LGBTQ definitions every good ally should know
Millions of Americans identify as LGBTQ, and like any group, they have their own language to talk about who they are and the challenges they face in a society that doesn't fully accept or protect them.
If you want to be an ally, these terms might help – but be aware that many have been used derogatorily by straight, white, cisgender (defined below) people, and were reclaimed over time by the LGBTQ community.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and some of these terms – because they are so personal – likely mean different things to different people. If you're puzzled by a term and feel like you can ask someone you love in the LGBTQ community to help you make sense of it, do it. But also be careful not to put the burden of your education on other people when there's a whole wide world of resources out there.
Let's get started
LGBTQ: The acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.” Some people also use the Q to stand for "questioning," meaning people who are figuring out their sexual orientation or gender identity. You may also see LGBT+, LGBT*, LGBTx, or LGBTQIA. I stands for intersex and A for asexual/aromantic/agender.
Speaking of intersex: Born with sex characteristics such as genitals or chromosomes that do not fit the typical definitions of male or female.
Sex: The label you are assigned at birth based on your anatomical features, chromosomes and hormones.
Gender: The societal constructions we assign people based on their sex characteristics. When you hear someone say "gender stereotypes," they're referring to the ways we expect people to act and behave based on their sex.
Queer: Originally used as a pejorative slur, queer has now become an umbrella term to describe the myriad ways people reject binary categories of gender and sexual orientation to express who they are.
Sexual orientation: How a person characterizes their sexuality. "There are three distinct components of sexual orientation," said Ryan Watson, a professor of Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. "It’s comprised of identity (I’m gay), behavior (I have sex with the same gender) and attraction (I'm sexually attracted to the same gender), and all three might not line up for all people." (Don't say "sexual preference," which implies it's a choice and easily changed.)
Gay: A sexual orientation that describes a person who is emotionally or sexually attracted to people of their own ge; commonly used to describe men.
Lesbian: A woman who is emotionally or sexually attracted to other women.
Bisexual: A person who is emotionally or sexually attracted to more than one gender.
Pansexual: A person who can be attracted to all different kinds of people, regardless of their gender identity.
Asexual: A person who doesn't fit traditional standards and expectations around sexual desire. Many people in the LGBTQ community think of sexuality as a spectrum. Asexuality is just one end of spectrum with identities (gray areas) in between. Someone who is asexual may not be sexually active but still masturbate. Or they may be attracted to people but not desire sex.
People who identify as graysexual fall somewhere between asexual and sexual on the spectrum, and can include people who experience sexual attraction rarely.
Aromantic: A person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others.
Gender identity and expression
Gender identity: How you feel and express your gender, which does not need to align with the sex you were assigned at birth.
Gender role: The social behaviors that culture assigns to each sex. Examples: Girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks; women are nurturing, men are stoic.
Gender expression: How we express our gender identity. It can refer to our hair, the clothes we wear, the way we speak.
Pronouns: A word used instead of a noun often to refer to a person without using their name. Pronouns can signal a person's gender. Some of the most commonly used pronouns are she/her, he/him and they/them.
Neopronouns: Words created to be used as pronouns but which are gender neutral. You can read a list of neopronouns here.
Transgender: A person whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender dysphoria: The psychological distress that occurs when a person's gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Cisgender: A person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Binary: The concept of dividing sex or gender into two clear categories. Sex is male or female, gender is masculine or feminine.
Nonbinary: Someone who doesn't identify exclusively as female or male.
Two-spirit: Someone who is a Native member of the LGBTQ community.
Genderqueer: People who reject static, conventional categories of gender and embrace fluid ideas of gender (and often sexual orientation). They are people whose gender identity can be both male and female, neither male nor female, or a combination of male and female.
Agender: Someone who doesn't identify as any particular gender.
Gender-expansive: An umbrella term used to refer to people who don't identify with traditional gender roles.
Gender fluid: Not identifying with a single, fixed gender. A person whose gender identity may change.
Gender non-conforming: People who don't conform to traditional expectations of their gender.
Trans: The overarching umbrella term for various kinds of gender identifies in the trans community.
Drag kings & drag queens: People, some who are straight and cisgender, who perform either masculinity or femininity as a form of art.
