Confused by the LGBTQ+ Terms? Here’s Some Guidance

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Understanding the “alphabet soup” of LGBTQ+ can challenge people outside of these groups.

Katrina Ehmann, licensed clinical social worker and non institutional care program coordinator and veteran care coordinator for LGBTQ+ Health Program at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Rochester, said that these letters frequently represent the terms that capture “the spectrum of how we relate to others sexually, romantically, emotionally and also how we define who we are by our gender or gender expression. Most commonly known of the acronym are L=Lesbian, G=Gay, B=Bisexual, T=Transgender, Q=Queer. The ‘plus’ signifies the many other identities and sexual orientations.”

She encourages people to ask open-ended questions such as “Who do you live with?” or “Who do you spend most of your time with?” instead of “Are you married?”

“When assessing someone’s overall health, ask if they’re sexually active, how many partners, male, female or other?” she said. “Let the person know that it’s important for you to understand this aspect of their health for preventive health care and to ensure their health care goals are met.”

Awareness as to why these questions are asked can help prevent misunderstandings.

Ehmann believes that listening and mirroring the other person’s language can help foster a greater level of comfort.

“Use the name or pronouns they’re asking to be called by and if they’re speaking about a relationship and use the term ‘significant other’ for instance, you too should use that same term,” she said. “If you make a mistake, it’s OK, apologize and be sure next time to use the proper language, as they’ve asked you to use.”

Ehmann said that using the correct terms with others may not be possible and that some new terms may develop and older ones may change in meaning, since language is ever-evolving.

But it all hinges upon respect for others.

“Ultimately when interacting with others whether in the healthcare setting or in general, every person deserve to be treated respectful and to feel safe, so approach everyone you meet with an open mind and open heart,” Ehmann said.

Doing so in a healthcare setting is especially important so patients feel heard and so they build a trusting relationship with their healthcare provider. Megan Lytle associate professor of psychiatry at URMC, said that using the correct name and pronouns can reduce suicide risk by 56%.

“It says, ‘I see you and know who you are,’” Lytle said. “It’s like a cisgender person using their new last name after getting married. Language is important with every patient we see.”

She added that it may be helpful to “check in” by asking if you’re using the right language. She views this as a strategy aligning with a patient-centered approach.

“If you’re unsure, a very simple thing is to introduce yourself with your name and pronouns as it cues the person that they’re safe,” Lytle said. “Ask, ‘How may I address you?’”

Recording the correct title helps improve consistency when addressing people.

As further information is needed, it is also alright to ask people to define terms that are unfamiliar or that may be used in ways with which you do not expect.

“The definition of ‘bisexual’ is different from when I was growing up,” Lytle said. “I may say, ‘I’m going to ask you a lot of questions and some may seem obvious but I want to understand you.’ If they tell me something that may not feel as obvious, I may say, ‘I’m somewhat familiar with that but I’d like to know what that means to you.’”