6 LGBTQ+ Identifiers You May Not Know, Explained

published Oct 18, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Young multi ethnic lesbian couple with rainbow flag running on city quay
Credit: Getty Images | bojanstory

For many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community, identity labels are incredibly important. There’s power in the act of naming who you are or whom you love. When we proudly use terms like “gay” or “lesbian” to self-identify, we claim space for ourselves and others like us in the face of marginalization. These descriptors also allow us to find and build community with other people who share our identity or lived experience.

Nowadays, I’d wager that most people are familiar with the term gay, meaning a person who experiences sexual attraction to people of the same gender, and even transgender, as in a person who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (i.e., man or woman). But what about nonbinary or pansexual?

In honor of LGBTQ+ History Month, here are the definitions of six identity labels under the LGBTQ+ umbrella that you may not know. Some terms refer to a person’s gender identity, or how they relate to their gender; others reference sexual orientation, or how (and to whom) they experience sexual and romantic attraction. 

Read on to brush up on your LGBTQ+ lingo.

Nonbinary

Familiar with the concept of the male-female gender binary? Per the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), a nonbinary person is a trans person whose gender identity “[doesn’t] neatly fit into the categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ or ‘male’ or ‘female.’” Their gender eschews the gender binary, hence the “non” prefix in the label. 

Many but not all nonbinary people use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them. Nonbinary can also be used as an umbrella term for other trans identities beyond the gender binary, such as genderqueer or agender. Like the word transgender, nonbinary can be used as an adjective but not a noun.

Intersex

Intersex is also an umbrella term, although this word refers to differences in a person’s sex traits and/or reproductive anatomy, not their gender identity. It is sometimes represented by the “I” in variations of the LGBTQ+ acronym (LGBTQI, LGBTQIA+). Some intersex people may also identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming.

According to interACT, a national advocacy group for intersex youth, intersex people’s antatomical, hormonal, and/or chromosomal differences can be present from birth or puberty. They are natural variations and should be embraced, not shamed — or worse, subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries in the pursuit of making a child’s anatomy appear more “normal.”

Bisexual/Bi+

Although many people understand bisexual or bi+ to mean someone who is attracted to men and women, this is not the most current definition of the term. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) describes bisexuality as the capacity to “be attracted to [people of] more than one gender.” For many bisexual people (myself included!), this manifests as attraction to people of the same gender and people of other genders. 

It may seem like semantics, but this distinction is important to some bisexuals because it overtly includes nonbinary people. As the American Institute of Bisexuality notes on its resource site Bi.org, bisexuality is “inherently inclusive of everyone, regardless of sex or gender.” 

Some bi people experience equal attraction to all genders, while others have preferences that may or may not change over time. Bisexual can be used as an adjective and a noun.

Pansexual

Bisexual or bi+ are also used as umbrella terms for other non-monosexual orientations, such as pansexual. A pansexual person can experience attraction to people of all genders. Many pansexuals emphasize that gender isn’t even something they consider when connecting with prospective partners.

Like most labels, this term can mean different things to different people. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, pansexual TV personality Jazz Jennings described her personal experience as “[being] attracted to anyone, no matter their sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, everything. There’s no limits. I’ll date anyone. It’s more that I love someone for their soul.”

Sapphic/Sapphist

Like the queer ancient Greek poet Sappho, sapphics or sapphists are women who experience attraction to other women. This includes lesbians, bisexual women, and pansexual women. It describes a person’s sexual attraction, not their gender identity — so, a trans woman who is bisexual is sapphic. Sapphic can be used as an adjective and a noun, although sapphist is sometimes employed as the noun form.

Queer

This identifier is one of the most amorphous under the LGBTQ+ umbrella — which is why so many people love it. While there is no universally agreed upon definition of queer, it is often used as a catch-all to describe someone who is not heterosexual (read: straight) and/or not cisgender (the opposite of transgender — so, someone who does identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). As HRC notes, the term signifies “a spectrum of identities and orientations that are counter to the mainstream.”

Queer is sometimes used interchangeably with LGBTQ+ to reference the community at large. It was previously used as a slur but has been reclaimed by many LGBTQ+ people. Like the words transgender and nonbinary, queer can be used as an adjective but not a noun.