Beginners Guide to Gender Terms and Definitions

Glossary of gender identity and sexuality for beginners

Gender Identity Image

This article is intended to give an overview of the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation, for those who want to know more, but maybe feel embarrassed to ask, or, are confused by the different terms and identities. It is unashamedly ‘basic’, however at the end of the article are suggestions for more in-depth reading and resources.

What does LGBTQU+ stand for?

LGBTQU+ is the acronym we are using at YMCA DownsLink Group. You will see slightly different versions of this, sometimes without the U (‘unsure’) or with an I (intersex) or A (asexual). In its simplest form LGBTQU+ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Unsure with the + representing other people who do not wish to be classified in any specific way.

Why ‘Queer’?

In the past Queerhas been used as a derogatory term, particularly directed at lesbian and gay individuals. The term has now been reclaimed by the LGBTQU+ community (particularly young people) who don’t identify with Western categories around gender identity and sexual orientation, but, is still viewed to be derogatory by some. This has culminated in the addition of the Q to the term LGBTQ. But, due to it’s history, it’s important not to use the term unless you know that an individual self-identifies as that.

Why does YMCA DownsLink Group use ‘U’?

We’re using U which stands for ‘unsure’. After discussions with some of the young people we work with (LGBTQU+ Youth Advisory Board) & recommendations from Allsorts. Our young panel discussed the importance of communicating to other young people that it’s okay to be unsure about your gender or sexual identity, and that you can still access services if you are unsure. We believe that the inclusion of ‘U’ is crucial in our work to enable all young people to come forward for support and know that they will be accepted, however they are feeling.

“There’s not much information if you’re unsure.”

“There [should be] more resources available for people who aren’t necessarily sure about their sexuality or how they feel. More open-ended conversations, school and organisation resources, more acknowledgment”

I agree [to use ‘U’] and think that maybe you shouldn’t have to define your sexuality if you don’t feel that you identify with a specific group”.

Gender, it’s difference from Sex and other associated terms

In basic terms sex (as a ‘noun’) refers to the biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs, especially as differentiated with reference to the reproductive functions and is categorised as generally male or female. It is assigned at birth.

The UK government defines sex as:  Referring to the biological aspects of an individual as determined by their anatomy, which is produced by their chromosomes, hormones and their interactions. Generally male or female and something that is assigned at birth.

Gender is not sex. Gender is an expression of one’s own concept of self, traditionally differentiated by masculinity and femininity and is most frequently assumed from the sex assigned at birth.

The UK government defines gender as: Gender identity is a personal, internal perception of oneself and so the gender category someone identifies with may not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Unlike sex (noun), gender is largely a cultural construct and is lived (e.g. as identity, as expression, through social interaction), represented (e.g. in language, media, popular culture) and regulated (e.g. by socio-cultural norms, such as the stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and in law).

Gender is increasingly understood as not binary but on a spectrum. Growing numbers of people are identifying as somewhere along a continuum between man and woman, or as non-gendered (neither man or woman). Therefore, they often have their own terms to describe themselves rather than using binary categories of male and female. While more people are identifying as non-binary, this is not a new concept and has existed for many years across different cultures around the world (see further reading).

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation is a person’s emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to another person.

In the UK census of 2015, the majority (93.7%) of the UK population identified themselves as heterosexual or straight, with 1.7% identifying as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, the remainder either identifying as “other”, “don’t know” or refusing to respond.

However, twice as many 16-24 years old (than older generations) identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. As the social stigma around sexuality has reduced more and more young people are ‘coming out’ at a younger age.

We work with many young people who are struggling with who they are. Issues around gender identity and/or sexuality can be a common cause of family tension and in some cases can be the reason a young person leaves home and potentially becomes homeless. Our Youth Advice Centres (YAC) offer tailored support for young people needing help and can direct them to other services or mediation and counselling. Read Nathan’s story to find out more.

Glossary of Gender & Sexuality Terms and Definitions (A-Z)


An umbrella term used specifically to describe experiences of a lack of, varying, or occasional experiences of sexual attraction. This encompasses asexual people as well as those who identify as demisexual and grey-sexual.


a non-binary identity for people that have no gender at all. This term also falls under the trans umbrella.


A (typically) straight and/or cis person who supports members of the LGBTQU+ community.


Bi is an umbrella term used to describe a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards more than one gender. Bi people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including, but not limited to, bisexual, pan, queer, and some other non-monosexual and non-monoromantic identities.


The fear or dislike of someone who identifies as bi based on prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views about bi people. Biphobic bullying may be targeted at people who are, or who are perceived to be, bi.

​Cisgender or Cis

Someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Non-trans is also used by some people.

​Coming out

When a person first tells someone/others about their orientation and/or gender identity.


Calling someone by their birth name after they have changed their name. This term is often associated with trans people who have changed their name as part of their transition.


Refers to a man who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards men. Also a generic term for lesbian and gay sexuality – some women define themselves as gay rather than lesbian. Some non-binary people may also identify with this term.


Often expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity, gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth.

​Gender dysphoria

Used to describe when a person experiences discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity.  This is also the clinical diagnosis for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth.

​Gender expression

How a person chooses to outwardly express their gender, within the context of societal expectations of gender. A person who does not conform to societal expectations of gender may not, however, identify as trans.

