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Home > Culture/Diversity > Sexual Orientation/Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth Issues > LGBTQ Facts and Information


LGBTQ Terminology

An irony of human services work in general and child welfare in particular is that practice often must resist the temptation to categorize and label, but that categorization and labeling are often essential to the job. The children and families we serve are diverse, and culturally competent practice demands that we avoid the generalizations that come with categories and labels. Nonetheless, there are times when the mandates of both language and practice require some form of standard reference that categories and labels can provide.

No doubt, visitors to this website have encountered a number of terms and differing acronyms. The most common is LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender; also seen as GLBT). To this "root" acronym, professionals in the field often add Q (for one who may be questioning his or her sexual identity) or I (intersexed). One might also encounter LGBTQQI (in which the second Q stands for queer).

As a matter of general style, CWLA traditionally has used the acronyms GLBTQ and LGBTQ interchangeably, although it has moved to the more universally accepted LGBTQ.

Like our language itself, the practice of child welfare work with LGBTQ youth is dynamic and constantly evolving. Definitions and understandings change over time. This is particularly true with the language of diversity and the terms or labels we use to identify ourselves. As respectful individuals in a civil society, we should strive to ensure that our language does not demean, exclude, or offend. We must allow others to self-identify, for definitions of terms will vary for everyone. Our hope is that the following terms and definitions will lend some clarity for our readers and provide a starting point for discussion and understanding.

Bisexual. A person who experiences the human need for warmth, affection, and love from persons of either gender. Sometimes this includes sexual contact. A person can identify as bisexual without having had same-sexual experiences with a man or a woman; a person can identify as bisexual without having had any sexual contact at all.

Closeted. Denotes an individual who is not open about his or her sexual orientation. Also referred to as "in the closet."

Coming out. A lifelong process of self-acceptance. People forge a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity first to themselves, and then may reveal it to others. Publicly identifying oneself as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, however, may or may not be part of "coming out."

Crossdresser. A person who dresses in the clothing of the opposite biological gender. Crossdressers generally want to relate as, and be accepted as, a person of the gender they are presenting. Crossdressing may be partial or total in amount of time and amount of clothing worn. Crossdressers may identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Domestic partners. Adults who are not legally married, who share resources and responsibility for decisions, share values and goals, and have commitments to one another over a period of time. Legal definitions may vary among city ordinances, corporate policies, and individuals and families.

Domestic partnership. A civil or legal contract recognizing a partnership or a relationship between two people that sometimes confers limited benefits to them. Such a partnership can be formed by lesbians or gay men, by unmarried heterosexual life partners, or by others making a home together. Members of such a commitment may be referred to each other as partners or companions.

Down low (or DL). A term coined by some bisexual men of color that describes a cultural phenomenon of men who have sex with other men without informing their female partners.

Drag. Dressing in the clothing of the opposite biological gender, or in a manner different than how one will usually dress (i.e. "corporate drag" or "military drag"). Drag often is theatrical and presents a stereotyped image. Individuals who dress in drag may or may not consider themselves part of the transgender community. They may also identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Gay. A term often applied to both men and women who are attracted to the same gender, much in the same way that man, used generically, has been used in the past to encompass both men and women. Many object to the use of gay applied to both gay men and lesbians, and the term is often used to identify homosexual males only.

Gender bending/blending. Dressing in such a way as to question the traditional feminine or masculine qualities assigned to articles of clothing or adornment. Gender bending may be part of a fashion trend, or possibly a political statement. Gender bending often has no correlation to issues of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Gender expression. External representation of one's gender identity, usually expressed through "masculine" or "feminine" behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, or body characteristics. Typically, transgender people seek to make their gender expression match their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned gender.

Gender identity. An individual's basic self-conviction of being male or female. This conviction is not contingent upon the individual's biological gender. The exact process by which boys and girls come to see themselves as males or females is not known, but research indicates that gender identity develops some time between birth and age 3. (See also Transgender.)

Gender identity disorder (GID). A controversial diagnosis, contained in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition), given to transgender and other gender-variant people. Because it labels people as "disordered," GID often is considered offensive. The diagnosis frequently is applied to children who don't obey expected norms in terms of dress, play, or behavior. Such children often are subjected to intense psychotherapy, behavior modification, or institutionalized. Replaces the outdated term gender dysphoria.

Hate crime. A criminal offense against a person, property, or society that is motivated by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.

Heterosexual privilege. The basic civil rights and social privileges that a heterosexual person automatically receives that are systematically denied to gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons simply because of their sexual orientation. Also, the assumption that all people are heterosexual.

