Understand some basic facets of the LGBTQ community and become a more educated member of society, regardless of whether you are a member of the LGBTQ community.
Terminology and Language Use
Learn LGBTQI terminology as well as how to avoid heterosexual bias in language.
A note about the following definitions: Each of these definitions has been carefully researched and closely analyzed from theoretical and practical perspectives for cultural sensitivity, common usage, and general appropriateness. We have done our best to represent the most popular uses of the terms listed; however, there may be some variation in definitions depending on location. Please note that each person who uses any or all of these terms does so in a unique way (especially terms that are used in the context of an identity label). If you do not understand the context in which a person is using one of these terms, it is always appropriate to ask. This is especially recommended when using terms that we have noted that can have a derogatory connotation.
- Agendered – Person is internally ungendered.
- Ally – Someone who confronts heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, heterosexual and genderstraight privilege in themselves and others; a concern for the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex people; and a belief that heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are social justice issues.
- Androgyne – Person appearing and/or identifying as neither man nor woman, presenting a gender either mixed or neutral.
- Asexual – Person who is not sexually attracted to anyone or does not have a sexual orientation.
- Bicurious – A curiosity about having sexual relations with a same gender/sex person.
- Bigendered – A person whose gender identity is a combination of male/man and female/woman.
- Biphobia – The fear of, discrimination against, or hatred of bisexuals, which is often times related to the current binary standard. Biphobia can be seen within the LGBTQI community, as well as in general society.
- Bisexual – A person emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to males/men and females/women. This attraction does not have to be equally split between genders and there may be a preference for one gender over others.
- Coming Out – May refer to the process by which one accepts one’s own sexuality, gender identity, or status as an intersexed person (to “come out” to oneself). May also refer to the process by which one shares one’s sexuality, gender identity, or intersexed status with others (to “come out” to friends, etc.). This can be a continual, life-long process for homosexual, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed individuals.
- Cross-dresser – Someone who wears clothes of another gender/sex.
- Discrimination – Prejudice + power. It occurs when members of a more powerful social group behave unjustly or cruelly to members of a less powerful social group. Discrimination can take many forms, including both individual acts of hatred or injustice and institutional denials of privileges normally accorded to other groups. Ongoing discrimination creates a climate of oppression for the affected group.
- Down Low – See ‘In the Closet.’ Also referred to as ‘D/L.’
- Drag – The performance of one or multiple genders theatrically.
- Drag King – A person who performs masculinity theatrically.
- Drag Queen – A person who performs femininity theatrically.
- FTM / F2M – Abbreviation for female-to-male transgender or transsexual person.
- Gay – 1. Term used in some cultural settings to represent males who are attracted to males in a romantic, erotic and/or emotional sense. Not all men who engage in “homosexual behavior” identify as gay, and as such this label should be used with caution. 2. Term used to refer to the LGBTQI community as a whole, or as an individual identity label for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual.
- Gender Binary – The idea that there are only two genders – male/female or man/woman and that a person must be strictly gendered as either/or. (See also ‘Identity Sphere.’)
- Gender Cues – What human beings use to attempt to tell the gender/sex of another person. Examples include hairstyle, gait, vocal inflection, body shape, facial hair, etc. Cues vary by culture.
- Gender Identity – A person’s sense of being masculine, feminine, or other gendered.
- Gender Normative – A person who by nature or by choice conforms to gender-based expectations of society. (Also referred to as ‘Genderstraight’.)
- Gender Variant – A person who either by nature or by choice does not conform to gender-based expectations of society (e.g. transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer, cross-dresser, etc.).
- Genderqueer – A gender variant person whose gender identity is neither male nor female, is between or beyond genders or is some combination of genders. Often includes a political agenda to challenge gender stereotypes and the gender binary system.
- Hermaphrodite – An out-of-date and offensive term for an intersexed person. (See ‘Intersexed Person’.)
- Heteronormativity – The assumption, in individuals or in institutions, that everyone is heterosexual, and that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality and bisexuality.
- Heterosexism – Prejudice against individuals and groups who display nonheterosexual behaviors or identities, combined with the majority power to impose such prejudice. Usually used to the advantage of the group in power. Any attitude, action, or practice – backed by institutional power – that subordinates people because of their sexual orientation.
- Heterosexual Privilege – Those benefits derived automatically by being heterosexual that are denied to homosexuals and bisexuals. Also, the benefits homosexuals and bisexuals receive as a result of claiming heterosexual identity or denying homosexual or bisexual identity.
