Inclusive Language with Respect to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Page Summary

  • To respect an individual’s sexual identity, learn the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation.
  • Use non-gender binary expressions to describe people and avoid the use of gender when it’s not required for context.
  • When in doubt of how to refer to someone, simply ask them how they describe themselves.
  • Avoid asking people about their gender identity in formal settings.

People express their sexual identity and gender in many different ways and by using inclusive language you can acknowledge and respect their identities. 

Sex refers to the biological expression of chromosomes and hormones in a person. Answers to a question regarding someone’s sex may include, male, female, or intersex.

Gender refers to an individual’s own sense of identity/self. Answers to a question regarding someone’s gender may include options like man, woman, non-binary, or transgender.

Sexual/Romantic orientation refers to someone’s physical or sexual attraction toward other people. Answers to a question regarding someone’s sexual orientation may include options like gay, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual.

The language used regarding sexual and gender identities has changed often, and some terms that were once accepted may not be today. When in doubt, ask someone how they describe themselves and respect those terms when you speak/write about them. Remember to ask people what terms/pronouns they use, rather than which they prefer.

Follow the tips below for a general guide to inclusive language with respect to sexual and gender identities:

Avoid This   Instead Try

Guessing someone’s pronouns, when you don’t know them or aren’t sure.


If you have to ask, simply ask “Can I ask you what pronouns you use?” 

Asking someone what their gender identity/sexual preference is, if you don’t have to, in any formal setting.


Respecting their privacy and listening to how they describe themselves, relationships or family. Respectfully ask for clarifications if required.

The term sexual preference.

This term may imply people are simply choosing to be hetero/homosexual.


Sexual orientation/identity.

This term supports research that sexual orientation is mostly biologically driven.

Gender-binary (implying only two genders) expressions.

  • Men and women
  • Both genders
  • Opposite genders

Consider why gender needs to be mentioned at all.

  • All genders
  • Everyone
  • All people

The terms straight/normal.



All sexual orientations are normal.

Using gendered language that propagates stereotypes and generalizations based on gender:

  • Calling someone gay because of how they dress.
  • Referring to all women as emotional.
  • Referring to all men as unemotional.

To not promote stereotypes or generalizations based on gender or sexual orientation.

Using gendered implications and gender comparisons in speech:

  • “Boys are just as good as girls in biology,” which implies that girls are inherently better in biology than boys.
  • “You throw like a girl.”
  • “You dress like a guy.”



To not make gendered comparisons, unless they are required for context e.g.

  • On average men are taller than women.

Adjectives used to describe specific genders (typically women) in a negative way.

  • Shrill
  • Bossy
  • Hormonal
  • Ditzy
  • Hysterical

Use adjectives that have no common associations with any gender.

  • High-pitched
  • Assertive
  • Empathetic, passionate
  • Silly
  • Irrational