queer people.)

Shouldn’t everyone just stick with what it says on their birth certificate?

Every year, a percentage of babies are born with ambiguous or intersex characteristics, and as more are identified as puberty hits—somewhere between .05% and 1.7% of the population[4]. (By comparison, having red hair is about 1%-2%.)

In the U.S., it’s been common practice to have doctors and parents guess at a gender for an intersex child and put that sex on the birth certificate. Sometimes, this involves surgical procedures to make the baby’s physical characteristics and the choice consistent.

Increasingly, the ethics of this are being called into question. Many parents and medical professionals feel that it’s not their right to make those decisions for someone else. Instead, they find it better to wait, let the child grow up, discover what changes emerge in puberty, and see what they would like to do about changes in their body.

If it’s all so personal and private, why do we have to talk about it/hear about it so much

Because it’s currently legal to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people, and that injustice needs to be changed. Queer people have struggled for many years to have the right to live their lives without fear, shame, harassment, persecution, and prosecution.

While some civil rights have been secured, the queer community is more likely to experience harassment, violence, homelessness, job discrimination, housing discrimination and religious rejection than non-queer people.

The equal right to civil marriage is a powerful victory, but it is certainly not the end of the struggle for freedom and equality.

Religion & LGBTQIA+ people

As has been true during previous struggles for equality and inclusion (the proper role of women, people of color, left-handed people), religious people continue to disagree about this human difference.

Many Christians believe LGBTQ+ people are simply an example of God’s love of variety in creation (and are therefore accountable to the same ethical and religious requirements as those heterosexual people). Other Christians believe these differences are inherently sinful (and therefore require correction, rather than affirmation).

As a denomination, The United Methodist Church has been split about this for over 45 years. Our global Book of Discipline contains self-contradictory statements about human sexuality, the sacred worth of each human being, and equality of access to ministry of Christ’s church.

The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and the Western Jurisdiction of The UMC, have clearly and decisively sided for the inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ+ people as members, leaders, and clergy. There are, however, individual United Methodists, some congregations, and some clergy in our area who do not agree with the majority.

Bonus Question: What’s “Drag”? (Drag Queen/Drag King)

Drag is a kind of performance art. It’s time-honored form of theater that plays with gender expression and heightened gender stereotypes. There are many genres of drag. Drag queens are the most well-known—there’s a TV competition show calledRuPaul’s Drag Race that’s in its 10thseason.

Drag queens are people, usually male or trans, who dress in women’s clothing and often act with exaggerated and stereotypical femininity with a primarily entertaining purpose. They often exaggerate make-up for dramatic, comedic, and/or satirical effect. The term “female impersonator” is no longer used.

Drag kings are mostly female or trans performance artists who dress in masculine drag and personify male gender stereotypes as part of an individual or group routine.

Although stereotypes abound, it’s not really safe to assume you know much about someone who performs drag…because it’s a performance.

Drag performers may be lesbian, bisexual, transgender, cis-gender, bisexual, genderqueer, or otherwise part of the LGBT community. In drag’s current expression in the USA, it’s generally considered and celebrated as a queer art form.


This glossary was compiled by the Rev. Ann Lock, an Elder in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of the UMC. Rev. Lock is a hetero, cis-gender woman who works with congregations that are predominantly heterosexual and cis-gender—therefore this glossary is geared toward that audience. She wrote this guide for the local United Methodist congregation she serves to help them engage in conversation in a respectful way.

Everything Rev. Lock knows about these topics was gained due to the generosity and painstaking work of queer people and their allies in the movement to understand and love all members of God’s family. Rev. Lock and has been actively involved in educating herself and working for justice and inclusion since 2000. Any errors or glaring omissions are entirely her own.

In addition to the footnoted studies, a great deal of this information was created by or informed by:


[1] Wikipedia – citing Steinmetz, Katy (30 June 2016). “1.4 Million Americans Identify as Transgender, Study Finds”. Time. Archived from the original on 30 June 2016. Retrieved 30 June 2016 and 3 other publications.

