What Does LGBTQ+ Mean? A Comprehensive Overview

Written By

Erica Barnes

Updated:

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Key insights

  • LGBTQ+ is an ever-evolving acronym that aims to be inclusive of the diverse spectrum of gender and sexual identities. The plus represents those not explicitly covered by the other letters.
  • Using LGBTQ+ raises visibility for marginalized communities, allows for greater self-expression and identity, promotes advocacy and representation, and signals inclusivity.
  • Each letter represents whole communities with distinct experiences, challenges, and needs – not one homogenous group. Avoid assumptions.
  • At an individual level, respect how people self-identify. On a societal level, expanding awareness and representation of LGBTQ+ identities promotes human rights.

Statistics

  • 40% of homeless youth in the US identify as LGBTQ+. Family rejection is a major cause.
  • Studies show LGBTQ+ youth are nearly three times more likely to seriously contemplate suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
  • Research indicates that over one-quarter of transgender individuals have experienced job loss, denied a promotion, or not being hired because of their gender identity.
  • LGBTQ+ patients are nearly 3 times as likely to avoid medical treatment due to fear of discrimination by healthcare professionals.

In recent years, the abbreviation LGBTQ+ has gained greater recognition as an umbrella term encompassing various gender and sexual minorities, including but not limited to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning communities. 

But what exactly does this abbreviation mean, and why has it evolved over time? Here is a comprehensive look at the meaning behind LGBTQ+ and its importance.

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The Letters in LGBTQ+

Each letter in LGBTQ+ stands for a different identity or community:

L – Lesbian

Lesbians are women who feel emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to other women.

G – Gay

The term gay refers to someone who is emotionally, romantically, and/or sexually attracted to individuals of their own gender. It is commonly used to describe men who are attracted to men, but women who are attracted to women (lesbians) may also identify as gay.

B – Bisexual

Bisexuality involves feeling romantic, emotional, and/or sexual draws toward more than one gender. People who are bisexual may not be equally attracted to men and women, and the attraction may fluctuate over time.

T – Transgender

Transgender refers to a broad range of people whose inner sense of gender differs from the sex they were designated at birth. Transgender individuals may identify as men, women, nonbinary, genderfluid, or other gender identities.

Q – Queer/Questioning

Queer is a term used by some people to characterize their sexual orientation and/or gender identity as falling outside of societal norms. It is sometimes used as an umbrella term for anyone who identifies as non-heterosexual or non-cisgender. Questioning refers to people who are unsure or exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.

+ – Plus

The plus represents other sexual orientations and gender identities not explicitly covered by the LGBTQ acronym, such as pansexual, asexual, Two-Spirit, and more.

office building with exterior windows in rainbow colors

History and Evolution of the Acronym

The letters in the abbreviation have expanded over time to be more inclusive:

  • In the late 1980s, gay rights organizations started using the acronym LGBT.
  • In the 1990s, LGBT became more widely adopted to acknowledge the bisexual community.
  • In the early 2000s, the Q for queer or questioning was added to form the acronym LGBTQ.
  • More recently, the acronym has expanded further to be more inclusive of identities such as transgender, intersex, asexual, Two-Spirit, and others. The longer initialism LGBTQIA gained popularity, with the A representing asexual/agender and the I representing intersex.
  • Most inclusively, some organizations and individuals use the acronym LGBTQ+ with the plus sign representing communities not explicitly covered in the longer acronym.

As language and understanding of gender and sexuality have evolved, the abbreviation has expanded to better reflect the diversity of identities and experiences that exist.

However, there is still debate around which acronym version to use. Some advocate for the more inclusive LGBTQ+ while others feel the four-letter LGBT acronym is more widely understood.

Why the Acronym Matters

Using an all-encompassing acronym like LGBTQ+ serves several important purposes:

Visibility: It raises awareness of the many diverse identities and experiences that exist related to gender and sexual orientation. Each letter represents people who have historically experienced marginalization or lack of recognition in society.

Inclusivity: Adding more letters aims to be more inclusive of identities often left out or overlooked even within the broader LGBTQ community. The + asserts there are many more identities than can be captured by the acronym.

Identity: Having words to describe one’s identity, orientation, or experiences can affirm people’s sense of self. It allows people to find community and feel less alone.

