“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), instituted by the Clinton administration in 1993, was the official US policy that said members of the US military would not be asked about their sexual orientation and required gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to keep their identity private. It protected LGBTQ+ service members from discrimination, but only if they never revealed their sexuality to anyone. The policy was repealed in 2011. If using the term, including some explanation of the policy and its defunct status provides essential context.
When discussing abortion, aiming for precise language — using terms like pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion, rather than pro-choice/pro-life, for instance, and explaining the specific procedure or legislation in question — brings clarity to coverage. Many common phrases associated with the topic (for instance, “partial-birth abortion”) are not medical terminology and may be the favored terms of advocates on one side of the issue. If necessary and relevant to your coverage to include these such terms, explaining them and how they may be used in emotional or political arguments adds vital context to audiences. Using gender-neutral language to discuss abortion in a general sense ensures coverage encompasses the widest range of people who could be affected by the issue. “Pregnant people,” “people seeking an abortion,” “abortion seekers,” and “people who give birth” are all employed as gender-neutral alternatives to woman-specific ones, though they may not be useful or applicable when discussing abortion in the context of women’s health and rights more broadly.
Referring to children more broadly in gender-neutral terms rather than with a phrase like “boys and girls” acknowledges that gender is now understood in many circles as a spectrum rather than a binary (though when discussing individuals, as with any identifier it’s best to follow the person’s preference whenever possible).
A civil union is a partnership legally recognized by a state that offers some of the benefits of marriage but not all. This term is only accurate if the couple actually has a civil union instead of a marriage.
Coming out is short for coming out of the closet, a metaphorical term for the self-disclosure of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It’s important to confirm with a source that they are comfortable with the details of their sexual orientation or gender identity appearing in a story, and to only include it when relevant and necessary.
A crisis pregnancy center (CPC) is an organization that advertises as a family planning center but is focused on anti-abortion efforts. Because these facilities have purposes different from centers that focus on reproductive issues and family planning without the intent to dissuade certain kinds of medical care (though they may advertise themselves similarly), the term “crisis pregnancy center” is not interchangeable with “reproductive health center” (a facility like Planned Parenthood or Whole Woman’s Health). Giving a brief explanation on first reference is helpful.
The term deadname refers to the birth name of a trans or nonbinary person who changed their name after they came out. Using someone’s deadname (deadnaming them) is inaccurate and invalidates who they are. Using language like “Before she became a woman” suggests that a person changed their gender versus coming out as the gender they always were. Phrasing like “Before [he, she, they, etc.] came out” is more accurate. In general, unnecessary focus on someone’s gender identity, transition, or deadname can have a fetishizing or dehumanizing effect.
The Defense of Marriage Act (also known as DOMA) was a law passed in 1996 that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, effectively outlawing same-sex marriages. The law’s definition of marriage was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, granting marriage rights to same-sex couples nationwide. The name of the law may be misleading to readers without further explanation of its policy, intent, and impact on LGBTQ+ couples and families.
Feminism is an umbrella term referring to various social, political, and economic movements for gender equality. It’s rooted in the fundamental belief that all genders are/should be equal. In discussions of feminism, it’s important to note the ways that factors including race, socioeconomic status, and immigration status can also affect positioning within existing power structures.
“Fluid” is a term used generally to describe one’s sexual, romantic, and/or gender identity, with the understanding that it exists on a spectrum, isn’t permanent, and may shift over time. The term can be used to describe sexual or romantic attraction to multiple genders, as well as attractions that shift over time. Since the term doesn’t always point to a specific identity, specifying which orientation(s) or identity (or identities) are being discussed can be helpful for clarity.
Last updated 08/05/22
Gender and sexuality are deeply felt and highly individual parts of everyone’s identity. Understanding of gender and sexuality has evolved over time, and with that evolution comes changing terminology.
This section of the Language, Please style guidance aims to explore and explain this evolution and the myriad ways people can describe their experiences and identifications in these spaces.
This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.
How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms.
When discussing abortion, aiming for precise language — using terms like pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion, rather than pro-choice/pro-life, for instance, and explaining the specific procedure or legislation in question — brings clarity to coverage. Many common phrases associated with the topic (for instance, “partial-birth abortion”) are not medical terminology and may be the favored terms of advocates on one side of the issue. If necessary and relevant to your coverage to include these such terms, explaining them and how they may be used in emotional or political arguments adds vital context to audiences. Using gender-neutral language to discuss abortion in a general sense ensures coverage encompasses the widest range of people who could be affected by the issue. “Pregnant people,” “people seeking an abortion,” and “people who give birth” are all employed as gender-neutral alternatives to woman-specific ones, though they may not be useful when discussing abortion in the context of women’s rights.
Queer is an umbrella term used to describe sexuality, gender, expression, and identity outside of the cisgender and heterosexual “norm.” Historically used as a slur, it’s been widely reclaimed. While many people and groups now use the word (“She is a queer woman” or “They belong to a queer volleyball league”), some people may still find it inaccurate or offensive. As with any identifier, being as specific as possible and taking into account an individual’s preference whenever feasible ensures coverage reflects how someone self-identifies.
Pronouns are words that take the place of a noun and tend to correlate to gender identity in the third person: he, she, they, ze … Some individuals also use a combination of pronouns (e.g., he/they, she/they, she/xir). Providing brief explanation for some less common pronouns can be helpful for clarity. If someone’s pronouns are unknown, they/them/theirs can be used as a gender-neutral alternative instead of the binary he/she. Saying someone “uses she/they pronouns” (vs. “prefers she/they pronouns”) affirms that a person’s pronouns and gender identity are not a choice but a deeply felt part of their identity.
Get in Touch
Language, Please is a living resource and will be updated regularly. Have a question, suggestion, or addition? We’d love to hear from you.
Find an Inclusivity Reader
Access our inclusivity reader directory here.