Queering Our Vocabulary — A (Not So) Short Introduction to LGBTQIA2S+ Language

This glossary was originally published in French by Urbania on July 31st, August 1st, and August 3rd 2018.

A long, long time ago in a far, far away land — you know, 2016 in Montreal — Urbania published a short glossary containing definitions for a few LGBTQIA2S+-related terms.

As we all know, however, vocabulary changes quickly. Old terms come back into fashion, others fall into “nope never” oblivion. Julia Serano calls it the “activist language merry-go-round.” Having witnessed the sighs and eye-rolls of queer folk when the glossary last made the rounds on social media I have decreed that it is now time for an update.

If terms change all the time, why bother with an update? Well they don’t all change, for one. But it’s also a question of respect: when you’re part of a group that’s been routinely defined by others throughout history — y’know, with homosexuality and being trans having been listed as mental illnesses until 1973 and 2013 respectively — you understandably might want to define yourself. When others refuse to use the words adopted collectively by our communities, it’s as though they’re telling us that they know better than us who we are.

And that’s not nice.

Thus, endowed with the almighty wisdom of a Queer Empressor — self-proclaimed, of course — I shall endeavour to share a few definitions which, hopefully, will help you all navigate queer vocab. Obviously, you could write multiple volumes on queer language. The definitions I suggest are inevitably simplifications. Still, although choices had to be made, I sought to provide the most inclusive definitions possible.

And since it would be way too *cough* straightforward otherwise — which would be unacceptable in a queer lexicon — the order of terms if more thematic than alphabetical.

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Asexual: According to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, someone is asexual if they do not experience sexual attraction. The word can also be used as an umbrella term to describe the “asexual spectrum” which notably includes demisexual and graysexual people, who rarely experience sexual attraction or only do so under specific circumstances. An asexual person may or may not wish to engage in sexual acts or enter a romantic relationship. It’s the absence of sexual attraction that characterises asexuality.

Allosexual: An allosexual person experiences sexual attraction; the word is the antonym of asexual.

Aromantic: A person is aromantic if they do not experience romantic attraction to others. As with asexuality, the term sometimes serves as an umbrella term for a range of identities that all have in common a significant absence of romantic attraction. An aromantic person can be asexual or not.

Gay: Characterises a person who is exclusively attracted to people of the same gender. The term is also often used to refer to non-exclusive attraction to people of the same gender; the term has a long history of inclusive use of bisexual, pansexual and queer people and, even today, many of these people say they are gay — including meeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Lesbian: Being a lesbian, basically, is being gay and woman. Like with “gay”, it can be used to refer to non-exclusive attraction to women. Interestingly, the term “lesbian” comes from the name of the island of Lesbos, home of the great lesbian poet Sappho. You know, when you’re such a huge lesbian that all lesbians take their name from you…

Heterosexual: A heteroo is a person who is exclusively attracted to people of the “opposite” gender, whatever that means. For example, is a non-binary person opposite to “man”? No idea!

Usually we’d say no since the notion of an “opposite” gender rests on a binary view of gender. However, it’s important to note that some non-binary people do partially align with a binary gender and thus can fall under the notion of heterosexuality. The same can be said for gay and lesbian: some non-binary people describe themselves as heterosexual, gay, or lesbian!

Bisexual: A person who is attracted to people of the same gender and of other genders.

Pansexual: A pansexual person is attracted by people of all genders: men, women, non-binary folk.

As you can see, the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality is rather slim. You could see the terms as two ways of saying the same thing, since “me and others” looks a whole lot like “everyone”. The two terms do have some practical differences, though: “bisexual” is a better-known term and has a history of over a hundred years behind it whereas “pansexual” is more amenable to foregrounding non-binary genders, notably because it inevitably invites questions such as “huh? waddat?”, which opens the door to explanations. Ultimately, the choice of label is personal. People of any gender can be either bisexual or pansexual.

