27 April 2020

Human sexuality – a terminology toolkit

We can often feel deskilled when it comes to human sexuality and language. As a family lawyer, I often find that I am trying so hard not to offend that I use words that are clumsy or just plain inaccurate.

But there is also a danger in seeking to define and provide clarity – we can become too binary in approach. I would encourage us all to take a holistic and person centred perspective and if in doubt, to ask. We all appreciate being met with consideration and a ‘kind eye’ goes a long way.

Welcoming someone with the correct pronoun and in an inclusive manner is a common courtesy and is reassuring – it is evidence that we are not rushing to judge or to presume, and that we have taken the time to think about the issue. Maybe we could open a meeting with a welcome and by asking people to introduce themselves and to give their preferred pronouns, whether that be they/ them, she/ her or he/ him.

So here is a non-exhaustive and ever-changing list of definitions that have helped me:

Assigned sex at birth/ natal sex – this is a physical description of how a person presents and is usually assigned at birth through physical attributes, hormones and chromosomes. At the present moment that would usually be male, female or intersex.

Gender identity – not fixed, it may change and is a spectrum. It is each person’s internal sense of their gender.

Sexual orientation – who a person is attracted to and not necessarily tied into gender identity; it may also change.

Intersex – someone who at birth may have some or both male and female physical characteristics.

Cisgendered person – a person whose assigned sexuality at birth is the same as their gender identity; would be non-trans.

Non-binary – a generic term for a person who does not identify themselves solely as male or female. They could use pronouns they/them.

Agender – someone who does not feel a connection to traditional male/female descriptions, may see themselves as gender neutral or genderless.

Asexual – someone who does not experience sexual attraction.

Pansexual – someone who does not find their sexual or other attraction determined by either sex assigned at birth or by gender identity; they might consider themselves to be ‘gender blind’.

Bisexual – someone who is attracted sexually or otherwise to more than one gender.

Gender expression – a social construct unrelated to sexuality or gender, it can be culturally informed and reinforced by gender stereotypes.

Cross dresser – a person who likes to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex, within the cultural and social norms of a particular time. They would not necessarily feel a conflict between their assigned sex and gender, and therefore would not seek to change their assigned sex by way of surgery or hormones.

Trans boy or man – a person who was assigned female at birth and now identifies as male; would use the pronoun he/him.

Trans girl or woman – a person who was assigned male at birth and now identifies as female, would use the pronouns she /her.

Gender dysphoria – used to describe the experience of a person who feels discomfort/ distress that their assigned sex at birth and their gender identity is not aligned. This is also the clinical diagnosis for a trans person.

Transition – the steps that a person takes to live in their gender identity.

Trans is a general umbrella term for people who feel that their sex, as assigned at birth, is not the same as their gender, as how they feel inside. A trans person might identify as:

  • Transgender
  • Non binary
  • Gender queer
  • Gender fluid
  • Third gender
  • Male or female
  • Neither male nor female
  • Having a gender identity which has yet to be adequately articulated or described

Thoughtful use of language is a first step to inclusivity, and after all, we all want to be included and respected.

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About the Author
Susan Breen, Associate

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