“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 The policy was repealed in 2011.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.
The term “woke” originated as a slang term among Black American communities to describe the idea of waking up to systemic injustices and prejudices, and staying alert to how they manifest in everyday life. Use of the term dates back to as early as the 1930s, but the term by many accounts became popularized via Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher” and then spread into wider awareness via the #staywoke Twitter hashtag in the mid-2010s following the police killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. If using the term “woke,” it’s important to keep in mind both its origins in African American vernacular and its current popular use largely on the political right as a pejorative catch-all term pushing back against movements for racial justice and other civil rights efforts, as well as “cancel culture.
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.
Aromanticism is a lack of inclination or an aversion to most or all romantic experiences, such as getting crushes and falling in love. Sexual and romantic desire are not always linked; an individual may be, say, aromantic and heterosexual. Aromanticism can be thought of as a romantic orientation, in contrast to a sexual orientation. Using the term as an adjective (e.g., “an aromantic person”) rather than a noun may be more humanizing, and including some explanation is helpful for clarity. As with any identifier, taking into account an individual’s preference wherever possible ensures coverage aligns with their lived experience.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation characterized by a lack of sexual attraction. It’s not a choice, nor is it sexual dysfunction. Because asexual individuals (“aces”) vary in their inclination toward sexual behavior, asexuality exists on a spectrum. Using the term as an adjective (“asexual person” vs. “an asexual”) recognizes that a person’s sexuality is just one aspect of their identity. “Ace,” however, can be used as a noun or adjective, though some explanation may be helpful if using the shortened term. As with any identifier, taking into account an individual’s preference wherever possible ensures coverage aligns with their lived experience.
Bisexuality is a term used to describe a sexuality in which a person is attracted to more than one gender physically, romantically, and/or emotionally. Someone who is bisexual may be attracted to all genders equally, may have a preference for one or more genders over others, or can have different forms and degrees of attraction to people of various genders. Some people prefer to use terms like “pansexual,” “polysexual,” “omnisexual,” or “queer,” which can all refer to people who are attracted to more than one gender. Some instead use the term bi+ to encompass all those ideas. Not everyone defines or uses these terms in the same way, even to self-identify. For accuracy, it’s important to take into account an individual’s preference whenever possible; some explanation of the term(s) being used in specific contexts is helpful for clarity. If relevant to coverage to describe a romantic and/or sexual relationship, it’s important for accuracy to take into account how each member of that relationship identifies (e.g., “He is bisexual and his primary partner is a straight woman”).
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).
Childless and child-free refer to the experience of people who have no children. Social implications can differ between the terms when discussing an adult’s choice of whether to become a parent. Child-free often refers to people who consciously decide not to become a parent, while childless may refer to either those who don’t yet have children but want to at some point in the future or those who want to have children now but cannot. More neutral phrasing, if necessary and relevant to include in coverage, is something like “has no children,” though as with any identifier, taking into account a person’s preference when possible ensures coverage aligns with their lived experience.
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.
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.
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