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The Language of LGBTQ Inclusion and Allyship

Happy Pride!

Pride is about expressing your authentic self, being visible, and telling your story. At Deepgram, that’s right up our alley. One of our core beliefs is that every voice should be heard and understood. When it comes to the LGBTQ community, there are a lot of terms to keep track of — so many that it can get confusing, even to allies. We’re here to help! This post is a guide to inclusive language, common LGBTQ terms, and allyship.

Throughout this post, you’ll see us use LGBTQ as an umbrella term for all LGBTQ+ people, since this is one of the most widely recognized names for the community. There’s a great deal packed into that name though, and many other letters that are sometimes represented in the list. We’ll provide more information about LGBTQ and other terms in the Guide to common LGBTQ terms section below. But for starters, LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer/Questioning

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand that language is always changing. That’s certainly true for the LGBTQ community. This post is a snapshot of some current issues in LGBTQ language and terminology at the time of publication. Things change, though, and we look forward to seeing how these topics develop in the future. 

The language of inclusion

According to polling, LGBTQ people make up about 4.5% of the U.S. population. This relatively small group has made vast strides in the last 25 years. At the turn of the millennium, marriage excluded same-sex partners in all states and many states had enacted constitutional bans on marriage between same-sex partners. Employers could legally fire people for being LGBTQ. Federal policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell required LGBTQ people to hide their identities. Today, the situation is dramatically different: marriage throughout the U.S. now includes same-sex partners. LGBTQ people are protected in the workplace, and President Biden is generally recognized as an LGBTQ ally with a record of LGBTQ-friendly policymaking — although commentators acknowledge that he could do more on trans issues.

The progress made over the last 25 years is a reason to celebrate, but the LGBTQ community still faces steep challenges. LGBTQ people throughout the U.S. and in other countries still face discrimination as a result of their identity. In 2021 so far, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. A 2020 study found that 1 in 3 LGBTQ people in the U.S. reported experiencing discrimination in the past year. Trans people, in particular, face extraordinary levels of violence. There is still a great need for change, and that’s where allies come in. Allies will play an important role in pushing for change and supporting their LGBTQ friends, family, and coworkers.

One way of stepping up as an ally is to shift toward more inclusive language. We’ll cover a few different kinds of inclusive language below, but let’s start with pronouns. If your grammar is feeling rusty, no problem. Here’s a refresher: pronouns are words like I, me and my; she and her; he, him and his; they, them and their, etc. These words refer to people, but the exact person a pronoun refers to changes with the context of the sentence. In recent years, the use of gender-neutral pronouns has become more common in the U.S. The most widely used gender-neutral pronoun is the singular they, as in, “I just saw Ana; they’re throwing a party next week and asked me to help them set up.” 

The use of singular they might seem unusual at first glance, but it has actually been in use since at least the 1300s. In Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, for example, he wrote, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, as if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Act 4, Scene 3). Jane Austen used singular they in many of her books, including in instances where the gender of the person being referred to is clear. In fact, most English speakers today are likely already using singular they in cases where the gender of the person being referred to is unknown, as in “If you run into the new neighbor, invite them over!” There are other gender neutral pronouns as well, but singular they is the most common.

Occasionally you’ll hear people say things like, “it’s hard to remember to use a gender neutral pronoun, are pronouns really that important?” The answer is yes. One of the central struggles of the LGBTQ community is around visibility. For centuries, society forced LGBTQ people to live their lives in the closet. In a world where few LGBTQ people were visibly out, it was easy for others to fill that void with harmful, untrue stories about them: that LGBTQ people are deviant and dangerous, morally corrupt and unnatural. Visibility is the antidote to these harmful misconceptions about LGBTQ people. When LGBTQ people represent their own stories, it is easy to recognize that they are normal members of society: they are siblings and parents, friends, coworkers, active community members, and they contribute to our communities just like everybody else. In short, LGBTQ folks are among the people you already know and like. Over the last few decades, the shift in public opinion toward supporting LGBTQ causes can be explained in part by the increasing visibility of the LGBTQ community itself. 

The use of gender neutral pronouns is about visibility and authenticity. By the time someone decides to start using gender neutral pronouns for themself, they have likely gone through years of self-exploration and the often-painful process of coming out. The choice to use gender neutral pronouns inevitably runs the risk of dealing with the negative reactions of people who don’t understand that experience of coming out. Ultimately though, authenticity and self-respect are some of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others. So when someone asks you to use gender neutral pronouns, thank them for trusting you with their story. Recognize the long journey they have been on and the bravery it took for them to reach that point. As an ally, using someone’s gender neutral pronouns is a way of saying to them, “I see you and am here to help you tell your story,” and of modeling allyship to other straight people as well.

