Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity*

What is Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity?

Gender identity and expression are complex concepts that have come to the forefront of recent national conversations around diversity and inclusion in Higher Education. Students from all over the country have voiced their concern and fear of being misgendered, outed without consent and subsequently invalidated, marginalized, and psychologically damaged by a lack of awareness surrounding their identity. This module is an introductory primer to the many layers that surround these concepts, and the ways we can increase our awareness and best support our students in a complex and often divisive sociopolitical context.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), sexual orientation is an identity based on whether someone is attracted to people of a sex different than their own, the same sex, or both sexes (i.e., heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual). Gender identity is a person's internal sense of being male, female, or somewhere else along the gender spectrum. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from their biological sex or the sex they were assigned at birth. The acronym LGBTQI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex.

LGBTQI-related issues often arise in various types of educational settings. These include bullying or harassment against students (and sometimes school personnel) who are or are perceived as LGBTQI; the high rates of truancy, dropout, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide among LGBTQI youth; controversy surrounding LGBTQI school events and student clubs; the right of school personnel to “come out” or identify as LGBTQI in school; and other issues.

* “Queer and trans organizers have been making the distinction between gender
identity, gender presentation/expression, sex, and attraction for decades. No one person
or organization has created the concept” ( Trans Student Educational Resources , 2020).

Title IX Considerations

a variety of humans at a table

Title IX and Equal Opportunity (EO)

The University of Denver’s Equal Opportunity policy and procedures expressly prohibit harassment, discrimination or violence against any person on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. DU will continue to follow this policy adopted in 2007. This will not change.

Additionally, DU is governed by the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act’s prohibition against harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. The University will continue to stand firm in its commitment to honoring the identities of all people and will adhere to its established Equal Opportunity policy and procedures.

A female-presenting individual giving a lecture to a full auditorium

Title IX Protected Class

In United States federal anti-discrimination law, a protected class is a group of people with a common characteristic who are legally protected from discrimination on the basis of that characteristic. Protected classes include race, color, religion, national origin, age (40 and over), sex, pregnancy, citizenship, familial status, disability, veteran status and genetic information. 


Since terms evolve over time and contexts, the following definitions will be updated as frequently as possible to reflect LGBTQI language (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • male, female, agender icons combo with male female and non-gendered representations


    The behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.

  • agender symbol


    Agender literally means “without gender” and is a term used to refer to individuals who consider themselves gender neutral or who don’t express a gender identity.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • androgynous symbol - circle with plus and arrow


    A gender expression that ambiguously incorporates masculine and feminine characteristics.

    (adapted from Human Rights Campaign

  • female symbol with female presenting - male symbol with male presenting


    Derived from the Latin word meaning "on the same side". People whose gender identity or expression aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth. "Cis" is not a slur nor a fake word.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • line through a name tag


    The birth name of a person who has since changed their name (especially a transgender person).

    (adapted from Inside Higher Ed)

  • speech bubble containing name tag with line through it


    When someone refers to a person who is transgender by their non-affirmed name. Deadnaming is damaging to the individual, and conveys disrespect for the person's identity, a lack of societal support, invalidation and can potentially "out" the person and signal to others that they are transgender without their consent.

    (adapted from Inside Higher Ed)

  • male symbol  - female symbol

    Gender Binary

    The idea that male/female are the only two genders, and that individuals should be gendered either as man or woman.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • Male - neutral - female presenting icons

    Gender Expression

    The external appearance of one's gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice. Gender expression may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being masculine or feminine.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources Gender Unicorn

  • gender fluid symbol - mix of male and female icons

    Gender Fluid

    Refers to individuals whose gender identity fluctuates between all genders or a specific subset of genders.

    (adapted from Human Rights Campaign

  • person with male, female and androgynous symbols near their head

    Gender Identity

    A person's innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither. It is how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves or ask to be called. It's important to remember that one's gender identity can be the same or different from the sex assigned at birth.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • gender fluid icons with gender expression icons

    Gender Nonconforming

    An umbrella term often used to describe people who do not follow stereotypical societal expectations about how they should look, or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth.

