Updated: Aug 8
If you’re feeling a bit behind the times with all the new terminology coming out to describe gender, sexual, and romantic minorities, you’re not alone! Some LGBTQIA+ folk joke that it’s becoming a bit like alphabetti spaghetti, with new terms and labels being created to describe every intricacy of one’s sexual, gender or romantic identity.
This blog will go over some of the more commonly used words among LGBTQIA+ people as well as some words that have become reclaimed. Reclamation is the process where words that were widely understood as derogatory have been used enough by LGBTQIA+ people to describe themselves that they have mostly lost those negative connotations. While there is still debate around reclamation and whether it’s appropriate or sensitive, it’s difficult to ignore the increasing number of young people adopting the word ‘queer’ to describe themselves, so we hope awareness of reclamation results in more widespread respect of people’s preferred labels.
The basics: LGBT
You may know already that LGBT stands for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender’, but it’s worth going over the basics. This acronym used to be seen as a catch-all for non-heterosexual people, but as the acronym LGBTQIA+ implies, there have been many additions since LGBT came into common usage. Let’s break it down:
Lesbian is an identity that describes women who are mostly or entirely attracted to other women. Because transgender women are women, this means that if they are attracted women, then they are lesbian, too. Some people prefer to use the term ‘Sapphic’ (a reference to Sappho, a poet from Lesbos who passionately wrote about her attraction to women) or ‘WLW’, meaning ‘women loving women’. This is because some women are mostly attracted to women, and may in a relationship with a woman, but also experience attraction at times to other genders.
Gay is an identity that used to more exclusively refer to men who are mostly or entirely attracted to other men, but it has become more of an umbrella term for anyone who is non-heterosexual. People from across the LGBTQIA+ community often refer to themselves and each other as ‘The Gays’ for this reason. Arguably, this has been in part due to reclamation; in the 2000s in particular, ‘gay’ was used in a derogative way as a synonym for uncool, ‘weak’, or undesirable. This led to an iconic PSA by Lizzie McGuire to combat this meaning of the word gay, which you can watch here. As above, some gay men prefer the term ‘MLM’ (men loving men) to be more specific about their identity, or because they sometimes (but not often) experience attraction to other genders.
Bisexual is a word that is a little deceiving, as ‘bi’, coming from the Greek, generally means ‘two’. You might summate that bisexual, therefore, means attraction to two genders. However, for decades bisexual activists have been trying to debunk this myth, and have emphasised that bisexuality means an attraction to two or more genders. As the Bisexual Manifesto (written in 1990) notes: ‘Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary […] in nature; that we must have "two" sides or that we MUST be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don't assume that there are only two genders.’ The colours on the bisexual flag represent this also, with blue, purple, and pink representing men, non-binary genders, and women respectively. The term is initially a bit confusing though, and some people have come up with the term ‘pansexual’ to describe those who experience attraction to all genders or in spite of someone’s gender. However, others have stuck to the term ‘bisexual’ because although they experience attraction to multiple genders, it may not be all genders. Some may use the term ‘bisexual’ because it’s more widely known than ‘pansexual’, or because people tend to make the same joke over and over about being attracted to kitchenware (PSA: this stopped being funny the third time, never mind the hundredth!). Also, some people prefer the colours on the bisexual pride flag than the pansexual colours (blue, pink, and yellow) and use ‘bisexual’ as a result, which goes to show that label usage can be very fluid! There is also the lesser-known word ‘polysexual’, which describes attraction to multiple genders.
Transgender is word that is becoming more familiar, and is seen as more inclusive than older terms such as ‘transsexual’, which implies a person must medically transition to be considered trans, or ‘transvestite’, which arguably describes a gender non-conforming act (available to cisgender people) more than an identity. [A quick note: cisgender refers to someone who is not transgender, i.e., someone who is the gender they were designated at birth]. While some transgender people do medically transition, meaning they take feminising or masculinising hormones, and/or undergo gender-affirming surgery, such as changing their genitalia or removing breast tissue, not all trans people choose to do so. This may be because of limited access to such health care, or because they do not feel they need to change their bodies medically in order to live as their gender. Some trans people are ‘binary trans’ which means they transitioned from male to female, or female to male; they are called ‘trans women’ and ‘trans men’ respectively. They tend to use binary pronouns, meaning trans women often use she/her and trans men he/him. The exception is if they feel that non-binary identity resonates with them, and they may use two sets: she/they, or he/they. To use two sets of pronouns, the idea is to change between them when referring to the person using them, for example: ‘How is she? I saw them the other day.’
