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Understanding LGBTQIA

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

We are all different, and that is all right.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a panel of six LGBT persons who shared their personal journeys and stories with a group class. I felt honored to be part of this class where I was able to ask questions and receive honest and accurate answers in an open and respectful environment where all of us felt safe.

As part of my work as a health educator with the Substance Abuse Prevention program of a local organization, I have received training on counseling and working with gender and sexually diverse (GSD) clients. The GSD training that I received at work was valuable, but paled in comparison with my experience with the LGBT panel.

Since I reached the age of reasoning, I discovered my ability to think for myself. Since then, I have been an advocate for diversity and inclusion, but my experience with the LGBT panel was unique in many aspects. First, my professor, an accomplished lesbian woman and leader in her community, created a safe and respectful environment where everyone felt welcomed and comfortable for open dialogue and discussion. Second, most of my classmates, who referred themselves as LGBTQIA individuals, provided valuable input by sharing their opinion and personal experiences. These experiences were at times funny, at times moving, even to the point of tears. We connected and bonded in only a few days.

Understanding LGBTQIA is more than learning the meaning of these letters - we must develop our innate capacity to be accepting and respectful of individuals who are different from us.

The gender spectrum: gender identity, sexual orientation, biological sex and gender expression.

Gender Bear designed by the Justice for Sisters

The consequences of social prejudice and bias.

Often times LGBTQIA persons are denied health services, medical services, community services, and civil and human rights based solely on the way they look or their perceived sexual orientation. LGBTQIA teens and children in schools are constantly bullied and disrespected based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They have unwillingly created controversy in public schools regarding bathroom policies. For them, some times common every day tasks, like attending a group event, grocery shopping or engaging in social media become unexpected events that may end up in cruel and humiliating jokes, life threats, or even death at the hands of others...or themselves.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010), suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts) among sexual minority youth has been estimated to be twice as that of heterosexual youth. According to NAMI, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among LGBTQ individuals aged 10–24. LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely and questioning youth are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm than other people. Between 38-65% of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation (NAMI, 2018). Due to prejudice, discrimination, lack of cultural competency in the health care system and lack of peer support, LGBTQ persons report higher rates of substance use or abuse (drug, alcohol and tobacco) than other people.

According to NAMI, LGBTQ persons may experience more negative mental health outcomes due to prejudice and biases. They are almost three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. Knowing what challenges LGBTQ persons may face and how to find and work with LGBTQ-inclusive providers, can help ensure a healthier life.

LGBTQ individuals not only have to live with stigma and prejudice based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, but also have to deal with social bias against mental health conditions. Though not all LGBTQIA people will face mental health challenges, discrimination or violence, many people report less mental well-being and satisfaction.

What does LGBTQIA stand for?

Lesbian: female identified attracted to female identified. Gay: male identified attracted to male identified. Bisexual: attracted to both genders, also called “Pansexual.” Transgender: gender assigned at birth does not match gender identity. Queer: often a catchall term, attraction outside the gender binary, sometimes referred to as Questioning. Intersex: reproductive anatomy does not fit with only one gender. A combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs, and genitals that differs from the two expected patterns of male or female. Formerly known as hermaphrodite. Asexual: not sexually attracted to anyone, sometimes called “Allies."

Other useful terms.

Advocate: a person who actively works to end intolerance, educate others, and support social equity for a marginalized group.

Ally: a typically "straight" person who supports and respects members of the LGBTQ community.  

Gender identity: the internal perception of an one’s gender, and how they label themselves, based on how much they align or don’t align with what they understand their options for gender to be.

Bigender: a person who fluctuates between traditionally “woman” and “man” gender-based behavior and identities, identifying with both genders (and sometimes a third gender).

Cisgender: a person whose gender identity and biological sex assigned at birth align (e.g., man and assigned male at birth).

Cisnormativity: the assumption, in individuals or in institutions, that everyone is cisgender, and that cisgender identities are superior to trans* identities or people. Leads to invisibility of non-cisgender identities.

Heteronormativity: the assumption, in individuals or in institutions, that everyone is heterosexual (e.g. asking a woman if she has a boyfriend) and that heterosexuality is superior to all other sexualities.

Fluid(ity): generally with another term attached, like gender-fluid or fluid-sexuality, fluid(ity) describes an identity that may change or shift over time between or within the mix of the options available (e.g., man and woman, bi and straight).

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

Polyamory/polyamorous: refers to the practice of, desire to, or orientation towards having ethically, honest, and consensual non-monogamous relationships (i.e. relationships that may include multiple partners).

Two-spirit: an umbrella term traditionally used by Native American people to recognize individuals who possess qualities or fulfill roles of both genders.



For information for LGBTQIA College Students, visit Edubirdie at To read about how to find friendly LGBTQIA Colleges, go to

For general LGBTQIA information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at and the National Alliance on Mental Illness at

More LGBTQIA resources at Glaad,

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions of the organizations linked on this page do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of InnerWellbeing and its members.

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