The LGBT community has always spoken our own language. We have adopted our own forms of slang, terminology, and colloquialisms. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, gay men in Britain even used a language known as Polari to identify one another during a time when it was illegal and dangerous to be outwardly gay.
Our vocabulary continues to evolve to help define and express our gender identities and sexual orientation, to describe our culture, and to verbalize our need for equality. The meanings, histories, and context of the words we use make a difference.
Definitions express the essential nature of a word, which hold the power to clarify the meaning of a person or concept. Using the accurate word to describe a person or concept intentionally honors meaning and identity.
Etymology is the collection of facts surrounding the origin and development of a word. It is an important piece of the puzzle about the history of words and their meanings. Words naturally absorb the culture of the people who use it to express themselves and the world around them.
The LGBT Context of a word we use is a sort of a magnified etymology. Our terminology has often come out of a need to talk discreetly for safety, to proudly differentiate ourselves from mainstream society, or address our specific needs or interests.
Use the glossary tool below to investigate the meaning of some terms used within and in reference to the LGBT community.
Definition | verb | al·ly \ə-ˈlī, ˈa-ˌlī\ : to join (yourself) with another person, group, etc., in order to get or give support
Etymology | The word ally was first used in the late 13th century to imply a ‘joining in marriage.’ It derives from Old French alier, meaning ‘to combine or unite,’ which is from Latin alligare, meaning ‘to bind to,’ as in alloy. The use of the word to refer to forming an alliance, joining, or associating was first used in the late 14th century.
LGBT Context | An ally is a person who supports and advocates for members of the LGBT community, regardless of their own sexual orientation or gender identity. Usually, the name refers to a straight person advocating for lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men; or cisgender people advocating for transgender people. However, LGBTQ people can be allies for each other as well.
Check out this great resource from the HRC on what it means to be an ally: Coming Out as a Supporter
Definition | adjective | asex·u·al \(ˌ)ā-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -shü-əl, -ˈsek-shəl\ : not having or including sex
Etymology | Use of the term ‘asexual’ in the field of biology trace back to 1830, a hybrid from the suffix a- meaning not + sexual.
LGBT Context | An individual who identifies as asexual has no sexual attraction. Unrelated to romantic attraction, an asexual person may be homo-romantic, hetero-romantic, or bi-romantic, or something else.
Definition | adjective | bi·sex·u·al \(ˌ)bī-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -shəl\ : sexually attracted to both men and women
Etymology | The word bisexual was first used to describe a person who has both male and female sexual organs, which we now refer to as intersex. It has been used to describe attraction to both sexes since 1892. The colloquial abbreviation bi has been used since 1956.
LGBT Context | An individual who is romantically and/ or sexually attracted to both men and women. It is the ‘B’ in LGBTQ.
Definition | adjective | cis·gen·der \¦sis-¦jen-dər\ : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth
Etymology | The prefix cis- comes from the latin preposition cis meaning ‘on this side,’ as opposed to trans- or ultra-. It has been used in reference to space since the 19th century, in reference to time since the 20th century, and in reference to life situations since the 21st century. It has only been used in the word ‘cisgender’ since 2011.
LGBT Context | An individual who does not identify as transgender, and identify as the gender they were given at birth.
Definition | noun |ˈdīk\ : offensive — used as an insulting term for a lesbian
Etymology | The word ‘dyke’ as it’s used today has roots dating back to 1931 American English, perhaps a shortening of ‘morphadike,’ which is a dialectal garbling of hermaphrodite; but ‘bulldyker,’ meaning ‘to engage in lesbian activities’ is attested from 1921. An additional source from 1896 lists dyke as a slang for ‘vulva.’
LGBT Context | A slang, often derogatory term used in reference to lesbians. The term has been reclaimed by many lesbian women as a proud identity, such as the “Dyke March” that precedes many pride parades.
