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Gender and Sexual Identity

We acknowledge that best practices when it comes to writing about gender, sex and sexual identity are constantly evolving; even individual preferences vary over time. As always, please respect the preferences of the person you are writing about, which may be different from what is written in this guide.

Gender and Sex

When writing about gender and sex, it is important to understand to what these categories refer. Gender is a social construct and a social identity that encompasses an individual’s attitudes, feelings, behaviors and expressions.

Terms that may be used to describe an individual’s gender include man/male/masculine, woman/female/feminine, trans or transgender, cisgender, non-binary, agender, gender non-conforming, gender fluid and genderqueer. These terms can coexist or overlap.

Sex describes the sex a person was assigned at birth. Terms that may be used to describe an individual’s sex include male, female and intersex

It is important to not assume someone’s sex or gender and to not equate them with each other or with any particular sexual orientation.

Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person's sex or gender and we must be careful in all communications to ensure they are not implicitly or explicitly perpetuating sexism.  

As always, remain critical of when it is relevant or necessary to mention someone’s gender or sex and always get explicit permission before sharing this information publicly or broadly.

Sexual Identity

When writing about sexual identity/sexuality/sexual orientation, it is important to acknowledge that sexuality and gender are different and in fact have very little to do with each other. Sexual orientation has to do with sexual and romantic attraction, whatever a person’s sex or gender may be, and people of all gender identities are part of LGBTQ communities. 

As always, remain critical of when it is relevant or necessary to mention someone’s sexual identity and always get explicit permission before sharing this information publicly or broadly.

Best Practices and Current Guidance

  • If you’re referring to someone’s gender, it is essential to make sure you are using terms that are accurate and comfortable.
  • If someone shares their gender or pronouns with you, do not share that information widely or publicly. For some people, this can be a safety issue and they may not want to use certain pronouns, names or identities in certain environments. If you are going to refer to someone’s gender publicly, it is extremely important to make sure they are comfortable with that information being publicized.
  • Trans and transgender should not be used as nouns. For example, do not say she is a transgender; say she is transgender. Similarly, use trans or transgender as adjectives, rather than the outmoded transgendered. Cisgender can be used to refer to someone who is not trans. Currently, transsexual should not be used to refer to trans individuals or communities, unless someone tells you explicitly that transsexual is a term they prefer. Additionally, if the individual prefers to be referred to as a trans woman or a trans man, do not compound the words.
  • When you are grouping people together by gender, consider whether the way you are categorizing or framing groups or issues is trans-inclusive. For example, the term “women” may by default include cisgender women as well as transgender women. Sometimes, though, there are strong reasons to signal explicitly that a collective includes cis and trans women. In other situations, you may want to look critically at what you’re actually referring to. For example, you could say “people with uteruses,” if you are including people who are not cis women who do have uteruses in that umbrella, or “cis women,” if you are specifically only referring to cis women. The use of this kind of specific language helps people understand who you’re referring to and is more trans-inclusive. 
  • It is important to remember that not all non-binary or gender nonconforming people use the term trans to define themselves, and that not all trans people are non-binary or gender nonconforming.
  • Avoid phrases like he identifies as trans or they identify as non-binary. This language can imply that these identities are a choice or an option. Instead use phrases like he is trans, or they are non-binary. Rare exceptions include cases like this very document, where the different ways all people ‘identify with’ or ‘identify as’ different gender categories is directly under discussion.
  • One common example of sexist language is unnecessarily identifying a hypothetical person’s gender. For example, a sentence like, “When a doctor performs an exam, he must be attentive to a patient’s needs,” assumes that all doctors are men. This can be avoided simply by rephrasing the sentence or replacing he with the gender-neutral they.

Gender-neutral language should be considered the standard and default in all messaging and communications. Avoid the use of gender-binary constructions—such as referring to a group of people as ladies and gentlemen or men and women, or to a hypothetical individual as he or she, s/he or alumnus or alumna. These terms and phrases imply the existence of and propagate the idea of a gender binary and excludes individuals who are non-binary, gender nonconforming, agender, or otherwise identify outside of cis-normative constructions of gender.  

