LGBTQ+ Language Guide

“This list is the byproduct of years of writing online, and doing trainings in person, about gender and sexuality. It was written by a community of strangers — myself being but one of those strangers — via comments, Facebook messages, and emails. It has grown into a collaboration with Meg Bolger, my co-creator at and co-author of Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation. Our process has been to take piles and piles of input about a particular term, and to find a single thread that runs through it all. That’s the output: the thread that connects a patchwork of varied definitions for a particular term, the signal amidst the noise.
Our goal is to maintain a list that is a useful starting place for people to begin learning a new language of gender and sexuality. The list isn’t perfect, and it’s not immutable. Instead, we focus on the fidelity of the signal. Someone once commented on my blog that a good ally “is like a high end sound system, amplifying the voices of marginalized people without distorting them.” That’s our hope with this list. That it will amplify the voices of each individual person who uses these terms to define and describe themselves.”
– S. Killermann

LGBTQ+ preferred terminology is ever-evolving, so instead of trying to provide the most up-to-date terminology information here, I’ve linked to two websites which strive to update their language guides to keep up with the times.

Comprehensive* List of LGBTQ+ Vocabulary Definitions

LGBTQ and You – An Introductory Glossary of Terms and Usage

Please take the time to read the above two language guides.

They are short reads, and they will help you gain an understanding of some of the more frequently-used LGBTQ+ terminology.

Following is a brief summary of the extremely important concepts surrounding: sex/biological sex; gender Identity; gender expression; sexual orientation, and sexual preference, or behavior.

Never should the volume of this list be turned to high as to drown out the voice of someone in your life. Follow the overarching rules that are peppered throughout more closely than you adhere to the correctness of a particular definition. We never want you to hear someone define themselves, point to this book, and say “Nuh uh. You’re wrong. It says here that you’re…” And know that this list is always changing, sometimes in small ways, sometimes dramatically, to reflect the changing culture it represents.

S Killermann

NOTE: It is NOT okay to simply ask students directly what pronouns they prefer. It can put them on the spot and make them feel uncomfortable. Ways to show students that you are open to using their preferred pronouns include:

  • Introducing yourself with your pronouns (“I’m (name), she, her, hers.”)
  • Give all students a sheet to fill out that has the following: school record name; preferred name; where do you want that name used? (It might not be in class, for instance); preferred pronouns; one important thing I should know about you; one thing you struggle with; one awesome thing about you. This allows students to recognize that you are an ally, and choose to open up if they like.
  • The above sheet can be available in your classroom at all times, so that if students do not initially feel comfortable sharing with you, but choose to as time develops, they can discretely fill it out and give it to you.

Remember, each LGBTQ+ student will be in a different place on their journey. While some students may be very open and sure of their identity, others may wish theirs to be private, or they may simply be figuring themselves out as they go. Part of being an ally is being willing to meet your students where they are.

What’s in a Name?

The term GSA was originally used as an acronym for Gay-Straight Alliance. Over the years, as the LGB community expanded to become LGBTQ+ (and more!), debate has occured as to whether the name “Gay-Straight Alliance” fully captures all of the LGBTQ+ club member identities. This is an especially important debate as some LGBTQ+ members – especially transgender and gender-fluid students – are less likely to feel a sense of belonging in their GSA (Sutherland, 2019). Words matter!

In order to be as inclusive as possible, but keep the well-known GSA acronym, some clubs have changed what the letters represent. When naming your GSA, remember that language can reinforce – or hinder – a sense of belonging (Sutherland, 2019).

Some names that GSAs have adopted as alternatives to “Gay-Straight Alliance” include “Guiding Spectrum Alliance (Underhill, 2017)” and “Genders and Sexualities Alliance (10 Steps, n.d.).”

Sex / Biological Sex

Biological sex characteristics. Intersex is currently the preferred term for individuals who have some non-binary mix of biological sex characteristics.

Gender Identity

Gender Identity is the gender a person feels themself to be. This can be fluid for some individuals.

cis-gender: identifies with their biological sex at birth

transgender or trans: identifies as other than their biological sex at birth

queergender: identifies outside the norms of a binary gender system

Gender Expression

External display of gender, or “gender presentation.” Examples include: masculine; feminine; non-binary (NB); gender fluid; gender queer

Sexual Orientation

The type of sexual or romantic attraction one can feel for others. Different from sexual preference, which is physical.

Sexual Preference or Behavior

Type of physical sexual behavior one prefers.


10 steps for starting a GSA. (n.d.). GSA Network.

Killermann, S. (n.d.). Comprehensive* list of LGBTQ+ vocabulary definitions. It’s Pronounced Metrosexual.

Lock, A. (2019, June 11). LGBTQ and you – An introductory glossary of terms and usage. Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Sutherland, D. K. (2019). The push for transgender inclusion: Exploring boundary spanning in the gay-straight alliance. Sociology Compass, 13:e12739. doi:10.1111/soc4.12739

Underhill, C. (2017). Navigating spaces: Moving along the (dis)enfranchisement spectrum through a high school GSA. Theory in Action, 10(4):89-99. doi:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.1728

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