- Homophobia – The irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals, homosexuality, or any behavior or belief that does not conform to rigid sex role stereotypes. It is this fear that enforces sexism as well as heterosexism.
- Homosexual – A person primarily emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to members of the same sex.
- Identity Sphere – The idea that gender identities and expressions do not fit on a linear scale, but rather on a sphere that allows room for all expression without weighting any one expression as better than another.
- In the Closet – Refers to a homosexual, bisexual, transperson or intersex person who will not or cannot disclose their sex, sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity to their friends, family, co-workers, or society. An intersex person may be closeted due to ignorance about their status since standard medical practice is to “correct,” whenever possible, intersex conditions early in childhood and to hide the medical history from the patient. There are varying degrees of being “in the closet”; for example, a person can be out in their social life, but in the closet at work or with their family. Also known as ‘Downlow’ or ‘D/L.’
- Intergender – A person whose gender identity is between genders or a combination of genders.
- Institutional Oppression – Arrangements of a society used to benefit one group at the expense of another through the use of language, media, education, religion, economics, etc.
- Internalized Oppression – The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate stereotypes applied to the oppressed group.
- Intersexed Person – Someone whose sex a doctor has a difficult time categorizing as either male or female. A person whose combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs, gonads, and/or genitals differs from one of the two expected patterns.
- Lesbian – Term used to describe female-identified people attracted romantically, erotically, and/or emotionally to other female-identified people. The term lesbian is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos and as such is sometimes considered a Eurocentric category that does not necessarily represent the identities of African-Americans and other non-European ethnic groups. This being said, individual female-identified people from diverse ethnic groups, including African-Americans, embrace the term ‘lesbian’ as an identity label.
- LGBTQI – A common abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed community.
- Male Lesbian – A male-bodied person who identifies as a lesbian. This differs from a heterosexual male in that a male lesbian is primarily attracted to other lesbian, bisexual or queer identified people. May sometimes identify as gender variant, or as a female/woman. (See ‘Lesbian.’)
- Metrosexual – First used in 1994 by British journalist Mark Simpson, who coined the term to refer to an urban, heterosexual male with a strong aesthetic sense who spends a great deal of time and money on his appearance and lifestyle. This term can be perceived as derogatory because it reinforces stereotypes that all gay men are fashion-conscious and materialistic.
- MTF / M2F – Abbreviation for male-to-female transgender or transsexual person.
- Oppression – the systematic subjugation of a group of people by another group with access to social power, the result of which benefits one group over the other and is maintained by social beliefs and practices.
- Outing – Involuntary disclosure of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
- Pangendered – A person whose gender identity is comprised of all or many gender expressions.
- Pansexual – A person who is sexually attracted to all or many gender expressions.
- Passing – Describes a person's ability to be accepted as their preferred gender/sex or race/ethnic identity or to be seen as heterosexual.
- Polyamory – Refers to having honest, usually non-possessive, relationships with multiple partners and can include: open relationships, polyfidelity (which involves multiple romantic relationships with sexual contact restricted to those), and sub-relationships (which denote distinguishing between a "primary" relationship or relationships and various "secondary" relationships).
- Prejudice – A conscious or unconscious negative belief about a whole group of people and its individual members.
- Queer – 1. an umbrella term which embraces a matrix of sexual preferences, orientations, and habits of the not-exclusively- heterosexual-and-monogamous majority. Queer includes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transpeople, intersex persons, the radical sex communities and many other sexually transgressive (underworld) explorers. 2. This term is sometimes used as a sexual orientation label instead of ‘bisexual’ as a way of acknowledging that there are more than two genders to be attracted to, or as a way of stating a non-heterosexual orientation without having to state who they are attracted to. 3. A reclaimed word that was formerly used solely as a slur but that has been semantically overturned by members of the maligned group, who use it as a term of defiant pride. ‘Queer’ is an example of a word undergoing this process. For decades ‘queer’ was used solely as a derogatory adjective for gays and lesbians, but in the 1980s the term began to be used by gay and lesbian activists as a term of self-identification. Eventually, it came to be used as an umbrella term that included gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. Nevertheless, a sizable percentage of people to whom this term might apply still hold ‘queer’ to be a hateful insult, and its use by heterosexuals is often considered offensive. Similarly, other reclaimed words are usually offensive to the in-group when used by outsiders, so extreme caution must be taken concerning their use when one is not a member of the group.
