LGBTQ+ terms explained – how to get it right

·7-min read
LGBTQ+ writer Daniel Harding
LGBTQ+ writer Daniel Harding says at school he was terrified of being called derogatory names. (Image supplied)

By Daniel Harding

For decades, the LGBTQ+ community has been bruised by words. My queer younger self used to fear the words that became my labels. Walking on eggshells down school corridors, I was terrified of being called ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ – a sign someone had discovered my secret.

At the time, they were hateful words. But in all honesty, I was a ‘poof’ – always have been, always will be.

The LGBTQ+ community has embraced so many of those terms and found their own letters, so for others to understand what they mean and how to use them has become harder to navigate.

Nowadays, we could offend without even realising it and often do – believe me, I’ve put my own rainbow-coloured foot in it multiple times, and I’m the queer one.

Read more: Coming out as LGBTQ+: How to support someone

“Whilst these terms and labels can seem overwhelming at times, it’s key to remember that it all comes down to respect for one another,” says Spencer Cooper, community leader and co-host of the Queer Talk podcast. “By using someone’s correct name and pronouns it allows them to take part in the conversation as their true self.”

One area where language is fast-evolving is within the trans community. Dr Jane Hamlin, President of the Beaumont Society, the longest established support group in the UK for trans people and their families, says: "Using the correct language costs nothing, but shows respect and consideration for those in the trans community. If in doubt about the terminology you should use, just ask."

So, ask and you shall receive.

Because as the terms continue to rapidly change, the importance of us all understanding the correct words and how to use them is more important than ever. Here’s a guide to what we should and shouldn’t say to the LGBTQ+ community, helping everyone to understand the updated terms.

Terms

Abro – People who have a fluid sexual and/or romantic orientation that changes and evolves throughout their lives. They may use a variety of different terms to describe themselves over time.

Ace – People who experience a lack of sexual attraction (asexual) or only experience occasional sexual attraction. Ace people who experience romantic attraction or occasional sexual attraction may also use a variety of other terms such as gay, bi, lesbian or straight along with the term 'asexual' to describe their identity.

Ally – Often a straight (heterosexual) or cisgender person who supports all members of the LGBTQ+ community. A valuable presence for all.

Festival-goers enjoy the atmosphere in Preston Park, Brighton. (Image: Brighton Pride)
Festival-goers at Brighton & Hove Pride festival, which Yahoo is the headline sponsor of this year. (Image: Brighton Pride)

Bi – Someone who is sexually or romantically attracted to more than one gender – they may also describe themselves as 'pan' (pan-sexual).

Butch – An LBT (lesbian, bisexual, trans) person who expresses their identity in a typically masculine way.

Cisgender – Someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, e.g. a non-trans person.

Coming out – When an LGBTQ+ person first reveals their orientation/gender identity to someone else or others, which can sometimes be a very emotional time.

Watch: The Day I came out as LGBTQ+: Six people share their powerful coming out stories

Femme – A LBT person who expresses themselves in a typically feminine way.

Gay – Often seen as a dominant term, Gay (linked to the more clinical term, 'Homosexual') is used freely to describe anyone who has a romantic/sexual orientation to someone of the same gender. It can be used to describe anyone, be they male, female, non-binary or trans, where appropriate and used respectfully.

Gender dysphoria – This is when a trans person feels discomfort or distress because the sex they were assigned at birth and their gender identity do not match. This is also the official clinical diagnosis for someone who is uncomfortable with the sex assigned at birth.

Read more: True Love: 'My husband became a woman and we're still together'

Gender-fluid – A term that reflects a person’s ability to change a gender expression or identity, or both.

Gender identity – How a person refers to their own gender, whether that's male, female, non-binary or something else. The gender identity of course does not always correspond to the gender assigned to them at birth.

Intersex – A person who has the biological attributes of both sexes or whose attributes don’t fit with societal opinions of what constitutes a man or woman. Intersex people can identify as a male, female or non-binary.

LGBTQ+ – An acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer – the + is to encompass all other sexual orientations and gender identities.

Two men relax on a rainbow deckchair at Brighton & Hove Pride
Brighton & Hove Pride is both a celebration and a chance to raise vital funds for The Brighton Rainbow Fund. (Image: Brighton Pride)

Lesbian – Lesbian is an acceptable description for someone who identifies as a lesbian, a woman who has a romantic/sexual orientation towards another woman. Typically used to describe a female or trans person but can also be used by non-binary people.

Non-binary – People whose gender identity doesn’t fall into the category of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ A term used to describe gender identity when a gender doesn’t feel correct as just one or the other: male or female. Often non-binary people use the pronouns ‘they/them; but they may also use a combination such as: she/they or he/they.

Pansexual – A person who does not limit themselves in sexual choice. They may be sexually, romantically or emotionally attracted to people, regardless of their sex, biological gender or gender identity.

Queer – Embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, the word 'queer' is used to describe the community in a non-specific way. Reclaimed by a younger generation, queer is now widely used to positively describe anyone and everyone within it. Previously (and sometimes still) having been used as an insult, not everyone is comfortable with the term, so it should always be used respectfully and never as a put-down.

Read more: The truth about lesbian dating in suburbia: 'Where did all the gay women go?'

Trans – An umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term embraces all aspects of gender variation including (but not limited to) gender fluid, transgender, transsexual, non-binary, trans man or trans woman. 'Transsexual' is a term most likely to be seen in legal and medical documents but is generally not popular with trans people themselves.

Be careful NOT to…

Deadname  This is a term where people refer to someone by a birth name despite that person having changed their name as part of their own identity or transition. Referring to someone by their birth name after they have changed their name can be very upsetting for a trans person and is disrespectful.

Be dismissive  Of course, be careful how you use common phrases like, ‘That’s so gay.’ For many people within the LGBTQ+ community, they will be comfortable with being ‘in’ on the joke, but when a straight person uses phrases like that it can have different connotations.

Brighton & Hove Pride festival: Rainbows have long been a symbol of togetherness for the LGBTQ+ community. (Image: Brighton Pride)
Brighton & Hove Pride festival: Rainbows have long been a symbol of togetherness for the LGBTQ+ community. (Image: Brighton Pride)

Be careful to…

Use the right pronoun – They should be used correctly, respectfully and never be assumed. For instance, a non-binary person may identify as ‘they/them’. Respect someone's chosen pronoun.

Check someone’s preference  Always ask people what they are comfortable with being called or referred to as. Never assume or judge, based on how they look, it's always best to check. For instance, asking, “Could I check which pronouns you’d like me to use?” is a simple step to eliminate any issues and help everyone feel at ease.

The terms and how to use them are always changing, which can be a minefield, especially if you're not part of the LGBTQ+ community, but by being careful in your chosen language, it will allow us all to become better allies.

We are all learning and continue to do so, even me and my big queer mouth.

Daniel Harding is the author of Gay Man Talking: All The Conversations We Never Had (out in September).

With thanks to Stonewall.org.uk