An Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Acronym LGBTQIA

Words by: Freya Hall
Image credit: feminist.org

 So What does LGBTQIA mean anyway? 

For decades the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ were used to describe anyone who did not conform to ‘traditional’ notions of sex, sexual identity, gender identity, or gender expression. In the 1990s, the acronym ‘LGBT’, which recognises bisexual and transgender people, gained momentum as a broader and more inclusive term. In recent years, the acronym has been extended further to include an even wider array of emerging and diverse identities. Today, you will often see or hear the ‘queer’ community referred to as LGBTQIA, LGBT+, or even LGBPTTQQIIAA+.

That’s a lot of letters, do we really need them all? 

The answer to this can be argued fervently both ways, but ultimately it’s a matter of respect – being inclusive with frequently used terminology allows marginalised groups to gain visibility, it promotes social change, and honours diversity.

So what does ‘Cisgender’ mean, is it another letter to add on to the above acronym?

Generally speaking the LGBTQIA alphabet soup represents a vast array of people who embrace orientations and habits that do not adhere to the heterosexual and cisgender majorities. Cisgender (or ‘cis’ for short) describes people who are not transgender, or, in other words, people whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex. Cisgender isn’t the only word you need to know in order to understand the LGBTQIA acronym, so here are a few more to preface our discussion:

  • Sex (or ‘sex assigned at birth’) refers to X and Y chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external genitalia. Someone’s ‘sex’ typically refers to whether they are labelled male or female based upon the appearance of their genitalia.
  • Sexual Identity refers to who someone is emotionally, romantically and sexually attracted to, regardless of whether that attraction conforms with preconceived or ‘traditional’ notions of sexuality associated with a particular sex or gender.
  • Gender refers to a culturally and historically specific understanding of what it means to be masculine or feminine. This understanding has been used to construct and reinforce expectations about how individuals should appear and behave according to their sex.
  • Gender identity refers to an internal sense of gender orientation, regardless of biological sex.
  • Gender expression refers to the physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc.

Please note that while someone may technically fall under one of the following definitions that does not necessarily mean that is how they wish to identify or label themselves, so always be respectful, never make assumptions, and mind your own damn business.

‘L’ is for Lesbian

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘lesbian’ as referring to a homosexual woman.

The word originates from the Greek Island of Lesbos, where the poet Sappho, who often expressed affection towards women in her poetry, lived in 600 B.C.

However, in contemporary society the term ‘lesbian’ is specifically used to refer to cis females (or people who identify as female) who are romantically, emotionally, or sexually attracted to other cis females (or people who identify as female).

Famous lesbians include Ellen DeGeneres, Ruby Rose, Jane Lynch, and Beth Ditto.

 ‘G’ is for Gay

The word ‘gay’ is generally used to refer to male identifying people who are physically, sexually, or emotionally attracted to other male identifying people. However, it is also often used as an umbrella term to describe various people who identify within the LGBTQIA realm, especially lesbian women.

Famous gay men include Oscar Wilde, Sam Smith, John Waters, and the Hon. Michael Kirby.

‘B’ is for Bisexual

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘bisexual’ as referring to someone who is sexually attracted to both men and women. However, this does not mean that a bisexual person must be equally attracted to both sexes: they may be more attracted to either cis men or cis women, or their attraction may fluctuate between the two.

Famous bisexuals include Alexander the Great, Margaret Cho, Anna Paquin, Amber Rose, David Bowie, and reportedly James Dean, and Marlon Brando.

However, this definition of bisexuality assumes a binary understanding of gender that is incongruent with the growing recognition that gender is a fluid concept existing on a spectrum. In light of this recognition, there has been a rise in people identifying as ‘pansexual’, which is the apparently ‘gender blind’ sibling to bisexuality and the ‘P’ in LGBPTTQQIIAA+.

A pansexual is someone who is attracted to people of any gender, including those who do not adhere to binary gender roles, such as androgynous, intersex, or transgender people.

Famous pansexuals include Shailene Woodley, Mary Gonzalez and Angel Haze.

‘T’ is for Transgender and Transsexual

  1. Transgender

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘transgender’ as denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of the male or female gender. Therefore, transgender is an umbrella term that can be used to describe anyone who is breaking gender norms, such as transsexuals, intersex people, cross-dressers, and drag kings and queens.