Definition | noun | fag·got | \ˈfa-gət\ : offensive — used as an insulting term for a male homosexual
Etymology | Usage of ‘faggot’ in American slang referring to a gay man dates back to 1914, probably derived from a contemptuous term for ‘woman’ from the 1590s. It is likely reinforced by the Yiddish word for homosexual, ‘faygele,’ literally meaning ‘little bird.’ There may also be roots in British public school slang ‘fag,’ which was a junior who performed certain duties to a senior.
LGBT Context | ‘Faggot,’ or the shortened ‘fag,’ is a common slur for a gay male. It is usually used in a setting of intimidation or bullying.
Definition | noun |ˌef-(ˌ)tē-ˈem\ : a transgender man
Etymology | While the word ‘transgender’ was in common use by 1988, the use of the term “ftm” to describe female-to-male transgender men is less clear.
LGBT Context | FTM, or Female-to-Male, is an acronym describing a transgender person transitioning from female to male. The distinction is between FTM and MTF, which stands for Male-to-Female.
Definition | adjective |ˈgā\ : sexually attracted to someone who is the same sex | of, relating to, or used by homosexuals | happy and excited; cheerful and lively
Etymology | The word ‘gay’ to refer to a homosexual person, usually specifically a homosexual male, has been predominantly in use since 1971. In Middle English around the 1400s it meant “excellent person, noble lady, gallant knight,” also “something gay or bright; an ornament or badge.”
LGBT Context | Any person identifying as homosexual, sometimes specifically male. It is the ‘G’ in LGBTQ.
Definition | noun | gen·der \ˈjen-dər\ : the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with each sex
Etymology | The use of the word gender in reference to one’s sense of being male or female (or otherwise) is attested from early 15th century. As the word sex took on erotic qualities in the 20th century, gender came to be the usual English word for “sex of a human being,” regarded originally as colloquial or humorous. As of 1963, the word was used in feminist writing to reference social attributes in addition to biological ones. The phrase Gender-bender came out of 1977, popularized by 1980, likely originating in reference to pop star David Bowie.
LGBT Context | Gender is not only a point of difference for lgbt individuals than for the rest of society, but also a root of discrimination. Gender is one of the first things we learn about who we are, from pink and blue baby decorations to asking “is it a boy or a girl?” For many lgbt people, falling outside of gender norms is an early indicator of being different than peers, which often attracts unwanted attention or bullying, such as a girl being called a tomboy or a boy being called a sissy. When boys and girls (or men and women) fail to fit into the socially accepted role of male or female – whether because they are transgender, intersex, or because they are in same-sex relationships – it is actually sexism (and specifically misogyny– the hatred of women) that is the cause of discrimination. Effectively, being feminine or female is perceived as less than being masculine or male. Therefore, being a gay man or transgender woman, for example, goes against this deeply rooted notion of femininity being undesirable and wrong.
For more information, check out this great resource from Gender Spectrum!
Definition | adjective | gen·der flu·id \ˈjen-dər flü-əd\ : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is not fixed
Etymology | Since the early 15th century, the word fluid has referred to a liquid, “capable of flowing.” It comes from the French fluide attested to the 14th century, and directly from Latin fluidus. In the figurative sense with non-material things, meaning “not fixed or rigid,” it dates back to the 1640s.
LGBT Context | A person who identifies as gender-fluid may feel female or feminine one day, and more male or masculine another. Some gender-fluid people feel some combination of genders.
Definition | noun | gen·der iden·ti·ty \ˈjen-dər ī-ˈden-tə-tē\a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female
Etymology | The origins of the phrase ‘gender identity’ are unclear.
LGBT Context | A person’s sense of their own gender forms a core part of their identity as a person. People may view their gender as as male, female, fluid, queer, non-conforming, or agender.
Definition | adjective | gen·der·queer \ˈjen-dər-ˌkwir\ : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female
Etymology | The use of the word queer to mean ‘strange’ dates back to the 1680s, and to mean “homosexuality” since 1971. However, the origins of the phrase gender queer in reference to gender identity is unclear.
