The Language of Gender and Sexuality: An Introduction
How would you describe yourself?
It’s a big question, one that some people grapple with for a good deal of their lives. You can be described in so many ways: from your appearance if it were described to a sketch artist, to your best qualities talked about by a friend, to your gender, to the people you date.
When talking about our gender and the genders of those we’re attracted to, we all have to come to a basic set of agreements. So, for this article, we’re going to set some table stakes, based on several dictionaries and usage guides.
This is, of course, by no means a comprehensive dictionary. It’s just a place to get started. Go here, here, or here for more info.
Gender, for our purposes, refers to the presentation of one’s self. The Garner Usage Guide has noted that gender has shifted from being interchangeable with sex to “denot[ing] the social and psychological distinctions between men and women.” The Oxford English dictionary concurs, defining gender as “Either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones . . . is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.”
So, for our purposes, gender is the way one presents oneself and the way they’re perceived, while sex is down to the genitals and secondary sex determiners (and even that is oversimplifying things!).
Sexuality and sexual orientation, for our purposes, refer to both the capacity to be attracted to someone physically as well as the type of person they are attracted to.
Transgender/Trans- : Trans is not a noun, but rather a modifier. It indicates that the person identifies as a different gender than the one assigned at birth. People who are transgender may refer to themselves as trans men, trans women, and/or simply a trans person. Its position as a modifier is key: while trans is added, the important words here are man, woman, and person. If someone identifies as a trans woman, she is a woman first.
Note: “Transgendered” is not an appropriate spelling of this modifier. As GLAAD notes, using “transgender” instead “brings transgender into alignment with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. You would not say that Elton John is ‘gayed’ or Ellen DeGeneres is ‘lesbianed,’ therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is ‘transgendered.’”
Cisgender/Cis- : A modifier that refers to a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. For example, a cis man was born with male genitals and identifies as a man.
Nonbinary/Genderqueer: These words are used by some to indicate that they do not identify as a man or a woman. The terms were both introduced in the early ‘90s to give a name to the feeling that one does not belong on either side of the gender binary, but rather somewhere in the middle of a spectrum. The terms genderfluid and agender also fall under this umbrella. Sometimes, these folks use gender-neutral pronouns.
Preferred pronouns: Maybe you’ve come across someone who introduces themselves by saying “My name is ____, and my preferred pronouns are [she/her, he/him, they/them].” They may also indicate these pronouns on their social media. This helps folks indicate the way they identify in a short and easy way. When folks state their pronouns, it’s considered common courtesy to refer to them by those pronouns.
LGBTQIA+: As more folks feel comfortable talking about their gender and sexuality, this acronym continues to expand. To complicate things, both gender and sexuality are used in the most updated and complete version. Here’s what’s meant by each letter in the current iteration:
L: Lesbian: A woman who is interested in other women.
G: Gay: A man who is interested in other men.
B: Bisexual: A person who is interested in people of their gender and at least one other gender.
T: Transgender: An adjective used to describe a person who lives as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth.
Q: Queer: Queer can be used to apply to any sexuality or gender identity that isn’t heterosexual or cisgender.
However, some may still consider this a slur, so only use this word to apply to a person if they use it themselves.
I: Intersex: Someone born with both or a combination of reproductive organs, primary sex organs, chromosomes, hormone levels, and more. Read more about people who are intersex here.
A: Asexual: Someone who does not experience sexual attraction and/or does not want to engage in sexual activity.
+: Everything else! This includes pansexuality and all parts of the asexual and aromatic spectrum.
As you can see, this acronym folds in all of those who differ from a cisgender, heterosexual experience. Here, the L, G, B, and A explicitly refer to sexual orientation.
Coming out, being out, being closeted
If you’ve seen a movie about an LGBTQIA+ narrative in the past twenty years, chances are you’ve seen a coming-out story. Someone is “in the closet,” meaning that they have not told anyone they’re gay (and in most popular movies and TV, this character is usually a gay man). Their “coming out” usually involves an approving or disapproving friend, lover, or family member, and lots and lots of tears.
