A Glossary of Terms from the Rainbow Access Initiative

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #101, Spring 2003.

The following list is a glossary from the Rainbow Access Initiative to help those interested in learning more about the terms most frequently used in reference to gender and identity issues.
Sexual Identity: An overall term that describes an individual?s sense of their own sexuality, including the complex relationship of sex and gender as components of identity. Sexual identity includes a biopsychosocial integration of biological sex, gender identity, gender role expression and sexual orientation. This term is sometimes used in a more narrow sense to mean sexual orientation or preference, particularly for gay people who not only behaving homosexually, but have pride or ?identify? with that aspect of their self.

Sex: Sex is the physiological makeup of a human being, referred to as their biological or natal sex. Sex is usually thought of in a bipolar way, dividing the world into males and females. In reality, sex is a complex relationship of genetic, hormonal, morphological, biochemical and anatomical determinates that impact the physiology of the body and the sexual differentiation of the brain. Although everyone is assigned a sex at birth, approximately 2% of the population are intersexed and do not easily fit into a dimorphic division of two sexes that are ?opposite.?

Gender Identity: Gender is a social construct that divides people into ?natural? categories of men
and women that are assumed to derive from their physiological male and female bodies. Gender attributes vary from culture to culture, and are arbitrarily imposed, denying individuality. Most people?s gender identity is congruent with their assigned sex but many people experience their gender identity to be discordant with their natal sex. A person?s self concept of their gender (regardless of their biological sex) is called their gender identity.

Gender Role: Gender role is the expression of masculinity and femininity and has often been referred to as ?sex roles.? Gender roles are a reflection of one's gender identity and are socially dictated and reinforced. Gender roles describe how gender is enacted or ?performed? (consciously or unconsciously) and may or may not be related to gender identity or natal sex.

Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation is the self-perception of the direction of sexual desire. It describes sexual preference and emotional attraction. Some people experience their sexual orientation as an unchanging essential part of their nature, and others experience it in more fluid way. Sexual orientation can be directed towards members the same sex (homosexual) or the opposite sex (heterosexual), both sexes (bisexual) and neither (non-sexual). Sexual orientation is not merely ?same-sex? attraction, but is experienced through the person?s gender identity (regardless of their biology).

LGBT: An acronym for ?Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender? also referred to as queer. Sometimes an ?I? is added for ?Intersex? (LGBTI), ?Q? is added for ?queer? (LGBTIQ) and another Q is added for those ?questioning? their sexual and gender identities (LGBTIQQ).

Lesbian: Lesbians are women who are sexually and emotionally attracted to other women, and who form their primary loving and sexual relationships with other women. Lesbians can also refer to themselves as gay women or ?dykes.? Some lesbians identify with feminist politics, and others do not. A male-to-female transsexual can also be a lesbian.

Gay: Men who are sexually and emotionally attracted to other men and form their primary loving and sexual relationships with other men. The term ?gay? is sometimes used generically to include both men and women, but many women prefer to identify as lesbian. A female-to-male transsexual can also be a gay man.

Bisexual: A woman or man who is, or feels s/he has the potential to be, sexually and emotionally attracted to members of either the same or other sex. Bisexuality can be viewed as a continuum in that degrees of attraction can vary; some bisexual people feel equally attracted to members of either sex, and others express a preference. Bisexual people can be in long-term monogamous relationships with members of either sex. Some are strongly identified with the gay political movement, and others are not. Bisexual people can also be transgendered.

Butch: Butch is a word commonly used in the lesbian and gay communities to identify masculine females or sometimes masculine gay men. The spectrum of identity within the lesbian community can include ?soft butches? who identify as masculine women, to transgender butches who often do not identify as ?women? and are somewhat bigendered in their identity, to those who identify as transmen/ FtM's but still retain an identity as ?butch.?

