As an author or editor, do you have questions about appropriate LGBT language? Let’s test your knowledge with a brief quiz (answers are given after the quiz):

  1. Do you know where to find LGBT language guides? Yes/No
  2. What should you consider in deciding which singular pronoun to use to refer to an individual?
  3. Should you ever use the word “homosexual”?
  4. Which of the following nouns and noun phrases are accepted terms for people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth?
    1. transgendered person, transgendered man, transgendered woman
    2. transgender man, transgender woman
    3. female-to-male transgender person, male-to-female transgender person
    4. female-to-male, FTM, male-to-female, MTF
    5. transsexual
  5. In which of the following situations is it acceptable to use the word “queer”?
    1. in historical fiction to mean eccentric or unconventional
    2. in non-fiction
    3. to describe a person or group that has reclaimed the word and self-identifies as such
    4. in chants, such as the classic “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”


  1. If you don’t already know, you will after you read this blog post!
  2. In both nonfiction and fiction, you should make kind, conscious decisions on pronouns (for guidance, consult the LGBT language references mentioned in this blog post); in nonfiction, you should use the person’s chosen pronoun.
  3. Opinions differ somewhat (see table at the end of this blog post), but the adjective “gay” (“lesbian” for women) and the noun phrases “gay man,” “gay people,” “lesbian,” and “gay men and lesbians” are preferred. Some guides allow the term “homosexual” to be used in describing sexual activity in medical or clinical contexts.
  4. The umbrella adjective “transgender” in (b) is generally the best choice; however, depending on how the individual self-identifies, (c), (d), or (e) may be acceptable. The term “transgender” should always be used rather than “transgendered” (a). See the table at the end of this blog post for further detail.
  5. Due to its derogatory history, the word “queer” should not be used in nonfiction (b). However, (a) is certainly valid. Like question 2, (c) is consistent with the recommendation to use the term with which a person or group self-identifies. As a general rule, keep your audience in mind. The chant in (d), popularized by Queer Nation, is encouraged at many LGBT activist events: feel free to chant it proudly even if you’re straight, cisgender, or not normally prone to chanting!

Now that you’ve taken the quiz, do you have questions? Keep reading, and keep in mind that although some of these recommendations and explanations may seem more suited to nonfiction, the general guidelines are also applicable to fiction. On January 21, 2015, the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) held a Twitter chat about copyediting and inclusive language. Led by Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing), the discussion touched heavily on LGBT language. Here are just a few key Tweets from the Storify summary of the chat:

Inclusive language welcomes the reader into your text the way you would welcome a guest into your home. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

If you want a reader to trust you, don’t slap them in the face. Readers notice and appreciate inclusion. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

Lang evolves slowly. Chg happens faster during social movements. When people demand respect, we must listen. Language matters. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

Speaking up about language issues can be scary & hard. If someone goes to the trouble, remember, they’re doing you a favor. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

Also: everyone screws up. If you do: listen, apologize, educate yourself, try to do better. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

Most important: When in doubt (about pronouns, titles, terms): ASK. Call people what they want to be called. (Manners!) #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

@GreyEditing RE:outing: often not necessary/relevant to story to include someone’s trans history. No “born as” names, etc. #ACESchat —Editrix (@Editrix_ES)

We have a responsibility to help authors avoid lang. choices that could embarrass them, offend readers, or distract. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

And if you’re asking whether it’ll distract, chances are the answer is yes. #ACESchat —Amy Goldstein (@northboundlane)

But if your author is going to slap someone in the face, make damn sure that decision is DELIBERATE & calculated, not accidental. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

I think it’s not just word choice sometimes, it goes beyond. Sometimes describing what a person is wearing is sexist. #ACESchat —Gerri Berendzen (@gerrrib)

@gerrrib Yes! If personal details are included, are they relevant? #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

Unless someone’s race, queerness, identity, disability, etc. is the very heart of your story, don’t blow it up. #ACESchat —J. Anderson (@clearing_blocks)

So as an editor, you need to think about the why for including something. Does it necessary or is there a hidden meaning. #ACESchat —Gerri Berendzen (@gerrrib)

@gerrrib Yes. Critical thinking is a key part of inclusive editing. Put yourself in shoes of readers diff from you. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

Ask: What assumptions can I reasonably make abt my audience? This will vary based on publication. #ACESchat —Sarah Grey (@GreyEditing)

On March 27, 2015, a panel session “The Language of the LGBT Community” was held at the 2015 ACES conference. Although no summary or handout is yet posted on the ACES conference website, I understand that the session was extremely well attended and informative.

