What Does LGBTQ+ Mean?

Portrait of an LGBTQ+ couple

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In This Article

What Does LGBTQ+ Mean?

LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or sometimes questioning), and others. The "plus" represents other sexual identities including pansexual, intersex, and asexual. The first four letters of the acronym have been used since the 1990s, but in recent years there has been an increased awareness of the need to be inclusive of other sexual identities to offer better representation. 

The acronym is used to represent a diverse range of sexualities and gender-identities, referring to anyone who is non-cisgender or non-heterosexual.

What Does Each Letter Mean?

  • L (Lesbian): A lesbian is a woman who feels a sexual and romantic attraction to other women. While variations of the acronym exist, the L (for lesbian) is most-often placed first.
  • G (Gay): Gay is usually a term used to refer to men who feel sexual and romantic attraction to other men. However, lesbians can also be referred to as gay. The use of the term gay became more popular during the 1970s. The term 'gay community' was eventually replaced the phrase 'gay and lesbian community' until the use of the initialized LGB and LGBT acronyms became more popular. 
  • B (Bisexual): Bisexual indicates having a romantic and sexual attraction to both men and women. The recognition of bisexual individuals is important since there have been periods when people who identify as bi have been misunderstood as being gay but unwilling or unable to come out as gay.
  • T (Transgender): Transgender is a term that indicates that a person's gender identity or expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. 
  • Q (Queer or Questioning): This initial usually represents queer or questioning. Queer is considered an umbrella term for anyone who is non-cisgender or heterosexual. Queer may be used by people who feel that another term such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is too limiting or not representative of their identity. Questioning refers to people who may be unsure of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 
  • + (Plus): The 'plus' is used to signify all of the other gender identities and orientations that are not specifically covered by the other five initials. This includes intersex, asexual, pansexual, agender, and genderqueer individuals.

History of the Acronym

Where disparate orientations and identities had previously been referred to as "the gay community" and later "the gay and lesbian community." The LGBT acronym eventually evolved as a way to be more inclusive of other identities. As time has moved on, however, these four letters have also shown limitations as well.

The original acronym has gained more letters designed to help better represent other identities related to sexuality, orientation, and gender identity.

Variations

While LGBT, LGBTQ, and LGBTQ+ are often the most commonly used acronyms, a number of variations also exist.

  • LGBTQIA: This acronym includes initials for queer, intersex, and asexual.
  • LGBTIQA+: This variation stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual, and others that can include pansexual and non-binary.

Why has the acronym changed over time and why are there variations? One important thing to remember is that words and meanings are always evolving. Words that were considered appropriate in the past can take on negative connotations, while terms that used to be used as taunts or insults have been reclaimed and gained positive associations.

These terms also mean different things to different people. The term queer, for example, used to be considered a slur or pejorative but has since been reclaimed as a positive self-identity by many individuals.

However, this doesn’t mean that everyone within the LGBT community feels the same about the use of that term-older adults, in particular, who may have personally experienced homophobic bullying, may be less able to look past how the term was used when they were younger. 

Why the “Plus” Matters

While variations such as LGBT or LGBTQ are often used, many advocates argue that the addition of the “plus” is important and should not be overlooked. The purpose of the acronym is to represent the tremendous diversity of people who are not straight or cisgender. The addition of the plus is better able to fully capture that diversity.

“Coverage of LGBTQ issues has moved beyond simplistic political dichotomies and toward more fully realized representations, not only of the diversity of the LGBTQ community, but also of LGBTQ people’s lives, their families, and their fundamental inclusion in the fabric of American society,” explains GLAAD, or the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Related Terms to Know

Some other terms that you may see or hear that can be included under the LGBTQ+ umbrella include:

  • Pansexual: Someone who is attracted to all kinds of individuals regardless of their gender identity. 
  • Asexual: Sometimes shorted to "ace," this term refers to someone who has little or no sexual attraction; they may, however, experience romantic attraction.
  • Cisgender: This term refers to individuals whose gender identity corresponds to their birth-assigned sex.
  • Intersex: A term to describe individuals who are born with variations of sex characteristics that do not fit with binary definitions of male or female bodies. 
  • Nonbinary: A person whose gender identity is neither exclusively female nor male.
  • Gender nonconforming: An individual whose gender expression is outside or beyond the traditional masculine or feminine norms.

A person's gender identity is an internal sense of gender, whether that is male, female, or another gender. A person's gender identity does not necessarily correspond to their sex assigned at birth or with their gender expression. 

It is also important to understand that gender is not the same as sex. Sex is biological, while gender is influenced by social, cultural, and environmental factors.

Why Representation Matters

The LGBTQ+ acronym serves an important purpose—not only is it designed to be more inclusive, but it also represents the self-identities of people who are not straight or cisgender. 

Inclusivity 

The use of the acronym is intended to be an all-encompassing way to recognize different gender identities and sexual orientations. The addition of other identities to the LGBT acronym also plays an important role in recognizing and connecting them to a larger community.