Femme: Femme is a word commonly used in the lesbian community to identify feminine lesbians. These are women who are lesbian-identified who are often, although not exclusively, attracted to masculine females or butches. Femmes often feel invisible as lesbians, since they pass in the world appearing as normative heterosexual women. Femme is not an identity of passivity, but one of strength and power.

Coming Out: The process, often lifelong, where LGBT people become aware of, acknowledge, accept, appreciate, and let others know about their sexual identity. Coming out can involve self-knowledge, or sharing this information with friends, family and employers. An LGB person must ?come-out? of other people?s assumptions that they are heterosexual; a transgendered person must come out of others? assumptions regarding his or her gender identity.

Heterosexism: The institutionalized set of beliefs that heterosexuality?opposite sex sexuality?is normal, natural and superior to homosexuality. Homophobia (a fear and hatred of gays and lesbians) is an outgrowth of heterosexism which confers certain privileges such as legal protection, the right to marry, and freedom to be publicly affectionate, on people who are heterosexual (or appear to be). Biphobia?a fear and hatred of bisexuals?and transphobia--a fear and hatred of transgendered people?are also institutionalized and further reinforce sexual and gender norms.

Transgender: Transgender is an umbrella term including many categories of people who are gender-variant. This can include people who identify as transsexuals, crossdressers, masculine identified females, feminine identified males, MtF?s, FtM?s, transmen, transgendered women, intersexed, and other differently-gendered people. Transgendered people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or non-sexual. Transgenderist is a term used by some crossdressers who feel they are more than crossdressers, but not quite transsexuals.

Transsexuals (TS or T?s): Transsexuals are people who believe that their physiological body does not represent their true sex. Most transsexual people desire sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) but transsexual people may be pre-operative, post-operative, or non-operative (i.e., choosing to not have surgical modification). Some transsexual people prefer to not have their birth sex known and to ?pass? or go ?stealth,? and others are comfortable being known as transsexual and take pride in this
identity. Most transsexual people prefer to be referred to simply as men or women, according to their gender identity and gender presentation, regardless of their surgical status.

Crossdressers: Crossdressers (CD?s) are people who wear the clothing usually assigned to the opposite sex. They have been referred to in the clinical literature as ?transvestites? (TV?s), but most prefer the term cross-dresser. Some crossdress for erotic fulfillment, some for social fun (i.e., doing ?drag?) and still others just for comfort. Since women have more freedom of dress in American culture, crossdressers are, by clinical definition, males who dress in women?s clothing, and most are
heterosexually identified. Many crossdressers purge their female clothing periodically as a way to try to cure themselves of their behavior. The length of time a person crossdressers can vary from infrequent to full-time. Drag queens are males, often gay men, who dress as women, in a extreme feminine manner, for fun, or ?camp.? Drag kings are the females, who dress as men, in an extremely masculine manner, often for entertainment. Some drag queens and drag kings might live full-time in these identities. Female impersonators are men who work in the entertainment industry and who dress as women as part of their job; they may be crossdressers or be transgendered but not necessarily; male impersonators are their female counterparts.

Gender Community: This is a colloquial term for the transgender community or people who are dealing with issues of gender identity. It often includes the significant others of transgender people, referred to as SOFFA?s (significant others, family, friends and allies) and pronounced ?softa.?

Intersex: Intersexuality refers to people who are not easily classified into the binary of male and female categories. They have physical sex characteristics, often including ambiguous genitalia, of both males and females, and are not easily differentiated into established sex divisions. Intersexed people are assigned to either male or female categories at birth and many have been surgically altered at birth. Intersexuality and surgical alteration is often a secret, sometimes even to those who have been altered. Intersexed people can be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or transsexual from the perspective of the sex and gender identity that they have been assigned. Approximately 2% of the population are intersexed.

Female-to-male transsexuals (FtM?s or FTM?s): Female-to-male transsexuals are natal females who live as men. This includes a broad range of experience from those who identify as ?male? or ?men? and those who identify as transsexual, ?transmen,? ?female men? or as FTM as their gender identity. FtM?s are often contrasted with ?biomen? or biologically born men. Some transsexuals are comfortable being included in the category of transgender and others are not.

