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What the LGBTQIA+? What do the letters mean and why do we need them?

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my own identity, where I fit into the LGBTQIA+ community, what the purpose of these labels are, why we need them and what the future of them is. This became especially relevant this year, when pupils in the Primary school I teach in began to discuss asexuality, pansexuality and being non-binary. This is by no means happening just my school and increasingly, pupils are becoming more aware of terms that they are hearing on TikTok and other sources. After talking to many colleagues, I realised that as an education community, we generally need to improve our understanding of these terms, why they are important and how we should approach the use of them in schools. In this blog article, I will discuss the meaning of the terminology, the importance of these terms, several of the political issues surrounding some of the terminology and why all of this is important for teachers to know.


Before we begin, it’s important to note that these are my own take of the meaning of the terms and are not intended to be dictionary definitions. There are many interpretations of these letters, particularly when referencing gender or sex, and so you may see variations on these explanations. This fact is a case in point of how gender and sexuality are constantly changing, so are evidence in themselves of the social evolution that surrounds these matters.


Definitions of terms


Cisgender – A person who’s gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. E.g. I identify as a man and I was assigned male at birth.

L – Lesbian (a woman who is sexually attracted to other women)

G – Gay (generally a man who is sexually attracted to other men, but is also used by other people who don’t identify as heterosexual to describe their sexual identity)

B – Bisexual (traditionally defined as someone who is attracted to men and women. There is now some overlap with the term ‘pansexual’, which describes someone who is attracted to all genders and sexes and recognises the fluidity of the gender spectrum.)

T – Transgender (previously known as transsexual, which is now a politically incorrect term. Someone who’s gender does not match the sex that they were assigned at birth. There is a misconception that all transgender people undergo gender reassignment surgery, but many do not)

Q – Queer – An umbrella term to describe people who’s sexual orientation does not align with cisgender male-female sexualities and sometimes used to describe gender fluidity e.g. gender queer

I – Intersex – Someone who’s sex characteristics do not fall into the strict female/male binary. This can include people born with genitalia, organs or hormones which do not conform to the standard male/female characteristics, or those who have combinations of chromosomes that differ from XX and XY. Some people may find out that they are intersex at some point from birth, others may live their entire life without finding out.

A – Asexual – Someone who does not have sexual feelings. Asexual people can have meaningful and loving relationships, but often without the sexual element. This is different to being celibate, which is a conscious choice to not enter sexual relationships.

+ – An inclusive symbol that identifies people that do not feel that their sexuality fits in the previous terminology or in terms that are newly evolving. This symbol also acknowledges that there are many other identities but the acronym is already extensive (e.g. non binary, demi sexual etc.)


There are many more words and phrases that you may come across that explain sexuality and gender, but these are the main words that you are likely to encounter.


The ‘Queer’ Issue


For me, the inclusion of the word Queer is incredibly interesting, particularly at the moment. Growing up, this was, and was historically so, a pejorative term. However, much like other minority communities who have been labelled with disparaging names, portions of the LGBTQIA+ community have begun to reclaim this term, and call themselves and their social groups ‘Queer’. I have only recently begun to use this term to describe myself and I often use it in a more comical term, when making fun of my own clothes or affectations, for example. However, many people are becoming increasingly proud of the term and I am also leaning towards embracing it.


Queer can also serve as a collective noun for people across the different groups in the LGBTQIA+ community. Historically, lesbians and gay men could be grouped using the rather clinical term ‘Homosexuality’, but trans and bisexual people were excluded from this. With the addition of ‘Intersex’, ‘Asexual’ and + terms, Queer allows us to ascribe a term that unites us, whether this is for social or activist reasons. However, there are groups of people, largely gay men and lesbian women, who actively say that they are not queer, even placing statements such as ‘Lesbian, not queer’ in their Instagram and Twitter bios. When I initially came across this, I found this quite bizarre. I mean, my bio doesn’t say ‘Gay, not Lesbian, not Bisexual, not Trans, not Queer, not Intersex, not asexual, not +’. Why do these people specifically mention that they are not Queer? When you begin to look at the vast majority who state this exclusion, a worrying attribute begins to emerge: transphobia. Unfortunately, there is a small subset of the LGBTQIA+ community who seek to exclude our trans allies. The reasons behind this and what I believe we should do about this will be covered in another article (as this is such a divisive and current issue, I wouldn’t do it justice in a single paragraph). I am not saying that all people in the LGBTQIA+ community should label themselves as ‘Queer’, but sufficed to say, anyone who has to explicitly say that they are ‘Not Queer’ is actively trying to break apart the LGBTQIA+ community and is not something that I believe any of us should tolerate.