Deadnaming: Saying the name that a transgender person was given at birth but no longer uses.
Misgendering: Referring to someone in a way that does not correctly reflect their gender identity, typically by using incorrect pronouns.
Gender-affirming care: Care that helps you live your gender identity.
Gender transition: There isn't one way for a person to transition. Gender transition can include a range of social (new name and pronouns) medical (hormone therapy, surgery) and legal (changing a driver's license or birth certificate) steps to help affirm one's gender identity.
Gender confirmation surgery: A step some transgender people take to help them feel their body aligns with their gender identity.
Bottom surgery: A colloquial way of referring to gender-affirming genital surgery.
Top surgery: A colloquial way of describing gender-affirming surgery on the chest.
Binding: Flattening your breasts, sometimes to appear more masculine.
Androgynous: A person who has both masculine and feminine characteristics, which sometimes means you can't easily distinguish that person's gender. It can also refer to someone who appears female, but who adopts a style that is generally considered masculine.
'Out' vs. 'closeted'
Coming out: The complicated, multi-layered, ongoing process by which one discovers and accepts one’s own sexuality and gender identity.
Outing: Publicly revealing a person's sexual orientation or gender identity when they haven't come out themselves yet.
Living openly: An LGBTQ person who is comfortable being out about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Closeted: An LGBTQ person who will not or cannot disclose their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ally: A person who is not LGBTQ but uses their privilege to support LGBTQ people and promote equality. Allies "stand up and speak out even when the people they're allying for aren't there," said Robin McHaelen, founder and executive director of True Colors, a non-profit that provides support for LGBTQ youth and their families. In other words, not just at Pride parades.
Sex positive: An attitude that views sexual expression and sexual pleasure, if it's healthy and consensual, as a good thing.
Heterosexual privilege: Refers to the societal advantages that heterosexuals get which LGBTQ people don't. If you're a straight family that moves to a new neighborhood, for example, you probably don't have to worry about whether your neighbors will accept you.
Heteronormativity: A cultural bias that considers heterosexuality (being straight) the norm. When you first meet someone, do you automatically assume they're straight? That's heteronormativity.
Cisnormativity: A cultural bias that assumes being cis (when your gender identity aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth) is the norm.
Heterosexism: A system of oppression that considers heterosexuality the norm and discriminates against people who display non-heterosexual behaviors and identities.
Cissexism: A system of oppression that says there are only two genders, which are considered the norm, and that everyone's gender aligns with their sex at birth.
Homophobia: Discrimination, prejudice, fear or hatred toward people who are attracted to members of the same sex.
Biphobia: Discrimination, prejudice, fear or hatred toward bisexual people.
Transphobia: Discrimination, prejudice, fear or hatred toward trans people.
Transmisogyny: A blend of transphobia and misogyny, which manifests as discrimination against "trans women and trans and gender non-conforming people on the feminine end of the gender spectrum."
TERF: The acronym for "trans exclusionary radical feminists," referring to feminists who are transphobic.
Transfeminism: Defined as "a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond." It's a form of feminism that includes all self-identified women, regardless of assigned sex, and challenges cisgender privilege. A central tenet is that individuals have the right to define who they are.
Intersectionality: The understanding of how a person's overlapping identities –including race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and disability status – impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination.
Pride rainbow flag: The universal symbol of pride for LGBTQ people around the world.
Original rainbow flag: In the late 70s, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, challenged activist Gilbert Baker to design a symbol of hope for the gay community. Baker's original design had 8 stripes, and included the color pink. It first flew in 1978. In the intervening years eight stripes became six, pink was removed, and royal blue replaced turquoise.
Post-BLM rainbow: Philadelphia redesigned the Pride flag in 2017 to include the colors brown and black in an effort to promote diversity and inclusion and to "honor the lives of our black and brown LGBTQ siblings," the city said in a statement. Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs partnered with Tierney, a Philadelphia PR agency, to redesign the flag as part of its new inclusivity campaign, #MoreColorMorePride.
Progress rainbow flag: Designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018, it adds five new colors to emphasize progress around inclusion. The flag includes black and brown stripes to represent people of color, and baby blue, pink and white, which are used in the Transgender Pride Flag.
Think we're missing a word? Contact Alia Dastagir on Twitter @alia_e.