LGBTQ+ Glossary of Gender and Sexuality Definitions Allies Should Know
Unsure about the exact LGBTQ meaning? Been noodling on the difference between genderqueer and nonbinary? Still confused about what queer actually means? Scratching your head over the differences between pansexuality, omnisexuality, and bisexuality? This guide is for you.
Why Language Evolves
"Language is, and has always been, dynamic," says Rae McDaniel, M.Ed., L.C.P.C., a licensed clinical counselor and gender and sex therapist based in Chicago. We — both as a society and individuals — are always growing and our understanding of the world is expanding. And, "usually people adapt the meaning and uses of words to reflect that," they say.
This is a good thing because it allows people to communicate more effectively. But it also means that dictionary definitions need to be updated frequently to keep from becoming antiquated. "The fundamental work of the dictionary is to reflect how people are using language and so it's important that we consistently update dictionaries to reflect how language is constantly evolving," says John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com.
That's why Dictionary.com recently updated more than 15,000 definitions — many of which were revisions to the LGBTQ+ entries.
"We made changes to move away from the original clinical definitions of words and remove any implication of a medical diagnosis, sickness, or pathology when describing normal human behaviors and ways of being," says Kelly. Additionally, all -sexual words, (including bisexual and pansexual) were updated to reflect the true expansiveness of gender, he says.
Why It's Important to Know These Words As An Ally
Using outdated gender and sexuality language can actively harm queer individuals. "Using words that are outdated (and worse, offensive) can take the other person out of the moment and even cause severe distress for the person you are speaking to," says McDaniels.
Kelly agrees: "Language matters and can have real effects on the psychology, interactions, and mental well-being of people."
In fact, using outdated identity lingo actually qualifies as a microaggression, a subtle comment or action directed at a member of a marginalized group that's often unintentionally offensive or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype. (You've likely heard of microagressions and implicit bias in the important conversations happening about race.) "Microgressions are like dying by a thousand papercuts," says McDaniel.
You might be wondering if you can just ask your LGBTQ+ friends what certain gender and sexuality terms mean as they come up. Honestly, in most circumstances, it's best for you not to do that. "Being expected to teach straight and cisgender folks all things LGBTQ+ all the time can be a particularly draining activity for queer folks," says McDaniels.
To help, this guide covers the dictionary definitions of the most frequently used sexuality, gender, and non-traditional relationship words. Just remember that while these are the dictionary definitions of these words, they might hold slightly different meanings to people who identify with them.
Editor's Note: This article is a continuing work of progress and we'll routinely be updating definitions and adding new ones for accuracy.
Asexual: Asexuality is the name for folks who do not experience sexual attraction to folks of any gender. (Read more about asexuality right here.)
Aromantic: Folks who are aromantic do not experience romantic attraction.
People both have a sexual orientation and a romantic orientation. So, it's possible to be aromantic but heterosexual. (Related: What Being Asexual In a Relationship Is Really Like)
Allosexual: The opposite of asexuality, allosexuality is the name for folks who do experience sexual attraction of any kind. (People of many other sexual orientations — ex: lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight — fall under this umbrella.)
Bisexual: Bisexual organizations and activists have long defined bisexuality as the capacity for romantic and/or sexual attraction to more than one gender. This year, Dictionary.com updated their definition of bisexual to nod to the expansiveness of gender. It reads: "A person who is romantically, emotionally, or sexually attracted to both men and women, or to people of various gender identities."
Biromantic: Biromantic refers to individuals who have the potential to experience romantic attraction to more than two genders.
While most folks who are biromantic are also bisexual, that's not always the case. (This is known as being cross-oriented.) So, someone who identifies as homosexual or lesbian could be biromantic.
Demisexual: Refers to the sexual orientation characterized by only experiencing sexual attraction after making a strong emotional connection with someone. Demisexuality typically falls on the asexuality spectrum.
Fluid: Fluid sexuality is defined as the capacity for sexual attraction to change depending on factors like environment and relationship. (Intrigued by sexual fluidity? Check out Lisa Diamond's famous text, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire.)
Greysexual: Also spelled greyasexual, graysexual, grayasexual, this is a sexual orientation on the asexuality spectrum, and may be used by people who feel like they relate to asexuality but that the term doesn't fully encompass their experience. It can be used as a specific identity or as an umbrella term for any identity on the asexuality spectrum that isn't purely asexual.
LGBTQ+: LGBTQ is an acronym for lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, and queer. The plus-sign at the ends is a stand-in for all other non-normative sexualities that are not represented by the LGBTQ letters themselves, including questioning, pansexual, omnisexual, asexual, and polysexual. While there are other variations of this acronym (including LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, and LGBTQIAA) many LGBTQ+ individuals prefer the variation with the + to account for the great diversity within the community.
Monosexual: The broad term for folks who experience sexual attraction to only one gender. (Ex: people who are gay, lesbian, or straight.)
Omnisexual: Omnisexuality is the potential for attraction to folks of all gender identities.
Pansexual: Pansexuality is defined either as the attraction to folks of all genders or the attraction to people regardless of their gender. While the definition sounds similar to that of omnisexuality, omnisexuality is not gender blind while pansexuality is; being gender blind means that gender doesn't play a role in determining sexual attraction. (See More: Pansexuality vs. Bisexuality: What Does Each Mean?)
Polysexual: The broad term for folks who experience sexual attraction to more than one gender. This umbrella term includes queer, bisexual, omnisexual, pansexual, and fluid.