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Queer: That’s the really difficult, big word. It’s used in so many different ways. The most common sense is as any orientation other than straight. Basically, queer means LGBQ. In another sense, it’s everyone under the acronym: LGBTQIA2S+, all queer! That sense is a bit less common, in part because many trans folk aren’t particularly fond of labels that also stand for sexual orientations given that the world still commonly conflates “being trans” with “sexual orientation”. The last sense — and the coolest if you ask me — is a politicisation of sexual orientation in a way that rejects cisheterocapitalist values. I’ve previously joked that, in that sense, queer means anyone who isn’t straight and is sexually attracted to communism. Now that’s not quite true, but close enough. It’s from this meaning that we get slogans like “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you!”

Of course, “queer” is also deliberately used to introduce some blurriness: are you gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, something else? You might not want to say it, or maybe you don’t know and don’t care. (You know, again like me… Like damn, it’s almost like writing a self-descriptive glossary.)

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Gender identity: A profound sense of belonging to a gender, whichever it may be. A gender identity can be classified as male, female, or non-binary. Gender identity differs from gender modality — the fact of being cisgender or trasgender. Gender modality is the type — cisgender or transgender — of man, woman, or non-binary person that one is.

People don’t always use the pronouns commonly associated with their gender identity, so it’s better not to assume! If you don’t know what pronouns a person uses, it’s best to ask. It’s a question of respect.

Gender assigned at birth: Well, um, basically, did you have a penis or a vagina when you were both? Categorising children based on their genitals… think about it for a second or two… Isn’t it a lil’ creepy? Yeah, eh? I agree. And it’s even worse that medicine is so attached to this genitalia-based classification scheme that it will impose non-consensual surgeries on intersex children in order to violently fit them into one of the two boxes.

Some people call it “biological sex”, but that’s wrong. Trans women’s biological sex is “woman”, after all! For reasons that should be obvious at this point — y’know, it being creepy and all, but also it raely being a pertinent way of categorising people — gender assignment at birth should only be mentioned when absolutely necessary.

Gender expression: A person’s gender expression is the totality of their appearances and behaviours, including clothes, mannerisms, haircut, etc., that are associated with a gender. It’s sometimes said that gender expression is feminine, masculine, or androgynous. Gender expression is independent from gender identity: a woman can be masculine whether she is cis or trans. It’s also independent of sexual orientation, although some people use their gender expression to communicate the fact that they are queer to others.

Gender: Gender is complicated. First, you have to distinguish between how the word is used and how it should be. Philosophers call that descriptive versus ameliorative analysis. The problem with how the word is used is that it puts gender identity, gender expression, gender roles, anatomy, and gender assignment at birth all in the same boat, without much distinction. That’s not very practical when you want to talk in a nuanced way or want to avoid saying stuff that’s not so nice for trans folk.

How should we use the term? It should be used to refer to people according to their gender identities. A trans woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth. By the way, Assigned Male is a really good webcomic. A trans man is a man who was assigned female at birth. And non-binary people are… well, non-binary people.

Sex: See “gender”. Although some feminists have previously proposed a distinction between sex-as-anatomy and gender-as-social-construction, this distinction tends to invalidate trans people since the terms are used as synonyms in everyday life and it would imply that trans women are male — something that’s not quite acceptable. Besides, sex is also a social construction, though that’s a whole other topic that goes far beyond the depth we’ll go to today… unless you want to talk about Judith Butler.

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Cross-dressing: A person cross-dresses if they intentionally wear clothes associated with the “opposite” gender, such as a woman wearing male-coded clothing or a man wearing female-coded clothing. The reasons for doing so varies, and the practice is sometimes sexual and sometimes not.

Drag: Drag is an artistic practice that involves adopting a deliberately exaggerated gender expression, usually the one associated with the gender “opposite” to one’s own. When this gender expression is feminine, we call the person a drag queen. When this gender expression is masculine, we talk of drag kings. Because of the history of drag — which includes the ball culture of Black and Latinx LGBT communities in the United States — and because the drag scene is often a fertile space for exploration, many trans women are or have been drag queens. More and more cis women are drag queens, and many trans men and non-binary people are either drag kings or drag queens. The possibilities are endless!

