LGBTQIA+ Terminology: The Meaning Of Each Letter

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Nobody wants to put their foot in their mouth, especially with queer friends or colleagues.

But have you ever wondered why it's not only so important to us that you get the words right — why people like me, a politically active and vocal member of the queer community, always corrects people on the LGBTQIA+ meaning — but why the terminology seems so overly complicated, tedious even, if it matters so deeply?

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What do the letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym stand for — and what does all that terminology mean?

I get it. You might, for example, see the even longer acronym — LGBTIAAQQPP+ — and think, "OMG, why can't we just say 'gay' and leave it at that?" (That particularly long sip of alphabet-soup stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual, Androgynous, Queer, Questioning, Pansexual and Polyamorous, by the way.)

These words are so important to us because they are the words we use to describe the most important aspect of ourselves: our identity. And the difference between two words you might think sound pretty similar can actually be quite vast.

If you're willing to listen and learn, I'll try not to make your head spin. But know that these definitions are important because they're important to us. And really, they're not so complicated.

Here's what each term in the LGBTQIA+ acronym stands for on the spectrum of human sexuality, gender orientation, and identity.

L = Lesbian

The oversimplified definition would be to say a lesbian is a woman who is romantically and sexually attracted to other women.

The more technically correct version of that definition would be to say a lesbian is a women whose gender identity is female, and whose romantic orientation and sexual attraction are to other women who identify as female.

G = Gay

The word gay can get confusing.

Within LGBTQIA+ community acronyms, gay refers to a man whose gender identity is male, and who is romantically and sexually attracted to other men who identify as male. However, it's also used as a catch-all term for anyone who is homosexual.

Some believe this word is used incorrectly in the term "gay marriage," as it may be implied to only refer to marriages between homosexual cis-men. The term "same-sex marriage" is preferred because it is more clearly inclusive of all genders, including gay men.

B = Bisexual

Bisexuality refers to people of of any gender who are romantically and sexually attracted to people of both binary genders — male and female. This can be a man or woman attracted to men 50 percent of the time and women 50 percent of the time, but the balance is often uneven, as sexuality, even within these narrow definitions, falls on a spectrum.

People sometimes ask about the difference between being bisexual vs. being pansexual.

The word "pansexual" starts with the root “pan,” meaning “all.” People who identify as pansexual are romantically and sexually attracted to people regardless of their gender identity — men or women, trans or cis, they all work. And no, they are not attracted to frying pans.

Some people also assume being bi or pansexual means you're inherently polyamorous. That is incorrect.

The word "polyamorous" comes from Greek and Latin roots and it translates to “many loves.” A polyamorous person can be in love with many people at the same time. This can be hard because society pressures us to be happy with one person alone, but some people are capable of more than monogamy allows.

Polyamory is not the same as cheating. Cheating is sleeping with someone behind your partner's back. Polyamorous relationships involve open communication and trust.

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T = Transgender

This is an umbrella term that can be loosely defined as someone whose gender identity does not match the biological sex they were assigned at birth according to the appearance of their sexual organs.

To fully understand transgender people, it's important to understand the distinctions between biological sex, gender orientation or identity, and gender expression.

Biological sex is determined by the chromosomes, hormones, and sex orgams you are born with, generally making you man or woman.

Gender identity of orientation refers to how you see yourself, as male, female, other or neither.

Gender expression refers to the outward characteristics you present to the world and which cause you to be perceived (gender presentation) as any particular gender.

Say that you are designated female at birth, but identify as male. This would make you a Female to Male transgender man, or a transman for short. If you want to make it even shorter, Female to Male can be abbreviated as F2M. Similarly, if you were designated male at birth but identify as female, you might refer to yourself as a transwoman, Male to Female, or M2F.

While most people believe there are only two genders, there is a lot more diversity in the world.

Many cultures throughout the world have traditionally recognized the existence of three or more genders, including:

Māhū is "an intermediate state between man and woman, or a 'person of indeterminate gender'" recognized by Native Hawaiians and Tahitians.

Some Diné Native Americans "acknowledge a spectrum of four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, and masculine man."

The hijras of India, fa'afafine of Polynesia, and burrnesha (sworn virgins) of Albania have all gained legal status in their respective countries as legitimate third genders.

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People may also identify as bigender, multiplegender, non-binary, androgynous, and/or genderfluid.

And there are people who are agender, meaning without gender at all, either because they were born with genitals of both biological sexes (more on that in a minute), or because they do not feel a part of masculine or feminine identity in the gender binary.

There are many ways transmen and transwomen may choose to alter their physical appearance so that their gender expression matches their orientations or gender identities. This may be limited to external factors such as their selection of clothes, haircuts, body language, or speech patterns. Others choose to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and surgeries to change to their secondary sex characteristics and more closely conform to their gender.

People who wish to permanently transition to the gender they identify with through medical assistance, such as sex reassignment surgery, may be considered transsexual in addition to or instead of considering themselves to be transgender.

If your gender matches the sex you were given at birth, you are considered cisgender.

Note: Gender orientation and sexual orientation are not the same. Just as a cisgender woman can be a lesbian, a transwoman can be one, too.

To clarify, someone designated biologically male at birth can be attracted to women, transition to being a woman, still find women attractive, and therefore identify as a lesbian transwoman. Lesbian is the label for that person's sexual orientation. Woman is the label for her gender orientation.

Sexuality = who you love; gender = who you are.

Q = Queer

​Queer means everything on the spectrum of human sexuality that is non-straight and/or non-cisgender.

Queer is the umbrella term for this entire acronym. Everything under it is queer, but there is more to queer than the other letters. Some people use the word to describe themselves if two or more letters in the LQBTQIA+ acronym apply to them, or if their identity is more gray than it is black and white.

Q may also mean questioning.

Sometimes people aren’t sure whether or not they belong in queer communities. The fact that they have considered this earns them a place in the acronym because every other letter starts from someone questioning their self-identity.

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I = Intersex

When a baby is born, the doctor look between its legs and assigns a biological sex.

Approximately 1.7 percent of the population is born intersex, "an umbrella term that refers to people who have one or more of a range of variations in sex characteristics that fall outside of traditional conceptions of male or female bodies."

That percentage is roughly the same as for the number of people born with red hair.

Doctors will often choose a sex and suggest parents allow them to perform surgeries or begin hormone therapies to "correct" what they see as anatomical anomalies. The child, who is often still an infant when treatment begins, cannot consent or tell anyone what gender they are.

Support and advocacy groups for intersex people have been established with a focus on preventing unnecessary surgeries and genital mutilation by outlawing "nonconsenual medical interventions to modify sex anatomy."

Intersex people do not have specific sexual orientations or gender.

A = Asexual

Asexual literally means “non-sexual.” Asexuality falls under its own spectrum, known as the asexual spectrum, aka a-spec.

Some examples of orientations with the the asexual spectrum include:

Asexual: people who don't experience a sexual attraction to anyone.

Aromantic: people who don't experience a romantic attraction to anyone.

Grey-sexual/greyromantic: "anyone who falls in some area between being asexual and sexual, or aromantic and romantic."

Demisexual/Demiromantic: people who experience attraction only when it develops over time and in the context of a relationship and emotional connection.

+ = Everything else

Our understanding of sexuality and gender is constantly evolving. The plus sign symbolizes a holding place, waiting for the next letter to arrive.

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Julian Klein is a writer and ESL trainer/instructor based in New York. He is a former contributor to YourTango.