Gender is a set of characteristics, behaviors, and social norms used to group people into social categories. Gender has historically been defined along binary lines (called the gender binary) but is now understood by many to exist along a spectrum and to be fluid, rather than being a fixed binary characteristic, and to not be inherently attached to “biological sex.” As with any such identifier, if necessary and relevant to include, taking into account how someone self-identifies ensures coverage accurately reflects their identity and lived experience.
Gender-based violence refers to violence perpetrated against an individual because of their gender or gender expression. It primarily affects cis and trans women and girls but also impacts all marginalized genders. While “gender-based violence” can be used as an umbrella term, being as specific as possible about the type or acts of violence being discussed (without sensationalizing or including unnecessarily graphic detail) provides clarity to audiences.
While still common, gendered language can result in assumptions, stereotypes, and prescriptions around gender, including reinforcing the idea of a gender binary. Using gender-neutral terms whenever possible ensures language choice encompasses the whole population it could refer to (e.g., “server” instead of “waitress,” “parental leave” instead of “maternity leave”). Similarly, when referring to a person whose gender is unknown or unconfirmed, using the singular “they” rather than “he or she” avoids assuming someone’s gender or reinforcing a gender binary. Using gendered language when not relevant to a story can reinforce assumptions about gender or gender roles.
A hate crime as defined by the Justice Department is “a crime motivated by bias against [perceived or actual] race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.” Since the legal standard for a hate crime is narrow and may be difficult to determine, especially in a breaking news situation, adding hedging language such as “possible” or “alleged” may be necessary until further information is available.
Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the default or “normal” sexual orientation, which in turn implies that any other sexual orientation is abnormal or unnatural. It also assumes that binary genders are the norm and that anything else is an aberration. To avoid perpetuating heteronormativity, it’s helpful to apply identifiers equally across all sources; for instance, if identifying someone as queer (when relevant), also identify someone as straight (when relevant).
LGBTQ is an acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer” and is used to broadly reference nonheterosexual and transgender people. LGBTQIA adds “intersex” and “asexual” to the acronym for greater inclusivity. Using LGBTQ+ is maximally inclusive without lengthening the acronym, though, as with any identifier, being as specific as possible and following an individual’s preference whenever feasible ensures coverage reflects how someone self-identifies.
The LGBTQ+ “panic” defense is a legal tactic used to justify violence against LGBTQ+ people, often trans women of color. It is illegal in several states. “LGBTQ+ panic” is used to be inclusive of all nonheterosexual and noncisgender people, whose members experience hate crimes and violence at significantly higher rates. Being as specific as possible is helpful for clarity; for instance, using the phrase “trans panic defense” when covering an instance of transphobic violence.
Marriage equality refers to the legalization of marriage between individuals of any genders. If it’s necessary to specify that a marriage is between two people of the same gender, using the term same-sex marriage rather than “gay marriage” is more precise (unless the individuals being discussed use the term).
Masculinity refers to the set of attributes and behaviors traditionally associated with men and boys. While many qualities of masculinity have been constructed within a patriarchal power structure, masculinity itself is not inherently negative or positive and has no fixed meaning. Certain negative manifestations of masculinity can be described as toxic masculinity, which can result in valorizing physical and mental “toughness,” suppressing emotion, violence as a precursor to power, internalizing misogyny, or being homophobic. Specifying the actions or behaviors being described and the context in which they occurred can clarify the meaning and impact of toxic masculinity.
Me Too/#MeToo is used to describe the social movement against sexual violence. The term is generally used with the hashtag when referring to relevant social media activities and without it when referring to the larger movement or specific allegations. While it can be commonplace in everyday conversation for people to use the term as a verb or in passive voice (e.g. “Person X was MeToo’ed,” “Person Y Shelly MeToo’ed Mr./Mrs. Person X”), this kind of phrasing leaves out context and specifics. The passive construction can also be read as positioning the abuser as the victim.
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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