Descriptors for Sexual Minorities Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Descriptors for Sexual Minorities

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Descriptors for Sexual Minorities | Asexuality | Homosexuality | Heterosexuality
Bisexuality | Polyamory | The Kinsey Scale | The Gender Pronoun Game | Coming Out
Embarrassing Questions About Sexual Orientation | Going Back In - Sexuality U-turns

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Modern culture has developed a number of terms and symbols to set apart its sexual minorities. Some of these originated within the different communities themselves. Others evolved from scientists, psychologists, legislators, and newspaper reporters trying to describe their gay, bisexual, transsexual, and polyamorous subjects. Many include obscure references to history that go largely unrecognized.



Lesbian symbol

The word lesbian comes from the Greek island Lesbos, where the poet Sappho lived in 600 BC. Sappho wrote numerous poems about her female love, most of which were destroyed by religious fanatics during the Middle Ages. While the first usage of the word lesbian is unknown, it was used in several academic books as early as 1880. The word became more popular during the 20th Century, especially during the feminist era. The term 'lesbian separatist' was commonly used to distinguish feminists who wished to avoid the company of men altogether.

Fag, Faggot, Fag Hag

Gay symbol

'Fag' and 'faggot' are American insults for gay men. The term 'faggot' first started being used in this way in around 1914, but it is not clear where the word came from. A faggot is a bundle of sticks, used for firewood and tied up for carrying around. In the 16th century it was used as an insulting term for a useless old woman as something that weighs you down, in the same way that 'baggage' is sometimes used nowadays. But it's quite a jump from 1592 to 1914 with nothing recorded in between. Gay men in the latter half of the 20th Century began using the term 'fag hag' to refer to straight women who frequently gather at gay establishments, partly as an insult and partly because of the rhyme.


Contrary to popular belief, the origin of the insult 'dyke'1, in reference to lesbians, has nothing to do with waterways or canals. The word first appeared in 1710 in British newspaper stories about presumed homosexuals Anne Bonny and Mary Reed. The two women captained a very successful pirate venture and completed several lucrative raids of the British Empire before agreeing to be interviewed. Reporters often noted their predilection for wearing men's clothing, and one editorial avoided the unpleasant connotations of cross dressing by using a French word which refers to men's clothing, dike. Over the years, this term was corrupted to the modern form 'dyke'. Since then, general misunderstanding about the term's origins have inspired many stand-up comedy routines and bad puns.

Polyamory, Polygamy, Monogamy

The prefix 'poly-' means many, while 'mono' means one. The suffix 'gamy' was originally from the French word for marriage, but has since been misunderstood as referring to sex. These terms refer to the number of consensual romantic partners taken by each adult in a family. Of course, the suffix 'amory' refers to love. Polyamory is a relatively new term coined by modern practitioners, and is greatly preferred by them. Polygamy and the now defunct term bigamy were coined as early as 1800, as the practice of multiple marriages was outlawed in most Western nations. The state of Utah in the USA applied for Statehood three times before finally accepting an injunction against the polygamy practised at that time by the Mormon church. Polygamy is commonly understood as referring to heterosexual relationships where the man has multiple partners. However, with modern polyamory any combination of genders and orientations fulfils the definition. It is not necessary for all parties in a polyamorous relationship to be involved each with the other.


During the 1800s and early 1900s, 'gay' was simply a state of jubilant happiness. However, during the late 1800s gay was sometimes used to describe prostitutes in much the same way that the phrase 'happy hookers' is used today. One theory is that gay came into use to describe homosexual men because of the rise in numbers of male prostitutes during the 1900s. Another theory is that 'gay' was used within the early gay community of the 1960s, largely because of the numerous festive gay parties common in the United States in cities such as San Francisco and New York. In any case, the earlier usage of 'gay' as happy or jubilant has fallen out of favour in conjunction with the new usage's prominence.

