Written by Joanna Whitehead
Although Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ+) people have been around for millennia, the evolution of language means that those within the community continue to find more inclusive and accurate terms to best describe themselves, as Stonewall’s ever-evolving glossary of terms proves. While these changes are positive, some people feel nervous about saying the wrong thing or using inaccurate terminology, especially if they’re new to the community or an ally.
So, as a starting point, we’ve pulled together a list of the most common LGBTQ+ terms with easy-to-understand definitions. As a rule, however, it’s always best to ask someone what words they use to describe their gender identity or sexual orientation and use those.
Ally: An ally is someone who actively supports and stands up for members of the LGBTQ+ community and equality. This is often a heterosexual person, but they may also be a member of the LGBTQ+ community who stands up for another member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Asexual: An asexual, or “ace” person is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction to anyone. It’s important to note that sexuality is a spectrum, so this means different things to different people. Some people who identify as asexual, known as “grey-asexuals,” may experience rare feelings of sexual attraction to another person in certain circumstances. Asexuality is not the same as celibacy because celibacy is a choice, while asexuality isn’t. Asexual people may still experience romantic attraction. They might also build long-term relationships and choose to have sex for reasons outside of sexual attraction.
Aromantic: While asexual people do not experience sexual attraction to other people, aromantic people are slightly different because they don’t experience romantic attraction to others. Aromantic people are also in the ace category and, similarly to asexual people, may identify as gay, lesbian, heterosexual, or queer to define the direction of their attraction to others.
Bisexual/bi: A bisexual person is someone who experiences attraction to more than one gender. While “bi” means two, many bisexual people understand bisexuality to be inclusive of any and all genders. Best practice in the LGBTQ+ community is to use “bi,” rather than “bisexual” as an umbrella term that encompasses identities like pan (below).
Cisgender: A cisgender, or cis, person is someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, Beyoncé is a cis woman, while Caitlyn Jenner is a trans woman whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s important to note that cis identity specifically refers to a person’s gender identity, not their sexual orientation. Similar to trans (below), the word “cis” comes from the Latin meaning “on the same side as.”
Gay: The word “gay” is generally used to describe someone who is sexually or romantically attracted to people of the same gender. Historically, the word was largely used to describe men who were attracted to other men, but now women, trans, and non-binary people may also use this label to describe their sexual orientation.
Gender binary: The gender binary is the strict classification of people into two opposing categories — man or woman. Under this system, individuals are often expected to conform to traditional, cultural, or societal expectations of what constitutes femininity or masculinity, such as subservience in women and leadership in men. Many people consider the gender binary to be both prescriptive and restrictive in terms of enabling people to be who they want to be.
Gender dysphoria: Gender dysphoria is the distress a person feels when the sex they were assigned at birth does not correlate with their gender identity. When gender dysphoria is particularly acute, it can severely impact a person’s life and result in depression, anxiety, or trauma responses.
Gender-fluid: A person who describes themselves as gender-fluid is someone who does not align themselves with a single fixed gender identity, such as man or woman. While one gender-fluid person’s identity can change over time, for others it remains fluid. It’s important to note that gender-fluidity is concerned with a person’s gender and is different from sexual orientation.
Gender identity: Unlike sex assigned at birth, which is based on the physical attributes of a person, gender identity is a person’s internal sense of self. So their gender identity could be woman, man, non-binary, queer, or otherwise. When someone’s gender identity is aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth, they are referred to as “cisgender.” When their gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, they may identify as transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, or another term that is right for them.
Gender non-conforming: This term is used to describe a person whose gender expression does not conform to binary ideas of man or woman.
Homosexual: This antiquated term was used historically to refer to people who were attracted to people of the same gender, but it’s rarely used today. “Homosexual” can also be found in antiquated medical contexts that consider same-sex attraction to be a medically dangerous condition. Today, same-gender attracted people often refer to themselves as gay, lesbian, or queer.
