The following list of words aims to provide a starting point for a developed understanding of some commonly used terms related to sexual diversity and gender identity. There are sensitivities and political issues associated with the meanings of some terms both within and outside the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning (GLBTTIQQ) communities, so the list is not definitive.
Androgyny: Having an appearance that cannot easily be classified as male or female.
Bisexual: A person who is emotionally and/or sexually attracted to people of more than one sex (but not necessarily equally attracted to each)
Closeted: Hiding one’s sexuality from others
Coming out: The process through which a person comes to recognise and acknowledge their sexual orientation
Cross Dresser: A person who dresses in the clothing of the opposite gender for a variety of reasons. Sometimes referred to as 'transvestite'. May or may not identify as transgender.
Fluid: Acknowledgement that sexual identity, attractions and behaviours are often fluid - shifting and changing over time and experience.
Gay: A person who is primarily emotionally and/or sexually attracted to a member of the same sex. The term is most commonly applied to men.
Gender Identity: Refers to whether a person identifies as male, female or intersex
Heteronormative: The belief that heterosexuality is ‘normal’ and alternative sexualities are deviant.
Heterosexism: The belief that all people are and should be heterosexual and those alternative sexualities are unhealthy, unnatural and pose a threat to society.
Heterosexual: A person who is exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex.
Homophobia: A fear and hatred of gay and lesbian people.
Homosexual: A clinical term used to define a person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to people of the same sex.
Intersex: A biological condition where a person is born with reproductive organs and/or sex chromosomes that are not exclusively male or female.
Lesbian: A woman who is primarily emotionally and/or sexually attracted to women.
Men who have sex with Men (MSM): Men who engage in sexual activity with other men but do not necessarily identify as gay.
Outed: Having one’s sexual orientation made public against one’s will.
Pansexual (from the Greek 'Pan' meaning 'all') / Omnisexual (from the Latin 'Omnis' meaning 'all'): Recognising the potential of sexual attraction to all people, regardless of gender or sexuality (it is intended to negate the idea of two genders).
Queer: A reclaimed term that includes all those outside of the societal heterosexual norm.
Questioning: A term to describe those unsure of their sexual orientation/gender identity and/or asking questions about sexuality and gender.
Same-sex attraction: Attraction towards people of one’s own gender. A less ‘loaded’ description than gay, bisexual or lesbian.
Sexual orientation: An enduring attraction to another person of the same and/or opposite sex.
Sexual preference: A conscious recognition of what a person likes or prefers to do sexually.
Sexuality: The term can mean actual sexual experience, sexual desire or self-identity. The three are not necessarily consistent with each other. For example, a person’s sexual behaviour may not necessarily represent their sexual orientation.
Straight: A colloquial term used to describe people who are heterosexual.
Transgender: Refers to some one whose identity or behaviour falls outside stereotypical gender norms. Crossing of gender not sex.
Transsexual: A person who is biologically a member of one sex and idetifies as a member of the other sex. (Some transsexual people choose to identify as transgender while others do not).
Transman: Female to male transgendered or transsexual persons.
Transwoman: Male to female transgendered or transsexual person.
Women who have Sex with Women (WSW): Women who engage in sexual activity with other women but who do not necessarily self-identify as lesbians.
Words mean different things to different people. Some are acceptable and others are considered offensive and derogatory. In recent years, some people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex or transsexual have reclaimed words to describe their identity that could be considered offensive by others. For example, the term 'queer' can be used as a term inclusive of all those who experience oppression on the basis of their sex, sexual practices, sexuality or gender identity or it can mean weird, odd, or strange.
Other terms that may or may not be regarded as derogatory, depending on who uses them and in what context include:
- Dyke: Lesbian
- Faggot: Gay man
- Homo: Gay or lesbian person
- Lemon: Lesbian
- Leso: Lesbian
- Poofter: Gay man
- Tranny: Transgendered or transsexual person
As a general rule, those who do not claim the identity themselves should not use these terms. Statements such as “that’s so gay” are also demeaning to people who identify as gay and are best avoided. Challenging homophobic jokes and derogatory comments by speaking up and naming them for what they are also goes some way into creating an environment inclusive of sexual diversity.
Historically, the term 'homosexual' was associated with deviance, criminal behaviour and mental illness. It is therefore preferable, when referring to specific groups, to use terms such as 'lesbian' or 'gay man' rather than the term 'homosexual'.
When referring to 'transsexual' or 'transgendered' people, use the pronoun which represents the gender expressed by the person in question (i.e. him/his or her/she).
Avoid words and language that perpetuate negative stereotypes about diverse sexual identities.
Using inclusive language is an important part of creating an environment that recognises and affirms sexual diversity. Language that reinforces the assumption that all personal relationships are exclusively heterosexual denies the lived realities of same-sex couples and is best avoided. For example, where the sexual identity or marital status of a person is unknown, use the term 'partner' instead of 'husband' or 'wife'.
Affirming sexual diversity also requires challenging heteronormative assumptions (either intentional or unintentional) in both the teaching context and work environment. Challenge heteronormative assumptions in a respectful manner. See also creating inclusive environments.
GLBTTIQ Community Safety Network (2004). Freeing Our Lives From Threats, Harassment and Violence. Submission to the Review of South Australian Equal Opportunity Legislation
Ministerial Advisory Committee on Gay and Lesbian Health (2003) Health and Sexual Diversity: A Health and Wellbeing Action plan for GLBTI Victorians (pdf document)
UWA Equity and Diversity Office (2005) Sexual Diversity at University of Western Australia (pdf document)