- Same Gender Loving – A term sometimes used by members of the African-American / Black community to express an alternative sexual orientation without relying on terms and symbols of European descent. The term emerged in the early 1990s with the intention of offering Black women who love women and Black men who love men a voice, a way of identifying and being that resonated with the uniqueness of Black culture in life. (Sometimes abbreviated as ‘SGL’.)
- Sex – A medical term designating a certain combination of gonads, chromosomes, external gender organs, secondary sex characteristics and hormonal balances. Because usually subdivided into ‘male’ and ‘female’, this category does not recognize the existence of intersexed bodies.
- Sex Identity – How a person identifies physically: female, male, in between, beyond, or neither.
- Sexual Orientation – The desire for intimate emotional and/or sexual relationships with people of the same gender/sex, another gender/sex, or multiple genders/sexes.
- Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS) – A term used by some medical professionals to refer to a group of surgical options that alter a person’s “sex”. In most states, one or multiple surgeries are required to achieve legal recognition of gender variance.
- Sexuality – A person’s exploration of sexual acts, sexual orientation, sexual pleasure and desire.
- Stealth – This term refers to when a person chooses to be secretive in the public sphere about their gender history, either after transitioning or while successful passing. (Also referred to as ‘going stealth’ or ‘living in stealth mode’.)
- Stereotype – A preconceived or oversimplified generalization about an entire group of people without regard for their individual differences. Though often negative, can also be complimentary. Even positive stereotypes can have a negative impact, however, simply because they involve broad generalizations that ignore individual realities
- Straight – Another term for heterosexual.
- Straight-Acting – A term usually applied to gay men who readily pass as heterosexual. The term implies that there is a certain way that gay men should act that is significantly different from heterosexual men. Straight-acting gay men are often looked down upon in the LGBTQ community for seemingly accessing heterosexual privilege.
- Trans – An abbreviation that is sometimes used to refer to a gender variant person. This use allows a person to state a gender variant identity without having to disclose hormonal or surgical status/intentions. This term is sometimes used to refer to the gender variant community as a whole.
- Transactivism – The political and social movement to create equality for gender variant persons.
- Transgender – A person who lives as a member of a gender other than that expected based on anatomical sex. Sexual orientation varies and is not dependent on gender identity.
- Transgendered (Trans) Community – A loose category of people who transcend gender norms in a wide variety of ways. The central ethic of this community is unconditional acceptance of individual exercise of freedoms including gender and sexual identity and orientation.
- Transhate – The irrational hatred of those who are gender variant, usually expressed through violent and often deadly means.
- Transition – This term is primarily used to refer to the process a gender variant person undergoes when changing their bodily appearance either to be more congruent with the gender/sex they feel themselves to be and/or to be in harmony with their preferred gender expression.
- Transman – An identity label sometimes adopted by female-to-male transsexuals to signify that they are men while still affirming their history as females. Also referred to as ‘transguy(s).’
- Transphobia – The irrational fear of those who are gender variant and/or the inability to deal with gender ambiguity.
- Transsexual – A person who identifies psychologically as a gender/sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. Transsexuals often wish to transform their bodies hormonally and surgically to match their inner sense of gender/sex.
- Transvestite – Someone who dresses in clothing generally identified with the opposite gender/sex. While the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘transvestite’ have been used synonymously, they are in fact signify two different groups. The majority of transvestites are heterosexual males who derive pleasure from dressing in “women’s clothing.” (The preferred term is ‘cross-dresser,’ but the term ‘transvestite’ is still used in a positive sense in England.)
- Transwoman – An identity label sometimes adopted by male-to-female transsexuals to signify that they are women while still affirming their history as males.
- Two-Spirited – Native persons who have attributes of both genders, have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes, and are often involved with mystical rituals (shamans). Their dress is usually mixture of male and female articles and they are seen as a separate or third gender. The term ‘two-spirit’ is usually considered to specific to the Zuni tribe. Similar identity labels vary by tribe and include ‘one-spirit’ and ‘wintke’.
Citation: This terminology sheet was created by Eli R. Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Eric N. Peterson at the LGBT Resource Center at UC Riverside “ 2003-2004 , with additional input from www.wikipedia.org and many kind people who helped use create and revise these definitions.
Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language
Problems can occur in language when terms are vague or poorly defined. This article presents both problems involving terminology and goals and strategies for reducing heterosexual bias in language.
Symbols of Pride
The following symbols have been adopted by LGBTQ people and their allies.
