Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions

Sexual orientation

"Sexual orientation" is the preferred term used when referring to an individual's physical and/or emotional attraction to the same and/or opposite gender. "Gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "straight" are all examples of sexual orientations. A person's sexual orientation is distinct from a person's gender identity and expression.

Gender identity

The term "gender identity," distinct from the term "sexual orientation," refers to a person's innate, deeply felt psychological identification as a man, woman or some other gender, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., the sex listed on their birth certificate).

Gender expression

Gender expression refers to all of the external characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as either masculine or feminine, such as dress, grooming, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions. Social or cultural norms can vary widely and some characteristics that may be accepted as masculine, feminine or neutral in one culture may not be assessed similarly in another.


Transgender – or trans – is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., the sex listed on their birth certificate). Not all people who consider themselves (or who may be considered by others as) transgender will undergo a gender transition. Find related transgender definitions and terminology by visiting our Transgender FAQ.

Gender transition

Transitioning is the process some transgender people go through to begin living as the gender with which they identify, rather than the sex assigned to them at birth. This may or may not include hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery and other medical procedures. Read more.


Cross-dressing refers to people who wear clothing and/or makeup and accessories that are not traditionally associated with their biological sex. Cross-dressers are sometimes called "transvestites," but that term is considered pejorative.

Many people who cross-dress are comfortable with their assigned sex and generally do not wish to change it. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression that is not necessarily indicative of a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Gender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a psychological diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This disorder is marked by clinically significant distress caused by a marked difference between the
individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her.

In 2012, the APA announced that the term "gender identity disorder" would be replaced by the more neutral term "gender dysphoria" in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

Visit HRC's Coming Out Center for more information and resources on living openly and authentically.