But coming out doesn’t have to be a sit-down conversation with your parents over tears (though that’s valid!) or a reveal to the best friend you have a crush on.
Especially in our current age of social media, coming out to your friends can be as simple as posting “i’m gay, lol” as the caption for a selfie on your insta (no, really). It can be as vulnerable as the act of coming out as trans by putting your preferred pronouns in your social media bios, or several small acts of coming out by wearing a sticker or pin to networking functions with those pronouns on them.
If one of your friends signifies that they’ve come out, but they don’t come out directly to you, don’t take it personally. They’ve chosen to reveal an important part of themselves in the way they feel most comfortable.
How to talk about gender and sexuality
While the amount of information may seem daunting, there are a few keys to making sure you treat folks in the LGBTQIA+ community respectfully.
Seek out publicly available information. Check out their Twitter and Instagram bios. What information do they offer there? If it’s not there, they probably don’t want you to know, and it probably doesn’t matter when interacting with them.
Ask for clarification. Not sure of someone’s pronouns? Ask: What pronouns do you use/prefer?
Recover gracefully and move on. Let’s say your new friend asks you to refer to her with she/her pronouns, but in conversation, you use “he” to refer to her by mistake. The best course of action? Say “sorry, I meant ‘she’” and move on. The correction is what counts.
What Is the Singular They, and Why Should I Use It?
Is “they” singular or plural? The answer is both. As of 2019, most big style guides—including the Associated Press, the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA style manual, and the APA style manual—accept the usage of the singular they.
Whether they approve of it as an indefinite singular pronoun, a specific person’s preferred pronoun, or both, all of these manuals concede that using they as a singular pronoun has a place in our modern world. Merriam-Webster even designated the singular “they” as their 2019 Word of the Year and introduced the gender-neutral honorific Mx. to their unabridged dictionary, forever ending the question of what to call someone whose gender is nonbinary (i.e., not male or female).
When Grammarly has the choice between digging in its heels on a language rule or adapting along with language, it adapts. So, let’s talk about they in particular and gender-neutral pronouns as a whole, and why they’re important to binary and nonbinary folks alike.
First, Some Gender-Related Terminology
We’d like to start by defining a few key terms in this discussion.
Gender: A set of cultural identities, expressions, and roles—traditionally categorized as feminine or masculine—that are assigned to people based on the interpretation of their bodies, and more specifically, their sexual and reproductive anatomy. Since gender is a social construction, it is possible for people to reject or modify the assignments given to them and develop something that feels truer and more just to themselves.
Gender binary: A socially constructed system of viewing gender as male or female, in which no other possibilities for gender are believed to exist. The gender binary does not take into account the diversity of gender identities and gender expressions among all people, and is oppressive to anyone who does not conform to dominant societal gender norms.
Nonbinary: Adjective describing a person who identifies as neither male nor female.
Of course, these three terms are just the beginning of a discussion about gender, but for the purposes of talking about gender-neutral or third-gender pronouns, they’re a great start. If you have more questions about gender or sexuality, consult GLSEN’s resources on the subject.
Can “They” Be Singular? English Evolves!
One of the great lies about the English language is that it remains static. Grammar pedants and trolls generally operate under a series of assumptions about language, which may or may not reflect current usage and accepted norms. In the linguistics community, there is a term for this view of language: prescriptivism.
Unfortunately for prescriptivists, English is constantly changing—and always has been. Some words that grammar pedants scoff at as obnoxious neologisms were in fact coined as long ago as the nineteenth century. Take “dude” for example. Reviled by grammar trolls the world over, this term has provoked the ire of multiple generations of fuddy-duddies. But did you know that it has its roots in late nineteenth-century British dandyism? Although the term originally described a cultural trend in England, it eventually came to mean “clueless city-dweller” to American cowboys and ranchers (as Mental Floss notes, this is also the origin of the “dude ranch”). However, by WWI, “dude” had flip-flopped again to its current meaning—a cool guy.