​Gender identity

A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else (see non-binary below), which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.

​Gender reassignment

Another way of describing a person’s transition. To undergo gender reassignment usually means to undergo some sort of medical intervention, but it can also mean changing names, pronouns, dressing differently and living in their self-identified gender.

Gender reassignment is a characteristic that is protected by the Equality Act 2010, and it is further interpreted in the Equality Act 2010 approved code of practice. It is a term of much contention.

Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC)

This enables trans people to be legally recognised in their affirmed gender and to be issued with a new birth certificate. Not all trans people will apply for a GRC and you currently have to be over 18 to apply.

You do not need a GRC to change your gender markers at work or to legally change your gender on other documents such as your passport.

​Gillick competence

A term used in medical law to decide whether a child (under 16 years of age) is able to consent to their own medical treatment, without the need for parental permission or knowledge.


Refers to a man who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards women or to a woman who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards men.


This might be considered a more medical term used to describe someone who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards someone of the same gender. The term ‘gay’ is now more generally used.


The fear or dislike of someone, based on prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views about lesbian, gay or bi people. Homophobic bullying may be targeted at people who are, or who are perceived to be, lesbian, gay or bi.


Intersex is not a gender identity and should not be lumped under the trans umbrella. It describes someone born with anatomical, hormonal and/or chromosomal variations in their sex characteristics. Some intersex people self-define as trans and/or non-binary, others with the gender they were assigned at birth.

It’s always up to an individual as to how they describe their gender identity. Some people use multiple terms or shift between different terms to better represent their gender identity. This should always be respected and supported.​


Refers to a woman who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards women. Some non-binary people may also identify with this term.


The fear or dislike of someone because they are or are perceived to be a lesbian.​


The acronym for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, unsure.


An umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely.


Orientation is an umbrella term describing a person’s attraction to other people. This attraction may be sexual (sexual orientation) and/or romantic (romantic orientation). These terms refers to a person’s sense of identity based on their attractions, or lack thereof.

Orientations include, but are not limited to, lesbian, gay, bi, ace and straight.


When a lesbian, gay, bi or trans person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is disclosed to someone else without their consent.

Person with a trans history

Someone who identifies as male or female or a man or woman, but was assigned the opposite sex at birth. This is increasingly used by people to acknowledge a trans past.


Refers to a person whose romantic and/or sexual attraction towards others is not limited by sex or gender.


If someone is regarded, at a glance, to be a cisgender man or cisgender woman.

Cisgender refers to someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were ‘assigned’ at birth. This might include physical gender cues (hair or clothing) and/or behaviour which is historically or culturally associated with a particular gender.


Words we use to refer to people’s gender in conversation – for example, ‘he’ or ‘she’. Some people may prefer others to refer to them in gender neutral language and use pronouns such as they/their and ze/zir.


Queer is a term used by those wanting to reject specific labels of romantic orientation, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It can also be a way of rejecting the perceived norms of the LGBT community (racism, sizeism, ableism etc). Although some LGBT people view the word as a slur, it was reclaimed in the late 80s by the queer community who have embraced it.


The process of exploring your own sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Romantic orientation

A person’s romantic attraction to other people, or lack thereof. Along with sexual orientation, this forms a person’s orientation identity.


Assigned to a person on the basis of primary sex characteristics (genitalia) and reproductive functions. Sometimes the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are interchanged to mean ‘male’ or ‘female’.

​Sexual orientation

A person’s sexual attraction to other people, or lack thereof. Along with romantic orientation, this forms a person’s orientation identity.


An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth.

Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman,trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.

​Transgender man

A term used to describe someone who is assigned female at birth but identifies and lives as a man. This may be shortened to trans man, or FTM, an abbreviation for female-to-male.

Transgender woman

A term used to describe someone who is assigned male at birth but identifies and lives as a woman. This may be shortened to trans woman, or MTF, an abbreviation for male-to-female.


The steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which they identify. Each person’s transition will involve different things. For some this involves medical intervention, such as hormone therapy and surgeries, but not all trans people want or are able to have this.

Transitioning also might involve things such as telling friends and family, dressing differently and changing official documents.


The fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including denying their gender identity or refusing to accept it. Transphobia may be targeted at people who are, or who are perceived to be, trans.


This was used in the past as a more medical term (similarly to homosexual) to refer to someone whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth.  This term is still used by some although many people prefer the term trans or transgender.​


To find out more and go into the subject in more depth, see this reading suggestions below:

Further reading:

  • Stonewall is a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity full of useful information and campaigns.
  • UK Trans Info has a dedicated section of their website for schools, including best practice guidelines, legal guidance and information for dealing with transphobic bullying.
  • Mermaids work to raise awareness about gender nonconformity in children and young people. They provide resources and information as a reference point for professionals supporting a gender non-conforming or transgender young person.
  • New York Times – Useful articles on LGBTQ+ language and terminology
  • Allsorts, youth charity for LGBTQU+ full of useful information and resources
  • Big Talk Education – age-appropriate resources for primary aged children, parents and teachers
  • Comprehensive list of LGBTQUIA+ terms



YMCA enables people to develop their full potential in mind, body and spirit. Inspired by and faithful to our Christian values, we create supportive, inclusive and energising communities, where young people can truly belong, contribute and thrive.

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