Gender and Sexuality

Gender and Sexuality
portrait of Rebecca Long
Rebecca Long
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Editor & Writer

Rebecca Long is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has nearly a decade of editorial experience, including writing and editing. As a freelance journalist, her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Slate, and others. She has also ...
Updated on January 8, 2024
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portrait of Angelique Geehan
Angelique Geehan
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Contributing Reviewer

Angelique Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group offering anti-oppression support. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communit...
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Why It’s Important

According to a 2023 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, women made up almost 60% of college students as of spring that year.1

In 2018, the Association of American Universities surveyed roughly 180,000 undergraduate and graduate students.2 Almost 17% identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, queer, questioning, two or more sexualities, or a sexuality not represented in the survey. Nearly 2% of respondents identified their gender identity as transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, or questioning.

Millennial and Gen Z students are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than previous generations, and college campuses are becoming increasingly diverse.3 When discussing gender and sexuality, it’s imperative to use inclusive language that reflects and respects these demographic shifts.

Your Language Matters

Gender vs. Sex

Do not use the terms “gender” and “sex” interchangeably. “Gender” refers to a person’s identity (e.g., man, woman, nonbinary person), whereas “sex” refers to biological characteristics (e.g., male, female, intersex). When writing, be sensitive to the fact that not everyone falls into a man/woman gender or male/female sex binary.

Gender-Neutral Language

Whenever possible, use gender-neutral language to avoid bias and remain as inclusive as possible. When referring to groups of people or professions, use gender-neutral terms. Below are some examples:

Avoid Saying Consider Replacing With Example
freshman first-year student First-year students must take core courses in math, English, and history.
women, pregnant women, mothers, etc. gestational parents, people who can become pregnant, pregnant people, patients, etc. Labor and delivery nurses care for patients and infants throughout the birthing process.
firemen, linemen, congressmen, etc. firefighters, lineworkers, congresspeople, etc. Electrical lineworkers install and repair electrical power lines and telecommunications cables.
girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, husband, etc. partner, romantic partner, spouse Celebrating Valentine's Day in College? Here are 10 Ways to Make Your Partner Feel Special on the Holiday.
moms and dads parents, guardians, people raising children Single parents may find that part-time online classes work best for their schedules.

LGBTQ+ Communities

When discussing LGBTQ+ communities, be as specific as possible. If you must use an umbrella term, “LGBTQ+” is preferred.

While some members of LGBTQ+ communities have reclaimed “queer” as an identity and an umbrella term, others in these communities still view the word as a slur.4 It may not be appropriate to use in all cases, and you should use your best judgment with the preference of the specific person or group of people in mind.

Do not use “gay community” or “homosexual” as umbrella terms. When writing about a specific community, use a term preferred by the community:

  • When discussing transgender communities and people, using the shorthand “trans” or “trans*” may be acceptable after the first full use of “transgender.”
  • The terms “nonbinary” and “gender-nonconforming” should not be used interchangeably with “transgender,” as these terms have different meanings.
  • “Nonbinary” and “gender-nonconforming” are not always interchangeable with each other, either. “Gender-nonconforming” is a broad adjective that describes people who do not fall within the gender binary and can generally be used as an umbrella term. When discussing individual people, however, try to be as specific as possible about their gender identities: “nonbinary,” “bigender,” “agender,” etc.

Don't Use

Do Use

"transgender" or "trans" as a noun

"transgender" or "trans" as an adjective



transman, transwoman

man, woman (or "trans man," "trans woman" in individual cases where the additional identification is preferred)

Do Use

"transgender" or "trans" as an adjective


man, woman (or "trans man," "trans woman" in individual cases where the additional identification is preferred)

Noting Bias in Data

We know that data can reflect the biases of those who collected it.5 Some data sets more heavily weigh or represent certain people’s experiences than others’. Oftentimes, the perspectives or even existence of historically excluded groups, like women and LGBTQ+ communities, are minimized as a result. When citing research, note any potential bias whenever possible.

Example: “X study suggests that more undergraduate men major in chemistry than women. However, the study surveyed fewer women than men and did not survey gender-nonconforming students.”

When citing research on LGBTQ+ communities, be mindful of which groups the research includes. Research may be limited to just “LGBT” communities or only lesbian and gay people.

Example: “The survey found that X% of female students and Y% of lesbian and gay students used student services in 2021. (Note that the survey did not include data about students of other sexual orientations and gender identities.)”


Always ensure you’re using the correct pronouns (“he/him,” “she/her,” “they/them,” etc.) to refer to someone. Don’t assume which pronouns someone uses. If possible, ask. For example, if you’re hosting a study group, you might create an introduction activity in which participants all introduce themselves and share their pronouns.

Do not use the phrase “preferred pronouns,” as this implies a person’s pronouns are a preference, and therefore negotiable, rather than a fact to be accepted and respected.6

If you are unsure of the gender of the person you’re discussing, use the pronoun “they” over the clunky and potentially inaccurate “he/she.”

Example: “Someone called this morning. They didn’t leave their number.”

In hypothetical situations, use singular “they.”

Example: “If someone were to visit the BestColleges website, they would find rankings of the best universities in the U.S.”
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  1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2023, May 24). Spring 2023: Current term enrollment estimates.
  2. Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Harps, S., Townsend, R., Thomas, G., Lee, H., Kranz, V., Herbison, R., & Madden, K. (2020, January 17). Report on the AAU campus climate survey on sexual assault and misconduct. The Association of American Universities.
  3. Postsecondary National Policy Institute. (2023, October 23). LGBTQ+ students in higher education.
  4. Rocheleau, J. (2019, August 21). A former slur is reclaimed, and listeners have mixed feelings. NPR.
  5. GrrlScientist. (2019, October 22). Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Forbes.
  6. GLAAD. (Retrieved on 2023, October 26). GLAAD media reference guide: 11th edition — transgender people.