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Gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation

Published onOct 20, 2022
Gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation
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General guidance

As with many of the topics covered in these guidelines, there is some disagreement on preferred terminology and how inclusive language should be. For example, the United Nations guidance stops at proscribing harm – “Use non-discriminatory language”– whereas other guidelines go farther – “Language can harm or heal; it can further oppression or create liberation – the choice is ours” (Kapitan). These conflicting opinions may represent various theoretical, ideological, or geographical views. Furthermore, within a single set of guidelines, some principles may be in tension with each other and must be weighed against one another. This is because language is ever evolving and constantly in flux. It may at times be difficult to determine which terminology is appropriate because terminology involves changing struggles regarding identity, visibility, and power.

Determine relevance

Denote a specific gender, sex, and gender identity where it is relevant (e.g., t he appointment of a chairwoman was one step towards meeting legal requirements.) (American Psychological Association, United Nations). Otherwise use neutral terms (e.g., the chairperson) and neutralizing strategies (e.g., passive voice to eclipse the subject, plurals, “one”, etc.) (American Psychological Association).

Note: Seek explicit permission from sources before publishing details about their sexual orientation or gender identity, especially if they may be harmed by doing so. Anonymizing them may also be an option (Global Press Journal).

Allow people to self-identify

Acknowledge people’s agency in determining the language they use to describe themselves and how they are described by others. To avoid misgendering and other forms of misidentification, ask what language the person uses. Where appropriate, explain how the terms are used.

Misgendering

incorrectly identifying a person by using the wrong label (such as Mr. or Ms.) or pronoun (such as she or he)

Note: The phrase “preferred pronouns” should not be used as it implies that gender identity is a choice. Rather, simply use “pronouns” or “identified pronouns” or “self-identified gender identity” (Blazucki).

When a person does not use specific terms to describe themselves (e.g., queer) or cannot be asked which terms they use, possible considerations include using neutral terminology, using general terms, omitting that aspect of their identity, or explaining why particular terms were used.

Where disagreement among members of the same community is relevant, or where divergence regarding self-identifying and other-identifying language is relevant, this can be reflected when appropriate. Also consider the position of the Radical Copyeditor: “When a marginalized person claims language to describe their oppressed identity, they are speaking themself into existence in a society that is trying to annihilate them. When a privileged person rejects an accurate descriptor of their privileged status, they are refusing to acknowledge that they are privileged” (Kapitan, 2019).

Note that where someone holds a position with an official title, such as chairman, authors should “use the formal title adopted by the person currently holding the position even when the gender noted in it does not appear to match the gender of the person holding it” (Global Press Journal).

Distinguish clearly between gender, sex, and gender identity

Take care to distinguish between three interrelated terms gender, sex, and gender identity when necessary: gender denotes a primarily socio-cultural construct; sex denotes biological assignment; and gender identity primarily denotes a person’s psychological sense of their gender (American Psychological Association).

Gender

refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Gender is a social construct and a social identity. Use the term gender when referring to people as social groups.

Cisgender

refers to a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth

Transgender

refers to a person whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth

Sex

refers to biological sex assignment; use the term sex when the biological distinction of sex assignment (e.g., sex assigned at birth) is predominant

Gender identity

is a component of gender that describes a person’s psychological sense of their gender

References

American Psychological Association. (2019, September). Gender. APA Style. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/gender

Blazucki, S., & McMillan, J. (Eds.). (2021, December). The stylebook on LGBTQ terminology. NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. https://www.nlgja.org/stylebook/

GLAAD. (n.d.). Glossary of terms: Transgender. GLAAD Media Reference Guide 11th Edition. https://www.glaad.org/reference/trans-terms

Global Press Journal. (n.d.). Global press style guide. https://globalpressjournal.com/style-guide/

Kapitan, A. (n.d.). Gender. Radical Copyeditor. https://radicalcopyeditor.com/tag/gender/

Kapitan, A. (2019, July 24). Ask a radical copyeditor: Are there limits to Self-Identity language? Radical Copyeditor. https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2018/07/24/are-there-limits-to-self-identity-language/#more-1452

United Nations. (n.d.). Guidelines for gender-inclusive language in English. UNITED NATIONS Gender-Inclusive Language. https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/guidelines.shtml

Gender and sex

General comments

Consider arranging a list of groups in an order that disrupts the usual hierarchies of domination (American Psychological Association). For example, consider varying the order of terms such as nonbinary, female, and male so that male is not always listed first.

People of different genders should be described equally in terms of their title and first or last name. See the first example in the below table.

Use non-gendered terms and avoid stereotypes

Care should be taken to use gender-neutral and gender-inclusive language. In general, expressions that reinforce gender stereotypes should be avoided, as should terms that insinuate only one gender is involved in the specified task or role.