Queer: As it refers to sexuality, queer means different things to different people. Usually, what it boils down to is "not the status quo." In other words, not straight. But queer typically defines more than just who you're attracted to romantically or sexually; rather, it's a way of being in the world, as Bahiyyah Maroon, Ph.D., queer African American anthropologist previously told Shape. (More here: Read This If You're Worried You're Not Queer Enough)
Questioning: Sometimes understood as the "Q" in LGBTQ+, questioning refers to someone in the process of exploring and/or figuring out their sexuality. (Interested in exploring your sexuality? Head here for tips on how.)
Skoliosexual: A somewhat controversial term that means the attraction to anyone who identifies as a nonbinary gender or outside the gender binary. (Here's more on what skoliosexual means and all the controversy around it.)
AFAB: An acronym for "assigned female at birth," AFAB is typically used as shorthand to designate that someone had female genitalia at birth and was assumed to be a girl.
Agender: The prefix "A" means "without," so someone who is agender is someone who does not have a gender or who rejects the idea of gender altogether.
AMAB: An acronym for "assigned male at birth," AMAB is typically used as shorthand to designate that someone had male genitalia at birth and was assumed to be a boy.
Bigender: People who are bigender have two distinct gender identities. (For instance: boy and demigirl.) Some bigender folks experience two genders simultaneously. Others may identify as a girl one day and a boy the next.
Cisgender: When a person's gender corresponds with their birth sex. (Ex: a cisgender male is someone who was born with a penis who identifies as male.) The word "cishet" is commonly used to describe someone who is both cisgender and heterosexual.
Demigender: The prefix "demi" means either "partially" or "half." Demigender is an umbrella term used to describe folks who partially identify with their gender. Identities under this umbrella include demigirl, demiboy, demienby, etc. Non-binary, bigender, transgender, and gender-fluid folks may also identify as demigender. And demigender folks may identify as non-binary or trasngender. But (!), demigender is not synonymous with transgender or non-binary.
FTM: An acronym for "female-to-male," FTM refers to folks who were assigned female at birth, and now identify as men or strongly identify with masculinity or maleness.
Genderfluid: Refers to folks whose gender identity or gender expression changes over time.
Genderqueer: Both broad and vague, genderqueer is a term that reflects how a person experiences their gender. It can refer to someone whose gender 1) is neither man nor woman, 2) a combination of two or more genders, or 3) presentation and expression fluctuates.
Intersex: Intersex is the term used for anyone one have sex characteristics (think: chromosomes, body hair patterns, hormones, genitals, etc.) that cannot be neatly categorized into the male or female binary.
MTF: An acronym for "male-to-female," MTF refers to folks who were assigned male at birth, and now identify as women or strongly identify with femininity or femaleness.
Nonbinary: Nonbinary (or non-binary) is an identity claimed by individuals whose gender identity does not fit neatly in the male-female gender binary. Or by those who reject the gender binary altogether. (Note: Nonbinary can be abbreviate to the word "enby," which is the pronunciation of "NB." But it should not be abbreviated to the letters "NB," which is short-hand for non-Black.) People who identify as nonbinary often (but don't always) use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them.
Pronouns: When someone refers to their pronouns, they are sharing whether they like to be referred to by she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, ze/hir/hirs, or any other gender pronoun. Important: Every single person has pronouns!
Transgender: An umbrella term for folks who whose gender identity does not correspond to their birth-sex. (Related: How Does Transitioning Affect A Transgender Athletes Performance?)
Womxn: Womxn (pronounced "women") is often used to remove the "man" from woman to de-centers the idea that women come from men. It also emphasizes the intention to include trans and non-binary women, acknowledging that not all women have vaginas and not all people with vaginas are womxn. (More here: What It Means to Include "X" In Words Such As Womxn, Folx, and Latinx)
Non-traditional relationship models aren't explicitly part of the LGBTQ+ world since they have more to do with the set-up of a relationship vs. the actual sexuality or gender of the people involved. But because these relationships fall outside of the cultural norm (read: monogamy), many people don't know what they entail! And of course, people who are LGBTQ+ can enter relationships of any style and configuration. So, while these terms aren't strictly LGBTQ+, they can be useful to know whether you're in the LGBTQ+ community, know people who are, or are just trying to learn more about different ways of loving and making love in the world.
Ethical non-monogamy: "Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term that names the practice of benign not monogamous in a way where everyone is consenting," says Rachel Wright, M.A., L.F.F.T., is a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and sex and relationship expert. Recently, there's been a push from non-monogamous circles to call ethical non-monogamy simply "non-monogamy" instead, because saying ethical implies that non-monogamous is inherently unethical, which it's not.
Open relationship: "Open relationship is an incredibly vague term," says Wright. Sometimes it's used as an umbrella term for all forms of non-monogamy (including swinging, monogamish, threesomes, polyamory, throuples, etc). And sometimes it's used to refer to couples who have agreed that sexual encounters are allowed outside of the relationship, but romantic entanglements are not. That's why, "when someone says they're in an open relationship it's ultimately pretty unclear what they're actually saying. So if it makes sense within your relationship with that person, ask," says Wright. (Related: What Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)
Polyamory: "Polyamory literally means many (poly) loves (amory)," says Wright. "So, polyamory is the practice or potential for, having more than more than one love—specifically more than one romantic love." Many polyamorous folks, view polyamory as an innate part of their being. (See: Here's What a Polyamorous Relationship Is — and Isn't)
Polygamy: While often confused with polyamory, polygamy and polyamory are *not* the same. "Polygamy is the act of marrying more than one person and it does not fall under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy, because often all of the people (usually women) are not consenting."
Don't See a Word In This Guide?
With over 30 terms, this guide is a great start — but it's far from being complete. If you have questions about a gender, sexuality, or relationship term that's not on this list, then hit up Google or Dictionary.com and do a little more research on your own. Your LGBTQ+ friends and family will be thankful for it.