Meanings, use, and origins of
lesbian, gay & bisexual terms
The term "GLBT" is an acronym for "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual. Sometimes, additional
added: "Q" for Queer or questioning, "I" for Intersexual.
In an attempt to objectively report on all aspects of human sexuality, we
find it impossible to use words and phrases that are acceptable to:
Mental health professionals,
The LGBT community, and to
Religious and social conservatives.
These groups tend to apply different meanings and attach various
interpretations and negative emotional baggage to many terms related to this
We will try to steer a middle course in our essays. We recognize that this
will probably end up alienating everyone. However, until all the major actors
can harmonize their terminology, some conflict over terms is inevitable.
The English language is in a continual state of flux. This is particularly
true in the area of human sexuality.
A particular word or phrase may :
Be considered offensive in one environment,
Be neutral in another,
Be a preferred term in a third, and
Have very positive connotations in a fourth.
In addition, the same word or phrase may be:
Given multiple meanings by different groups.
Gradually changing its meaning from month to month, year to year.
Used to imply a specific belief system, so that the use of the term
reinforces the belief.
Is a commonly heard word used by public school students who wish to to
denigrate another person, as in: "You are so gay." Many children
use the phrase without knowing what "gay" means; they only understand it to be
a type of general-purpose "snarl" word used to attack others.
Is sometimes is used to refer to both male gays and lesbians.
Is sometimes reserved to describe those who are politically active in the LGBT community.
Is still used in its original meaning as a synonym for being
happy and carefree.
In non-sexual applications, this refers to a chosen way of living:
A person may prefer a rural environment in which to live; others
prefer a center-city lifestyle.
Some may prefer to work for a large company; others like being
Some hope to be married; some to simply live together; others to remain single.
Religious and social conservatives
frequently refer to LGBT individuals as being trapped in the "homosexual lifestyle."
They imply that having a homosexual orientation is not something
that a person discovers; rather it is a chosen and addictive lifestyle. The implication is
that, since it was chosen, an adult's sexual orientation can easily be changed.
These beliefs are very rare outside the conservative communities.
GLBT persons generally regard terms like "gay lifestyle" or "homosexual
lifestyle" to be quite offensive, since they imply choice and ease of change
Still, they do enter many different lifestyles, just as persons with a
heterosexual or bisexual orientation do: each may seek to be married, live
together with a significant other, cruise, date, etc.
"Sexual Orientation" and "Sexual preference:"
Terms like "sexual orientation" and "homosexual orientation" are widely
used by therapists, human sexuality researchers, religious liberals, and by the LGBT community.
"Orientation" carries with it a number of connotations: fixed, unchosen,
The word "preference" is generally preferred by social and religious
conservatives. It carries a message that implies that homosexuals are all really
bisexuals; they are attracted to both men and women; they merely have a
"preference" for the same sex. Thus, by using this term, conservatives
that with a bit of effort, lesbians and gays can start behaving as heterosexuals. This belief found
almost exclusively confined to conservatives.
In the fields of human sexuality and mental health, the term "homosexual"
is morally neutral and
refers to a person who is attracted to persons of the same sex. Similarly a
heterosexual is attracted only to the opposite sex, and a bisexual is
attracted to both genders, although not necessarily to the same degree.
AllPsych Online defines homosexual as:
"Being attracted to or aroused by members of the same gender."
The American Psychological Association defines
sexual orientation as:
"... an enduring emotional, romantic,
sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. ... Sexual orientation
exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to
exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality." 7
Some dictionaries and other information sources assign dual meanings to
the word, defining "homosexuality" in terms of both feelings and
The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines homosexual as:
"of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual
desire toward another of the same sex.
"of, relating to, or involving sexual intercourse between persons of
the same sex." 8
WorldNet Search defines homosexual as:
"someone who practices homosexuality; having a sexual attraction to
persons of the same sex."
"sexually attracted to members of your own sex."9
Social and religious conservatives generally interpret homosexual, bisexual
and heterosexual in terms of behavior. A homosexual is a person who has
recently engaged in same-sex sexual behavior with another person. Thus conservatives generally call a gay or
lesbian person who decides to become celibate by the term "ex-gay," even
though the latter's sexual attraction remains unchanged.