Intersex: Intersex is an umbrella term that includes a range of variations that don’t always conform to the male/female binary. This means intersex people often have physical variations in sex characteristics and reproductive anatomy, including differences in gentalia, chromosomes, hormone production, and gonads. Being intersex isn’t a medical problem, but sometimes medical staff will perform surgery on babies to make their biologial anatomy “fit” the gender binary. This is extremely controversial — many people believe that intersex bodies should not be treated as a problem to be “fixed.” Not everyone who is intersex undergoes surgery, and many people may go through their entire life without knowing they are intersex. Being intersex does not determine a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
LGBTQ+: The term LGBTQ is an abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, and Queer. The + is used to indicate that this is not a comprehensive list of people falling under the rainbow banner, and may include different related identities, such as intersex or ace people.
Lesbian: A lesbian is a woman who is romantically or sexually attracted to people of the same gender. Some non-binary or gender-fluid people may also use this term to describe themselves.
Non-binary: Non-binary is a recognized gender identity used by people who do not identify as a man or a woman. They may consider themselves to be both male and female, somewhere in the middle, or outside of this binary entirely. Other terms under the non-binary umbrella include genderqueer, gender-fluid, and agender. Sam Smith and Demi Lovato are both non-binary.
Pansexual/pan: Pansexuality refers to people who are romantically or sexually attracted to people regardless of their sex or gender. Best practice in the LGBTQ+ community is to use “pan,” rather than “pansexual.”
Pronouns: Pronouns are words we use instead of using a person’s name. In many languages, pronouns have a gender (like “she” or “he”). Some people, particularly non-binary or gender fluid people, use they/them as their pronouns. Others use neopronouns like ze/zir or e/eir. If you’re unsure how a person refers to themselves, simply ask “what are your pronouns?” rather than make an assumption. Most people are happy to clarify. Plus, asking the question can help a person feel respected and included. If you mess up someone’s pronouns, quickly apologize and move on, rather than making a big deal about it.
Queer: Queer is an umbrella term that incorporates a range of identities outside the mainstream. These can refer to gender identity and sexual orientation, such as being a lesbian, but can also refer to those in the LGBTQ+ community who actively reject racism, sexism, sizeism, and ableism. While the label was historically a derogatory slur used against LGBTQ+ people, it has been reclaimed by many parts of the community.
Trans: Trans people are those whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. The most recognized understanding of the transgender experience is a binary transition where, for example, someone is assigned female at birth who is actually male (actor Elliot Page, for example), but there are many types of transgender experiences. These include being non-binary, gender-fluid, or another term that is right for that person. After all, the definition of “trans” in Latin is “through, across, and beyond.” Being trans or transgender is unconnected to sexual orientation, so a trans person may identify as gay, straight, lesbian, or whatever is right for them in the same way a cisgender person would.
Trans man: A trans man is someone who identifies and lives as a man, but who was assigned female at birth. They may also be known as FTM, an abbreviation for female-to-male. Elliot Page and Chaz Bono are both trans men.
Trans woman: A trans woman is someone who identifies and lives as a woman, but was assigned male at birth. They may also be known as MTF, an abbreviation for male-to-female. Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner are both trans women.
Transsexual: Like “homosexual,” “transsexual” is largely an outdated, historical term used to refer to someone whose gender is different from what they were assigned at birth. It’s generally considered offensive today. Most trans people prefer “trans.”
Transitioning: Transitioning is the process by which a person moves from the gender they were assigned at birth, to the gender or identity they actually are. This can involve telling friends and family, dressing differently, and changing their name, or gender markers, socially or on official documentation. While some people go through what is called a “medical transition,” which can include gender-affirming surgery or hormones, many trans people choose not to. It’s important to remember that transitioning medically does not make someone more, or less, valid as a trans person. Just like it’s inappropriate to ask a cis person about their genitalia, it is also rude to ask a trans or non-binary person about their genitalia or decision to have (or not have) surgery.