Definitions of Common LGBTQ Concepts and Terms

Posted June 3, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Youth with curly hair in pink shirt

Grow­ing up can be hard. Grow­ing up iden­ti­fy­ing as les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der, queer or ques­tion­ing (LGBTQ) is even hard­er, accord­ing to nation­al data.

Young peo­ple in the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty face high­er rates of rejec­tion, vio­lence, sui­cide and home­less­ness when com­pared to their gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion peers. LGBTQ youth are also over­rep­re­sent­ed in the child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems and more like­ly to drop out of school than their fel­low classmates.

This post defines some com­mon terms — and pro­motes the use of accu­rate, authen­tic and inclu­sive lan­guage — so that social work­ers, edu­ca­tors, fos­ter par­ents and oth­ers are bet­ter equipped to sup­port LGBTQ youth, serve as their advo­cates and help them thrive.

Sex­u­al and Gen­der Iden­ti­ty Terms to Know

Agen­der

Describes a per­son who does not iden­ti­fy as male or female or some com­bi­na­tion of male and female. Some agen­der indi­vid­u­als see them­selves as gen­der­less, while oth­ers see them­selves as gen­der neutral.

Ally

Describes a per­son who sup­ports, both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty in its many forms. Het­ero­sex­u­al and cis­gen­der peo­ple can be allies, as well as indi­vid­u­als from with­in the LGBTQ community.

Asex­u­al

Describes a per­son who is not sex­u­al­ly attract­ed oth­ers and has no desire to engage in sex­u­al behav­ior. Asex­u­al­i­ty dif­fers from celiba­cy in that a per­son who is celi­bate is sex­u­al­ly attract­ed to oth­ers but choos­es to abstain from sex.

Bigen­der

Describes a per­son who has two gen­ders. Peo­ple who are bigen­der may expe­ri­ence two gen­der iden­ti­ties at the same time or at dif­fer­ent times. These gen­der iden­ti­ties can be bina­ry — male and female — or include non­bi­na­ry identities.

Bisex­u­al

Describes a per­son who is attract­ed to both men and women. A per­son does not need to have had spe­cif­ic sex­u­al expe­ri­ences — or any sex­u­al expe­ri­ence — to iden­ti­fy as bisexual.

Cis­gen­der

Describes a per­son whose gen­der iden­ti­ty match­es the sex — male or female — orig­i­nal­ly iden­ti­fied on their birth cer­tifi­cate (i.e., peo­ple who are not trans­gen­der). Cis­gen­der, which is pro­nounced sis-gen­der, describes only a person’s gen­der iden­ti­ty — not their sex­u­al or roman­tic attractions.

Enby

Describes a per­son who does not iden­ti­fy as exclu­sive­ly male or exclu­sive­ly female and usu­al­ly prefers they” as a pro­noun. Enby is the pho­net­ic pro­nun­ci­a­tion of NB,” which stands for non­bi­na­ry. Not all non­bi­na­ry indi­vid­u­als pre­fer or use this term.

Gay

Describes a per­son who is attract­ed, emo­tion­al­ly and/​or phys­i­cal­ly, to some­one of the same gen­der. The term can be used by men, women or indi­vid­u­als who iden­ti­fy as non­bi­na­ry. A per­son does not need a spe­cif­ic sex­u­al expe­ri­ence — or any sex­u­al expe­ri­ence — to iden­ti­fy as gay.

Gen­der

A social con­struct used to clas­si­fy a per­son as a man, woman or some oth­er iden­ti­ty. Fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from sex assigned at birth, gen­der is often close­ly relat­ed to the role that a per­son plays or is expect­ed to play in society.

Gen­der affirm­ing surgery

A sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure that enables an individual’s body to be more con­gru­ent with their gen­der iden­ti­ty. Also referred to as sex reas­sign­ment surgery or gen­der con­firm­ing surgery.

Gen­der dysphoria

Describes the extreme dis­com­fort that a per­son feels because their assigned sex at birth does not match their gen­der iden­ti­ty. This sense of unease or dis­sat­is­fac­tion can cause depres­sion and anx­i­ety and neg­a­tive­ly impact an individual’s dai­ly life.

Gen­der expression

How indi­vid­u­als com­mu­ni­cate their gen­der to oth­ers through their cloth­ing, speech, man­ner­isms and oth­er fac­tors. Gen­der expres­sion is not the same thing as gen­der iden­ti­ty. A per­son can express one gen­der yet iden­ti­fy with another.

Gen­der fluid

Describes a per­son whose gen­der expres­sion or gen­der iden­ti­ty — or both — changes over time. Not every­one whose gen­der iden­ti­ty or expres­sion changes iden­ti­fies as gen­der fluid.

Gen­der identity

A person’s inter­nal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as male, female, some­thing in between or some­thing oth­er than the two con­ven­tion­al gen­der options. A person’s gen­der iden­ti­ty is not vis­i­ble to oth­ers and can match or dif­fer from their assigned sex at birth.

Gen­der nonconforming

Describes a per­son who does not adhere to the tra­di­tion­al expec­ta­tions — in terms of their appear­ance or behav­ior — of their assigned gen­der. Some of these indi­vid­u­als iden­ti­fy as trans­gen­der but oth­ers, for exam­ple, mas­cu­line les­bians, do not.

