Many families have very basic questions about the LGBTQ2S+ community, starting with what that acronym even means. This is completely normal, and nothing to be ashamed of. Many people who are now incredible allies and advocates once had to ask those same questions, and it’s a vital step on the journey toward acceptance and support.
Before we get into the LGBTQ2S+ acronym itself, first we must talk about the larger concepts that define that community. Understanding these concepts, how they interact, and the ways in which they are distinct is critical to understanding LGBTQ2S+ topics.
The classification of a person as male or female. At birth, babies are assigned a sex, typically based on the appearance of their external anatomy. An individual’s sex, however, is actually a combination of bodily characteristics including chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics and expectations of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed. Put another way: it is the answer to the question “What does it mean to be a man or a woman?”
A person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender. Most people have a gender identity that matches the sex they were assigned at birth, but this is not always the case. Unlike gender expression (see below), gender identity is not visible to others.
External manifestations of gender, expressed through a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Typically, transgender people seek to align their gender expression with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
The term for an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual (straight) orientations. Avoid the offensive term “sexual preference,” which is used to suggest that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is voluntary and therefore “curable.” People need not have had specific sexual experiences to know their own sexual orientation; in fact, they need not have had any sexual experience at all.
A woman whose enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction is to other women. Some lesbians may prefer to identify as gay or as gay women.
A man whose enduring physical, romantic, and/ or emotional attractions are to people of the same sex. Also used as an umbrella term to refer to non-heterosexual orientations or the broader LGBTQ2S+ community (e.g. gay club, gay marriage).
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. People may experience this attraction in differing ways and degrees over their lifetime. Bisexual people need not have had specific sexual experiences to be bisexual; in fact, they need not have had any sexual experience at all to identify as bisexual.
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 – including transgender. Use the descriptive term preferred by the person. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.
Used as shorthand to mean transgender – or sometimes to be inclusive of a wide variety of identities under the transgender umbrella.
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. Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community. When Q is seen at the end of LGBT, it typically means queer and, less often, questioning.
A term that refers to a number of culturally-significant identities within North American Indigenous communities, most commonly a third gender category that held spiritual and ceremonial significance. Prior to colonization, many Indigenous cultures did not view gender as a binary (just male or female) though the impacts of colonization meant that these cultural norms and roles were largely lost. There has been a concerted effort since 1990 to restore two spirit identities and their meaning to counteract this loss.
The Plus Symbol
The LGBTQ2S+ acronym ends with a plus symbol. Why? It’s because there are a great number more identities that could be represented by letters but are condensed into a plus symbol. These identities are no less valid or important, but for length reasons, most choose to shorten the acronym. Let’s explore some of the identities under the plus symbol.
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. Avoid the outdated and derogatory term “hermaphrodite” as it is no longer considered correct or respectful. While some people can have an intersex condition and also identify as transgender, the two are separate and should not be conflated.
An adjective used to describe people who do not experience sexual attraction or experiences very little (e.g., asexual person). A person can also be aromantic, meaning they do not experience romantic attraction.
A lifelong process of self-acceptance. People forge a LGBTQ2S+ identity first to themselves and then they may reveal it to others. Publicly sharing one’s identity may or may not be part of coming out.
A person who self-identifies as LGBTQ2S+ in their personal, public, and/or professional lives.
Describes people who self-identify as gay in their personal, public, and/or professional lives. Also openly lesbian, openly bisexual, openly transgender, openly queer. While accurate and commonly used, the phrase still implies a confessional aspect to publicly acknowledging one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. See out above.
Describes a person who is not open about their sexual orientation. Better to simply refer to someone as “not out” about being LGBTQ2S+. Some individuals may be out to some people in their life, but not out to others due to fear of rejection, harassment, violence, losing one’s job, or other concerns.
The act of publicly disclosing (sometimes based on rumor and/or speculation) or revealing another person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity without that person’s consent. Considered inappropriate by a large portion of the LGBTQ2S+ community and is thought to be quite dangerous as it is difficult for third parties to know what may compromise an individual’s safety.