LGBT Context | When a person identifies as gender queer, they are usually saying that they do not identify with being ‘male’ or ‘female’ exclusively, or feel that their gender is something in between, altogether different, or do not identify with gender at all. It is different from queer sexual orientation, which is one that is something other than heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Many people identify simply as queer, which can refer to either gender or sexuality, or both. Often, gender queer individuals use pronouns like they/them/theirs, or sometimes they prefer using words like ze, xim, or hir – which are more popular among online communities.
Definition | adjective | ho·mo·sex·u·al \ˌhō-mə-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -ˈsek-shəl\ : of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex; of, relating to, or involving sexual activity between persons of the same sex
Etymology | The word homosexual has been used since 1892 in reference to same-sex attraction or activity. It is from the Greek homos meaning “same” and Latin-based sexual. Technically it can refer to any gender, in common use it is almost always male. The shortened slang word homo is attested by 1929.
LGBT Context | The word homosexual is rarely used within the community, except in a humorous or technical sense, or in context of the history of the movement. The word gay is much more common to refer to homosexual men. In the marriage equality movement, specifically with regard to religious sentiments, there was heated debate about the history of the word homosexual in the Bible, and how that might impact public policy today.
Definition | verb | iden·ti·fy \ī-ˈden-tə-ˌfī, ə-\ to conceive as united, to establish the identity of, or to practice psychological identification
Etymology | The word identify has been in use since the 1640s, from the French identifier, from identité. It has been used to mean “make one (with), associate (oneself), regard oneself as being the essence of” since 1780.
LGBT Context | In the LGBTQ community, as people become aware of themselves, they begin to identify with a facet of their identity. They may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, gender non-conforming, or a variety of other things. Using the correct names and pronouns is respectful toward how others self-identify.
Definition | noun | in·ter·sex \ˈin-tər-ˌseks\ a person who has both male and female gonadal tissue, or who has the gonads of one sex and external genitalia that is of the other sex, or is ambiguous
Etymology | The word intersex has been used to describe a person as having characteristics of both sexes since 1917, from German intersexe (1915); from inter- meaning “between” + sex.
LGBT Context | As a distinction from being transgender or having gender reassignment surgery, intersex individuals are born with both or ambiguous genitalia.
Definition | noun | les·bi·an \ˈlez-bē-ən\ : of or relating to homosexuality between females
Etymology | Since 1925, the word lesbian has been used to describe a homosexual female. However, it’s been used since the 1590s, describing that “pertaining to the island of Lesbos,” a Greek island in northeastern Aegean Sea. The island was the home of Sappho, the great lyric poet whose erotic and romantic verse embraced women as well as men, which originated the meaning of lesbian as “relating to homosexual relations between women, characterized by erotic interest in other women.”
LGBT Context | Any person identifying as female homosexual. It is the ‘L’ in LGBTQ.
Definition | abbreviation lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/ Ally)
Etymology | The etymology of the acronym LGBT(QIA) begins with each term. ‘Gay’ became used in the 1940s, becoming the umbrella term for the community we now call lgbt(qia). Since ‘gay’ was generally associated with homosexual men, gay women claimed the word ‘lesbian’ in the 1960s during the feminist movement. ‘Bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ were added to the description in the late 1990s thanks to the hard work of bisexual activist Maggie Rubenstein and transgender activist Susan Stryker.
LGBT Context | Originally ‘gay’ and then ‘gay and lesbian,’ referring to minorities with regard to sexual orientation, the acronym as grown to be more inclusive with the addition of TQI and A (transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual/ally). These names are not new inventions, but rather newfound definitions for how people have viewed themselves for as long as people have considered their identities.
Definition | noun |ˈləv\ : strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion; the object of such attachment, devotion, or admiration
Etymology | The origins of the word love trace back to the Old English word lufian, meaning “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve,” and from Proto-Germanic *lubojan, a verb from the same root. Using love to mean “a beloved person” dates back to the early 13th century, and to fall in love is attested to the early 15th century.
LGBT Context | In the marriage equality movement, successful messaging addressed the right to marriage between two people who love each other. The argument is that love is the foundation of relationships and marriage, regardless of gender.