This leads us to our next term:
This is relatively new label and comes under the trans umbrella. People tend to be more familiar with binary trans people, but non-binary trans people are increasingly coming out due to the label becoming more widely used. Non-binary people tend to use they/them pronouns, but not always. Some use two or three sets as above, including she/they, he/they, or even she/they/he. There are different types of non-binary identity, and some will identify with multiple at once or at different points in their lives. They are:
Genderfluid: this describes someone who feels they do not have a fixed gender.
Agender: someone who feels they have no gender at all.
Genderflux: someone who experiences a range of intensity regarding their gender.
Demigender (i.e., demi-girl/demi-boy): someone who feels partial affinity to a binary gender, but not completely.
Trans femme & trans masc: this describes non-binary people who have transitioned from being assigned male at birth but identify more closely with femininity, and people who are assigned female at birth but identify more closely with masculinity, respectively. Some may describe themselves in more gendered terms (e.g., ‘man’ or ‘woman’) whilst others prefer more gender-neutral terms (‘person’).
What’s maybe harder to grasp about non-binary identity is that, like binary trans identity, it posits that gender is not a fixed or essential biological fact. The fact that gender can change – through clothing, pronouns, hormones, presentation, social recognition, and self-conceptualisation – shows that it is not innate or unchangeable. Non-binary people therefore do not always or even often present in an androgynous fashion, nor think of themselves as a ‘third sex’. Rather, they believe that bodies are often needlessly gendered, or gendered in a needlessly static way, and have chosen not to conform to that way of thinking.
The longer acronym: LGBTQIA+
Queer/questioning: there are some debates over the ‘q’; some say it means queer, which is a reclaimed word that is a catch-all for all romantic, sexual, and gender minorities. Questioning, however, refers to someone who is in the process of figuring out their identity. In the spirit of fluidity that discussions of non-conforming genders and sexualities tend to evoke, questioning is a welcome identity that gives people the time and space to settle into a label they feel comfortable with, or to change label entirely without judgement.
Intersex: people who are born with a combination of what we consider typically female and typically male biological traits. Intersex people are not necessarily non-binary and may identify as a binary gender (e.g., as a man or woman).
Asexual/aromantic: asexual refers to someone who does not feel sexual attraction, while aromantic refers to someone who does not experience romantic attraction. Many asexual people are not aromantic and form romantic relationships, and may describe themselves as heteroromantic, homoromantic, or biromantic depending on who they are romantically attracted to. Similarly, aromantics may experience sexual attraction. Finally, some people are both asexual and aromantic, and may self-describe as ‘aro-ace.’
+ refers to any identity not explicitly covered by the acronym, such as some of the non-binary identities mentioned above (though arguably they would come under ‘T’), as well as some more niche labels such as demisexual (someone who experiences attraction once forming a strong emotional bond). There is some contestation over this label and it tends not to be explicitly included because this form of attraction is rarely the basis of discrimination or political disempowerment. However, some feel it’s important to include in order to give a more accurate picture of the wide, multifaceted spectrum of human attraction.
Some tips going forward
This is a lot of information to take in, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right 100% of the time! The main takeaway is that you can’t always tell someone’s identity just by looking. The best thing is to try and listen to how people describe themselves, and if you’re unsure, you can always ask – as long as the questions are respectful.
Please DON’T ask:
What are your genitals? / What’s in your pants?
What were you born as?
Why do you dress like a man / a woman / like that?
How do you have sex?
What are your pronouns?
Do you prefer gender-neutral or gendered terms to describe yourself? Which ones?
How do you describe yourself?
Why does it matter?
You might be sitting there thinking, why does this even matter? As some have stated in reaction to LGBTQIA+ discussions, “who cares what people do in the bedroom?” However, being a romantic, gender, or sexual minority is more than just about your sex life. It’s about identity, community, and culture. It’s about who you are and who you love, which are fundamentally human parts of yourself. It’s also sadly true that LGBTQIA+ people still struggle to find acceptance, so it’s important to take the time to create an atmosphere of inclusion and understanding for everyone.
Thank you for taking the time to read and we hope this has helped clarify some terminology, so that we can create a safe environment for all genders and sexualities.