Even if you use standard male or female pronouns for yourself, consider posting your preferred pronouns for others to see. Being open about your pronouns is an invitation for others to be public about their own gender neutral pronouns. It’s alright to ask someone, “what pronouns do you prefer?” in a private conversation, but you should avoid prompting people to share their pronouns in a group setting. As an ally, it’s important to allow LGBTQ people to be in control of when and how they come out to others. In that same spirit, you should avoid “outing” someone by sharing their pronouns with others without checking with them first.

Inclusive language goes beyond pronouns. More broadly, inclusive language makes space for LGBTQ people both when communicating directly to them and when talking about them to others. If you don’t know someone well, don’t use language that assumes they are straight. For example, you might ask someone you just met if she has a partner rather than assuming her partner must be a husband. Or consider a familiar, comfortable phrase like ladies and gentlemen, which is handy in some situations but excludes non-binary people. For many of us, it’s almost automatic to use terms that assume a gender binary. The advice here is not that you should never use those phrases, but that you should become more aware of them. That kind of language will still be useful in many settings, but it’s good to think about inclusive alternatives so that you have them ready when the situation calls for it. 

Finally: if you mess up and use heteronormative language or get someone’s pronouns wrong, it’s alright. Mistakes happen and practice makes perfect. The mark of a good ally is someone who can make a blunder, correct themself if needed, dust themself off, and get back in the game.

Next, let’s take a look at some of the key terms that are used in the LGBTQ community.

A guide to common LGBTQ terms

The LGBTQ community is a diverse collection of many smaller identity groups that are brought together by the common experiences of being different from the majority in terms of gender expression and sexual orientation. 

LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning. This initialism covers two different categories: sexual orientation (LGB) and gender identity (T). The Q spans both categories, which we’ll cover below. These are some of the largest identity groups in the community, but there are many others as well. While the initialism is most frequently seen as LGBTQ, occasionally you’ll see expanded versions, such as LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA+, in which the additional letters stand for Intersex and Asexual – also covered below. The “+” is a gesture toward including numerous smaller groups that fit under the LGBTQ umbrella.

If you think the “alphabet soup” approach to naming the community is a mouthful, you’re not alone. Some LGBTQ people have adopted the term queer to refer to the LGBTQ community in all its diversity. Queer is a reclaimed word that was considered derogatory in the past and is sometimes still seen in that light by older generations of LGBTQ people. But for younger generations in particular, queer has become a widely-used term for any member of the community — and allies are welcome to use it as well.

Let’s take a look at some common terms associated with the LGBTQ community. For starters, here are some basics:

  • Gender — The social and behavioral norms associated with sex in a given culture. Gender is not the same as biological sex.
  • Sex or Biological Sex — A physical characteristic based on genetics that people are born with: female or male. In rare cases, Intersex people are born with physical traits that don’t clearly align with typical male or female anatomy.
  • Sexual Orientation — A romantic, emotional, and physical attraction to others. 
  • Coming OutThe process through which LGBTQ people recognize their identity and begin to tell others. Coming out is not a one-time event. Even once a person is out, they are continually coming out again to new people they meet.
  • Ally — Someone who demonstrates support for LGBTQ people, affirms their rights and dignity, and seeks to understand their experiences.

There is a great deal of gender diversity within the LGBTQ community. Let’s dig deeper into some of the concepts and identity groups associated with gender.

  • Gender Identity — A person’s understanding of their own gender, which may or may not align with their biological sex.
  • Gender Expression — Ways of communicating gender identity to others, which can include mannerisms, clothing, speech patterns, and interests. The norms of gender expression vary by culture and change over time.
  • Cisgender or Cis — Someone whose gender identity generally aligns with their biological sex is called cisgender or cis. 
  • Cis-het — Short for cisgender heterosexual, the identity group that the majority of straight people belong to. Straight is often used interchangeably with cis-het, but cis-het is more nuanced because it is also possible to be a transgender heterosexual.
  • Transgender or Trans — Someone whose gender identity or expression differs from their sex assigned at birth. Trans people should be treated according to their gender identity rather than their sex assigned at birth. Remember that gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation, meaning that trans people have the full range of sexual orientations; a trans woman attracted to men is straight, while a trans woman attracted to women is a lesbian. Some trans people choose to physically transition to the opposite sex (see transitioning below), but not all do. If you’re wondering how transgender and trans relate to the term transsexual, that’s a fair question. For most purposes, trans has replaced the term transsexual. Check out the “terms to avoid” section below for more information on this topic.
  • Transitioning — Transitioning is the process by which some trans people bring their physical traits and gender expression into alignment with their gender identity. Not all transgender people choose to transition; this is a deeply personal choice. Some trans people who physically transition to the opposite sex identify as transsexual, but this term should be used with caution, since the details of transition are personal and private. When in doubt, just call someone trans.
  • Non-Binary and Genderqueer — Someone whose gender identity or expression does not conform to typical female or male patterns. Some people consider non-binary and genderqueer identities to be part of the trans community while others do not. In general terms, the difference between trans and non-binary identities is that trans people typically do align to binary genders (male and female), while non-binary people understand their gender identity beyond the framing of those two categories.
  • Genderfluid — Someone whose gender identity shifts depending on the social context. For example, someone might have male gender expression at work but female or non-binary gender expression among friends — not because they are hiding their more authentic self at work, but because that pattern of gender expression simply feels most natural to them.
  • Two-Spirit — A term used in some Native American cultures to describe non-Western forms of gender expression and sexual orientation.