GLAAD, a gay-positive advocacy group, is concerned about the
medicalization of the term "homosexual." They write that "homosexual:"
"... has been adopted by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and
gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered --
notions discredited by both the American Psychological Association
and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid
using 'homosexual' except in direct quotes."
GLAAD readily accepts bisexual and heterosexual, but frowns on the use of
the term homosexual.
"Equal rights:" or "Special rights:"
LGBT groups and civil rights groups often state that they are trying to
achieve equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations and
gender identities. They have actively supported
legislative efforts to protect jobs, prevent hate crimes, and to make marriage
universally available. However, they have always sought these rights,
privileges and benefits for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
not just for LGBT persons. To our knowledge, they have never advocated
legislation that gave special rights to the GLBT community that were denied
Religious and social conservatives frequently use the term "special
rights" when referring to LGBT groups who seek legislative changes. For
example, CitizenLink, a news service of the fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family wrote about the drive for same-sex marriage in Rhode
Island -- the only New England state that still reserves marriage as a special
privilege for opposite-sex couples. CitizenLink wrote:
"Advocates for special rights for homosexuals are looking to pave the way to
full-fledged gay marriage. Family advocates are trying to introduce a
They argue that since human rights and LGBT groups are promoting a change to
the definition of marriage to include all loving, committed couples, that this
is a "special right" they are seeking.
Also, their mention of "family advocates" does not refer to persons who
actively support all marriages and families. They refer only to advocates of
marriages led by opposite-sex couples who also oppose same-sex marriage.
What all of this means to this and similar web sites:
It is becoming very difficult to write about any human sexuality topic
without alienating some of our visitors. Rather than adopt either the
terminology used by the LGBT community or by social/religious conservatives, we
typically use medical definitions. We adopted the same approach in matters
relating to abortion access. Rather than use terms
promoted by pro-life, anti-abortion or pro-choice groups, we again use medical
Origin of terms
Homosexual: For most of recorded history, there was no concept of sexual orientation; there were no words to describe homosexuals, bisexuals, or heterosexuals. What was recognized is that there were adults who had sex
with members of the same gender. The famous six "clobber"
passages in the Bible reflect this thinking.
The terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were first used by a Károly Mária Kertbeny (1824-1882) in private correspondence during 1868. He later used the terms in his two German pamphlets which he published anonymously in 1869. They opposed
extending a Prussian anti-sodomy law throughout all of the German Confederation.
Fag: This is generally used as a snarl word by heterosexuals to insult male
homosexuals. The word is sometimes used with positive connotations by gays and
lesbians. The most common belief is that "fag" is derived from
the word "faggot." Faggots were sticks of wood that were used
to start a fire at a Witch burning. Some believed that a gay or lesbian person
would be burned, along with faggots, to help start the fire. Gradually, the term
was believed to be used to refer to the victim instead of the wood. This
etymology appears to be incorrect. Tracing the history of "faggot" back
through French and Latin to its Greek origin, it has always referred to a bundle of
"Fag" was originally used to refer to something that nobody
wanted, like the frayed end of a rope. Later it was used to describe menial work
that nobody was willing to perform. Still later it was adopted in the British public
school system. Students in the upper class would torment students in the junior
grades. To be a "fag" meant that you were under the control of a
senior student. Occasionally this meant that you would be forced to be the
passive partner during anal intercourse. Finally, the term became associated
with the act itself.
Gay: Some people believe that "gay" is an an acronym for "good
as you." This is a nice theory, but without foundation. "Gay" has had many different meanings in the past. It was
used as a synonym for happy by Chaucer in the 14th century. By
1637, it took on the meaning of a person leading a loose and immoral life.
By 1825, it was sometimes used to refer to female hookers. A "gay
house" was a brothel. By the late 19th
century, it meant to be in good health or to be convalescent.
"Gay" was first used to refer to a male homosexual in
the 1933 play "Young & Evil." Cary Grant used it in
the 1938 movie "Bringing up Baby" to refer to a
transvestite. Gershn Legman & G.V. Henry mentioned the term in their
book Sexual Variations (1941). In recent years, it has been
used to refer to lesbians as well as homosexual males. 1