The Double Women’s Sign
Also known as “the mirror of Venus,” this symbol represents the planet Venus, metal, copper and femininity. It also represents women loving women.
The Double Men’s Sign
Derived from the astrological symbol of Mars who was the Greek God of War and patron of warriors. The arrow is a phallic symbol. A double man's symbol represents men loving men.
The Rainbow Flag
The Rainbow Flag was adopted by the LGBT community as its own design. It depicts not the shape of the rainbow but its colors in horizontal stripes. Created in 1978 for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Celebration by local artist Gilbert Baker, it was inspired by the “Flag of the Races,” which had five stripes-one each for the colors of humankind's skill, flown at the 1960's college demonstrations. Major gay and lesbian parades in New York, Houston, Vancouver and Toronto began to fly the six-stripe Rainbow Flag. It is prominently displayed at most gay and lesbian events. In New York, the flag drapes coffins of people who have died of AIDS and is frequently displayed on hospital doors. The AIDS ward of a Sidney, Australia, hospital flew the flag as a symbol of hope. A gay yacht club in the Netherlands uses a burgee based on the Rainbow Flag. In a few short years, the flag has spread worldwide to represent a movement. Its success is not due to any official recognition, although it has been recognized by the International Flagmakers Association as the LGBT Freedom Flag, but to the widespread spontaneous adoption by members of the community it represents.
The double-bladed ax comes from myth as the scepter of the goddess Demeter (Artemis). It may have originally been used in battle by female Sythian warriors. The Labrys appears in ancient Cretan art and has become a symbol of lesbianism.
Chosen by the Gay Activist Alliance in 1970 as the symbol of the gay movement, the lambda is the Greek letter “I.” A battle flag with the lambda was carried by a regiment of ancient Greek warriors who were accompanied in battle by their young male lovers and noted for their fierceness and willingness to fight to the death. It is also the symbol for justice.
Designed by David Spada with the Rainbow Flag in mind, these six colored aluminum rings have come to symbolize independence and tolerance. The rings are frequently displayed or worn as jewelry and maybe found as necklaces, bracelets, rings and key chains.
The Pink Triangle
The pink triangle is easily one of the more popular and widely-recognized symbols for the LGBT community. The pink triangle is rooted in World War II times and reminds us of the tragedies of that era. Although homosexuals were only one of the many groups targeted for extermination by the Nazi regime, it is unfortunately the group that history often excludes. The pink triangle challenges that notion and defies anyone to deny history.
The history of the pink triangle begins before WWII, during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Paragraph 175, a clause in German law prohibiting homosexual relations, was revised by Hitler in 1935 to include kissing, embracing and gay fantasies as well as sexual acts. Convicted offenders – an estimated 25,000 just from 1937 to 1939 – were sent to prison and then later to concentration camps. Their sentence was to be sterilized, and this was most often accomplished by castration. In 1942, Hitler’s punishment for homosexuality was extended to death.
Each prisoner in the concentration camps wore a colored inverted triangle to designate their reason for incarceration, and hence the designation also served to form a sort of social hierarchy among the prisoners. A green triangle marked its wearer as a regular criminal; a red triangle denoted a political prisoner. Two yellow triangles overlapping to form a Star of David designated a Jewish prisoner. The pink triangle was for homosexuals. A yellow Star of David under a superimposed pink triangle marked the lowest of all prisoners – a homosexual Jew.
Stories of the camps depict homosexual prisoners being given the worst tasks and labors. Pink triangle prisoners were also a proportionally large focus of attacks from the guards and even other inmates. Although the total number of the homosexual prisoners is not known, official Nazi estimates were an underwhelming 10,000.
Estimates of the number of gay men killed during the Nazi regime range from 50,000 to twice that figure. When the war was finally over, countless many homosexuals remained prisoners in the camps, because Paragraph 175 remained law in West Germany until its repeal in 1969.
In the 1970s, gay liberation groups resurrected the pink triangle as a popular symbol for the gay rights movement. Not only is the symbol easily recognized, but it draws attention to oppression and persecution – then and now. In the 1980's, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) began using the pink triangle for their cause. They inverted the symbol, making it point up, to signify an active fight back rather than a passive resignation to fate. Today, for many the pink triangle represents pride, solidarity and a promise to never allow another Holocaust to happen again.