Male-to-female transsexuals (MtF or MTF): Male-to-female transsexuals are natal males who live as women. This includes a broad range of experience
including those who identify as ?female? or ?women? and those who identify as transsexual women. Some words used to refer to transsexual women are ?Tgirl? and ?new women? which is contrasted with ?GG?s? or genetic women. Some transsexual people are comfortable being included in the category of transgender and others are not.

Bigender: Some gender variant people reject the choices of male/female, man/woman and feel their gender encompasses ?both? genders. Some feel that they are androgynous, simultaneously exhibiting masculine and feminine traits, and others feel they are neutral, or
without gender. This steps outside of a ?changing sex? paradigm and allows for more flexibility of gender expression and identity. Bigendered people often identify as being of both genders. Transsexual people do not commonly consider themselves to be bigendered. Within some American Indians cultures expressing both genders is referred to as ?Two-Spirited.? Within contemporary urban life bigendered people often refer to themselves as ?gender queers,? ?gender benders,? ?third sex? and ?gender perverts? as terms of pride.

Emergence: The process of become aware of, acknowledging, accepting, appreciating, and letting others know about one?s (trans)gender identity. It is similar to the ?coming out? experience for lesbian, gay men and bisexual people, but can also involve body modification and changes in pronoun use; it is, therefore, less easily hidden socially or vocationally. Emergence is normative within a culture that allows only dimorphic immutable gender expressions; it describes an adaptive process that is necessary within a confining social system.

Transition: The process that transgendered people move through in accepting their gender identity, particularly the physical, legal and psychological experience of moving from one gender identity to another, or allowing others
to see their authentic identity. Transition is similar to a
re-birthing experience, where the person re-emerges with a social identity that is the best expression of their internal core gender identity. Part of this process is cross-living as the other gender or going through the real life experience?or real life test?to experience see what living as the other gender before being referred for sexual reassignment surgery. Transition often implies hormonal and surgical treatment and the physical changes that accompany them.

Passing: To pass is to be able to successfully assume the gender role of the opposite sex when interacting with society and being able to function in public situations as a member of that gender. When someone does not pass well, or are ?read? as a member of his or her assigned sex, it can invite public ridicule and violence. Some transgender activists reject the idea of trying to pass, seeing it as playing into a dual-gender system, however for many transsexual people passing well is seen as affirming their re-integration into society.

SRS (Sexual Reassignment Surgery): SRS, also referred to as GRS (Gender Reassignment Surgery) is the surgical processes involved in changing one?s sex. This most often refers to genital reconstruction, but also can include mastectomy and chest reconstruction for female-to-male transsexuals, and can also include a variety of cosmetic surgeries to enhance one?s gender presentation. Genital surgeries for male-to-female people are currently more advanced than those available for female-to-male people.

Ally: An individual committed to understanding the dynamics of his or her own access to power and privilege, and actively working to dismantle personal and institutional systems of exclusion and stigmatization.

Culture: The complex and integrated structure of behaviors, ideas, values, habits, language, and practices distinctive of a particular group of people which provides them with a general design for living, patterns for interpreting reality, and protocols for related to each other and others.

Cultural Competency: The ongoing process of openness and willingness to learn by which an individual or entity accomplishes and maintains cultural competence. A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, an agency, or among professionals to enable that system, agency or individuals to work effectively with one another, with specific populations of clients, or in cross cultural situations.

Family of Choice: Persons forming an individual?s social support network and often fulfilling the obligations of blood relatives. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are rejected when their families learn of their sexual orientation, or remain closeted to their biological relatives (family of origin). In such cases, it is their partner or significant other and close friends who will be called on in times of illness and personal crisis.

Rainbow Access Initiative

c/o Council of Community Services

200 Henry Johnson Blvd.

Albany, NY 12210