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Key Terms and Concepts

Currently, there is no universally-accepted acronym for the community or communities of youth who are not heterosexual and/or express their gender in diverse ways. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, or another diverse identity (LGBTQ+) youth each represent distinct populations with particular and unique experiences.1 This youth topic primarily uses “LGBTQ+” as an inclusive term. Also, it is important to remember that sexual orientation and gender identity intersect with cultural and other aspects of a young person’s identity, such as faith/spirituality and race and ethnicity, and can also change over time.

Below are some of the key concepts and terms related to sexual orientation and gender identity/expression:

2/Two-Spirit: An inclusive term created specifically by and used by some Native American communities. It refers to American Indian/Alaskan Native individuals who express their gender, sexual orientation, and/or sex/gender roles in Indigenous, non-Western ways, using tribal terms and concepts, and/or who define themselves as LGBTQ+, questioning, and intersex in a Native context. Often a person’s spiritual experiences or cultural beliefs are core to the formation of their two-spirit identity.2

Agender: Individuals who do not identify as any gender.3

Ally: A term relating generally to individuals who support marginalized groups. In the LGBTQ+ community, this term is used to describe someone who is supportive of LGBTQ+ individuals and the community, either personally or as an advocate. Allies include heterosexual and cisgender individuals (i.e., those who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth).4

Asexual: Individuals who do not experience sexual attraction. An individual can also be aromantic, meaning that they do not experience romantic attraction.5

Bigender: Individuals who identify as a person whose gender identity encompasses two genders (often man and woman, but not exclusively), or is moving between two genders.6

Bisexual: An individual who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to those of the same gender or to those of another gender.7

Coming Out: The process through which youth identify, acknowledge, express, and share with others information about their sexual orientation and gender identity. This experience can be an affirming one, resulting in a sense of belonging, but it can also create stress in the life of youth and put them at risk for negative outcomes as a result of LGBTQ+ -related stigma and the responses and behaviors of others. This process includes coming out over time to oneself, to friends and other peers, at school, to family, at work, and in one’s community.8

Gay: Individuals whose enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions are to people of the same sex.9

Gender Identity: Our internal sense of being male, female, or another identity. Because gender identity is internal, it is not necessarily visible to others.10 “Cisgender” describes youth whose gender identity/expression does not differ from that typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. For example, a young person who was born as male and identifies as a man may be considered cisgender. In contrast, “transgender” (or “trans”) describes people whose gender identity/expression is different from that typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. A relatively small percentage of gender-variant children develop an adult transgender identity, but most adolescents with a gender-variant identity develop an adult transgender identity.11

Gender Expression: How youth represent their gender to others. For example, individuals may express their gender through mannerisms, clothes, and personal interests. Our understanding of gender and what it means to be “masculine” and “feminine” is influenced by how we were socialized. For example, families, schools, and the media influence our understanding of gender. Research shows that children as young as two years old can identify a person’s sex based on how they present their gender, that by age three they can begin to see themselves as either male or female, and that around age nine they understand gender roles.12 For most youth, internal gender identity is reinforced by the reactions that others have to our gender expression.13 Other terms are sometimes used to describe one’s gender. For example, “gender fluid” or “gender creative” reflect a more flexible range of gender expression.

Genderqueer: Individuals who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman.14

Gender Variant: Individuals who do not follow gender stereotypes.14

Intersex: An umbrella term used to describe people with differences in reproductive anatomy, chromosomes or hormones that don't fit typical definitions of male and female.16

Lesbian: A woman who has romantic and/or sexual orientation toward women. Some nonbinary individuals also identify with this term.17

Nonbinary: Individuals who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as outside of the male-female gender binary.18

Pangender: An individual whose gender identity and/or gender expression is numerous, either fixed (many at once) or fluid (moving from one to another, often more than two).19

Pansexual: An individual who experiences sexual, romantic, physical, and/or spiritual attraction for members of all gender identities/expressions.20

Queer: Historically, this has been a pejorative term used to describe LGBTQ+ people, but is now used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual. Some people may use queer, or more commonly genderqueer, to describe their gender identity and/or gender expression.21

Questioning: A term used to describe young people who are unsure about their sexual and/or gender identity.22

Sex: Genetic and anatomical characteristics with which youth are born, typically labeled “male” or “female.” Some youth are born with a reproductive/sexual anatomy that does not fit typical definitions of “male” or “female.” This is sometimes referred to as “intersex.” Many medical and some advocacy communities now use the term “disorder” (or sometimes, “differences”) of sex development (DSD).23

Sexual Orientation: A youth’s emotional, sexual, and/or relational attraction to others.24 For some, this attraction is to people of the opposite sex/gender (heterosexual), the same sex/gender (gay/lesbian), or both sexes/genders (bisexual) or to people in general independent of their sex/gender (pansexual or omnisexual). The term can also refer to low or non-existent attraction to any sex/gender (asexual).

Transgender: People whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Many transgender people will transition to align their gender expression with their gender identity; however, a person does not have to transition to be transgender.25

Transsexual: An older term that was developed in the medical and psychological communities to describe individuals whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.26

Transitioning: Transgender youth “transition” to express their gender identity through various changes, such as wearing clothes and adopting a physical appearance that aligns with their internal sense of gender. Transitioning may or may not include medical or surgical treatment and depends on a variety of factors, including age, access to and affordability of services, overall health, and personal choice. For transgender youth, transitioning is an important part of affirming their identity.27


Gender-Affirming Care and Young People (PDF, 2 pages) 
This resource provides information on gender-affirming care, what it looks like, why it matters, and offers additional resources related to transgender and gender diverse children and adolescents. A glossary of common terms to know when providing gender-affirming care is also included. 

Answers to Your Questions about Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression (PDF, 6 pages)
This document provides information about the difference between biological sex and gender, as well as about gender identity/expression and transgender identity.

Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality
This document provides information about sexual orientation and the impact of prejudice and discrimination on those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.


1 Institute of Medicine, 2011
2 Bearse, 2012; Poirier, Fisher, Hunt & Bearse, 2014
3 Wamsley, 2021
4 PFLAG, 2021
5 GLAAD, 2021
6 PFLAG, 2021
7 GLAAD, 2021
8 Poirier, Fisher, Hunt & Bearse, 2014
9 GLAAD, 2021
10 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2012
11 Institute of Medicine, 2011
12 Lev & Alie, 2012
13 Poirier, Fisher, Hunt & Bearse, 2014
14 University of Massachusetts Amherst, n.d.
15 PFLAG, 2021
16 Wamsley, 2021
17 Vanderbilt University, 2021
18 Wamsley, 2021
19 University of Massachusetts Amherst, n.d.
20 Vanderbilt University, 2021
21 University of Massachusetts Amherst, n.d.
22 Institute of Medicine, 2011
23 Malouf & Baratz, 2012; Poirier, Fisher, Hunt & Bearse, 2014
24 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2012
25 Wamsley, 2021
26 GLAAD, 2021
27 Poirier, Fisher, Hunt & Bearse, 2014

Other Resources on this Topic


Youth Briefs

How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference for Youth with Disabilities

Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).