LGBTQ Language: A Guide To Sexuality And Gender Words

Is it OK to use the word "queer"?

Well, it's tricky. Only since the beginning of the 20th century has queer been used to refer to people who identify as gay or lesbian. And for much of that time, it was used in a derogatory manner.

More recently, queer has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community (hence, the Q) and functions as both an umbrella term and as a specific identity. But, for some, queer may still conjure feelings of being different, ostracized, or not accepted.

Since the term is not universally accepted, some people recommend avoiding it unless quoting someone or describing someone who self-identifies that way. It's always best to ask someone how they identify and use their preferred language.

OK, then what does the "T" in LGBTQ stand for?

Transgender.

This is a term that refers to people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth (side note: when gender and sex align, it's called cisgender). For example, someone who was assigned the male sex at birth but who identifies as female could consider themselves transgender.

Many transgender individuals identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, meaning their gender identity or expression doesn't conform to the traditional dichotomy of male or female. (Remember, gender and sex are not synonyms.)

Nonbinary gender can take many forms. Some do not experience gender (agender, gendervoid). Some may identify as two or more genders (bigender). Other individuals don't have a fixed gender identity or expression or experience a range of intensity within them (gender-fluid, genderflux). Yet others have created more specific terms for their experience (e.g., juxera and proxvir).

Again, if you're in a situation where you need to refer to someone's gender identity, it’s best to ask what they prefer. Keep in mind: Some transgender people use the shorthand trans, but it’s not always acceptable for a non-transgender person to use the term. Also note that transgender is preferred to transgendered, as the latter can imply something has been done to the person and that their identity isn't natural. Calling someone a transgender is similarly offensive.

Is "homosexual" still in use?

The standard definition of homosexual is "a person sexually attracted to people of one’s own sex." But, it’s typically applied to men, and lesbian is the term for a female homosexual.

GLAAD prefers that we don’t use the term homosexual because it’s “aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered.”

Nobody has a sexual preference

You may have a sexual preference (who you find sexually attractive) for men, women, or both. But, sexual preference also means how you self-identify, so in the LGBTQ community, it's a no-no term. Why?

Because it suggests that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or of another sexual orientation is a choice and the person can be “cured.” You won’t offend anyone if you use the term sexual orientation or just orientation though.

It’s not a gay lifestyle

The word gay refers to a homosexual man, but it originally meant "lighthearted, joyful, carefree." Gay as an adjective meaning "homosexual" goes back at least to the 1930s.

Today, gay lifestyle is a commonly used—and misused—term. In the LGBTQ community, gay lifestyle, as well as homosexual lifestyle, are sometimes frowned upon. Our best advice is to avoid using the terms because it might perpetuate negative stereotypes, including promiscuous behavior.

Do people still come out?

It’s OK to describe someone you know who publicly self-identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or another sexual orientation as out. Coming out of the closet is slang for LGBT people who self-disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity; it dates back to at least the 1970s.

It’s also OK to describe someone as openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. But never out someone, or expose their lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity, without permission.

Banishing the "homosexual agenda"

Of course, members of the LGBTQ community have fought for equal justice under the law. But, people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender also care about a wide variety of other political, social, and cultural issues.

The term homosexual agenda is used by anti-gay extremists to create a climate of fear and mistrust. It’s sometimes used as a disparaging way to describe the recruitment of heterosexuals into a homosexual lifestyle. All to say, let’s banish homosexual agenda from our vocabulary.

When to use "drag queen" and "drag king"

Drag, as you may know, is slang for wearing the clothing of the opposite sex. A drag queen is "a man who, for enjoyment or performance, prefers to dress in women’s clothing." They are often gay but can be a man of any sexual orientation.

Drag kings are "female performance artists who dress in masculine drag and personify male gender stereotypes." Keep in mind that unless they're drag performers, most transgender people would be offended if you confused them with drag queens or drag kings.

Drag culture has given us a growing body of slang going mainstream, including kiki (a social gathering), tea (gossip), slay (to do something with excellence), and snatched (looking amazing).

Ze and zir

Ze and zir are gender-neutral pronouns preferred by some transgender and genderqueer people who don’t feel comfortable being addressed with masculine or feminine pronouns. Ze, also spelled zee or zie, replaces he or she. And zir, or hir, replaces his and her. 

Many US colleges and universities across the country allow students to select their own identifiers.

Nonbinary singular they is also becoming a popular pronoun for those that identify as nonbinary.

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