Why the Meaning of LGBTQ+ May Change, and That's OK

Whether you've long been a member of the queer community, you recently found a place for yourself under the umbrella, or you're learning to be an ally, you likely have some general understanding of what the term "LGBTQ+" means. (After all, the acronym has been around in different forms for a few decades now.) However, this acronym can be misunderstood even by the people it represents.

To clear up any confusion, we're diving into the meaning of LGBTQ+ with the help of experts, including addressing some common misconceptions and why we should all adopt an open mind when it comes to language — especially around identity.

What Does LGBTQ+ Mean?

Put simply, the "LGBTQ+" acronym represents a wide range of non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities. The letters to the left of the plus sign stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and either queer or questioning.

The plus sign is designed to indicate that people representing a wider variety of gender and sexual diversity are part of the community, too. These additional identities include, but are not limited to: asexual and intersex (which are the additional identities named when LGBTQ+ is written as LGBTQIA+) as well as demisexual, graysexual, nonbinary, gender fluid, two-spirit, and androgynous, to name just a few.

The "Q" Can Mean Queer or Questioning

The "Q" in LGBTQ+ and various iterations stands for both queer and questioning. What does it mean to be queer or questioning? Let's start with the term "queer." The definition of queer varies depending on who you ask. At its most broad, however, queer is a term for anyone whose gender, sexuality, and relationship with sex is different from the norm, explains queer anthropologist Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD.

In our culture, the norm is cisgender, heterosexual, and allosexual.

  • Cisgender: Names that a person's gender (the gender they identify with) is aligned with their sex assigned at birth (their physical body).
  • Heterosexual: Designates that someone is exclusively attracted to people, romantically and sexually, to people with a gender that is different from their own.
  • Allosexual: Is a term that names the potential to regularly experience sexual attraction to others.

This means that someone might take on the queer label if they are transgender, not heterosexual, or asexual.

  • Transgender: Names that a person's gender (the gender they identify with) is not aligned with their sex assigned at birth (their physical body).
  • Not heterosexual: Any sexual or romantic orientation that isn't heterosexual and/or heteroromantic can fit here, for example: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, biromantic, and panromantic, to name just a few.
  • Asexual: The term for someone who does not experience regular sexual attraction.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all these terms, it's totally reasonable given how many of them there are. Try to remember these terms don't exist to confuse you, but to help people name their lived experiences and find community.

"Questioning" is a label that someone might take on if they're currently exploring their sexuality, or think that the label they previously used is no longer fitting, says certified queer sex educator Bobby Box, cohost of Bad in Bed: The Queer Sex Education Podcast. "'Questioning' is a word someone might use while they learn about and try on other sexuality and gender labels," he says. Terms someone might prefer instead of "questioning" include: bicurious, queer, homoflexible, heteroflexible, and pan-curious, to name just a few.

Important: The "A" Stands For Asexual, Not Ally

The "A" in LGBTQIA+ often finds itself at the center of internet debate, with people (usually allies) insisting that the "A" stands for ally. In reality, the "A" does not stand for ally; it stands for asexual.

Asexual is both a specific identity label for people who experience little-to-no sexual attraction and an umbrella term that encompasses a number of other non-allosexual identities. For example, it includes demisexual (people who only have the potential to experience sexual attraction to those they already have an emotional bond with) and greysexual (people who rarely experience sexual attraction or experience sexual attraction at a low intensity).

Sometimes, romantic identities like aromantic, demiromantic, and grayromantic — which all name the experience of having little to no capacity for romantic attraction — also get grouped under the asexuality umbrella.

Understanding that the "A" stands for asexual is essential for affirming that asexual people are part of the LGBTQ+ community. It also helps preserve the acronym for people it is designed to include. "It's great that there are cisgender, heterosexual, allosexual people who want to advocate for gender- and sexuality-minority rights," says Dr. Maroon. "But in my opinion, it's best for these people to identity as an LGBT+ ally, not as LGBT+ themselves."

That said, it's best not to police the terms (or acronyms) somebody uses for themselves, meaning, if someone says they are LGBTQ+, you have to believe them. Otherwise, you risk identity gatekeeping. As Box explains it, "someone could identify as LGBT+ while they are figuring out which specific labels and words make them feel most at home." Questioning the validity of their identity while they're on that label journey could be incredibly disorientating and invalidating, he says.

Some People Consider LGBT+ the Most Inclusive Term

Language is always evolving. Think about it: just a year ago, "bet" meant to gamble. Now, it's also a synonym for "yes" in English vernacular, as copied from AAVE. Likewise, pre-pandemic "cheugy" was a spelling error, while now it's a descriptor for anything try-hard or off-trend. Well, in the gender and sexuality lexicon, language is always evolving, too.

After all, just 40 years ago, "queer" was still widely considered a slur. "These days, many people under 40 have reclaimed the word and use it proudly," says mental health expert Kryss Shane, PhD, LSW, LMSW author of "The Educator's Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion: A Practical Resource Guide for K-12 Teachers, Administrators, and School Support Staff." Some people over the age 40, however, still remember queer as a slur, and hearing or seeing "queer" can be a reminder of harassment and hate, she says.

As a result, some people consider LGBT+ the most inclusive term because it makes space for the people in the community who are 40+ who feel put off by the inclusion of the word queer in LGBTQ+. "Using LGBT+ helps the intended demographic see themselves in the acronym in the way that is most inclusive to their identities and their experiences in the society in which they've spent much of their lives," Dr. Shane says. Still, others consider "queer" the most inclusive precisely because it's vague, expansive, and doesn't put people in boxes.

So that's what LGBTQ+ means — at least at the time of publishing. Of course, it's certainly possible for the acronym itself — and the definitions of the letters represented therein — to evolve as language continues to change, culture shifts, and new words get thrown into rotation.