My Meghan Droste, June 12, 2018

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  Mark Twain’s excellent note on word choice is a lesson we can all learn from both in the realm of EEO complaints and in the broader world.  Using the correct language to refer to our colleagues and to individuals we encounter in the EEO process is an important sign of respect and also a concrete step that agency employees can take to avoid EEO complaints.  The following terms and their definitions are a good start towards this goal.

Birth sex: The sex that is assigned to an infant at birth.  This assignment is based on the presence or absence of the infant’s external sex organs.  We generally do not talk about our sex organs at work so please do not ask anyone what their birth sex is, or what they were born as, or whether or not they are “really” a man or a woman.

Gender identity: A person’s internal sense of being male, female, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum.  We all have a gender identity and we convey it to the world through our gender expression.

Gender expression: The ways in which a person communicates his/her/their gender identity to everyone else.  This can include hairstyle, clothing, and mannerisms.

Transgender: This is an umbrella term that is most often used to describe people whose gender identity is different than their birth sex.  The more common form is now “trans.”  Do not use the word “transgendered” or refer to someone as “a transgender;” instead say that the person is transgender or that the person is a trans/transgender man or trans/transgender woman.

Gender confirmation: Also known as transition, this is the process by which a person modifies his/her/their gender expression and/or physical characteristics to be consistent with his/her/their gender identity.  Gender confirmation is not a one-size-fits-all process—it can take many forms and does not always include surgery or other medical intervention.

Cisgender: A person whose gender identity is the same as his/her birth sex.

Preferred pronouns: The pronouns—he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs—that an individual prefers to use and prefers that others use.  It is acceptable (and can be very helpful) to ask someone to specify his/her/their preferred pronouns.  And yes, this includes the singular form of “they.”

Misgender: Intentionally referring to someone by the wrong gender, name, and/or preferred pronouns.  The Commission has held that misgendering an employee can be a form of harassment.

Sexual orientation: A person’s emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to other people based on the sex of the other person.  We all have a sexual orientation, and it is not dictated by our gender identity or gender expression.  In other words, being trans does not define a person’s sexual orientation.

We should all do our best to use the correct terminology when referring to others.  Of course, mistakes can happen.  If you make a mistake, simply apologize and do your best to ensure it does not happen again.

If you have questions or want to learn more about these topics, join me in November for a webinar covering terminology, cases, and guidance on issues related to sex discrimination and LGBTQ discrimination in the federal sector.


If you have specific questions or topics you would like to see addressed in a future Tips from the Other Side column, email them to me: [email protected]

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This