Why do we need the letters?


Something I’ve heard repeatedly since I started talking to more people about LGBTQIA+ activism is about why we still need the letters. After all, we can get married, we can hold our hands in the street, what more do we bloody well want? It all comes down to the difference between legal equality and societal equality. It is true that just like a straight man, I can get married, my rights in employment are protected and I can have children. All that is incredible and a testament to the work of the activists that came before me. However, how many straight men have been heckled at in the street for their sexuality, or come on to in a taxi by an Uber driver or been the feature of a Netmum’s forum where they were called a paedophile? Well, all of these things have happened to me in the last year (even the Netmum’s forum one, truly when I knew I had made it as a publicly gay man). I love my boyfriend, but the fact is, is that there are still places that I wouldn’t hold his hand, or kiss him, or even tell people that he was my boyfriend. I still get ebullitions of surprise from people when I say that I have a son and that he was adopted with another man, rather from a prior straight relationship. So even with the privilege that comes with being white, British and male, I still face prejudice. The letters are still needed because LGBTQIA+ are still treated by some in society as different and we can use these identifying terms to fight for equality. I do dream of a day where I don’t need to say I’m gay, just that I’m human and that no-one bats an eyelid about whatever gender or sexuality I have. But until that day, the letters give us the identity we need to describe who we are, have a way of finding allies and allow us to continue campaigning for true societal equality.


What about schools?


So what does this mean for schools? The answer in secondary school can seem much clearer. In a large secondary school, you are likely to have one or more pupils who identify as each of the letters. It’s important that all staff know what these letters are so that they don’t offend anyone and begin to understand how to support people who identify themselves in various ways. They also need to understand the misconceptions behind the letters, such as the fallacy that all transgender people undergo reassignment surgery, so that assumptions don’t cause offence.


In Primary Schools, the answer is not quite so simple. Terms such as gay, bisexual and transgender are easier to explain as they can be described in regards to love or gender. I.e. that someone who is gay is a man who loves another man or someone who is trans was born a man but lives as a woman. In fact, very often you don’t need to even explain the terminology until I would say year 3. What’s more important is that children see representations of different family makeups from Nursery so that when these terms arise, it is about learning terminology, not about suddenly being told that not all families have a mummy and daddy and that we don’t have to wear what is traditional gender confirming clothing. The terms asexual and intersex are more difficult to explain in regards to family or love, and so most schools would wait until year 5 to discuss these terms and many schools it would come even later, possibly in secondary school, as you need to have taught about sexual intercourse (not conception) before explaining them. As children in Primary Age are rarely sexually active and most have not begun puberty, asexual and intersex children are the least likely to be identified (unless parents have informed school that their child is intersex). However, this does not mean that teachers don’t have an asexual or intersex children in their class that they don’t know about. To ensure that these pupils feel accepted and supported, schools should consider whether year 5 and 6 sex education should make a reference to these terms. Otherwise, those pupils may feel excluded, hurt and that they are not ‘normal’, which can lead to a multitude of mental health issues. The most important group to understand these terms is the staff. They should not be terms that staff are afraid of and when they do arise, staff should have the understanding and confidence in how to correct pupils’ misconceptions and prejudices.


We are all on a journey with these matters and even my views have dramatically changed in the last 5 years (and maybe in another 5 years this article will need a dramatic rewrite). But what is important is that we are all open to learning, to furthering our understanding and striving towards a society where we are all accepted for who we are, not who someone tells us to be.

Thank you to Dr Adam Brett for his advice on the article.

Further Reading

Alternative definitions and an expanded glossary from Outright International

Stonewall definitions with a downloadable list

An article discussing the difficulties with reclaiming the term ‘Queer’

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