Het­ero­sex­u­al

Describes a per­son who is attract­ed — phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly — to indi­vid­u­als of the oppo­site sex. Oth­er­wise known as a straight person.

Homo­sex­u­al

Describes a per­son who is attract­ed — phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly — to peo­ple of the same sex. This term is out­dat­ed and dis­fa­vored in the LGBTQ community.

Inter­sex

Describes a per­son born with sex char­ac­ter­is­tics that are not typ­i­cal for male or female bod­ies. Sex char­ac­ter­is­tics are phys­i­cal fea­tures relat­ing to sex — includ­ing chro­mo­somes, gen­i­tals, hor­mones and oth­er repro­duc­tive anato­my — as well as sec­ondary fea­tures that emerge from puber­ty. Inter­sex is an umbrel­la term, and inter­sex char­ac­ter­is­tics and traits are not always appar­ent or iden­ti­fied at birth.

Les­bian

Describes a woman who is attract­ed, emo­tion­al­ly and/​or phys­i­cal­ly, to oth­er women. A woman does not need a spe­cif­ic sex­u­al expe­ri­ence — or any sex­u­al expe­ri­ence — to iden­ti­fy as a lesbian.

LGBTQ

An acronym used to describe les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der, queer or ques­tion­ing per­sons or the com­mu­ni­ty. Avoid using the term gay com­mu­ni­ty,” as it does not accu­rate­ly account for the community’s diversity.

Non­bi­na­ry

Describes a per­son whose gen­der iden­ti­ty falls out­side of the two-gen­der con­struct (male or female). For exam­ple, non­bi­na­ry can describe an indi­vid­ual whose gen­der changes over time, who does not iden­ti­fy as male or female or who asso­ciates with ele­ments of both gen­ders. Some indi­vid­u­als who iden­ti­fy as non­bi­na­ry pre­fer the term enby.

Pan­sex­u­al

Describes a per­son who is attract­ed to — or has the poten­tial to be attract­ed to — peo­ple of any gen­der or gen­der iden­ti­ty. This attrac­tion can be emo­tion­al or physical.

Queer

An adjec­tive used by some peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly younger peo­ple, whose sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion is not exclu­sive­ly het­ero­sex­u­al. Queer was once used a pejo­ra­tive term and has been reclaimed by some — but not all — mem­bers of the LGBTQ community.

Ques­tion­ing

Describes a per­son who is still dis­cov­er­ing and explor­ing their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­ti­ty, gen­der expres­sion or some com­bi­na­tion there­of. Using this term enables an indi­vid­ual to iden­ti­fy as part of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty while avoid­ing oth­er labels and rec­og­niz­ing that their process of self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is still underway.

Sex

The clas­si­fi­ca­tion of a per­son as male or female. At birth, babies are assigned a sex that typ­i­cal­ly cor­re­sponds with their exter­nal anato­my. Yet an individual’s sex is influ­enced by a larg­er com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, includ­ing their chro­mo­somes, genes, hor­mones, repro­duc­tive organs and sec­ondary sex characteristics.

Sex­u­al orientation

An endur­ing emo­tion­al and/​or phys­i­cal attrac­tion (or non-attrac­tion) to oth­er peo­ple. Sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion is flu­id and encom­pass­es a vari­ety of labels, includ­ing gay, les­bian, het­ero­sex­u­al, bisex­u­al, pan­sex­u­al and asexual.

SOGIE

An acronym for sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­ti­ty and gen­der expres­sion. Every per­son has a sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­ti­ty and gen­der expression.

Straight

Describes a man who is attract­ed to women or a woman who is attract­ed to men. Can be used as a syn­onym for heterosexual.

Trans­gen­der

Describes a per­son whose gen­der iden­ti­ty and/​or gen­der expres­sion do not match their assigned sex at birth. Trans­gen­der peo­ple may be straight, les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al or queer.

Trans­gen­der (or trans) man

Describes a per­son who was assigned a female sex at birth but iden­ti­fies as male. This per­son may or may not active­ly iden­ti­fy as trans.

Trans­gen­der (or trans) woman

Describes a per­son who was assigned a male sex at birth but iden­ti­fies as female. This per­son may or may not active­ly iden­ti­fy as trans.

Tran­si­tion

A com­plex process by which trans­gen­der peo­ple align their anato­my (med­ical tran­si­tion) and gen­der expres­sion (social tran­si­tion) with their gen­der iden­ti­ty. Tran­si­tion­ing is a mul­ti­ple-step process that occurs over a long peri­od of time. It can include such steps as using a dif­fer­ent name, using new pro­nouns, dress­ing dif­fer­ent­ly, updat­ing legal doc­u­ments, hor­mone ther­a­py and surgery. The exact steps involved in a person’s tran­si­tion varies.

Learn about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work sup­port­ing LGBTQ youth

The Casey Foun­da­tion believes that all kids should grow up feel­ing sup­port­ed, under­stood, safe and loved. Explore more Foun­da­tion resources focused on help­ing LGBTQ youth succeed:

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