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The terms in this section are adjective. I don’t want to see “transgenders”, nononononono.

Cisgender: Refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth. Often written in the short form “cis”.

Transgender: Refers to a person whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Often written in the short form “trans”.

The word “transgender” has largely replaced “transsexual” in usage. The use of “transsexual” as an umbrella term is often criticized because of its historical exclusion of non-binary people, and because it emphasizes medical transitioning, whereas being trans is independent of one’s choice to take hormones or undergo surgeries. The “sexual” part of the word also connotes sexuality, as in “heterosexual”, whereas being trans is a gender modality and not a sexual orientation.

“Trans” or “trans*”? My mother was like, “you’re not really trans*, it’s just a phase!” and I was like “no, mother, you are wrong” but in the end she was right: I’m “trans”, no asterisk!

Bad jokes aside, the asterisk was popular a few years ago but has since been largely abandoned.

Transitude: The fact of being trans. This one comes from Quebec French but I really like it and I think we should adopt it more widely. Sometimes it’s convenient to speak of “being trans”, and transitude is just so much prettier than “transness” which mixes Latin and Greek roots!

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Non-binary: A non-binary person has a gender identity that is neither exclusively male nor female. “Non-binary” is used both as an umbrella term for all non-binary genders as well as a specific gender identity label. Non-binary labels include agender (absence of gender), genderfluid (varies over time between various genders), bigender (two genders at the same time), demiboy (partially male), and demigirl (partially female). So many options! But, hey, just knowing “non-binary” should be enough in most cases.

Historically, “genderqueer” was used as an umbrella term instead of non-binary. However, it’s more commonly used nowadays as a specific gender label.

Since being non-binary is about gender — that is, gender identity — rather than gender expression, a non-binary people does not need to be androgynous but can instead have any gender expression. In the same vein, not every non-binary person uses “they” pronouns, though it is a common pronoun among non-binary communities. Personally, I use both “they” and “she”.

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Intersex: A person is intersex if they have bodily characteristics at birth which derogate from the traits associated with the binary socio-medical model of “male” or “female”. The socio-medical model holds that certain traits come together and determine our belonging to one of two categories. Hence, a “male” is taken to have XY chromosomes, a penis, testicles, no breasts, and a hormonal profile dominated by testosterone. Intersex people, however, have traits which cannot all fall uniquely under one of the two categories. Those traits are present from birth but are sometimes only noticed at puberty.

Intersex people can be men, women, or non-binary folk. They can be cis or trans.

In Canada and in many other countries, it’s still common for hospitals to perform surgeries with no therapeutic values, but are instead informed by heteronormative aesthetic criteria, on intersex newborns. The goal? To create genitalia which are considered normal by the medical institution. These surgeries are often experienced as sexual assaults by intersex people and have several common consequences including loss of sexual pleasure and reproductive capacity. These surgeries are a violation of human rights according to multiple UN bodies and conventions, and various human rights organisations.

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Two-Spirit: Two-Spirit expert Sarah Hunt defines two-spirit as a cultural and spiritual identity for Indigenous people who “embody both female and male spirits.” The term translates multiple Indigenous terms from various nations. It is therefore as much an individual label as an umbrella term for this diversity of specific identities. These specific identities are historically recognized and honored by some Indigenous nations, especially before colonization, and have a defined social and spiritual role within those societies. Because the notion of two-spirit operates in a worldview that differs from the Euro-American one, being two-spirit cannot solely be described as a sexual orientation or a gender identity. Nevertheless, many trans and/or queer Indigenous people are two-spirit insofar as they embody these two spirits.

So that’s it! It’s pretty darn complicated eh? But you’ll get used to it quickly, I promise. And it’s such a good feeling when people use the words correctly. It brings tears to my eyes. So go, go on and share the Good News with the whole world!

Many thanks to the activist-experts who taught me all these things, thanks to those who helped me revise this glossary, and thanks to all those in LGBTQIA2S+ communities. You inspire me.

Transfeminine jurist and bioethicist and doctoral student at the University of Toronto. https://www.florenceashley.com/