Advocacy: Having a unified acronym allows the LGBTQ+ community to more effectively advocate for legal protections, equality, and fair treatment in society.

Representation: Increased representation and visibility of LGBTQ+ people in media, politics, education, and other realms also depends on having recognizable terminology.

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When to Use LGBTQ+

  • Use LGBTQ+ as an adjective for the overall community or population (e.g., LGBTQ+ rights, LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ culture).
  • Use specific identity terms when possible if you know how someone self-identifies (e.g., gay man, bisexual person, transgender woman).
  • Avoid using LGBTQ+ as a noun to describe an individual person or group unless they have stated that is how they identify.
  • Do not assume anyone’s gender identity or sexual orientation – allow people to self-identify.
  • Be aware that some older generations may prefer the term gay community. Respect the language people feel comfortable using.

Variations of the Acronym

While LGBTQ+ is currently the most widely used and inclusive acronym, there are other variations to be aware of:

  • LGBT
  • LGBTQ
  • LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex)
  • LGBTQIA (with A for asexual/agender)
  • LGBTQQIP2SAA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, Two-Spirit, androgynous, asexual)

Organizations or groups may use different acronyms based on their advocacy focus, membership, or for other reasons. The longer variations are not as widely known by the general public but are important to acknowledge.

Related LGBTQ+ Terminology

Here are some other common terms related to LGBTQ+ identities and experiences:

  • Ally – Someone who supports and advocates for the LGBTQ+ community
  • Asexual – Experiencing little or no sexual attraction to others
  • Cisgender – When someone’s gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth
  • Coming Out – The process of revealing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Gay – Experiencing attraction to the same gender; can refer to men or women
  • Gender Binary – The idea that encompasses that there are only two genders, male and female
  • Gender Dysphoria – Significant distress caused by one’s birth-assigned gender
  • Gender Expression – How someone outwardly displays their gender through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, etc.
  • Gender Identity – Someone’s inner sense of being a man, woman, both, or neither
  • Gender Non-Conforming – Behaving in a way that differs from traditional gender norms
  • Intersex – Born with anatomical or chromosomal attributes that are not strictly male or female
  • Lesbian – Women who experience attraction to other women
  • Non-Binary – Identifying as neither exclusively male nor female
  • Pansexual – Attraction to people regardless of gender
  • Pronouns – How someone prefers to be referred to (he/him, she/her, they/them, etc.)
  • Queer – Non-normative gender identity or sexual orientation; reclaimed slur
  • Sexual Orientation – Emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction
  • Transgender – Umbrella term encompassing identities of people whose gender differs from their birth-assigned sex
two women hugging and covered by rainbow flag

Identities and Experiences Within the LGBTQ+ Community

While the LGBTQ+ acronym attempts to capture a diverse range of identities and experiences, it is important to recognize the distinctions within and between each of the represented communities. Here is an overview of some of the key identities encompassed by the broader LGBTQ+ community:

Lesbian

  • Women who form romantic, emotional, and sexual attachments to other women.
  • May prefer to be called gay women or queer instead of lesbian.
  • Experience unique challenges like exclusion from mainstream feminism and lack of representation.
  • Report higher rates of poverty, smoking, obesity, and inadequate healthcare compared to straight women.

Gay

  • Men who are attracted to men, although gay can refer to attraction between any same genders.
  • Gay men face higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
  • Physical violence and hate crimes remain serious threats to safety.
  • More likely to experience homelessness, especially LGBTQ+ youth rejected by families.

Bisexual

  • Attracted to more than one gender. Doesn’t have to be equally split attraction.
  • Are the largest portion of the LGBTQ+ community but face erasure and misunderstanding.
  • Experience stress from having to “prove” their identity and from rejection from both straight and gay communities.
  • At increased risk for poverty, anxiety, substance abuse disorders, and suicidality.

Transgender

  • An umbrella term for people whose gender differs from the sex assigned at birth.
  • Many identify simply as men or women, while others use nonbinary terms.
  • Face disproportionately high rates of discrimination, violence, homelessness, unemployment, and mental illness.
  • Lack of family/peer support, access to healthcare, and legal protections exacerbate issues.

