A Compassionate Guide to Talking about LGBTQ+ Issues

by Robyn E. Brickel, M.A., LMFT and Emily Sanders, LPC

On November 7, 2017,  Virginia voters elected Danica Roem to the Virginia House of Delegates. Roem is the first openly transgender state legislator in America. Her campaign focused on local issues, especially improving traffic problems, which resonated with voters. But she has also broken a cultural barrier that brings attention to the LGBTQ+ community. Her public life opens new opportunities for us to talk about transgender issues.

Some of us may feel we’re in unfamiliar territory, and would like help navigating LGBTQ+ terminology. In light of these groundbreaking changes and signs of progress, we thought it might help to talk about terminology, and how to discuss transgender issues with equal respect for all. Building our knowledge will increase our awareness of sensitive issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, and equip us to support civil rights and human rights for everyone.

As trauma informed therapists, we’d like to share a series of posts for and about the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, and hope you’ll join us in working to create a safer and more inclusive environment for all individuals.

We would like to start with some of the terms you may hear and how they are used to discuss transgender issues, the community and its members. These are adapted from the Human Rights Campaign’s “Glossary of Terms” (https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms)

Glossary of LGBTQ+ terms

Ally – a person who is not LGBTQ+, but shows support for LGBTQ+ people and promotes equality

Androgynous – identifying and/or presenting as neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine

Bisexual (or “bi”) – a person who is attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity

Cisgender (or “cis”) – A term that describes a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Gay – a person who is attracted primarily to members of the same sex. Although “gay” can be used for any sex (gay man, gay woman, gay person), the term “lesbian” is sometimes the preferred term for women who are attracted to women.

Gender Binary – The idea that there are only two genders or sexes—male or female, man or woman, and that a person must be strictly either one or the other. It may be helpful to know that many cultures presently and throughout history include a wider variety of gender identities and expression, and do not subscribe to a binary belief system.

Gender Expression – refers to the way an individual externally manifests gender identity. It is usually expressed through behaviors, clothing, hairstyle, voice (etc.) and may or may not conform to characteristics typically considered to be either masculine or feminine.

Gender Fluid – a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender and expresses gender in a fluid or changeable manner.

Gender Identity – one’s innate and innermost sense of being male, female, etc. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.

Genderqueer – people who possess identities that fall outside of the sexual binary (man OR woman). This term can also refer to those who see gender identify and sexual orientation as overlapping and interconnected. Often, but not always, these individuals embrace gender fluidity.

Heteronormativity – The assumption that everyone is heterosexual, and that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality and bisexuality.

Homophobia – a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards people who identify or are perceived as being members of the LGBTQ community.

Intersex – a person whose sexual anatomy or chromosomes do not fit with the traditional markers of “male” or “female”. For example, people born with both “male” and “female” anatomy, or people born with XXY chromosomes.

LGBTQ– an acronym standing for the terms Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer. Often used to describe the community of individuals who identify as belonging to these groups.

Pansexual – a person who experiences sexual, romantic, physical, and/or spiritual attraction for members of all gender identities/expressions.

Queer – an umbrella term sometimes used by LGBTQ people to refer to the entire community. It is very important to note that the word “queer” is an in-group term and can be considered offensive to some people depending on their generation and personal history or relationship to the word.

Questioning – an individual in the process of exploring and discovering one’s own sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Sexual orientation – describes the type of inherent emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction an individual feels toward others. Common labels include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and pansexual.

Transgender – this term has many definitions. It is frequently used as an umbrella term to refer to all people whose gender identify does not align with their assigned sex at birth and/or with the binary gender system. Some transgender people may identify as male or female. Others do not identify within one of the two binary gender categories (male or female), but rather somewhere between or outside of those two genders. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.

Transphobia – the fear or hatred of transgender people or gender non-conforming behavior. It is important to know that transphobia can also exist among lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as well as among heterosexual people.

Transition – The process by which some transgender people strive to more closely align their gender identity with their physical or external appearance. Some people transition in a social aspect, whereby they might begin dressing, using a name or pronouns, be socially recognized as another gender. Some people transition in a physical aspect in which they modify their bodies through medical interventions, such as hormone replacement therapy or surgical procedures.

I Know the Lingo…Now What?

Although the above list of terms is not exhaustive, we hope that it provides a foundation from which you can expand your knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, knowing the language and having a foundation of information may help you to feel more comfortable having open conversations with, and being an ally to, LGBTQ+ friends, family, and neighbors.

Many people in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced marginalization, homophobia or transphobia, bullying, and other forms of trauma. As survivors of discrimination and/or trauma, it may be challenging for these individuals to trust in others. Some may fear being rejected or misunderstood by their friends and family.

When talking with those in the LGBTQ+ community, and with any new person you may meet in your life in general, it is important not to make assumptions about sexual orientation or gender identity based solely on external appearance. It is best, instead, to follow each person’s lead about how he/she/they like to identify (including what pronouns they prefer), and to embrace and respect their wishes.

The Role of Compassion in the Change Process

In our work as trauma-informed therapists, we have seen time and time again that compassion, for ourselves and for others, is a catalyst of positive change. It helps us to be empathic and curious, reach for connection to others, and allows us to have the openness needed for growth. The opposite of compassion — harsh criticism — creates tension and anxiety, tends to isolate us, and inhibits our ability to welcome change in our lives.

As you work to educate yourself about the LGBTQ+ community, whether for your own personal development, to better support a friend or family member, or to explore your own sexual orientation or gender identity, allow yourself bring compassion. Know that it is okay to not have all the answers. Remember that it is normal and human to feel confused and not always “get it right.” Choose to view yourself and those close to you through a lens of patience and kindness. With compassion to guide your learning and growth process, you can reach a deeper and more authentic understanding of both yourself and others.

For Parents of LGBTQ+ Youth and LGBTQ+ Individuals Who Are Struggling

There are many resources available to you. Although you may sometimes feel like no one knows what it’s like for you, you are not alone and there are others who understand! Happily, the Internet can connect you with a wealth of trustworthy organizations and websites with information and support for the LGBTQ+ community and allies. Some of these include: The Trevor Project, GLAAD, and The Human Rights Campaign.

The Virginia and D.C. area also have a number of local resources including PFLAG, Equality Virginia, and The DC Center for the LGBTQ+ Community. Sometimes, you may also need the support of a trained professional to help you and your loved ones as you navigate the complex emotions you are experiencing. This article (https://brickelandassociates.com/how-to-find-a-good-therapist/) can help you to start your search for a good therapist.

More Resources










Human Rights Campaign, “Glossary of Terms” (n.d.), retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms

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