The Black Triangle
Like the pink triangle, the black triangle is also rooted in Nazi Germany. Although lesbians were not included in the Paragraph 175 prohibition of homosexuality, there is evidence to indicate that the black triangle was used to designate prisoners with anti-social behavior. Considering that the Nazi idea of womanhood focused on children, kitchen and church, black triangle prisoners may have included lesbians, prostitutes, women who refused to bear children and women with other “anti-social” traits. As the pink triangle is historically a male symbol, the black triangle has similarly been reclaimed by lesbians and feminists as a symbol of pride and solidarity.
Sexual Identity Development – The “Cass” Model
The Cass model is a fundamental theory in LGBTQ identity development.
Stage – Identity Confusion
“Could I be gay?” Person is beginning to wonder if “homosexuality” is personally relevant. Denial and confusion are experienced.
Task: Who am I? - Accept, Deny, Reject.
Possible Responses: Will avoid information about lesbians and gays; inhibit behavior; deny homosexuality ("experimenting," "an accident," 'just drunk"). Males: May keep emotional involvement separate from sexual contact; Females: May have deep relationships that are non-sexual, though strongly emotional.
Possible Needs: May explore internal positive and negative judgments. Will be permitted to be uncertain regarding sexual identity. May find support in knowing that sexual behavior occurs along a spectrum. May receive permission and encouragement to explore sexual identity as a normal experience (like career identity and social identity).
Stage 2 – Identity Comparison
"Maybe this does apply to me." Will accept the possibility that she or he may be gay. Self-alienation becomes isolation.
Task: Deal with social alienation.
Possible Responses: May begin to grieve for losses and the things she or he will give up by embracing their sexual orientation. May compartmentalize their own sexuality. Accepts lesbian, gay definition of behavior but maintains "heterosexual" identity of self. Tells oneself, "It's only temporary;" I'm just in love with this particular woman/man," etc.
Possible Needs: Will be very important that the person develops own definitions. Will need information about sexual identity, lesbian, gay community resources, encouragement to talk about loss of heterosexual life expectations. May be permitted to keep some "heterosexual" identity (it is not an all or none issue).
Stage 3 – Identity Tolerance
"I'm not the only one." Accepts the probability of being homosexual and recognizes sexual, social, emotional needs that go with being lesbian and gay. Increased commitment to being lesbian or gay.
Task: Decrease social alienation by seeking out lesbians and gays.
Possible Responses: Beginning to have language to talk and think about the issue. Recognition that being lesbian or gay does not preclude other options. Accentuates difference between self and heterosexuals. Seeks out lesbian and gay culture (positive contact leads to more positive sense of self, negative contact leads to devaluation of the culture, stops growth). May try out variety of stereotypical roles.
Possible Needs: Be supported in exploring own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as external heterosexism. Receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections. It is particularly important for the person to know community resources.
Stage 4 – Identity Acceptance
"I will be okay." Accepts, rather than tolerates, gay or lesbian self-image. There is continuing and increased contact with the gay and lesbian culture.
Task: Deal with inner tension of no longer subscribing to society's norm, attempt to bring congruence between private and public view of self.
Possible Responses: Accepts gay or lesbian self-identification. May compartmentalize "gay life." Maintains less and less contact with heterosexual community. Attempts to "fit in" and "not make waves" within the gay and lesbian community. Begins some selective disclosures of sexual identity. More social coming out; more comfortable being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as "gay." More realistic evaluation of situation.
Possible Needs: Continue exploring grief and loss of heterosexual life expectations. Continue exploring internalized "homophobia" (learned shame for heterosexist society). Find support in making decisions about where, when and to whom he or she self discloses.
Stage 5 – Identity Pride
"I've got to let people know who I am!" Immerses self in gay and lesbian culture. Less and less involvement with heterosexual community. Us-them quality to political/social viewpoint.
Task: Deal with incongruent views of heterosexuals.
Possible Responses: Splits world into "gay" (good) and "straight" (bad). Experiences
disclosure crises with heterosexuals as he or she is less willing to "blend in." Identifies gay culture as sole source of support; all gay friends, business connections, social connections.
Possible Needs: Receive support for exploring anger issues. Find support for exploring issues of heterosexism. Develop skills for coping with reactions and responses to disclosure of sexual identity. Resist being defensive!
Stage 6 – Identity Synthesis
Develops holistic view of self. Defines self in a more complete fashion, not just in terms of sexual orientation.
Task: Integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is one aspect of self.
Possible Responses: Continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity. Allows trust of others to increase and build. Gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of "self." Feels all right to move out into the community and not simply define space according to sexual orientation.
Citation: From: Cass, V. Homosexual Identity Development, 1979.