Queer

  • Reclaimed slur now used positively by some LGBTQ+ people. Still considered offensive by some.
  • Indicates a non-normative sexuality or gender, but definitions vary by person.
  • Rejects the categorization of identities and emphasizes fluidity.
  • Provides freedom from conforming to roles and expectations tied to labels like lesbian or bisexual.

Intersex

  • Born with sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, or chromosomes that are not strictly male or female.
  • As infants, they may be subjected to cosmetic surgeries to “normalize” genitalia, often without consent. This can cause lifelong physical and psychological harm.
  • Experience higher rates of bullying, isolation, depression, anxiety, and suicide than non-intersex peers.
  • Face difficulty obtaining legal documentation that accurately reflects their sex characteristics.

Asexual

  • Experience little to no sexual attraction to others. Differs from celibacy or abstinence.
  • Asexuality exists on a spectrum. Some enjoy sex, while others are repulsed by it.
  • Romantic orientation may be distinct from sexual orientation. Can have romantic attraction regardless of lack of sexual attraction.
  • Asexual erasure results in a lack of representation and misunderstanding. Report mental health issues stemming from isolation.

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Unique Needs and Challenges

While LGBTQ+ individuals share some common experiences of marginalization, each community faces distinct challenges and threats to health and well-being. Here are some of the unique needs and disparities affecting LGBTQ+ populations:

Violence and Harassment – LGBTQ+ individuals are significantly more likely to experience violent hate crimes, sexual assault, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence. Among all demographics within the transgender community, transgender women of color are most frequently the victims of violence and homicide.

Homelessness – Up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. Family rejection, aging out of foster care, and unsafe shelters are key drivers. Homeless LGBTQ+ individuals report higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and sexual victimization.

Bullying – Verbal and physical harassment in schools remains commonplace. LGBTQ+ youth who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, skip school, and attempt suicide.

Rejection – Many LGBTQ+ youth and adults experience discrimination, rejection, and even banishment from families, friends, schools, workplaces, and faith communities. This takes a massive toll on mental health.

Discrimination – Bias, prejudice, and lack of legal protections in housing, healthcare, employment, education, and public accommodations deny LGBTQ+ people equal treatment and opportunities.

Mental Health – Discrimination and isolation put LGBTQ+ individuals at greater risk for mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Access to competent, affirmative care remains limited.

Physical Health – LGBTQ+ populations have higher rates of cancer, HIV/AIDS, obesity, substance abuse, and other physical health issues tied to discrimination in healthcare systems.

Economic Inequality – LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to live in poverty due to employment discrimination, pay disparities, and educational disadvantage. Transgender people, bisexuals, LGBTQ+ people of color, and LGBTQ+ women see especially high poverty rates.

Legal Protection – Inconsistent legal rights and protections across states and nationally leave LGBTQ+ populations vulnerable in family law, employment, healthcare access, hate crime prosecution, anti-discrimination statutes, and more.

Achieving Equity and Inclusion

While progress has been made, full equity and inclusion for LGBTQ+ people has yet to be realized in many areas of society. Advancing the human rights of LGBTQ+ populations requires work across multiple fronts:

  • Enacting more comprehensive federal, state, and local legal protections prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • Expanding public education and awareness to promote cultural competence and address harmful misconceptions.
  • Increasing representation of LGBTQ+ communities in politics, business, education, media, and the arts.
  • Funding culturally appropriate mental health treatment, suicide prevention, and substance abuse services.
  • Improving access to affordable transgender-inclusive healthcare.
  • Training healthcare providers, first responders, law enforcement, educators, and social workers to better serve LGBTQ+ communities with dignity and respect.
  • Making all educational environments identity-affirming and safe through anti-bullying campaigns, inclusive policies and curriculum, and support programs.
  • Developing welcoming, protective communities by advocating for LGBTQ+ friendly workplaces, places of worship, recreational programs, retirement communities and more.
  • Ensuring fair, equal treatment in criminal justice systems.
  • Promoting family acceptance and social support systems for LGBTQ+ youth and elders.
  • Including LGBTQ+ voices and perspectives in research, policy decisions, community programs, and services that impact them.
  • Fostering the understanding that reducing prejudice benefits society as a whole.