    (adapted from A Queer Endeavor)

  • genderqueer symbol - circle with star


    An umbrella term used to refer to a broad spectrum of non-binary gender identities.

    (adapted from Human Rights Campaign

  • transgender symbol

    Gender Transition

    The process by which some people strive to more closely align their internal knowledge of gender with its outward appearance. Some people socially transition, whereby they might begin dressing, using names and pronouns and/or be socially recognized as another gender. Others undergo physical transitions in which they modify their bodies.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • genderqueer symbol - circle with star

    Gender Variant

    A term used to refer to individuals who don’t conform to socially-constructed, dominant gender norms.

    (adapted from PFLAG)

  • combined male and female symbols


    Individuals born with any several variations in sex characteristics that can include chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals.

    (adapted from Human Rights Campaign

  • speech bubble with line through male and female symbols


    The act of not acknowledging and/or using a person’s preferred and/or requested gender pronouns. It also occurs when referring to someone through gendered language with which they do not identify, i.e., “guys,” “ma’am,” “miss,” “sir,” etc. Misgendering is disrespectful, psychologically damaging and causes a great deal of anxiety for people who are subsequently put at an increased risk of discrimination.

    (adapted from PFLAG)

  • genderqueer symbol


    An umbrella term for all genders other than female/male or woman/man; used as an adjective (e.g. Alex is a nonbinary person). Not all non-binary people identify as trans and not all trans people identify as nonbinary.

    (adapted from Human Rights Campaign

  • trasgender icon


    An umbrella term often used to describe people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does now imply any specific sexual orientation.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • transgender symbol with female presenting icon

    Trans Woman

    Generally describes someone assigned male at birth who identifies as a woman. Sometimes trans women identify as male-to-female (also MTF, M2F, or trans feminine).

    (adapted from GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

  • transgender symbol with male presenting icon

    Trans Man

    Generally describes someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a man. Sometimes trans men identify as female-to-male (also FTM, F2M, or trans masculine).

    (adapted from GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

  • male and female presenting icons in one circle


    A term traditionally used by Native American people to refer to individuals who exhibit the identity and roles commonly associated with the opposite sex.

    (adapted from We R Native

Sexual Orientation

A person's sexual identity or self-identification as bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, etc.

  • 3 interlocking male and female icons


    A person who is sexually attracted to people of any sex.

    (adapted from Trans Student Educational Resources)

  • interlocking male female symbols


    A person who is sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex.

    (adapted from GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

  • hetero symbol in person's head


    The belief and assumption that heterosexuality is the normative or default sexual orientation for all people. It is important to review course materials to gauge the predominance of heteronormative language in readings, supplementary materials and examples.

    (adapted from Warner, 1991)

  • two interlocking male symbols


    A person who is sexually attracted to people of their own sex.

    (adapted from GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

  • P with plus and arrow extension


    A person who is not limited by biological sex, gender or gender identity in sexual choice.

    (adapted from Human Rights Campaign

For more definitions visit Trans Student Educational Resources

students in outdoor classroom

Key Considerations

  • “Transgender” encompasses many different gender presentations and identities.
  • Gender is socially constructed.
  • Certain body parts do not determine gender identity.
  • Gender identity is about how we see ourselves. Trans people can identify as gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.
  • Gender expression is the external representation of one’s gender identity.1
  • Sex, gender identities, and gender expressions are all malleable.2
  • The best way to be an ally is to listen to trans people themselves.
  • Because language shapes reality, be careful with pronouns.3
  • Positive interaction between faculty and trans and gender-nonconforming students is beneficial.4


The Gender Unicorn

The Gender Unicorn

the Genderbread Person

The Genderbread Person

  • Citations

    Teich, N. M. (2012). Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex issue. Columbia University Press. 6.

    Nicolazzo, Z. (2010). Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

    3 Nicolazzo, Z. (2010) Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Stylus Publishing, LLC. 1.

    4 Linley, J. L., Nguyen, D., Brazelton, G. B., Becker, B., Renn, K., & Woodford, M. (2016). Faculty as Sources of Support for LGBTQ College Students. College Teaching, 64(2), 55-63.