[2]American Journal of Human Biology, Am. J. Hum. Biol. 12:151–166, 2000. © 2000 Wiley‐Liss, Inc. LINK

[3]Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and ;Sexual Behavior of the Human Female (1953) are known collectively as the Kinsey Reports. Together, they sold nearly a million copies and were translated in thirteen languages. The Kinsey Reports are associated with a change in public perception of sexuality and considered part of the most successful and influential scientific books of the 20th century.

[4]American Journal of Human Biology, Am. J. Hum. Biol. 12:151–166, 2000. © 2000 Wiley‐Liss, Inc. LINK

*Editor’s Note: Some individuals have expressed concerns about the origins and authorship of the Genderbread Person. We have been unable to verify all of those concerns independently but wanted to note them and share the Gender Unicorn infographic, an alternative they suggested, in its place.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Note: Scottish, Welsh, or Irish kilts should never to be called or confused with skirts, and developed from the much larger great kilt, worn both for clothing and sleeping. The traditional Tongan male clothing is called a tupenu, with a ta’ovala (mat) worn over it and secured with a kafa rope with formal occasions. The traditional men’s clothing of India is called a dhoti.

  2. Here’s a helpful article outlining the issues with the Genderbread Person: http://sjwiki.org/wiki/Genderbread_person

    A few suggestions to expand on this good resource (and please, someone take what I write to the next level as well):

    I understand trying to use humor in leading with questions people tend to ask around LGBTQIA+, but questions like “What the heck are all these letters?” are usually followed by a refusal to learn about diversity in sexuality and gender, a refusal to acknowledge people’s pronouns, and other denials of people’s personhoods. We shouldn’t give that question legitimacy, even as a joke. We should focus more on curiosity and a desire for change as this essay intends to do.

    The Genderbread Person article talks about the issue with the term “biological/anatomical sex” – by saying that genitalia are male or female, one is potentially calling a transperson’s genitalia a different gender than the one that the person is. The author of this article gets at that point in the gender identity section by saying “gender assigned at birth” – it would be good to change the previous section to “gender assigned at birth” instead of “sex/anatomical sex” as well.

    An issue with birth certificates for parents of intersex babies as well as parents who want to avoid assigning their children a gender at birth is that while Washington State allows people to change their gender to “X” later in life, parents cannot choose “X” for their child at birth. This perpetuates the push for parents to medically alter their intersex children to fit a male or female mold, and even if they refuse surgery, they still have to choose male or female for their child.

    It’s not helpful to say that someone wearing “traditionally female clothing” can be assumed to use female pronouns. Some people’s clothing expression changes daily, and it doesn’t mean that someone in a skirt will always have “she” pronouns. It’s also strange that this is the only gender expression singled out as having an absolute rule. I believe the intent of the author is to open up our understanding of identity, so breaking free of prescribed roles should be the goal in all areas of discussion. By assuming we know a select group of people’s pronouns, cis-people are inclined to only ask people who appear “outside the norm” for their pronouns, perpetuating the power dynamic of cis-people deciding who is abnormal.

    Bisexual/biromantic is not limited to attractions to male and female – a better definition is attractions to genders like me and not like me.

    Thank you so much for including ethical sexuality around consent and mutuality – healthy relationships are a huge part of sexuality that gets glossed over. This is also a great way to help us redefine lifegiving vs. harmful sexual expression – instead of saying who is in and who is out as the Book of Discipline and the recent vote states, we can uplift sexual behaviors that promote fullness of self and deep connection to others, and reject behaviors that are coercive, abusive, and exploitative.

  3. Thank you for putting this together as part of a way forward after last month’s general conference. It’s very thorough and informative.

    The percentage in this sentence sounds off: “About .05%-.06%[2]however, feel like the gender they were assigned at birth doesn’t fit them.” That would be 5 or 6 in 10,000 people. The other estimates I’ve seen are closer to 0.5%-1.0% or 5 or 10 people out of every 1,000. The article cited for the [2] link only talks about sexual dimorphism at the genetic level, not people’s expression of their gender. Could you please recheck that statistic and the citation?

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