The LGBTQ+ acronym represents diversity in human identity and lived experiences that have existed throughout history across global cultures.

While labels and language strive to capture that diversity, individuals ultimately define themselves on their own terms. 

Only through persistent, collaborative efforts across all segments of society can we move closer to a future where all LGBTQ+ people are embraced, included, and empowered to thrive as their authentic selves.

The Complexity of Language and Labels

One challenge with an all-encompassing acronym like LGBTQ+ is that it can seem to promote the idea that non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities represent one homogeneous community.

In fact, each of the letters represents a diverse spectrum of individual identities, experiences, and needs.

Language around gender and sexuality is complex and ever-evolving. The same words can have different meanings depending on the person, generation, geographic region, and other factors. New terms also constantly emerge while older ones fall out of favor.

  • For some people, specific labels resonate strongly while others do not feel adequately described by any term.

Ultimately, it is most important to recognize that no one abbreviation or set of words can fully capture the limitless complexity of human identities. The best practice is to avoid assumptions, be open to learning new terminology, and allow people to define themselves.

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The Bottom Line

While the LGBTQ+ acronym has its limitations, it serves the vital purpose of creating visibility and unity for gender and sexual minorities who have faced marginalization and discrimination.

The abbreviation continues to evolve to encompass many diverse communities and experiences. Using inclusive language sets a standard of mutual understanding and respect.

Seeking counseling with a supportive, affirmative therapist can be extremely beneficial for many in the LGBTQ+ community. Having a space to process complex emotions related to one’s identity and experiences with stigma can lead to improved mental health, self-esteem, and overall wellbeing.

At the individual level, it is essential to allow people to use the words they feel best describe who they are. On a societal level, expanding awareness of the many identities represented by LGBTQ+ promotes greater acceptance, equality, and human rights.

The abbreviation provides both a sense of shared community and a reminder of the significance of language in fostering inclusion.

References

  1. Morton, M.H., Samuels, G.M., Dworsky, A., & Patel, S. (2018). Missed opportunities: LGBTQ youth homelessness in America. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. https://www.chapinhall.org/wp-content/uploads/VoYC-LGBTQ-Brief-FINAL.pdf
  2. CDC. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: United States and Selected Sites. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/ss6509a1.htm
  3. James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. National Center for Transgender Equality. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf
  4. Lambda Legal. (2010). When Health Care Isn’t Caring: Lambda Legal’s Survey on Discrimination Against LGBT People and People Living with HIV. https://www.lambdalegal.org/publications/when-health-care-isnt-caring
  5. Flores, A.R., Herman, J.L., Gates, G.J., & Brown, T.N.T. (2016). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? The Williams Institute. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/trans-adults-united-states/
  6. James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. National Center for Transgender Equality. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf
  7. Kann et al. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: United States and Selected Sites. MMWR Surveill Summ, 65(9), 1-202. doi:10.15585/mmwr.ss6509a1
  8. Langford, C.L. (2019). Bisexuality, poverty, and mental health: A mixed methods investigation. Journal of Bisexuality, 19(2), 156-181. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2019.1617526
  9. Movement Advancement Project. (2022). LGBTQ Equality Maps. https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps
  10. National Center for Transgender Equality. (2022). Know Your Rights: Schools. https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/schools
  11. Pollitt, A.M., Polyakova, M., MacCarthy, S., & Brown, T.N.T. (2021). The 2021 National School Climate Survey. GLSEN. https://www.glsen.org/research/2021-national-school-climate-survey
  12. How Many Adults and Youth Identify as Transgender in the United States? https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/trans-adults-united-states/
  13. Mayo Clinic. https://cancerblog.mayoclinic.org/2022/08/02/what-people-who-identify-as-lgbtq-should-know-about-cancer

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About the author

Erica Barnes

Erica Barnes

I’m an African American woman living in New York, with a Bachelor's degree in Communication. I’m passionate about researching mental health topics, spirituality, and breaking down stigma in my community. I’ve dedicated my life to shedding light on important issues surrounding mental health and working towards creating a more understanding and compassionate society. As a researcher at Therapy Helpers, I’m here to use my skills to educate and inspire others through insightful articles. Thank you for being here!Social

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