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Teaching Practices

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Put it into practice

cork board with photos of students celebrating pride

Name and Pronoun Etiquette

A critical part of building a learning environment that is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity is asking and correctly using someone's name and preferred pronouns. Not only is this best practice, it prevents someone from being microaggressed and feeling disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, dysphoric or all of the above.

  • State your preferred pronouns when introducing yourself.
  • Include your gender pronouns in your email signature and syllabus. This signals to students that you are aware of and value their preferred gender pronouns.
  • Call roll using students' last names.
  • Do not call roll or otherwise read the roster aloud until you have given students a chance to state what they prefer to be called, in case the roster represents a prior name.
  • Ask for students preferred pronouns through pre-class Qualtrics surveys. This is also a great opportunity to learn more about students and what will best support them in your class. Consider asking a set of questions that will help you get to know them better.
  • Allow students to self-identify the name they go by and what pronouns they prefer. You can accomplish this with a sign-in sheet, asking them to indicate these terms in writing, not orally, in class.
  • If you are aware of a student’s former name that they do not use, do not use it or reveal it to others.
  • If you meet a student outside the classroom in a setting where they did not already get to self-identify via your seating chart, and you are not sure of the proper pronoun for them, ask. One way to do this is by sharing your own. For example: “I use masculine pronouns. I want to make sure to address you correctly, how do you like to be addressed?”
  • Never ask personal questions of trans people that you would not ask of others.

More on Pronouns

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Pronoun Etiquette Sheet

Tips on how to be polite when it comes to problems of misidentifying another person’s pronoun. 

Download PDF
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Suggested Format for Requesting Student Self-Identification

These practices are what institutions should strive for in addressing the needs of transgender students.

Read Article
a list of pronouns

FAQs about Pronouns

Here are answers to questions about common pronouns, what to do when you make a mistake, and more.

people introducing themselves to one another

Pronoun Introductions

Designed for the School of Social Work at Smith College, this resource is broadly useful for many disciplines. 

Download PDF

Supporting Trans Students

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The Experiences of Incoming Transgender College Students

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Exploring the Ways Trans* Collegians Navigate Academic, Romantic, and Social Relationships

students working at a table

Trans Inclusion Quick Guide

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Transphobia & Racism, and Other Intersections

one student studying alone outside on campus grounds on a sunny day

Trans Student Educational Resources’ Model Policy for Four Year Colleges

cartoon of people with pronouns in speech bubbles

Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom

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Establish Ground Rules

  • Use gender neutral language in your syllabus and other general written communication.
  • Set a tone of respect when establishing classroom guidelines.
  • Consider drafting a syllabus statement that recognizes and addresses preferred pronouns. 
    "It is important that this classroom be a respectful environment where everyone can participate comfortably. One part of respectful behavior is that everyone should be referred to by what they go by. This includes pronouncing people's names correctly and referring to them by the pronouns they prefer." 
  • Don't assume that students know what a pronoun is and model usage by saying something like, "For example, I prefer to be referred to as she/her/hers."

Making Mistakes


Personal Responsibility

If you make a mistake about someone’s pronoun, correct yourself.

"[...] going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronouns assumption that has now been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake"

– Spade, 2010


Community Responsibility

When someone else makes a pronoun mistake, correct them.

"[...] It is polite to provide correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun was misused is present, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake"

– Spade, 2010

Inclusive Learning Environments for LGBTQI Students

outs door speech given to large crowd of students

Applying the Seven Learning Principles to Creating LGBT-Inclusive Classrooms

Student reading in hammoch

Teaching LBGTQI Issues in Higher Education

student walking on campus

An Examination of the (In)visibility of Sexual Orientation, Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Other LGBTQ Concerns in the U.S. Multicultural Teacher Education Coursework

* “Queer and trans organizers have been making the distinction between gender identity, gender presentation/expression, sex, and attraction for decades. No one person or organization has created the concept” (Trans Student Educational Resources, 2020).

  • References

    Spade, D. (2011). Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies. Radical Teacher 92(1), 57–62.

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Supportive Media

TED Talks and Websites related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

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