Definition | noun | mar·riage \ˈmer-ij, ˈma-rij\ : the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law; an act of marrying or the rite by which the married status is effected; especially : the wedding ceremony and attendant festivities or formalities; an intimate or close union
Etymology | The word ‘marriage’ has held the meaning of “the action of marrying” or “entry into wedlock” since 1300. It comes from Old French mariage meaning “marriage” or “dowry,” from the 12th century, originally from Vulgar Latin maritaticum.
LGBT Context | Since the origins of the word ‘marriage’ follow the customs of the cultures in which it was used, it naturally referred to the union of a man and a woman. However, the reasons for marriage, gender roles, and expectations have changed and evolved over time. Most notably, the concept that people marry for love was uncommon until the Victorian Era – relatively recently in the history of marriage. Marriages were often arranged or agreed upon for financial or socio-political reasons, not mutual love or sexual attraction. The role of religion in marriage has also changed throughout history, as religions reflect the customs of their practitioners – for example, marriage wasn’t deemed a sacrament by the Catholic Church until the 12th century. Polygamous practices (one man with multiple wives) were commonplace, as it increased the rate of childbirth and therefore familial workforce, but polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) was rare by comparison. Only within the last century has the concept of marriage for the sake of love become prevalent, and equality within marriage is as recent as the past 50 years.
For a thorough timeline of the history of marriage, check out this great resource from the Lambda Archives!
Definition | noun \ˌem-ˌtē-ˈef\ a transgender woman; an acronym meaning Male-to-Female, describing a transgender person transitioning from male to female.
Etymology | While the word ‘transgender’ was in common use by 1988, the use of the term “mtf” to describe male-to-female transgender women is less clear.
LGBT Context | MTF, or Male-to-Female, is an acronym describing a transgender person transitioning from male to female. The distinction is between MTF and FTM, which stands for Female-to-Male.
Open and Affirming
Definition | adjective \ˈō-pən ən(d) ə-ˈfərmiŋ \ : having no enclosing or confining barrier; not restricted to a particular group or category of participants; characterized by ready accessibility and usually generous attitude; to assert something as valid or confirmed, to show or express a strong belief in or dedication to (something, such as an important idea)
Etymology | The use of the Old English word open, meaning ‘not closed off,’ is unclear; however, the use of the word to refer to hearts and minds dates back to the early 15th century. The idea of being ‘open-minded’ is attested since 1858.
LGBT Context | As opposed to simply permitting existence, accepting or tolerating presence, the phrase open and affirming is specific to religious congregations which are open to all congregants and affirming of the lgbtq community. Open and Affirming (sometimes called ONA) religious communities integrate the lgbtq community fully, ordaining leaders, and blessing unions, births, and adoptions, for example.
Check out our list of Religious Congregations in the Resource Library to find a supportive congregation near you!
Definition | adjective \ pan·sex·u·al \ˌpan-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -shəl\ : of, relating to, or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation; also : not solely homosexual or heterosexual
Etymology | The term pansexuality comes from 1917, combining pan- and sexual; originally coined by Sigmund Freud that sexual impulse is central to all human activity, it was mostly used as a criticism of his theories.
LGBT Context | The word pansexual gained ground in the 1990s to describe a sexual orientation open to all others regardless of gender. It is tied to activism of gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, and genderqueer identities.
Definition | adjective \ˈkwir\ : differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal; often disparaging + offensive — sexually attracted to members of the same sex : homosexual, gay,; of, relating to, or used by homosexuals
Etymology | Use of the word queer dates back to 1500, meaning “strange, peculiar, eccentric,” from Scottish, perhaps from Low German. It is related to the German word quer, meaning “oblique, perverse, or odd.” The use of the word in the sense of “homosexual” was first recorded 1922; the noun in this sense is 1935, from the adjective. Related: Queerly. Queer studies as an academic discipline attested from 1994.
LGBT Context | A phrase often used as an insult, it has been reclaimed by many who identify their sexual orientation or gender identity as something other than heterosexual and cisgender. It is often used as an umbrella term, in place of LGBT, to encompass anyone in the greater community. It is the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ.
