Definition of Terms and Concepts Related to Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation*

It is important to recognize the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior as well as the differences among sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender role.

Sexual orientation is the affectional or loving attraction to another person. It can be considered as ranging along a continuum from same-sex attraction only at one end of the continuum to opposite-sex attraction only at the other end.

Heterosexuality is the attraction to persons of the opposite sex; homosexuality, to persons of the same sex; and bisexuality, to both sexes. Sexual orientation can be seen as part of a continuum ranging from same-sex attraction only (at one end of the continuum) to opposite-sex attraction only (at the other end of the continuum).

Sexual behavior, or sexual activity, differs from sexual orientation and alone does not define someone as an LGBT individual. Any person may be capable of sexual behavior with a person of the same or opposite sex, but an individual knows his or her longings—erotic and affectional—and which sex is more likely to satisfy those needs.

It is necessary to draw a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Not every person with a homosexual or bisexual orientation is sexually active. A person’s sexual orientation does not tell us if she/he is sexually active nor does it define her/his specific sexual behaviors.

Similarly, sexual behavior alone does not define orientation. A personal awareness of having a sexual orientation that is not exclusively heterosexual is one way a person identifies herself or himself as an LGBT person. Or a person may have a sexual identity that differs from his or her biological sex—that is, a person may have been born a male but identifies and feels more comfortable as a female.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are two independent variables in an individual’s definition of himself or herself. Sexual identity is the personal and unique way that a person perceives his or her own sexual desires and sexual expressions. Biological sex is the biological distinction between men and women.

Gender is the concept of maleness and masculinity or femaleness and femininity. One’s gender identity is the sense of one’s self as male or female and does not refer to one’s sexual orientation or gender role.

Sex refers to the biological characteristics of a person at birth, while gender relates to his or her perception of being male or female and is known as the gender role.

Gender role refers to the behaviors and desires to act in certain ways that are viewed as masculine or feminine by a particular culture.

A culture usually labels behaviors as masculine or feminine, but these behaviors are not necessarily a direct component of gender or gender identity. It is common in our culture to call the behaviors, styles, or interests shown by males that are usually associated with women “effeminate” and to call the boys who behave this way “sissies.” Women or girls who have interests usually associated with men are labeled “masculine” or “butch,” and the girls are often called “tomboys.”

Transgender is a general term that is used by individuals that do not conform to the gender role expectations of their biological sex. It is also used by persons who may clearly identify their gender as the opposite of their biological sex. Transgender can also be used as a general term to include transsexual people.

Transsexuals are people with the biological characteristics of one sex who identify themselves as the opposite gender and have had some type of surgical alteration and/or hormone treatments that changes their bodies’ appearance in alignment with their identity.

Cross dressers or transvestites wear clothes usually worn by people of the opposite biological sex. They do not, however, identify themselves as having a gender identity different from their biological sex or gender role. The motivations for cross dressing vary, but most transvestites enjoy cross dressing and may experience sexual excitement from it. The vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual.

Drag queens (i.e., gay men who dress in female clothing) and female impersonators (who perform in clubs or cabarets) are not transgender individuals. The choice that these individuals make to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex is not a matter of gender identity.

The same is true of drag kings (i.e., women who dress in men’s clothing) and male impersonators.

Bigendered, transgender individuals may identify with both genders, or as some combination of both, while androgynous transgender individuals usually do not identify with either gender; that is, they identify as neither male nor female.

Gender identity disorder (GID) was introduced in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

Although GID is listed as a mental illness, most clinicians do not consider individuals who are confused or conflicted about their biological gender and their personal sense of their gender identity to be mentally ill. Considerable work needs to be done to augment the small amount of research available on the development of a transgender identity—that is, how a person becomes aware of a sexual identity that does not match his or her biological sex or gender role.

Intersexed people are born with aspects of both female and male genitalia, often referred to as “ambiguous biological sex characteristics.”

These people have often been put through genital surgery as infants, their sex having been decided by the doctor. Historically, this was frequently done without the parents’ consent, though this practice is changing.

Intersexed people may later grow up to have gender identities that are the opposite of the manufactured sex constructed for them at birth and have feelings similar to transgender individuals.

An international organization has been formed to help and advocate on behalf of individuals who are born intersexed or with ambiguous sexual characteristics.


*Adapted from the definitions provided in “A Provider’s Introduction to Substance Abuse Treatment for LGBT Individuals."



Glossary of Terms

Many Americans refrain from talking about sexual orientation and gender expression identity because it feels taboo, or because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. This glossary was written to help give people the words and meanings to help make conversations easier and more comfortable.

Bisexual – A person emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to both men and women, though not necessarily simultaneously; a bisexual person may not be equally attracted to both sexes, and the degree of attraction may vary as sexual identity develops over time.

Coming out – The process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share that with others.

Gay – A word describing a man or a woman who is emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to members of the same sex.

Gender expression – How a person behaves, appears or presents him- or herself with regard to societal expectations of gender.

Gender identity – The gender role that a person claims for his or her self — which may or may not align with his or her physical gender.

Genderqueer – A word people use to describe their own nonstandard gender identity, or by those who do not conform to traditional gender norms.

GLBT – An acronym for “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.”

Homophobia – The fear and hatred of or discomfort with people who love and are sexually attracted to members of the same sex.

Internalized homophobia – Self-identification of societal stereotypes by a GLBT person, causing them to dislike and resent their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lesbian – A woman who is emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to other women.

Living openly – A state in which GLBT people are open with others about being GLBT how and when they choose to be.

Outing – Exposing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender to others, usually without their permission; in essence “outing” them from the closet.

Queer – A term that is inclusive of people who are not heterosexual. For many GLBT people, the word has a negative connotation; however, many younger GLBT people are comfortable using it.

Same-gender loving – A term some prefer to use instead of “gay” or “lesbian” to express attraction to and love of people of the same gender.

Sexual orientation – An enduring emotional, romantic, sexual and relational attraction to another person; may be a same-sex orientation, opposite-sex orientation or bisexual orientation.

Sexual preference – What a person likes or prefers to do sexually; a conscious recognition or choice not to be confused with sexual orientation.

Straight supporter – A person who supports and honors sexual diversity, acts accordingly to challenge homophobic remarks and behaviors and explores and understands these forms of bias within him- or herself.

Transgender – A term describing a broad range of people who experience and/or express their gender differently from what most people expect. It is an umbrella term that includes people who are transsexual, cross-dressers or otherwise gender non-conforming.

Transphobia – The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, people whose gender identity or gender expression do not conform to cultural gender norms.

Transsexual – A medical term describing people whose gender and sex do not line up, and who often seek medical treatment to bring their body and gender identity into alignment.