A few years ago, the prevailing acronym for the gay community was, “LGB,” which stands for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi-Sexual. Over time, it grew to a more inclusive, “LGBT,” with the addition of Transgender to the mix. Pretty soon, people were using “LGBTQ” and “LGBTQIA” and a whole host of other versions until it all got a bit confusing!
So which acronym is the “right one” and which terms are ok to use? What does LGBTQIA mean? Well, there’s no simple answer there, which is why we’re providing this Glossary of Gender and Sexuality Terms to help you navigate the sometimes-unclear waters of LGBT-related language.
First, it’s important to note that a single label, acronym, or letter within an acronym could never sum up a whole group of people or even a single individual. We are all so much more than the categories into which we fit. But having these categories, labels, and terms helps us understand the topic at hand, helps us speak intentionally and clearly, and helps us demonstrate respect for the individuals to whom we are referring or speaking. That said, let’s talk terms!
The Sanctuary Counseling Glossary of
Gender and Sexuality Terms
(Arranged relationally rather than alphabetically)
LGBTQIA: Ok, this is a biggie, and there are a bunch of sub-sets and expansions of this acronym, including LGB, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQI, LGBTQIA, and even other variations. The best way to understand this is to see what each letter represents and therefore understand that the longer acronyms are simply more inclusive and, at the same time, specific. LGBTQIA includes (in order) the terms, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual (sometimes written “Bisexual” as one word, which carries the same meaning), Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual.
Lesbian: A lesbian is a person who identifies as female and is sexually attracted to other women. The term can be used appropriately as both a noun and as an adjective. “Cathy is a lesbian,” or “Cathy has been instrumental in obtaining equal benefits for gay and lesbian spouses.”
Gay: The term, “gay” refers to people who identify as male and are attracted to other men. Interestingly, “gay” is a more inclusive term than “lesbian,” because “gay” is also an acceptable term for lesbians, while “lesbian” is gender-specific to women. The term, “gay” is used interchangeably with “homosexual” as an adjective. However, while it is considered appropriate to say, “Cathy is a lesbian,” using the word, “gay” as a noun is no longer the standard. That is, we do not say, “Matt is a gay,” but it is acceptable to say, “I am a homosexual,” just as one might say, “I am a heterosexual.” With regard to “gay,” it’s usually an adjective, i.e.: “I’m gay.”
Bi-sexual: People who are bi-sexual are sexually attracted to both men and women. It is important to understand that if a bi-sexual woman is in a same-sex relationship, that doesn’t make her a lesbian, just as being in a subsequent relationship with a man wouldn’t make her heterosexual. The point is that bi-sexual people identify as being attracted to both genders, and that does not change based on current relationship status. Therefore, it is considered very rude to ask things such as, “So, you’re a lesbian now?” when someone who identifies as bi-sexual is in a same-sex relationship.
Transgender: “Transgender” is a broad term used to describe people whose gender and sex do not match up. Gender is generally defined by a person’s inner sense of being male or female. It’s how you self-identify. Sex, on the other hand, is a biological definition based on chromosomes and genitalia. A transgender woman is someone who was born physically male but identifies as female (sometimes, “trans woman” or “MTF” for “male to female.”). A transgender man is someone who was born physically female but identifies as male (in this case, sometimes, “trans man” or “FTM” for “female to male.”).
The term, “transgender” is the current preferred terminology. “Transgendered,” implies that the state of being transgender is something that happens or changes, and thus it is not considered an appropriate term and may, to some people, be considered offensive. “Transgender” and “trans” are currently the only widely accepted terms.
Within regard to the transgender community, it’s important for trans allies to keep in mind that it is never appropriate to “out” someone as transgender without his or her consent. Additionally, it is rude to ask what someone’s “real” (birth) name is. Rather, you can demonstrate respect for the transgender people in your life by calling them by their chosen names, politely asking what their preferred pronouns are (He or she? Him or her?), and remembering the choice to disclose one’s status as transgender is personal. It’s a form of coming out, just as when people say they are gay. Receive this information with appreciation for the trust it may imply and understand that while being transgender is a matter of biology and is no more a choice than being left- or right-handed, it does impact nearly every aspect of a person’s life. Offer your support and learn more about becoming a trans-ally!
Queer: The word, “queer” used to be a derogatory, slang term for homosexuals that was often used as an insult to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Over the last twenty years, the term has been beautifully reclaimed by the gay community, and now it is used in a variety of ways. Most often, it is used to describe people whose gender and sexual identities fall more within the gender and sexuality spectrums and not into heterosexual, heteronormative, gender-binary definitions of gender, sex, and sexuality. Some people use “queer” to include people who are intersex, genderqueer, asexual, pansexual, and who otherwise fall somewhere outside what is typical of heterosexual and homosexual behavior and/or definitions. However, “queer” can still be considered rude or offensive, particularly when used to describe homosexual people, so it’s really best not to use this word unless you know it is a person or group’s preferred terminology.
Questioning: This is a great term, and it’s really helpful for people who aren’t quite sure where (if anywhere) they fall within the whole framework of the LGBTQIA alphabet soup. Am I a lesbian? Am I transgender? Am I bi-sexual? For some, the answers are clear from a very young age, and for others, separating gender identity issues from sexuality issues, accepting one’s own homosexuality, or coming to realize that one falls somewhere in between or outside the parameters of what one has always considered, “normal,” can be really challenging and can take time. The “questioning” label is helpful for people who think they identify as LGBTQIA but aren’t quite sure where they fit as yet.
Intersex: Just as with “transgender,” being intersex is a constant state of being, not something that happens to a person, and thus, adding an –ed to the end is not appropriate. Rather, people ARE intersex, and that doesn’t change. So what does it mean? Being intersex means quite a lot, actually.
In our social constructs, gender is one of the most basic forms of self-identification. A baby is born, and we ask, “Is it a girl or a boy?” In some cases, however, babies are born intersex. This means that the person has sexual anatomy or reproductive organs that don’t quite fit the standard definition of male or female. They may be a blend of the two, with external sexual characteristics that look male but with internal female reproductive organs. A boy may be born with a scrotum that is so divided that it appears more like labia, or a girl may have such a large clitoris that she appears to have a small penis. People who are intersex may have male chromosomes but appear physically female and vice versa, and they may have non-standard chromosomal arrangements.
The antiquated term, “hermaphrodite,” is inappropriate and has no place in a discussion about being intersex or falling somewhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum. Although some uninformed people do still use this terminology to describe people who do not quite fit into one or the other end of the gender binary, it is typically considered an offensive term in addition to being a physical impossibility, as it implies a state of being completely female and male at once.
Asexual: People who are asexual do not identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bi-sexual, or any other sexual orientation, such as pan-sexuality. People who are asexual (sometimes called, “nonsexual”) are not sexually attracted to other people. This is different from choosing abstinence or celibacy, as people can certainly abstain from sexual acts yet still be sexually attracted to others. Asexual people are not only not celibate, they simply do not experience sexual attraction.
beyond, “gay-friendly” to a place of true welcoming and equality. Read more about LGBTQ-Affirming therapy here.