On that same day, one of the participants in that ACES conference panel, Sarah Grey (yes, the same person who led the Twitter chat on inclusive language), published a blog post “What Editors Need to Know about the Transgender Community,” which had originally been published in the May 2014 issue of the Editorial Freelancers Association‘s newsletter, The Freelancer. Some key recommendations from that blog post are to “use the person’s chosen name,” pronoun, and term, “report on transgender people’s stories from the present day instead of narrating them from some point or multiple points in the past,” and ask “whether gender identity is relevant at all.” “Our editorial choices have real consequences that can affect people’s lives in very serious ways. . . . we can help make the world less dangerous and more accepting for a significant portion of the population.”

Currently, another one of the participants in that ACES conference panel, Karen Yin, is compiling a set of recommendations for conscious (kind, compassionate, mindful, empowering, respectful, and inclusive) language to be titled Conscious Style Guide and published in summer 2015. This guide will include a section on gender and sexuality. That area of the Conscious Style Guide website currently includes links to some relevant articles and resources. Among the resources are materials from organizations such as GLAAD, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).

Let’s take a quick look at some of the LGBT language resources available to authors and editors.

  • GLAAD Media Reference Guide: According to the website, this guide “is intended to be used by journalists reporting for mainstream media outlets and by creators in entertainment media who want to tell our stories fairly and accurately. It is not intended to be an all-inclusive glossary of language used within the LGBT community, nor is it a prescriptive guide for LGBT people.”
  • National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s (NLGJA’s) Stylebook Supplement on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Terminology: According to the website, this stylebook supplement “is intended to complement the prose stylebooks of individual publications, as well as the Associated Press stylebook, the leading stylebook in U.S. newsrooms. It reflects the association’s mission of inclusive coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people
    [and] includes entries on words and phrases that have become common.” Of note, the stylebook supplement highlights pronoun use for referring to transgender people, saying that “if a source shares transgender or gender-nonconforming identity, it is best practice to ask for preferred pronouns.” Further, “do not assume transgender status or include it if it is not germane to the story.”
  • National Center for Transgender Equality’s (NCTE’s) Transgender Terminology guide: Although a good source for basic terminology, the website cautions that “terminology within the transgender community varies and has changed over time so we recognize the need to be sensitive to usage within particular communities.”
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, also known simply as the APA Style Manual: This style manual, which is designed for use by social and behavioral scientists writing articles to be published in journals and books, includes a section called “Reducing Bias” in “Chapter 3: Writing Clearly and Concisely.” In addition to listing preferred terms and terms that should be avoided, the manual dictates that “scientific writing must be free of implied or irrelevant evaluation of the group or groups being studied” and specifies the following three general guidelines for reducing bias in language: “mention differences only when relevant, . . . call people what they prefer to be called,” and acknowledge people’s participation in a study while still retaining their humanity (pp. 71–73).

The following table lists the most accepted terms for a selection of LGBT concepts, according to the references described above and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook (2014 edition). [Note that the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) explains in sections 5.221–5.230 that its “editors do not maintain a list of words or usages considered unacceptable. Rather, they . . . consult guides to avoid bias in writing . . . and work with authors to use the most appropriate language.”]