Homosexual, Bisexual, Heterosexual, Homo, Bi, Homophobia

While homosexual, bisexual, and heterosexual were coined during the latter half of the 19th Century, it was Sigmund Freud who popularized their usage. Freud, now considered the father of modern psychology, believed humans to be naturally bisexual. He theorized that a toddler's interactions with his parents determine which half of his inherent sexuality he will later choose to act upon. 'Homo' means same, 'hetero' means other, and 'bi' means both while 'sexual' originally referred to gender rather than copulation. Homo is now used as an insult for gay men, while bi is a more positive short version of bisexual. Homophobia is a more recent term for the irrational fear of homosexuality, and people accused of prejudice against gays are sometimes called homophobic. It is notable that most English translations of the Bible use the word homosexual as a mistranslation of yadha (paedophile) and qadesh (male temple prostitute). Of course, the word homosexual was not available when the Bible was written and there was no true Greek equivalent.

Transsexual, Transgendered, Transvestite

Not sexual orientations, but gender identities, these three words are often used interchangeably, when in fact they do have different meanings. A transvestite (or cross-dresser) is someone who wears the clothing of the opposite gender, sometimes but not always for sexual gratification. A transsexual person is someone who feels they should have been born as the opposite gender and who may transition to the opposite gender through hormones and/or surgery. An intersex person, or a person with a disorder of sexual development (DSD), is someone who falls physically between the two genders from birth, either in relation to their anatomy or at a genetic level. 'Trans' means literally across, and any trans person is said to cross the boundaries of absolute gender identification in one way or another, so 'transgender' is mostly used as an umbrella term incorporating transsexual identities as well as identities that are non-binary (neither male nor female), such as agender, genderqueer or genderfluid. Like transsexual people, non-binary trans people may also wish to undergo some transition through hormones and/or surgery to bring their bodies into line with their gender identity, or they may simply modify their clothes, hair and/or use cosmetics to reflect their identity.

Fairy, Sissy, Queen, Puff, Poof, Poofter, Swish, Pansy

A typical method of insulting gay men has been to reference objects and adjectives that have feminine connotations, thus putting forth the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate or weak. Examples include 'pansy', 'gladiola', 'buttercup', 'cupcake', 'fruitcake', 'flit', and 'nancy-boy'. 'Sissy' was a term actually coined within the gay community to describe the habit of discussing gossip, and was originally slang for sister. The word took a turn during WWII, when sissy was applied to heterosexual males refusing to fight. A similar term during the 1900s was 'queen', referring to some transvestites' exaggerated female mannerisms. Another related term was 'fairy'. In stories and poems for children, fairies are inevitably described as tiny, graceful, delicate, and of course female. 'Puff' stems from the phrase 'light as a cream puff', meaning someone who weighs very little. 'Poof' and 'Poofter' are probably derived from puff. 'Swish' is an onomatopoetic word, referring to the sound a skirt makes while walking. The word was originally used only to describe women, but it became a noun for gay men in the early 1900s. Such insults serve to portray gay men as easy victims, and so they may be used as a mild threat of physical force.

The 10% or One in Ten

As with most common myths, the common belief that gay people compose 10% of society has some basis in fact. Before about 1950, most psychologists believed homosexuals made up less than 1% of the population. Alfred Kinsey, a biology professor who was the first to study widespread trends in human sexuality, released a study on male sexuality in 1948, which concluded that 13% of men are exclusively gay. A subsequent study on female sexuality released in 1953 concluded that 7% of women are exclusive lesbians. The media seized upon Kinsey's findings, averaging the two results and running numerous stories and editorials that shattered popular conceptions of sexuality. Studies undertaken after Kinsey's revelations failed to achieve the same results: statistics run as high as 27% gay and as low as 3%. The methodology and assumptions of each study appear to have remarkable sway over the eventual findings. As a result, it is impossible for scientists to say with surety how many humans are gay, percentage wise or otherwise.

Straight, Ex-gay

The word straight in reference to sexual orientation was first coined in 1941 by gay author GW Henry in a book describing conversations with other gay men. He wrote that 'to go straight is to cease homosexual practices and to indulge - usually to re-indulge - in heterosexuality'. The word originally shared a kinship with the phrase 'gone straight' that often describes former drug addicts. Though the word straight was not originally intended to refer to people who are inherently heterosexual (and always have been), it has been corrupted over the years to mean exactly that. The closest equivalent today to the original meaning would probably be ex-gay, which refers to someone who has gone through a ministry's programme to change their orientation from homosexuality to heterosexuality.