Even if we adhere to certain rules to make communication easier for people across regions, dialects, and levels of writing proficiency, the language will eventually evolve. The singular they is simply another way English is changing for the shorter, the more empathetic, and the better. As we’ve mentioned before, the singular they is not even a new phenomenon. Merriam-Webster includes usage examples of the singular they dating back to Shakespeare, with notable additions from the likes of Jane Austen and even the traditionalist W. H. Auden. The singular they is nothing new, but in making our language more inclusive of people of a myriad of genders, this simple word is becoming more and more important.
LGBTQIA+ Harassment and Personal Gender Pronouns
According to a 2015 GLSEN study, more than two-thirds of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students hear homophobic remarks at school frequently or often. Of these students, 40.5 percent reported hearing harassing remarks specifically targeting transgender students frequently or often. For transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, and other nonbinary students, this can have extreme consequences, from lower GPAs to missed classes to suicide.
Clearly, language matters, and it’s especially important to people whose gender does not match cultural assumptions. That’s why we support and respect the use of whichever personal gender pronouns a person or group may choose to describe themselves.
What’s a personal gender pronoun, you ask? GLSEN defines personal gender pronouns (PGPs for short) as “The pronoun or set of pronouns that a person would like to be called by when their proper name is not being used.” For people who identify as male or female, this is generally he or she, but trans, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming folks may use a variety of pronouns.
Although we won’t touch on all the pronoun options, there are many. So how do you know which one to use? Ask!
Asking someone their personal gender pronoun is easy. Just say something like “What pronouns do you use?” or “Is this pronoun right for you?” Most people will be happy to inform or correct you, especially when you ask them early on in your relationship.
Since we’re focusing on the singular gender-neutral they here, it’s important to note that many people at different points of the gender spectrum use “they.” When you’re using it in a sentence, you can say something like this: “They are a talented artist. I really enjoyed their painting of a flower in art class yesterday.”
But Wait, Singular “They” Is Useful for Everyone!
Now that we’ve talked briefly about how to use they for people who have chosen it as their PGP, let’s talk about how it can help people who identify as he or she. Merriam-Webster sums up the situation well in their usage note for they:
They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third-person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone).
Although English has many great qualities, it’s never been great with indefinite pronouns. Traditionally, he was the default pronoun for a person whose gender you didn’t know, as in this quote from Thomas Huxley:
“Suppose the life and fortune of every one of us would depend on his winning or losing a game of chess.”—Thomas Huxley
But, as many have pointed out, gendering all unknown people as male is sexist and inaccurate. That’s why Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary have recently added notes supporting the use of the singular they for a person whose gender you don’t know. “Despite the apparent grammatical disagreement between a singular antecedent like someone and the plural pronoun them, the construction is so widespread both in print and in speech that it often passes unnoticed,” says the American Heritage Dictionary, in their usage note on the subject.
Admittedly, using the singular they in a formal context may still cause some raised eyebrows, so be careful if you’re submitting a paper to a particularly traditional teacher or professor. But the tides are turning, and English will soon be more efficient because of usages like this:
If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for them.
Note that, if we did not use the singular they, that sentence would read:
If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for him.
Or, if we tried to make some awkward amalgam of current language norms, we might write:
If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for him or her.
Furthermore, if Sally or George identified as a gender other than male or female, even the above Frankenstein-ed sentence would be incorrect. After all, your name does not determine your gender or your preferred gender pronouns.
Luckily, using the singular they makes English a more efficient language, and it helps us to avoid awkward sentence constructions. More importantly, it allows you to avoid making assumptions about the gender of a person you don’t know.
Their Pronoun, Themself
Of course, not everyone will agree that it’s time to formally accept the singular gender-neutral they. People who would use they as their preferred gender pronoun have long been the subjects of harassment and discrimination, although things are changing. Grammarly supports the individual choice of pronouns and the visibility of all gender expressions and sexualities.
What has been your experience with personal gender pronouns?