It also means that these individuals are able to gain greater recognition by society as a whole. Rather than being erased, ignored, or denied, acknowledgment can help foster greater visibility of marginalized identities.

Visibility

Visibility can also help create a greater sense of self-affirmation of a person's identity. Research has found that offering inclusive and affirmative environments is important for LGBTQ+ youth. 

Research also suggests that being visible as LGBTQ+ can be an important way to feel a sense of pride in individual identity. Affirming self-identity can help people feel greater self-esteem, self-worth, and boost overall mental well-being. This can be particularly important since representation has long been lacking in mainstream media.

The good news is that there have been improvements made in recent years to change this. A recent GLAAD report suggests that the representation of LGBTQ characters and relationships on television is higher than ever previously seen on TV. This includes greater diversity and visibility of non-binary identities, although the report notes that BIPOC characters are still underrepresented.

Research and statistics suggest that LGBTQ+ youth have an increased risk of a range of mental health and social issues, often due to or exacerbated by isolation, marginalization, and discrimination based on their orientation or identity. Fostering inclusivity and acceptance may be one way to help combat some of these issues.

Uses

The acronym LGBTQ+ has become more popular and accepted as a way to describe people who are non-heterosexual and non-cisgender. Terms such as queer are sometimes used as well, but continue to have negative associations some people, particularly older adults who grew up hearing the term used in a negative way.

When to Use It

So how do you know when to use the term LGBTQ+? 

  • The purpose of the term is to be inclusive of all sexual and gender minorities, so if you are talking about issues that affect the non-heterosexual, non-cisgender people, it would be appropriate to use LGBTQ+.
  • Use a specific term if you are talking about issues that may be specific to a particular orientation or identity.
  • Be specific when talking about individuals. For example, you wouldn’t say “Ali is LGBTQ+”—you’d say “Ali is gay.”

If you are striving for inclusivity, LGBTQ+ can be helpful, but LGBT on its own is the most commonly used and probably widely recognized. Even more inclusive variations exist, such as LGBTQQIP2SAA (which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit, androgynous, and asexual), such acronyms are often viewed as being too unwieldy.

Regardless of what terms people choose to use, what matters is that people self-identity and that others acknowledge that identity. If someone tells you how they identify, focus on honoring their individual identity.

If you are interested in learning more about what terms and phrases should be avoided, GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has a reference page that offers helpful information on LGBTQ terms as well as information on terms that are specific to the transgender community.

Impact

LGBT and related acronyms have become widely used in recent years. It has also played a role in raising the visibility of marginalized groups, including transgender individuals.

Research suggests that while attitudes have shifted towards greater acceptance, LGBTQ+ people still face considerable homophobia and discrimination. Harassment, bullying, and workplace discrimination are not uncommon.

One advantage of utilizing a unified terminology is the ability to engage in political advocacy when it comes to issues that affect people who are non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, or non-binary. Social solidarity can be used to improve visibility, combat discrimination, and advance causes including anti-discrimination and equality laws. 

Unifying terms like LGBTQ+ can help people feel connected to a larger group of people with shared experiences. But the term can sometimes seem to imply that there is a single, homogenous group when there are actually many individual communities made up of diverse individuals. These communities may share overlap, but each identity has its own unique experiences and needs.

Challenges

While the goal of this initialism is to raise visibility and boost inclusivity, not everyone agrees about what term or variation to use. Non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people have been referred to by many words over the years, including many that were intended to be hurtful. So it’s not unusual that the self-descriptors that people use can vary, particularly when it comes to issues related to self-expression, sexuality, and identity.

LGBT is still prevalent in use and may be preferred by some who feel that the four-letter acronym is a simpler way to represent a wide range of identities. 

Others may feel left out from the standard four initials, which is why the addition of Q and “Plus” can be helpful.

This doesn’t mean that terminology won’t continue to evolve and shift, particularly as people work to achieve greater representation and acceptance of different non-binary identities. 

Some who are critical or this initialism advocate for the use of the term queer to represent all non-heterosexual and non-cisgender orientations and identities. The initialism of LGBT and its variants, some suggest, stresses the differences of people within the community.

Resources

If you are interested in learning about LGBTQ+ issues, there are a number of resources available that can help.

A Word From Verywell

The goal of using more inclusive terms like LGBTQ+ is to improve visibility, recognition, and acceptance. It is important to remember that LGBTQ+ people continue to face discrimination. Transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, in particular, are frequently the target of social and economic marginalization as well as harassment and violence.

Terms and definitions are always evolving. When it comes to something as personal as sexuality and gender identity, these terms and definitions can mean different things to different people. While working to understanding and use terms such as LGBTQ+ can help increase the visibility of people who have faced marginalization and discrimination, it is important to remember that the most important labels or definitions are the ones that people give to themselves. 

If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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