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Labels: they’re everywhere. We use them to identify food, clothing brands, and where to send a package. We also use them to describe ourselves and other people, such as whether you think someone is a girl or a guy, straight or gay. Those labels are pretty straightforward, but there are some that we might be confused by, such as transgender or queer.

The terminology used to describe genders, relationships, and sexual orientation (who you’re attracted to) can be confusing, but it can help you understand other people—and yourself—better. So, let’s dive in.

Gender identity

The ideas of sex and gender are usually wrapped up together. Generally speaking, these are the definitions:

  • Sex refers to whether a person is male or female: biologically a girl or boy.
  • Gender is the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.
  • Gender identity is a personal feeling someone has about whether they are male, female, or something else. A person may feel male or female, regardless of the physical sex characteristics (i.e., body parts and chromosomes) they were born with.
  • Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe someone whose gender identity is different from their biological sex.
  • Gender nonconforming is when someone communicates their identity in a way that’s different from societal expectations. It may be helpful to think about this in terms of masculine and feminine norms.

Want to know your identity IQ?

See if you can match the definition to the correct term

  • Straight or heterosexual
  • Queer
  • Lesbian or homosexual
  • Asexual
  • Gay or homosexual
  • Pansexual
  • Bisexual
  1. A man/male who is attracted to men.
  2. A man (or person who identifies as male) who is attracted to women, or a woman (or person who identifies as female) who is attracted to men.
  3. A person who has the potential to be attracted to another person who is male, female, gender nonconforming, intersex, etc. This doesn’t mean being attracted to “everyone.”
  4. Someone who can be attracted to both men and women.
  5. This word historically had derogatory connotations, but is now sometimes used as an affirming descriptor by people of many gender identities and sexual orientations.
  6. A woman/female who is attracted to women
  7. Someone who does not experience sexual attraction.

Click here for an answer key

Gay or Homosexual 
A . A man/male who is attracted to men.           

Straight or Heterosexual 
B. A man (or person who identifies as male) who is attracted to women, or a woman (or person who identifies as female) who is attracted to men.

Pansexual 
C. A person who has the potential to be attracted to another person who is male, female, gender nonconforming, intersex, etc. This doesn’t mean being attracted to “everyone.” Just as a straight or heterosexual male is not attracted to all women, a pansexual person isn’t attracted to all people.
           
Bisexual 
D. Someone who can be attracted to both men and women.

Queer 
E. This word historically had derogatory connotations, but is now sometimes used as an affirming descriptor by people of many gender identities and sexual orientations.

Lesbian or Homosexual 
F. A woman/female who is attracted to women.

Asexual 
G. Someone who does not experience sexual attraction.

Sexual orientation

Though sometimes confused, sexual orientation differs from gender identity, and the two may be experienced independently. Sexual orientation is an individual’s physical or emotional attraction to another person: who a person likes, loves, has relationships with, and/or is involved with sexually, according to The Human Rights Campaign.

Queer

Queer can describe anyone who “feels somehow outside the societal norms [of] gender, sexuality, or/and even politics—and wants to identify as queer,” according to Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Some straight allies and others who prefer to avoid labels also use queer as an identifier. The key is that the label is used by choice.

Using labels constructively

So you may be wondering, “Do we need all these labels?” The answer is: yes and no.

For some people, labels are empowering and help them feel like they are part of a community. They can be used as a quick way to find other people who feel or identify in the same way.

For others, the words are limiting. Some people would rather create their own definitions or reject labels entirely.

“Labels can assist us when we choose to use them, but we don’t need to allow them to define us,” says Sherry, a student at Ashford University online.

Either way, exploring our society’s vocabulary for talking about gender and sexuality can be a starting point for a conversation. As Brooke, a student in Alliance, Ohio, notes, “Many schools have gay/straight alliances. We have one!” Programs like this offer opportunities for dialogue. When you get to college, there are often opportunities for this type of discussion in gender studies courses or through campus organizations.

