LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.


As a teacher, you may have students (or coworkers, or parents) who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, or a myriad of other ways. Youth are constantly figuring out their identities, and sexual orientation and gender identity are but two elements of their identity they may explore. To teach all students, it helps to understand these identities.

This section will explain some of the words your students may choose to use. These terms also change, so don’t feel bad if you can’t remember them all. It is more important that you are welcoming. Being willing to learn and talk about these identities will mean more to your students than remembering an exact definition. If a student feels comfortable enough with you to confide in you about their sexual orientation or gender identity, they will probably be comfortable if you ask them how they identify. Many LGBTQIA people prefer being asked about their identity than for assumptions to be made. Again, the most important thing is to be welcoming to your students; they can tell you more about their identity if they wish.

Given that people invent new words to describe their identities constantly, our list is likely not all-inclusive. If there is something we missed that you would like to see included, or you think we have misrepresented any terms in this resource, please contact us and let us know.

Sexual Orientation versus Gender Identity

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s physical, emotional, romantic, and/or spiritual connection to another person(s). Some sexual orientation identities are: heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer.
Gender identity refers to a person’s internal self-awareness of being either man or woman, both, neither, or something else entirely. Some gender identities are: male/man, female/woman, transgender.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are separate. A person may identify as a female lesbian, a female heterosexual, a transgender gay man, etc.
Gender expression is how someone shows their gender on the outside, through clothing, hairstyle, body language, etc. Because the way we think about gender varies from place to place, gender expression does as well. For example, in some places men are generally expected to have short hair, while in other places men with long hair may be common.


  • A transgender student who is beginning to transition may start dressing differently. A trans girl may wear dresses and skirts, earrings, or grow her hair to her shoulders.
  • A female student of any sexual orientation may prefer to dress in a masculine way, wearing baggy jeans and shirts, baseball hats, or the clothing generally worn by boys at school.

Sex versus Gender

Sex refers to a person’s anatomy and biology. When people are born, their legal sex is determined when a doctor examines their body.
Terms describing sex: male, female, intersex (defined in the advanced vocabulary section).
Gender is a socially constructed system of classification. This means that society decides what it means to be a man, a woman, or something else.
Terms describing gender: man, woman, trans, genderqueer (explained in the advanced vocabulary section), etc.


  • If we see someone wearing a dress, we generally assume they are a woman.
  • Boys are expected to act tough and are discouraged from showing emotion.
  • Girls who like sports and dislike “girly” things are called “tomboys.”

It’s a spectrum

Most of us learn that gender is boy or girl, and that sexuality is gay or straight. But real life is more complicated than this, which is why many people prefer to think of gender and sexuality as a spectrum. This means that rather than only boy or girl, or gay or straight, there are many other identities. Picturing it in this way is also useful when thinking of sexuality and gender as fluid—people may change their expressions and identities, and that’s okay. This also explains why you may see the word “spectrum” in the names of LGBTQIA centers or groups.

Gender expression, biological sex (see description of intersex in the advanced vocabulary section), and sexual and romantic attraction can also be described in terms of a spectrum.

For a visual of these ideas, check out the Genderbread Person. This model explains the differences between gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and attraction. All of these forms of identity are also shown on a spectrum. While it is not all-encompassing, it is an excellent tool for understanding the complexities and possibilities of these identities.