Written by Evan Barber
Understanding the LGBTQ+ Community
If the gospel is to be understood, if it is to be received as something which communicates truth about the real human situation, it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed, and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them. — Lesslie Newbigin, British theologian and missionary to India
As we seek to understand and communicate with the next generation about gender and sexuality, we need to understand contemporary terminology to meet them where they are. In this movement, we’ll define some of the most commonly used terms around this topic, and then look at some important principles for conversation based on Jesus’ life and ministry.
Something to keep in mind as we discuss these terms is that Gen Z tends to view gender as something on a spectrum, as opposed to a binary view of sexuality as either masculine or feminine. There are always exceptions, but Gen Z commonly views gender and sexuality as disconnected from each other. YouTuber Brendan Jordan explains it (somewhat crassly) in this way: “Sexuality is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as.”
Understanding sexuality as broad and varied creates endless ways to define it. For many younger people, hitting upon the “right” label or category for their sexuality doesn’t seem to be as important as feeling free to embrace any label, or no label at all. Each individual is seen as the highest authority when it comes to defining what their sexuality is.
LGBTQ+ stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer,” but the full acronym can be about twice as long. Some people use LGBTQQIAAP, and the plus sign after “LGBTQ” alludes to these later categories. While most of these letters have to do with who someone is and isn’t sexually attracted to, a few of them—like transgender, intersex, and androgynous—have to do with one’s gender identity.
The first few letters in the LGBTQQIAAP initialism are the obvious ones—lesbian, gay, and bisexual. “Lesbian” refers to a woman who is attracted to other women. “Gay” refers to a man who is attracted to other men (or more broadly, to anyone attracted to the same sex). “Bisexual” refers to a person who is attracted to both men and women.
“Transgender,” or “trans,” refers to someone who identifies with a gender other than the one that corresponds to his or her biological sex—often called their “assigned at birth” sex. Although many people are used to the “T” by now, the idea of being trans totally upends the previously stable categories of manhood and womanhood that being gay, lesbian, or even bisexual relied upon. It was controversial when the “T” was added onto the end of LGB.
The first “Q” in LGBTQ is often a stand-in for the word “queer.” While “queer” was a derogatory term not so long ago, it is now embraced by individuals who don’t want to identify themselves under a “binary” category (e.g. male or female, gay or straight.) (The word “non-binary,” though not technically part of the LGBTQ+ initialism, has a similar meaning.)
The second “Q” can refer to someone who is simply “questioning” their sexual identity. This person may not feel like they’ve arrived at an answer in terms of who they are attracted to and what gender feels right to them, and maybe they never will. This type of “Q” person is currently curious about or exploring their gender identity or sexual attraction.
The I refers to “intersex,” which is someone who has both male and female sexual organs, chromosomes, and/or hormones, etc. (This term has essentially replaced the word “hermaphrodite” both in medical and cultural contexts.) The A’s refer to “asexual” and “ally.” “Asexual” refers to someone who is not attracted in a sexual way to people of any gender. An “ally” is someone who identifies as straight but supports people in the LGBTQ+ community. Finally, the P stands for “pansexual,” which refers to someone for whom sexual attraction is not limited to any kind of gender or sexual identity.
- L: Lesbian
- G: Gay
- B: Bisexual
- T: Transsexual, or trans
- Q: Queer
- Q: Questioning
- I: Intersex
- A: Asexual
- A: Ally
- P: Pansexual
This may already feel like a lot, but we’re really only scratching the surface. (For a more comprehensive list of terms, click here.) We encourage you to become as familiar as you can with these terms and their various meanings. Consider also that the number of people self-identifying with one or more of these terms is ticking up rather quickly. As of April 2023, the CDC is reporting that 25.8% of Gen Z identifies as gay, bisexual, or as currently questioning their sexuality.
Love and Listening
One of our primary goals is to give you enough knowledge that you’re able to ask informed questions in these conversations—and in that way, to be like Jesus. In his book Jesus is the Question, Martin Copenhaver records Jesus asking 307 different questions throughout the gospels, about a whole range of issues. He is asked 183 questions by different people—but he only answers 3 of them directly.
Now, if anyone was in the position to offer definitive answers to people’s questions, it would’ve been Jesus. But He often saw it as more important to turn others’ questions back around. By answering a question with a question, Jesus identified the rationale behind the question, which was often more indicative of the heart of the issue—and the asker.
Ironically, the person who asks good questions is often more effective at persuasion than the person who only makes declarative statements. As Drs. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen point out in their book Difficult Conversations,
Changes in attitudes and behavior rarely come about because of arguments, facts, and attempts to persuade. How often do you change your values and beliefs—or whom you love or what you want in life—based on something someone tells you? And how likely are you to do so when the person who is trying to change you doesn’t seem to be aware of the reasons you see things differently in the first place?
When we believe that others are trying to understand our point of view, our defenses usually go down, and we’re more willing to listen to their point of view. So as you enter into conversation with the next generation, we encourage you to do so with a posture of curiosity. These conversations can be incredibly difficult and delicate, and can perpetuate one of the biggest generational divides in the modern world.
But that divide isn’t always for the reasons one might think. In a conversation with Justin Lee, Dr. Preston Sprinkle reported that only 3% of LGBTQ+ people who leave church cite disagreement about marriage and sexuality as their primary reason for doing so. A much greater percentage mention issues like not feeling safe in church, not having anyone who will listen to their story, and the hypocrisy of other Christians.
Not only that, but the Marin Foundation recently found that 76% of LGBTQ+ people who have left the church are actually open to returning to their faith community, and when asked what would encourage them to do so, only 8% responded that a change in theology would be their requirement. The rest mentioned “feeling loved,” being “given time,” experiencing “no attempts to change their sexual orientation,” and experiencing an “authentic” and “supportive” community. In short, Marin writes, “the LGBT community is asking that faith communities be what they say they are: loving, patient, realistic, authentic, and supportive.”
David Augsburger once said that, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are nearly indistinguishable.” No matter where we are in this conversation, we can recognize that every human being desires to be heard, loved, and understood. So as you enter into these conversations, we encourage you to live into Jesus’ “golden rule”—to listen, and to try to understand, just as you want to be understood.