The original usage of the word 'Queer', dating from the 1500s, is 'unusual, strange, odd'. It is unknown when exactly the term came to refer to gay men, and later all sexual minorities. While it is understandable that queer should be used to describe a sometimes misunderstood sub-group, it is unclear why the word is not used to describe other racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. Over the past two decades, the original meaning of queer has fallen to the wayside, much as the original usage of the word gay did previously.

Coming Out, Out of the Closet, Outing, To Out

The popular phrase 'coming out'2 was coined in 1987 during the first gay activist march on Washington DC, the American capital. One speech theorized that the best weapon for fighting local prejudice is openness. The speaker urged those who had come out to be activists in Washington to also 'come out' in their hometowns by admitting their true sexual orientation. During the 1980s, the phrase shifted somewhat to coming 'out of the closet'. The flip side of coming out (admitting your own differing sexual orientation), is 'outing someone'. Outing someone, or trying to out them, occurs when a party besides the subject disseminates information about their orientation with or without prior approval. Often such parties are homophobic and/or hostile to the person they are outing. 'Coming Out Day' was designated as 11 October, 1988, because that was the date of the second gay march on Washington DC.

One of the most difficult times in the lives of most gay, lesbian and bisexual people's lives, coming out refers to the time when these people tell those around them, particularly their parents, about their sexuality. This can be a very painful experience, and, sadly, society still holds many prejudices which make this difficult task even harder.


'Dink', which originally referred to any committed couple without children, is actually an acronym. It stands for Double Income No Kids. The word was created in the 1990s, when demographic studies uncovered the self-obvious fact that couples without children have a higher level of disposable income on average. Further studies have also shown a disparity in disposable income which favours gay people, since the majority of them do not go on to have children. In more recent years, it has become fashionable for large companies to target gay newspapers and magazines. Gay people often refer to committed couples with extravagant buying habits as 'dinks'.



The Lambda symbol

The Greek symbol lambda3 was emblazoned on the shields of Spartan warriors in ancient Greece. While the city state is famous for its legendary battle prowess, it is also notable for its practice of pairing experienced soldiers with young new recruits for both training and sex. The lambda was co-opted by gay activists during the 1950s and 1960s. While its usage is down somewhat, it is still sometimes favoured by collegiate gay men today for its wry commentary on Greek fraternity traditions.

Pink Triangle

The Pink Triangle

The pink triangle4 was originally used in Nazi Germany, starting in 1935, to designate homosexual men. Such men were typically put into labour camps, where almost all were beaten to death by prison guards or slowly starved. The symbol was co-opted by gay activists, who wished to engender a sense of parity with other minorities, including the religious and ethnic minorities targeted during the Holocaust. Interestingly, the Nazis lumped lesbians together with feminists under the category of 'socially unnatural women' and designated them with a black triangle.

Rainbow Flag, Rainbow Rings

The rainbow flag5 was designed in 1978 in San Francisco. It became popular after the murder of San Francisco city councilman Harvey Milk, who was the first elected gay politician in the United States. As the murder trial of Dan White progressed, followed by his five year sentence under the now infamous 'I ate a Twinkey' defence, the flag came under great demand, as community support for justice soared. Visitors to San Francisco noted the use of the colourful flags, and the symbol slowly spread. While the common belief is that each colour on the flag represents different sexual minorities (gay, bisexual, transgendered, and so on), the original intent was for each colour to represent an idealized trait of the burgeoning gay community (harmony, spirit, sexuality, etc). Rainbow rings are derived from the rainbow flag. They consist of a set of metal rings with colours matching the flag. They are strung onto a necklace or other cord and serve as an identifying mark for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.

Gender Symbols

The transgender symbol

Gender Symbols6, the pointed Mars symbol, the crossed Venus symbol, and the crossed and crescent mooned Mercury symbol have been passed down for centuries. During Roman times, they referred to the planets, the gods, and their corresponding astrological signs. Each symbol includes a circular hoop in reference to the planets. Modern use revolves around using the Mars symbol to represent male and the Venus symbol to represent female. Since about the 1970s, the hoops of two Mars or two Venus symbols have been linked together, and the resulting icons have been used by the gay community to symbolize same gender relationships. The Mercury symbol has been used to represent trans-people, due to the myth by which Mercury had the double-gendered child Hermaphrodites.

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