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Gender and Sexuality

Written by Rebecca Long

Published on April 18, 2022 · Updated on April 19, 2022

Why it's important

According to a 2021 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, women made up roughly 60% of college students during the 2020-2021 academic 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.

Gender vs. Sex

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

Gender-Neutral Language

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

hint: scroll to view the full table

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.
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
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" as a noun
"transgender" as an adjective
transgendered
transgender
transman, transwoman
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 contain bias.5 Some datasets more heavily weigh or represent certain people’s experiences than others’. Oftentimes, the perspectives 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 folks.

  • 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.)”

Pronouns

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.

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.”
Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D.

Reviewed by:

Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D.

Paige J. Gardner is an assistant professor of student development administration at Seattle University. Her research focuses on race and gender equity, the experience of emotional labor at historically white institutions, and scholar-practitioner identity development. As a queer, Black, cisgender woman of color, Gardner is invested in advocating for and building solidarity-based coalitions with and for those on the margins of society.

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Related Pages

College Experience Guide for LGBTQ+ Students

August 10, 2021 | Staff Writers

Trans and Nonbinary Student Resource Guide

September 17, 2021 | Staff Writers

Sources

  1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (n.d.). Overview: Spring 2021 enrollment estimates. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CTEE_Report_Spring_2021.pdf
  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. https://www.aau.edu/sites/default/files/AAU-Files/Key-Issues/Campus-Safety/Revised%20Aggregate%20report%20%20and%20appendices%201-7_(01-16-2020_FINAL).pdf
  3. Jones, J. M. (2021, February 24). LGBT identification rises to 5.6% in latest U.S. estimate. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx
  4. Rocheleau, J. (2019, August 21). A former slur is reclaimed, and listeners have mixed feelings. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2019/08/21/752330316/a-former-slur-is-reclaimed-and-listeners-have-mixed-feelings
  5. GrrlScientist. (2019, October 22). Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/grrlscientist/2019/10/22/invisible-women-exposing-data-bias-in-a-world-designed-for-men/?sh=72d914173989