There’s no universal answer as to which abbreviation is the “right” one to use when talking about sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
What does LGBTQ+ mean?
The first four letters in the acronym stand for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.” The Q can mean either “questioning” or “queer.” Alternately, you might see LGBTQQ, LGBTQQI, and LGBTQQIA. In this context, one of the Qs is “questioning,” one is “queer,” the I is “intersex,” and the A can mean “ally” or “asexual.”
Whoa. What do those mean?
Gay is an “adjective used to describe people whose enduring physical, romantic, and/ or emotional attractions are to people of the same sex.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Lesbian is basically the same thing, except it is used for a “woman whose enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction is to other women.” Women use “gay” or “lesbian.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Bi or bisexual is used to describe a “person who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic, and/ or emotional attractions to those of the same gender or to those of another gender.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Transgender is an “umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Questioning refers to “the process of exploring one’s own gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation.” (LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis)
Queer is an “adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g. queer person, queer woman). Typically, for those who identify as queer, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual are perceived to be too limiting and/or fraught with cultural connotations they feel don’t apply to them. Some people may use queer, or more commonly genderqueer, to describe their gender identity and/or gender expression.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Intersex is an “umbrella term describing people born with reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or a chromosome pattern that can’t be classified as typically male or female. Those variations are also sometimes referred to as Differences of Sex Development.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Asexual is an “adjective used to describe people who do not experience sexual attraction (e.g., asexual person). A person can also be aromantic, meaning they do not experience romantic attraction.” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide)
Ally refers to people who are straight and cisgender, but actively support those in the LGBTQ+ community. (USA Today)
I thought “queer” was a bad term?
For some people, it still has negative connotations. But, as the GLAAD definition points out, there are people who use it as a neutral or even positive way. In that regard, it’s been reclaimed. Some people use “queer” is a catch-all that can refer to anyone who is not both straight and cisgender. Some people use it as a generic synonym for LGBTQ+. There could be straight transgender people who use it, lesbian cisgender people who use it, and so on.
OK, so then what is the different between LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, and LGBTQQIA? And what is the preferred one? And what does that plus even mean?
They all basically refer to the same community, though some terms are seen as more inclusive the others. There are a lot more letters that could be added to LGBTQQIA. So, in the spirit of being inclusive, some people will stop at LGBTQ and add a plus to signify all the additional ones. As for the preferred terminology and acronyms, that will depend on the individual person. There is no one singular perspective among LGBTQ+ people.
Are any of those considered offensive?
Not necessarily “offensive,” though some will find certain abbreviations more inclusive than others. Some might say that LGBT is a fine umbrella term, but others will say that including more letters is more inclusive and welcoming. Others might find the acronyms too inclusive, as there has been debate on whether intersex people and asexual people should be included with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Then there are those who suggest there be no acronyms at all. Actress and singer Lea Delaria told Pride Source that adopting the term “queer” could stop some infighting among the LGBTQ+ community:
This is the biggest issue we have in the queer community to date and will continue to be the biggest issue until we learn to accept our differences, and that’s the issue. And part of me believes that this inclusivity of calling us the LGBTQQTY-whatever-LMNOP tends to stress our differences. And that’s why I refuse to do it. I say queer. Queer is everybody.
But some people still find “queer” offensive?
Correct. Not everyone will want to be called queer. There is no one singular perspective among LGBTQ+ people.
How will I know what the wrong thing is?
Well, that’s the thing. There is no agreed-upon standard of what words are or not “wrong.” The general rule of thumb is that if someone feels excluded or wants you to refer to them by different terminology, they will tell you. The best practice is to not apply or use a term for someone unless you explicitly know that person would use that term.
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