Best Practices for Making Gender-Neutral Language the Standard  

  • Avoid the gendered, singular construction he or she by using they. (When a student graduates, they join the alumni community.) 
  • It is also appropriate to use the term “alum,” especially in more casual situations, such as social media.
  • Terms that are already commonly used, such as students, faculty, staff, peers, community, coworkers, individuals, collaborators, parents, colleagues and researchers are already gender-neutral. Avoid adding unnecessary gendered modifiers to these terms, such as male and female students.
  • Unless a source prefers a gendered title or gender is determined to be very relevant, use gender-neutral language, titles and terms. For example, instead of female student or male student, just say student; instead of chairman/chairwoman, use chair or chairperson; instead of mankind, use humanity or humankind. 
  • If it is appropriate to use gendered language, terms like woman and man are more inclusive and preferred, as male and female are indicative of sex — not gender. If you are specifically referring to sex, for example in the context of a medical study, male and female can be appropriate. 
  • Honorifics like Mr., Mrs. and Ms. are unnecessary in most contexts and should be avoided.

In referring to themselves, individuals may use she/her, he/him, they/them, a combination of pronouns (e.g., she/they), or other neopronouns. Whenever you are speaking with or writing about someone, make sure you have confirmed with them which pronouns they use. Asking is as simple as saying, “I’m Anna and I use she/her pronouns. What’s your name and what pronouns do you use?” or “Hi, what’s your name and your pronouns?” 

Best Practices for Asking About and Using Pronouns 

  • Do not use the outdated term preferred pronouns when referring to an individual’s pronouns. While this language has been used in the past in reference to pronouns, it is now considered best practice to not say preferred as it implies that an individual’s pronouns are optional, and that others have the option of honoring them or not.
  • They/them, she/her and he/him pronouns are widely used, but individuals may use alternative pronouns or a combination of pronouns. If you are unsure of, or cannot confirm, someone’s pronouns, the best option is to refer to the person using their name. Some individuals may even request that you not use any pronouns for them at all.
  • When the gender of an individual is hypothetical or unknown, default to the gender-neutral they.

LGBTQ can be used as an umbrella term to describe communities, rights, literature, studies, etc., that are collectively lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning communities.  

Other acronyms that are sometimes used include:

  • LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender)
  • LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, plus additional identities)
  • GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender)
  • LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/agender)
  • LGBTQIA2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual/agender, Two-Spirit). 

These other acronyms may be used if a source or group specifically uses them. It is not uncommon for these acronyms to evolve and for additional letters to be added to represent various groups.  

Best Practices for Using These Terms 

  • Use the plural LGBTQ communities rather than the singular LGBTQ community to avoid implying a monolith. Similarly, use LGBTQ experiences rather than the LGBTQ experience. 
  • LGBTQ should not be used to refer to communities or collectives, nor should it be used to refer to individuals. For example, do not say she is LGBTQ, or she is part of the LGBTQ community.
  • Queer is also used as an umbrella term in some contexts, but it is not widely accepted by all LGBTQ communities, so it is important to always ask and ensure that the term Is applicable to and comfortable for the group or person to whom you’re referring.
  • Avoid phrases like she identifies as queer or he identifies as trans or they identify as non-binary. This language can imply that these identities are a choice or an option. Instead use phrases like she is queer, he is trans or they are non-binary. 
  • Be critical about language in scenarios where LGBTQ may not be the best term to use because a given event, group, policy, controversy, etc., applies exclusively or unevenly to different constituencies within that umbrella. For example, if you are writing about a group of lesbian alums or a task force convened in support of trans and gender non-conforming people on campus, specifying these terms is preferred over using the LGBTQ umbrella.
  • Relatedly, because lesbian, gay and bisexual are terms denoting sexuality, while transgender describes gender identity, and queer can apply either way, “LGBTQ” itself is a vexed term despite its enduring popularity. Tensions have also existed over time and around specific issues among different communities loosely grouped as “LGBTQ,” where sexism, transphobia, stigmas around bisexuality, and other failures of inclusion have been internal as well as external problems. Be conscious of these histories and consider asking whether “LGBTQ” is a welcome term for the person or group you are writing about.

Additional Resources/References