As a writer, language is important to me. Just as I believe that representation and visibility shape the ways the world understands people from marginalised communities and the ways young people from those communities see themselves, I also believe that the language used has a powerful impact. As ephemeral as gender and sexual orientation can seem, the words used to designate them still matter.

In that vein, I want to take a moment to talk about the words used to identify communities and individuals. Think of this as a sort of a Queer Justice 101, if you’d like.

I was a trainer for 8 years through the Bridge 13 Community Education Project of SMYRC (the Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center), and worked for a year at my university’s Queer Resource Center doing similar work; here’s the basic terminology that you might learn from a basic workshop like the kind I’ve presented in the past. This is a very surface level examination of a complicated topic, and I’ve included more specific and in-depth resources at the bottom.

Here goes.

An acronym used in many posts here is LGBTQ2, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, 2Spirit. Other terms that may come up include:

  • Pansexual/Asexual/Demisexual
  • Panromantic/Aromantic/Demiromantic
  • Intersex

For people who are not members of the community, it can sometimes be confusing to know which to use, what each means, and so on, so here’s a brief, basic rundown:

The most familiar terms tend to be GLBT, that is gay—men attracted to men, lesbian—women attracted to women, bisexual—a person attracted to two genders, and trans/transgender—a person who does not identify with the sex assigned them at birth.

Note: sexual orientation ≠ gender identity. So, sexual orientation is who you tend to or can be attracted to, and gender identity is what gender you identify as your own. Gender identity is different from sex. Often, folks in the queer community will say sex assigned at birth to indicate what sex (in most countries, this is one of two) is indicated on a birth certificate, which is asssigned by the doctor or nurse delivering the child.

Trans/transgender refers to someone whose gender is different from their sex assignment. A newer term, cis/cisgender indicates a person whose gender coincides with their sex assignment, for instance: a person designated female at birth (sometimes abbreviated DFAB) who identifies as a woman is cis.

Other identities include 2Spirit (see next paragraph); intersex—a person who may display the internal or external sex traits of more than one sex; and pansexual/panromantic, asexual/aromantic, and demisexual/demiromantic. The prefixes are the key for these terms: pansexual means being able to be attracted to people of more than two genders, panromantic is romantic attraction to more than two genders (as opposed to sexual or physical attraction), asexual is not being sexually attracted to anyone, aromantic is not feeling romantic attraction, demisexual is being sexually attracted to people one has an emotional connection with, and demiromantic is being romantically attracted to people one has an emotional connection with.

2Spirit is a special term created by and for Indigenous peoples in North America and the rest of the world that acknowledges the reality of pre-colonial genders and sexual identities, many of which colonisers attempted to eradicate, and is an alternative to externally imposed terminology.

Other terms in use are GSM, which stands for the rather clinical-sounding Gender and Sexual Minorities, and the rather newer and less-known MOGAI—Marginalised Orientations, Gender identities, And Intersex. Or you might hear “gAyBC’s”, “alphabet soup”, or simply “queer” from members of the community. Some folks prefer MSM—men who have sex with men—instead of gay. Some people use genderqueer to indicate being neither a man nor a woman, or agender to indicate not having a gender identity. And some folks use gender-nonconforming to indicate a person who expresses or is perceived as outside societal expectations for gender roles and presentations.

Other resources:

I offer coaching and social justice education services; more information can be found at Coaching and Consulting.


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