bisexual (adjective), as in bisexual man, bisexual woman, or bisexual personyesyesyes
bisexual (noun)yesyesno
cisgender, abbreviated cis (adjective)yes, but a more widely understood way to describe people who are not transgender is simply to say non-transgenderyesno
cisman, ciswoman (noun)noyes
cross-dresser (noun)yesyesyesyes
female-to-male transgender (adjective), as in female-to-male transgender personnono, transgender man is preferredno, transgender man is preferredyes
female-to-male, abbreviated FTM (noun)yes, if the individual identifies as suchyes, can be used in statisticsyes, synonym for transgender manno
gay (adjective), as in gay man or gay peopleyes, but sometimes lesbian is the preferred term for womenyes, but lesbian is generally used for women (when possible, ask the subject which term she prefers); to include both genders, use the phrase gay and lesbian, although in headlines where space is limited gay is acceptable to describe bothyesyes, and can be interpreted either narrowly (only men) or broadly (men and women)
gays (plural noun)noyesnono
gender (noun)yesyesyesyesyes
gender expression (noun)yesyesyesyes
gender identity (noun)yesyesyesyes
gender nonconforming (adjective)yes, hyphenated (non-conforming)yes, not hyphenated (nonconforming)yes, hyphenated (non-conforming)
gender transition (noun)no, transition is preferredyesno, transition is preferredno
genderqueer (adjective)yes, but should be used only if someone self-identifies as suchyesyesno
heterosexual (adjective)yes, but straight is also acceptableyes, but straight is also acceptable
homosexual (adjective, noun)noyes, but only in medical contexts or in reference to sexual activityyes, but only in clinical contexts or in reference to sexual activityno
intersex (adjective, noun)yesyes
lesbian (adjective, noun)yes, but some lesbians may prefer to identify as gay (adjective) or as gay women (noun)yesyesyes
LGBT (adjective), abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenderyes, but should be spelled out on first mention; sometimes spelled as GLBTyes, useful in headlines and brief text, but should be spelled out on an early mentionyes, but should be spelled out somewhere in the body of the story
LGBTQ (adjective), abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning, queer, or sometimes bothyes, but should be spelled out on first mentionyes, but best used only in quotations or for formal names of organizations or events
male-to-female transgender (adjective), as in male-to-female transgender personnono, transgender woman is preferredno, transgender woman is preferredyes
male-to-female, abbreviated MTF (noun)yes, if the individual self-identifies as suchyes, can be used in statisticsyes, synonym for transgender womanno
queer (adjective)traditionally a pejorative term, it has been appropriated by some LGBT people to describe themselves, but the term is not universally accepted even within the LGBT community; should be avoided unless describing someone who self-identifies as such or in a direct quotestill offensive as an epithet; best used only in quotations or for formal names of organizations or eventscan be either derogative or affirming, depending on the user and the contextno
sex reassignment (adjective, noun)yesno, sexual reassignment is preferredyesyes
sex reassignment surgery (noun)yesno, sexual reassignment surgery is preferredyesyes
sexual orientation (noun)yesyesyesyesyes
sexual reassignment (adjective, noun)no, sex reassignment is preferredyesno, sex reassignment is preferredno, sex reassignment is preferred
sexual reassignment surgery (noun)no, sex reassignment surgery is preferredyesno, sex reassignment surgery is preferredno, sex reassignment surgery is preferred
straight (adjective)yesyes
trans (adjective), shortened term for transgenderyes, but avoid unless used in a direct quote or in cases where you can clearly explain the meaning in contextyesyesno
trans man (noun), shortened term for transgender manyes, but only when the subject prefers this termyes, but only when the subject prefers this termnono
transgender (adjective), as in transgender people, transgender man, or transgender womanyes, but some may prefer to simply be called men or women, without any modifier, so it is best to ask which term an individual prefersyesyesyesyes
transgender (noun)nonononono
transition (noun)yesno, gender transition is preferredyesno, sex reassignment is preferred
transsexual (adjective)yes, but it is best to ask which term an individual prefers and use the older terms transsexual woman and transsexual man only if the individual prefers them to transgender woman and transgender man (also, note that unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term)nonoyes
transsexual, female-to-male transsexual, and male-to-female transsexual (noun)nonothe noun transsexual is sometimes not preferred, because it may sound overly clinicalyesyes