Definition | noun \ ques·tion \ˈkwes-chən-iŋ \ the action or process of an interrogative expression often used to test knowledge; a subject or aspect in dispute or open for discussion; indicating intellectual curiosity or inquiry
Etymology | The use of the word question as a verb to mean interrogate or investigate dates back to the late 15th century.
LGBT Context | When a person says that they are questioning, they mean that they are investigating their feelings about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some use the phrase curious, such as ‘bi-curious,‘ which carries a slightly more casual connotation. Usually the ‘Q‘ in the LGBTQ acronym stands for queer, but it is also inclusive of those who are questioning, and is sometimes written twice to highlight it: LGBTQQIAA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally). Most people shorten it for the sake of simplicity, but it is still represented by the ‘Q.’
Definition | noun \ sex·u·al·i·ty \ˌsek-shə-ˈwa-lə-tē \ the quality or state of being sexual; the sexual habits of a person; the expression of sexual receptivity or interest
Etymology | The term sexuality has been used to describe the action or fact of being sexual since 1789, from sexual and -ity. It has been used to mean a ‘capability of sexual feelings’ since 1879, but was not used to describe sexual identity until 1980.
LGBT Context | It wasn’t until nearly the end of the 20th century that the concept of a person’s sexual orientation became part of the social consciousness enough to require language to describe it. People began to describe an individual’s sexual orientation as their sexuality, which vaguely refers to their sex life or interests. However, this phrasing lends itself to the idea of sexual preference, which implies choice. This understanding has shifted as the body of research continues to conclude that people have an innate sexual orientation that is not a malleable preference but rather a fixed characteristic.
Definition | adjective \ trans·gen·der \-ˈjen-dər\ of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth; especially : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is opposite the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth
Etymology | the word ‘transgender‘ was in common use by 1988 (from trans- + gender). The prefix trans- means “across, beyond, through, on the other side of, to go beyond,” from Latin ‘trans.’ In chemical use, it indicates “a compound in which two characteristic groups are situated on opposite sides of an axis of a molecule”
LGBT Context | A transgender person is someone who identifies as a gender that is different from the one assigned to them at birth. It is important to note that if a person identifies themselves as transgender, that is their identity, regardless of surgeries or hormone replacement therapy.
Definition | adjective \ trans·sex·u·al \(ˌ)tran(t)s-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -shəl \ of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is opposite the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth; NOTE: Transsexual people may or may not undergo surgery and hormone therapy to obtain a physical appearance typical of the gender with which they identify
Etymology | The word ‘transsexual’ has been used in common vernacular since 1957, as both an adjective and a noun, from trans- and sexual.
LGBT Context | As of the most recent publishing of this site, the term transsexual is either an antiquated term or an offensive one, favoring the newer term transgender. Where transsexual highlights a person’s sex (ie genitals, physical appearance), transgender focuses on a person’s gender identity (psychologically and emotionally) and gender expression (clothing, etc). Sometimes people differentiate transgender being a personal identity from transsexual, being a sort of physical status achieved through hormone replacement therapy and/or surgery. Generally speaking, it is not appropriate to use the term transsexual unless referring to one’s own identity.
Definition | noun \ trans·ves·tite \tran(t)s-ˈves-ˌtīt \ a person who wears clothes designed for the opposite sex : a cross-dresser; An older term for cross-dresser, who often dress only in certain situations; they do not usually identify as transgender—most identify as straight men
Etymology | The word transvestite has been used since 1922 to describe a person (usually a man) with a strong desire to dress in clothing of the opposite sex. It comes from the German transvestit, from 1910, which comes from latin words trans-, meaning ‘across’ or ‘beyond’ and vestire, meaning ‘to dress or clothe.’
LGBT Context | Made popular by the famous Rocky Horror Picture Show song ‘Sweet Transvestite,’ it is often used as an insult but also reclaimed by those who identify with the word.
For more information, this article discusses differences between transgender, transsexual, transvestite and cross-dresser.
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