As speech technology improves, we’ve seen increased demand for products that automatically detect demographic information from audio. Automatic gender detection is a particularly complex challenge. Even among cis-het people, there is significant overlap in typical female and male vocal ranges. Furthermore, as seen above, there is diversity in gender identity beyond cisgender female and male, making it difficult for speech companies to accurately detect gender based on audio inputs. This is a rapidly evolving area of speech technology and an active area of research at Deepgram.

Next, let’s take a look at some of the main identity groups associated with sexual orientation

  • Queer — An umbrella term for anyone who is not straight (or more specifically, cis-het), encompassing the entire LGBTQ community. 
  • Lesbian and Gay — Someone who is romatically, emotionally, or physically attracted to others of the same gender.
  • Bisexual — Someone who is romatically, emotionally, or physically attracted to both females and males. 
  • Pansexual or Pan — Someone who is romantically, emotionally, or physically attracted to people of all genders, including non-binary and genderqueer gender expressions. 
  • Questioning — Someone who is unsure of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Asexual and Demisexual — Someone who experiences no physical attraction or who only experience it in limited circumstances.

Finally, heads up! There are also some terms to avoid:

  • Transsexual — Use trans instead. There are two reasons for this. First, to many people in the community, transsexual harkens back to when “transsexualism” was stigmatized by medical practitioners as a mental disorder. Second, when this term is still used today, it refers specifically to a transgender person who has physically transitioned from one sex to another. However, because the details of transition are private and personal, you generally won’t know who this term should be applied to. With these two things in mind, it’s always better to simply say trans, which is more respectful and more broadly applicable.
  • Homosexual — Use lesbian, gay, or queer instead. The term homosexual is associated with a long history of stigmatization, when society saw homosexuals as deviants and medical practitioners stigmatized homosexuality, too, as medical disorder. As LGBTQ people have fought to free themselves from this stigma, they have left the term homosexual behind as a relic of the past.
  • Sexual Preference — Use sexual orientation instead. If you listen to the experiences of LGBTQ people, you’ll hear that these identities are not a choice. They are enduring, life-long orientations that cannot be changed, just as a straight person cannot change their sexual orientation. To call LGBTQ sexual orientations a “preference” perpetuates a dangerous misconception that a person can be “cured” of their LGBTQ identity. This misconception feeds into the tragic practice of conversion therapy and is harmful to young people who may be struggling to come out, leading to high rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth
  • Gay Lifestyle — Queer people are as diverse in the way they live their lives as straight people. Gay Lifestyle and similar terms typically only appear when someone is trying to promote negative stereotypes of LGBTQ people.

These lists cover some of the most common terms but are far from exhaustive. There are many organizations that provide further information about additional identity groups and guidance on terminology.

Activate yourself as an ally

If you’ve made it this far, you probably count yourself as an ally. It’s great to have you among us! So as we send you off to enjoy a Pride parade, keep these tips for allyship in your back pocket: 

  • Get to know the LGBTQ people in your life. You may not live through all their life experiences, but learning about their stories will bring you closer.
  • Work to include LGBTQ people through your actions and words.
  • Avoid stereotyping and making assumptions about people’s identities.
  • Speak up as an advocate for LGBTQ people.
  • Educate yourself about issues facing the LGBTQ community, such as how trans people are affected by higher rates of violence than other groups.
  • Remember that LGBTQ issues intersect with the struggles faced by other groups: women, people of color, immigrants, and others.

Pride is a celebration of visibility and authenticity — so get out there, live your truth, and support your family, friends, and coworkers!

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