Heterosexism. Systems and ways of thinking that reinforce a belief in the inherent superiority of heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships, thereby negating the lives and relationships of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people.

Homophobia. Negative feelings, attitudes, actions, or behaviors against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people, or people perceived to be any of the above. It may also manifest as a person's fear of being perceived as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Homosexual. A term coined in 1869 by an early psychiatrist who used it to describe a person who has "an other than normal sexual urge that renders them physically and psychologically incapable." Since the word was originally used to describe a pathology, most gays and lesbians do not like this term used to define them. Homosexuality per se is no longer considered an illness by the American Psychiatric Association, nor by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, or most other reputable professional organizations.

Intersexed. Generally applied to individuals born with ambiguous genitalia (an outdated term would be hermaphrodite). In the past, most intersexed individuals have had surgery shortly after birth in an attempt to give them an "identifiable" gender. There is now much discussion about this practice, but so far little has changed. Parents often feel forced to make a quick decision with little information. Most intersexed persons are raised as female.

Lesbian. A woman who experiences the human need for warmth, affection, and love from other women. Sometimes this includes sexual contact.

Lifestyle. Term often used to denigrate the lives of lesbians and gay men. Avoid using this term, as there is no one heterosexual, lesbian, or gay lifestyle.

MSM. Common abbreviation for men who secretly have sex with men while maintaining relationships with women. MSM is not synonymous with bisexual and usually refers to members of communities of color. For many MSMs, fear of isolation or rejection by family members or the church can lead to lower self-respect, shame, and silence about their sexual identity.

Out of the closet/being out. Means that one states openly that one is lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgender, in contrast to "staying in the closet" by hiding or denying one's gender identity or sexual orientation from oneself or from others.

Outing. The act of publicly revealing another person's sexual orientation. Considered inappropriate in the current political and social climate by most of the gay community.

Pink triangle. The symbolism of the pink triangle dates back to World War II. The Nazi death camps were constructed to eliminate Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, people with mental and physical disabilities, and others. Each of these groups was identified with a symbol on their camp uniforms; just as Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David, homosexuals, were forced to wear pink triangles. The pink triangle is worn as a reminder of what can happen when fanatical social elements launch hate wars against minorities.

Queer. Used by some to refer to themselves, the LGBTQ community, a person who is GLBTQ, or even someone who is supportive of the LGBTQ community. Often viewed as a political statement as well as an identity or label. Some of those who use the term feel it is more inclusive, allowing for the diversity of race, class, ability, and gender that is represented by LGBTQ community. Caution: Many LGBTQ individuals dislike this word and view it as pejorative.

Questioning. One who is questioning his or her sexual identity. Some questioning individuals ultimately will identify as heterosexual, some as gay or lesbian, some as bisexual, and so on.

Rainbow flag. The first eight-striped Rainbow Flags made their debut at the 1978 Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day March in San Francisco. The original eight colors were pink for sexuality, red for light, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for natural serenity, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.

Reparative therapy. Any formal attempt to change a person's sexual orientation--typically from homosexual to heterosexual. It often includes attempts by conservative Christian transformational ministries to use prayer, religious conversion, one-on-one and group counseling, etc. to change a person's sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation. The orientation within human beings that leads them to be emotionally and physically attracted to persons of one gender or both. One's sexual orientation may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.

Transgender. An umbrella term for persons who have a self-image or gender identity not traditionally associated with their biological gender. Some transgender persons wish to change their anatomy to be more congruent with their self-perception, whereas others do not have such a desire. There is no absolute correlation between sexual orientation and transgender issues. A transgender person may identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Transition. In the parlance of transgender issues, the transition is the period when an individual changes from expressing one gender to another in his or her personal life or workplace. For most individuals the workplace transition is very carefully planned, often including appropriate levels of management in early discussions, and the process may be weeks or months in length. The personal life transition, also eagerly anticipated, may be more sudden.

Transsexual. A person whose gender identity is other than his or her biological gender, This person may wish to change his or her anatomy to be more congruent with his or her self-perception. Most transsexuals would like to alter their bodies through hormonal therapy or gender reassignment/confirmation surgeries.

Transvestite. Often a person who may achieve sexual pleasure through the use of clothing or personal adornments of the other gender. Often incorrectly used interchangeably with crossdresser. There is no correlation between sexual orientation and transvestite behavior. Transvestites may identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual in their sexual orientation.

Source: lesbian and gay Alliance Against Defamation

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