To determine if the language used is problematic, consider if changing the term from masculine to feminine or vice versa modifies the meaning or emphasis of the sentence (United Nations). In the below example, “You throw like a boy” would not generally be considered an insult.

When referring to all human beings, non-gendered terms are preferred: individuals, people, persons.

When referring to all human beings in a role or occupation, non-gendered terms are preferred: fire fighter, mail carrier, homemaker.

Avoid

Preferred

Dr. Joshua Smith and Anna are both attending the luncheon.

Dr. Joshua Smith and Dr. Anna Jones are both attending the luncheon.

You throw like a girl.

That was a weak throw.

man; mankind

humanity; humankind; human race

ladies and gentlemen; you guys

folks; everyone; colleagues; friends; all

manpower

staffing; human resources

man-made

artificial; human-caused; synthetic

female doctor; male nurse

doctor; nurse

fireman; mailman; housewife; stewardess; waitress; freshman

fire fighter; mail carrier; homemaker; flight attendant; server; first-year student

References

American Psychological Association. (2019, September). General principles for reducing bias. APA Style. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/general-principles

United Nations. (n.d.). Guidelines for gender-inclusive language in English. UNITED NATIONS Gender-Inclusive Language. https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/guidelines.shtml

Gender identity

Use of nonbinary, gender neutral, and gender-specific language

In general, nonbinary and gender-neutral language should be used.

Some pronouns people may use include gender-specific binary terms such as “she” and “he”, as well as gender-neutral terms such as “they” and “them ”. (Note that these examples are not exhaustive. Refer to the Resources for more information.) Whereas specific pronouns and terms such as “she” and “he” may at times be appropriate, “they” and “them ” have the advantage of also including nonbinary persons.

The singular gender-neutral “they” is preferred over alternating “she/he” and “he/she” as the latter excludes people who do not use those pronouns. However, the APA notes that usage of “he or she” and “she or he” (without slashes) may be appropriate when referring only to persons who use these pronouns.

Adjectives should be used to describe people rather than labeling them with nouns. Example: “lesbian women” or “a lesbian woman” instead of “the lesbians” or “a lesbian” (American Psychological Association, 2020).

When gender-specific nouns are required, use “man” and “woman.” Example: “transgender man” and “cisgender woman” rather than “transgender male” and “cisgender female.”

When gender-specific adjectives are required, use “male” and “female” as in “a female researcher.”

When the age range is broad and age-specific terms such as “girl” or “woman” are therefore inaccurate, “male” and “female” can be used as nouns. “Female” and “male” are also appropriate to denote a transgender person’s sex assignment at birth. For example, “person assigned female at birth”, not “person assigned girl at birth” (American Psychological Association, 2019). The dated term “transsexual” should only be used where persons prefer this themselves.

To denote the assignment of a sex term to a person at birth, use “assigned sex” or “sex assigned at birth” (American Psychological Association, 2019).

To avoid binary and gender specific forms, use “partner” or “spouse”, “another sex” or “another gender”, and “mixed gender” or “mixed sex” when referring to partners or to parents instead of “opposite sex” or “opposite gender” (Blazucki). When partners or parents have the same sex or gender, use “same gender” or “same sex.”

Consider context

The language surrounding reproductive health is inherently gendered. The terms women’s health, pregnant women, and maternity care are just a few examples. Using gender-neutral terms such as reproductive health, pregnant people, and perinatal care is preferable as it is inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people. However, Helen Green and Ash Riddington encourage a gender-additive approach, “using gender-neutral language alongside the language of womanhood in order to ensure that everyone is represented and included.” They note that the language used to describe people influences how likely they are to seek healthcare. Use of phrases such as “pregnant women and people” is inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people while not erasing women, who can also be disadvantaged in healthcare (Green and Riddington 2020). It is important to use the language most appropriate for the context.

Avoid

Preferred

biologically male; biologically female; born

male; born female

sex assigned, designated, or assumed at birth

Gender Identity Disorder

Gender Dysphoria1; gender incongruence2

hermaphrodite

intersex

sex change; pre-op; post-op; pre-operative; post-operative

transition; transitioning

sex change; sex change operation; Sexual Reassignment Surgery; top surgery; bottom surgery

Gender Confirmation Surgery

transvestite

cross-dresser [if the person self-identifies as such; not a synonym for transgender]

gender non-conforming

gender expansive

opposite sex

another sex; different sex

women’s health; pregnant women; maternity care; women who menstruate

reproductive health; pregnant people; perinatal care; people who menstruate

preferred pronouns

pronouns

transsexual; transgendered; transgender(s) (n.)

transgender (adj.)

1 Per DSM-5. 2 Per ICD-11.

References

American Psychological Association. (2019, September). Gender. APA Style. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/gender

American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association 2020: the official guide to APA style (7th ed.). American Psychological Association.

