Democracy & Justice

What Does LGBT Mean: Know the Basics

LGBT is an umbrella term capturing anyone who is non-heterosexual or non-cisgender. There are many definitions of sexual orientation to describe a person’s ways of relating sexually to others, beyond the binary of homosexual or heterosexual.

by Eleanor Brooks

What does sexual orientation mean?

Sexual orientation describes the feelings of sexual attraction, emotion, or romance that a person feels towards others. Our understanding of sexuality has developed over time, becoming more inclusive and reflecting the fluidity of sexual orientation beyond the binary of heterosexual/homosexual. A person’s sexual orientation is not a conscious choice and therefore cannot be voluntarily modified, a person can only choose how they express their sexuality. Sexual orientation differs from a person’s gender identity, which is a person’s sense of their own gender.

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Although these ideas are only now entering the mainstream, researchers have acknowledged the flexible nature of sexuality for several decades. In 1948 Drs. Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin published a Heterosexual/Homosexual Rating Scale in Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. The scale, frequently referred to as “The Kinsey Scale”, was numbered from 0-6, with heterosexual as 0 and homosexual as 6, and for 3 for those who identified as bisexual.

Developed in response to research findings which indicated that people’s sexual orientation didn’t neatly fit into homosexual or heterosexual categories, it was radical for its time and challenged commonly held views about sexuality

Society’s attitudes and knowledge of sexual identity have evolved significantly. ‘Homosexuality’ was viewed as a punishable criminal act in Europe during the 20th century: Italy was the first country to de-criminalise homosexuality in 1989, while Germany, where it was still considered a crime until 1994 (although same-sex homosexual activity between men was decriminalised in 1969) lagged far behind.

Assigning homosexual activity a criminal character implies a conscious wrongdoing on part of the individual. Even after the trend towards decriminalisation, people who identified as non-heterosexual continued to be discriminated against through the pathologisation of homosexuality – re-assigning blame to the individual’s inherent nature, a ‘sickness’ from which a person needed to be ‘cured’. Depathologisation only began in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) struck out the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).

What does LGBT stand for?

LGBT is an abbreviation of lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. The initialism was popularised in the 1990s and was regarded as a catch-all term for sexuality and gender identity. The term can be traced back to the 1980s when the abbreviation LGB emerged to replace ‘gay’.

LGBT is understood to be an umbrella term capturing anyone who is non-heterosexual or non-cisgender. However, since then, additional letters have been added to be inclusive and in recognition of our more nuanced understanding sexual and gender orientations today.



In the spirit of being more representative, the letter Q was added to include those who identify as queer. Originally a slur to insult people in same-sex relations, it has since been reclaimed by younger generations to describe people who view themselves as non-heterosexual or non-cisgender. The addition of ‘+’ captures those are part of the community but who don’t recognise themselves as LGBTQ.


LGBTTTQQIAA is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, ally and asexual.

LGBT Definitions

There are many definitions of sexual orientation to describe a person’s attraction towards others. In recent years, the LGBT community has expanded to be more inclusive of the spectrum of sexual orientations.


Lesbianism describes women/female-identifying person who are only attracted to other women/female-identifying persons. People who are non-binary/genderqueer, meaning they don’t identify solely as either male or female, also identify with this term.


Most commonly, the term ‘gay’ is used to describe a man/male-identifying persons who is only attracted to other men/male-identifying persons, however it can also be used as an umbrella term to describe people who are attracted to people of their own sex. The term was originally a slur word, however in the sixties it was reclaimed by activists. Essayist Edmund White wrote that by 1980 “gay” had become the predominant term for male same-sex attraction. He believed it was preferred by people as it is “one of the few words that does not refer explicitly to sexual activity.”


Bisexuality describes an attraction to two or more genders (but not necessarily all genders). As a sexual orientation it has traditionally (and continues to be) been marginalised in literature, film and research Bisexuality gained more visibility from the 1970s onwards, however bisexuals experience being misunderstood, even within the queer community. The term can also capture transgender, binary and non-binary people following the release of the “Bisexual Manifesto” in 1990.


A person who is transgender has a gender identity that differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Despite the existence of transgender people throughout history and across cultures, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the term was first used. By the 2000s it was well-known and trans peoples were incorporated into the wider LGBT movement.


Transsexuality is similar to transgender, the difference being that the individual has the desire to or has already sought medical assistance to permanently transition to their identified gender.


Popular amongst younger generations for its openness, queerness describes people who don’t subscribe to binary definitions of gender or sexuality.


A person who is questioning or exploring their sexual/gender identity.


Someone who is born with both male and female biological traits including chromosome patterns, hormones, or genitals that don’t fit into the male or female gender binary. Previously the term hermaphrodite was used but this is now considered an offensive term.


A person who is straight or cis-gender but supports the LGBTQ+ community.


Asexuality describes someone no sexual attraction to any gender, and little or no interest in sexual activity.


Pansexuality defines sexual, romantic or emotional attraction based predominantly on personality rather than gender. Pansexual individuals sometimes use the term ‘genderblind’ to describe themselves and to indicate their sexuality is outside the gender binary implied by ‘bisexual’.

How can we support LGBT rights?

The LGBT community experience discrimination in many aspects of their lives – from harassment on the street, discrimination in the workplace or when interacting with state services, most of society is structured around heterosexual norms. For example, gay marriage isn’t legal in all EU countries which makes relocating within the EU more challenging for an LGBT family. Difficulty obtaining public documents can result in significantly more red tape. Acknowledging LGBT families as a social unit and adapting existing systems to accommodate this would help simplify the bureaucracy to prove marriage, adoptions etc.

Raising awareness about the LGBT community from a young age would foster greater acceptance and challenge persisting stereotypes. Due to many queer people being bullied from a young age or being rejected by their parents, it is important to offer services and projects to support LGBT people, in particularly the youth. State services should be given sensitivity training so they can adequately meet the needs of the queer community – an issue that is particularly prevalent for those seeking medical care. If a person is targeted because of their sexual orientation, there should be robust law sin place to protect victims of discrimination or hate crimes, and even more importantly, that they are actually enforced.

Further reading:

What Is Homophobia?

Lithuanian Parliament to Debate Law on Civil Unions

Support for LGBT rights among Estonian people has grown exponentially

Photo credit:

jiangxulei1990 I

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