The term is often specifically used to describe people whose biological sex does not match the gender they identify as. Transgender is also used to describe people who have undergone sex reassignment surgery, even if their reassignment has brought their biological sex in line with their gender identity. Those who have undergone sex reassignment surgery may also be referred to as ‘transsexual’, however transgender is generally preferred as a more inclusive term.

Transgender is not a sexual orientation and transgender people may have any sexual preference. For example, Bruce Jenner who recently proclaimed that ‘for all intents and purposes, I am a woman’ remains attracted to women, which defies what many would consider to be the ‘hetero norm’ of women being attracted to men.

Time Magazine estimated in 2014 that there were at least 1.5 million Americans who identified as transgender. Famous transgender men and women include Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, Bruce Jenner, Amanda Lepore, and Carmen Carrera.

  1. Transsexual

A transsexual is a person who emotionally and psychologically identifies as a different sex. More specifically, ‘transsexual’ was originally used to describe people who had undergone surgeries in order to acquire characteristics of another sex.

Transsexual is not an umbrella term and, therefore, many people who identify as transgender do not identify as transsexual. However, some people do prefer the term transsexual as it may more accurately describe their personal experience, while many others consider it to be out-dated and offensive.

‘Q’ is for Queer and Questioning


Generally speaking, ‘queer’ refers to something that is strange or odd. However, during the early 20th century the word developed into a deliberately offensive and aggressive term to describe homosexual men. While the word is still considered offensive by some, in recent decades LGBTQIA people have embraced and reappropriated it, stripping the word of its negative power and connotations.

Today ‘queer’ is often used as a shorthand term to describe all people who identify as LGBTQIA.

  1. Questioning

‘Questioning’ in this context refers to the process of exploring one’s sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender identity or gender expression.

‘I’ is for Intersex and Intergender

  1. Intersex

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘intersex’ as the condition of having both male and female sex organs, or other sexual characteristics. Therefore, an intersex person may be born with genitalia that feature ‘anomaly’ of the reproductive and sexual system, or they may be born without medical idiosyncrasy, but still identify as a combination of genders, or as gender neutral.

Intersex was not always considered part of the ‘LGBT’ acronym, but there is now widespread support for its inclusion. This is based on the fact that intersex people share a commonality with LGBT people in that they are neither hetero nor cisnormative.

  1. Intergender

An intergender person is someone who defines themselves as existing between or beyond the traditional genders, or who refuses to define their gender at all. Therefore, intergender may be considered a subcategory of intersex, but different people prefer to use different titles.

Significantly, intersex and intergender people (who do not to identify as either male or female) were recognised by the High Court of Australia in 2014. The High Court ruled that Norrie, a Sydney resident who underwent gender reassignment surgery in the 1980s and who now identifies as gender neutral, could be identified on documents from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages as belonging to a ‘non specific’ sex.

‘A’ is for Asexual and Ally


An ‘asexual’ person is someone who does not experience sexual attractions or desire towards any group of people. Whilst there is still much debate as to whether asexuality should be included as part of the LGBTQIA acronym, it is generally included because asexuality is ‘queer’ in the sense that it defies conservative, binary notions of sexuality and gender.

Famous asexuals include Morrissey, Janeane Garofalo, and reportedly Isaac Newton.

  1. Ally

An ally is typically someone who does not personally identify as any of the identities mentioned above but who stands for and supports the rights and safety of people who do. However, LGBTQIA people can also be allies for other LGBTQIA people: for example, a lesbian may be an ally for transgender people, etc.

Including ‘ally’ in the LGBTQIA acronym can be controversial. Therefore, if you are an ally I would recommend not being self-righteous and assuming that this makes you, inter alia, part of the LGBTQIA community. However, if someone who does identify as LGBTQIA includes you in the acronym I suggest you warmly accept this as the compliment it is.

Famous allies include Michelle Visage, Anne Hathaway, James Franco, Josh Hutcherson, and Kerry Washington.

Anything else I need to know?

If you want to be an ally but aren’t sure how to behave or where to start, everything you need to know can be found on GLAAD’s website. Read up.

If you are struggling with your sexual identity, sexual expression, gender identity, or gender expression and are located in Australia, Reachout.com has an extensive list of support services on their website here.