Sexuality: Useful Terms to Understand


Sexuality is an important part of who we are as human beings from the time we are born to the time we die. It is made up of many things such as our biological sex; gender identity; gender roles; sexual orientation; and our abilities and choices around reproduction, intimacy, and sexual expression.

Sexuality can be experienced and expressed through our thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behavior/activities, roles, and relationships. Everyone is unique and therefore, there is a lot of diversity in the ways that people experience and express their sexuality.

Our sexuality does not exist in a bubble. It is influenced by many different factors such as our biology, our emotional well-being, our spiritual beliefs, and our social/economic /political /cultural environments. It is also influenced by religion, the legal system, and the values and attitudes of people around us. Sometimes it can be difficult to sort out how we really feel, or what we really want when there is so much outside pressure to be/think/act a certain way. If you are having issues with any parts of your sexuality, you can always call us at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre and we will do our best to help you. We have a sexuality counsellor, an educator, and several nurses and doctors who are here to support the healthy development of your sexual well-being.

Biological Sex

Biological sex refers to the categories that we are commonly (and imperfectly) divided into based primarily on the physical anatomy of our genitals. Typically, these categories are male and female, but it is possible for people to have a mixture of male and female biological sex characteristics.


Intersex refers to people who have a combination of male and female biological sex characteristics. For example, a child may have genitals that do not fit the typical definition of male or female. Or a child may be born with genitals that are easy to identify as male or female, but have internal reproductive organs that are usually associated with the other sex.

It is estimated that 1 in every 2000 children is born with intersex characteristics. Many parents of intersex children choose genital surgeries and hormone treatments to make their childrens’ bodies conform to the standard of either “male” or “female”. In recent years, there has been a growing movement to prevent these types of surgeries and treatments.

For more information and a list of resources, please visit PFLAG Canada's "Helpful links for people who are intersex."


Gender refers to a collection of traits, behaviors, and roles that are culturally associated with maleness or femaleness. For example, the color pink is stereotypically associated with females and blue with males. Female children are stereotypically expected to play with dolls, while male children are often expected to play with toy cars.

Gender is a social and cultural construct, which means that it is something that is created and then supported by a society/culture through things like language, media, and policies. Concepts of gender may differ across cultures and throughout time.

Gender Identity

Gender identity refers to someone’s internal self-awareness of being male, female, or a combination of male/female. A person’s gender identity may or may not be the same as their biological sex. For example, a person could be born with a penis, but identify as a female. We are often taught that a person’s biological sex should be the same as their gender, but this is an outdated teaching. Human beings are diverse and this is something to be honored and celebrated!

Gender Expression

Gender expression refers to the behaviors and characteristics that a person presents (intentionally or not) that demonstrate their gender identity. Examples of ways that people express their gender include clothing, hair styles, mannerisms, speech patterns, etc.


From a broad perspective, transgender persons are individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression differ from conventional expectations of their biological sex. For example, a person may be born “female” (a label based on genitalia), but may not have an internal self-awareness of being female.

The word “transgender” or “trans” is often used as an umbrella term to describe a diverse range of identities and experiences. Examples include transsexuals, FTMs, MTFs, cross-dressers, drag queens, drag kings, two-spirits, gender queers, and many more.


FTM is an abbreviation for “female to male” and MTF is an abbreviation for “male to female”. These terms refer to transgender or transsexual persons who identify with a gender that differs from their biological sex at birth.

Cross-Dresser and Transvestite

These terms refer to persons who wear the clothing, or perform the mannerisms of the opposite sex and/or gender. Sometimes cross-dressing is an exploration into gender identity, but often it is done for the purpose of sexual gratification, entertainment, or a multitude of other reasons.


This is a term that refers to transgender traditions within some Native American and First Nations indigenous groups. “Two-Spirited” often means that an individual has both a male and female spirit within their body, which is associated with a variety of unique roles and practices within the person’s culture.

Gender Queer

The term “gender queer” is typically used to describe individuals whose gender identity is neither male nor female. Someone may identify as between or beyond genders, or they may simply reject the traditional binary system of classifying people as male or female.


This term refers to persons whose gender is the same as their biological sex. For example, someone who is born with female biological sex characteristics and identifies as a female.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to the sex(es) and/or gender(s) that a person is sexually, emotionally, and/or romantically attracted to. There are several types of sexual orientation:

  • may refer specifically to males who are attracted to males; or be used to describe persons of all sexes and/or genders who are attracted to people of the same sex and/or gender
  • females attracted to females
  • attracted to both male and female sexes and/or genders
  • attracted to the opposite sex and/or gender. Often referred to as “straight”
  • attracted to all or any sexes and/or genders
  • not attracted to any sex and/or gender

What Do the Letters “LGBTTIQQ” Stand For?

These letters stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirited, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning. There are several variations of this phrase, and sometimes people will use the term “rainbow community” in reference to people who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, intersex, queer, and/or questioning.