The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

LGBT-who? Decoding the ever-changing acronym.

People hold rainbow umbrellas to celebrate International Day Against Homophobia in the front of the Romanian Parliament building in Bucharest, Romania, on May 17. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

People are expressing their sexuality and gender identities like we’ve never seen before. And it’s freaking beautiful. As a result, there are new terms and phrases; LGBT just isn’t cutting it anymore.

It’s not always easy to keep up. I’m a “B,” and I still get confused about the acronym sometimes.

LGBT is the most common acronym and happens to be what The Washington Post uses in news stories. LGBTQ adds queer to the mix with a second Q sometimes thrown in for questioning. Sometimes I and A are added to the end, too.

Lesbian and gay

For most, defining “lesbian” and “gay” should be a no-brainer. Both terms indicate an attraction to member of the same sex. The embrace of the term gay follows the rejection of another: homosexual.

Homosexuality was the medical term many used as people started acknowledging the existence of this sexual orientation. However, acknowledging meant it could be classified as a mental disorder. Once the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, gay became the favored umbrella term for both men and women.

“We just said ‘gay.’ I was a gay activist in high school and that’s the word I used,” Donna Minkowitz, a columnist for Gay City News, told me over the phone. She still considers gay to be a unisex term, but not everyone sees it that way. 

Steven Petrow, a gay man who writes The Post’s Civilities column, notes that the order — LGBT or GLBT — depends on personal preference, although the “L” typically comes first.


The “B” isn’t attached to one gender, but it is often misunderstood.

“It really wasn’t until the ’90s that bisexuality was understood properly to be a sexual orientation of its own and not one of the many stereotypes attributed to it,” Petrow says. For example, the idea that bisexuality is just a stepping stone to later coming out as lesbian or gay is true for some but not all. 

“My experience has almost all been with women, but I’m attracted to men too and I think it’s important to say that,” says Minkowitz, who identifies as a “lesbian-leaning bisexual” and queer. 


While the first three letters (LGB) focus on sexual identity, transgender refers to a person’s gender identity, namely that they don’t identify with the gender they were born into. Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono and, yes, Caitlyn Jenner are a few examples.

Not everyone who identifies as transgender will take hormones or undergo sex reassignment surgery. Fred Ettner, a physician in Evanston, Ill., estimated for my Post colleague Lenny Bernstein that only about 25 percent to 30 percent of transgender people have any kind of surgery.

And not everyone under the transgender umbrella identifies as a single gender; they might prefer gender-neutral pronouns such as “they, them, theirs.” For example, Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, places themself under the T in LGBT but identifies as genderqueer.

Every category has its divisions within. Beemyn’s fellow Ts haven’t always been so welcoming. “When I came out as genderqueer, some of the people who were least supportive were other trans people,” Beemyn said. “I changed my name [and was undergoing] electrolysis, but I wasn’t going to go on hormones and for them that didn’t put me in the trans camp.”

While co-writing the 2011 book “The Lives of Transgender People,” Beemyn found over 100 different ways trans people identity themselves. Now, it could be even more. “Even two people who use the same word, two guys who say ‘I’m a trans man.’ Well, what does that mean to you?” Beemyn added. “Because it may mean something very different for you than it does for somebody else.”

Queer and questioning

Much like “gay,” queer can be used as a blanket term. It often represents anyone who’s not cisgender and/or straight.

But for some, it has more negative than inclusive connotations. “I don’t use queer to define myself,” said Petrow, who has been writing about the gay community for decades. “A lot of people who are of my generation remember what a horrible hateful slur that was.”

The exclusion of Q in the LGBT acronym is very troubling to many people, Petrow said, especially younger folks. “It is seen as old timey and wrong,” Petrow added.

Q can also be read as “questioning,” used when people are still exploring their sexuality and gender.


The “I” is an underrepresented part of the LGBTQQIA+ community. It’s used to describe a person “born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” according to the Intersex Society of North America.

Experts believe that .05 to 1.7 percent of the population is born with “intersex traits.”

“I didn’t know the term until I was 19,” Catherine Graffam, who is intersex, said over the phone. “People are living with this and have no words or vocabulary [to describe it].”

Pidgeon Pagonis was born intersex and identifies as both queer and genderqueer. They later underwent surgeries as a child to remove traces of male sex traits and was put on hormones to force them to go through puberty as a girl.

“We don’t need to have doctors and surgeons change our healthy bodies to conform to society,” they told me via email. “but society needs to get used to the fact that variance is a healthy and natural part of nature.”

Asexual and ally

“A” can take on a number of different terms. Most commonly, it stands for asexual, or someone who isn’t sexually attracted to anyone.

Emily Karp, a co-organizer of the Asexuals of the Mid-Atlantic, didn’t know the term existed until she saw it on Twitter. “I’m not attracted to people in any type of sexual way,” Karp told me. “I basically consider myself aromantic and asexual,” meaning she has no desire to date or be physical. (Aromantics sometimes call themselves “aro.”)

Asexuality (also referred to as “ace”) doesn’t take one form: Some who identify this way might feel attraction, but refrain from dating or sex. Others might feel no attraction, but still date and have sex, the smallest subset of the asexual community, Karp says.

Agender, when someone is “without gender,” falls under “A,” too.

In LGBTQQIA+, sometimes the A can be used for ally, or supporter — although some of the community has moved away from it. They’re typically thought of as straight people, but Beemyn is quick to say the term can mean so much more than that.

“Even if you’re part of the community,” Beemyn said, “you are one part of the community and you need to be allied with other parts of the community.”


When you see LGBTQQIA+, what does that plus sign stand for? Good question.

The plus sign is meant to include anyone’s identity that doesn’t fall under another letter, such as those hundreds of terms Beemyn referenced above.


Where are all the bisexual men?

Call yourself an LGBT ally? Here’s how to actually be one.

LGBT singles are split on marriage, kids and dating someone who’s transgender