Blazucki, S., & McMillan, J. (Eds.). (2021, December). The stylebook on LGBTQ terminology. NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. https://www.nlgja.org/stylebook/

Green, H., & Riddington, A. (2020, December). Gender inclusive language in perinatal services: Mission statement and rationale (N. Hopkins, Ed.). Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals. https://www.bsuh.nhs.uk/maternity/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2021/01/Gender-inclusive-language-in-perinatal-services.pdf

Intellect style guide (5th edition). (2021). Intellect. https://www.intellectbooks.com/asset/1255/house-style-guide-5th-ed-2021.pdf

Trans and/or gender expansive people. (n.d.). Google Inclusive Marketing. https://all-in.withgoogle.com/audiences/trans-gender-expansive/

Sexual orientation

General comments

The APA (2019) advises authors to use “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference” and “sexual identity.” Sexual orientation includes the degree to which a person feels sexual and emotional attraction as reflected in terms such as sexual, demisexual, and asexual (American Psychological Association.) Sexual orientation also includes the direction of attraction so that a person can be attracted to, for example men, masculinity, women, femininity, to some or neither of the former.

Specific terminology

There is no consensus on the appropriate umbrella term for LGBTQIA+ people. Cumulative abbreviations commonly used within the US include LGBTQ or LGBTQ+ and LGBTQIA or LGBTQIA+. LGBT is considered dated by some. SOGIESC, SOGI, and SOGIE are used in some countries outside the US and are also acceptable (GLAAD, IOM).

LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA, LGBTQIA+

lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, and asexual (or ally)

SOGIESC, SOGIE, SOGI

sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics

These cumulative abbreviations are general umbrella terms that amass a broad range of more specific terms. Accordingly, use the general and specific terms appropriately. Use the umbrella term (e.g., LGBTQIA+) if the complete range is intended; use the specific term (e.g., lesbian) if only that is meant.

These abbreviations denote groups and not an individual; hence avoid the singular “She is a LGBTQ+ person”; conversely the plural “LGBTQ+ persons” is acceptable (Thomas).

The term “homosexual” is generally considered offensive in the United States due to its clinical history and persistent negative connotations; “heterosexual” and “straight” are acceptable (Blazucki, GLAAD). However, note that “homosexual” remains acceptable in many non-English speaking contexts (IOM).

Additionally, the phrase “gay lifestyle” or “LGBTQ+ lifestyle” should not be used as there is no one singular community or lifestyle and these terms can imply choice.

Be specific whenever possible and define ambiguous language, e.g., when using “gay”, it is advisable to specify whether this is limited to men or extends to gay people of various genders. Ex: “gay men” or “gay people”. Avoid using the term “queer” as a synonym for lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Use caution with reclaimed terms that were initially derogatory (e.g., queer, moffie) and which some people still consider slurs. It may be advisable to avoid using them at all (Blazucki). There is disagreement about whether these terms are acceptable if the user is part of the designated community or whether their use should solely be regulated by whether harm is done or not (Kapitan, 2021). Sic may be used when citing derogatory or initially derogatory language to signify that its use is questionable.

Use terms with care as the meanings may vary according to settings and users (Global Press Journal). Be attentive to and use local terms where appropriate such as “hijra” and “two-spirit” (Thomas). See the SOGIESC Full Glossary of Terms, listed in the references below and in the Resources section, for a list of terms used around the world.

Avoid

Preferred

practicing; avowed; admitted; confessed; acknowledged [gay person]

out [gay person]

homosexual [in the US]; queer

gay; lesbian; bisexual

LGBT; gay community

LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA, LGBTQIA+

sexual preference; sexual identity; sexuality

sexual orientation

References

American Psychological Association. (2019, September). Sexual orientation. APA Style. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/sexual-orientation

Blazucki, S., & McMillan, J. (Eds.). (2021, December). The Stylebook on LGBTQ Terminology . NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. https://www.nlgja.org/stylebook/

GLAAD. (n.d.). Glossary of terms: LGBTQ. GLAAD Media Reference Guide 11th Edition. https://www.glaad.org/reference/terms

Global Press Journal. (n.d.). Global press style guide. https://globalpressjournal.com/style-guide/

Kapitan, A. (2021, October 10). What’s in a word: Queer. Radical Copyeditor. https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2021/10/10/queer/

SOGIESC full glossary of terms. (2020, November). International Organization for Migration. https://iom.int/sites/g/files/tmzbdl486/files/documents/IOM-SOGIESC-Glossary-of-Terms.pdf

Thomas, H., & Hirsch, A. (2016). A Progressive’s Style Guide. Sum Of Us. https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.sumofus.org/images/SUMOFUS_PROGRESSIVE-STYLEGUIDE.pdf

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