“We are all individuals and deserve respect for our individuality”, says Sherry. Embracing the diversity of human experience can allow you to think beyond ideas that may restrict people’s behavior and thoughts. Ultimately, this can allow everyone, including you, to feel comfortable and accepted no matter how you identify.

*Name changed for privacy.

Other words people use to describe gender identity

Other words people use to describe gender identity include: intersex, genderqueer, genderfluid, trans*, cisgender, or non-binary.

It’s also important to ask which pronouns a person likes to use. For example, someone who identifies as female may prefer feminine pronouns, such as her/she. But some people may prefer gender neutral pronouns, such as ze or they. If you don’t know, just ask. For example, you can say, “I’m James and I prefer masculine pronouns like he/him. What about you?”

Here are some examples of gender noncomformity

  • Someone who is physiologically male may wear dresses and makeup, which in western culture are often signifiers of being female, or feminine.
  • People may use medical procedures to make their physical characteristics match their gender identities. For example, a female may take the male hormone testosterone in order to grow more body hair, speak with a deeper voice, and become more masculine. However, not all people who identify as transgender will change their bodies.
  • Some people don’t feel strictly male or female.

Not everyone fits into a category: Here’s why

While all of these terms and descriptions can be helpful, many people don’t fit squarely in one “box” of gender identity or sexual orientation. A person can have qualities of both genders and have varying levels of emotional or physical intimacy with different people. As Brooke from Alliance, Ohio, says, “Some people aren’t even sure how they see themselves yet.”

Labels also may not say anything about actual behavior. Here are some examples:

  • A person can identify in a certain way, for example as gay or bisexual, without having had any particular sexual experience. Many people know what types of people they are attracted to before they become sexually active.
  • A person who identifies as straight may have physically intimate encounters with people of the same sex and vice versa. It’s best not to make assumptions.

It may be useful to think of gender and sexual identity as existing on two paths, which may intersect for some and feel distinct for others. For some people, sexuality and gender are fluid. Plus, how somebody identifies today may be the same later in life, or may look and feel different.

Read a personal story about gender identity

Are you in the right place? 

For people who express their gender identity differently from societal norms, there can be unique challenges. For example, imagine choosing which bathroom or changing room to use at a store or gym. For people who are transgender or gender nonconforming, this can be an everyday struggle.

Jane*, a faculty member at a college in Connecticut, explains, “I am faced with many situations when people stare at me. They question if I am in the right bathroom or tell me that I am in the wrong one.”

This can be emotionally painful in addition to logistically difficult. “It can be very uncomfortable to constantly have to explain or reaffirm my gender to those I work with or teach,” says Jane. So what can we do?

Here are some ways societal norms have been changing:
  • Some high schools have started to allow more freedoms for gender nonconforming students. For example, the Minnesota State High School League recently voted to allow transgender athletes to play on sports teams of the gender they identify with.
  • Samira, a senior at University of California, Davis, suggests, “Some [college] campuses now have signs in and around restrooms that say, ‘Transgender Friendly.’ Hopefully more places adopt this policy.”
  • Melody, from Houston, Texas, says, “A lot of universities have organizations that foster support for all sexualities.”
  • Jane shares, “People [need] to be sensitive and create safe spaces for those who are gender nonconforming. We are expressing ourselves in the way that feels most true to us, even if it does not match what people expect of our gender.”

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Article sources

Dr. Polly Wheat, director, Student Health Service, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York.

Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. (n.d.). About asexuality. Retrieved from https://www.asexuality.org/home/overview.html

Human Rights Campaign. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Gender. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary?gender?show=0&t=1422455461

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. (n.d.). Parents, families, friends, and allies united with LGBTQ people. Retrieved from https://community.pflag.org/Page.aspx?pid=194&srcid=-2

Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). Gender and gender identity. Retrieved from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-info/sexual-orientation-gender/gender-gender-identity

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (n.d.). GLAAD’s transgender media and education program. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/transgender?gclid=CIbzhvyNtLYCFak7OgodIxEAjg

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (n.d.). GLAAD media reference guide: Transgender issues. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender

The National Center for Transgender Equality. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://transequality.org/