LGBTQI+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning. The ‘plus’ sign refers to the many other self-identifications under the umbrella of ‘sexuality’ and/or ‘gender’.
LGBTQI+ is an umbrella term that encompasses the spectrum of people who aren’t heterosexual. The term arose as LGBT in the late 1980s as a way to bring together different groups who had historically been marginalised or even criminalised for their sexuality. Over time, it has grown to reflect new understandings about the diversity of sexuality and gender within society.
Not everyone uses the exact same acronym. Some variants include:
And some people argue that using an umbrella term for such a large group of people is reductive, because LGBTQI+ people are diverse individuals, not a single group.
Here are just some of the flags and symbols representing different groups of the LGBTQI+ community:
Regardless of the terminology, a significant chunk of the population is some other sexuality than heterosexual, despite the importance our society has traditionally placed on ‘straight’ relationships. It’s estimated there are 9 million Americans who are LGBT, while in Australia, 3% of adults identified as gay, lesbian or having an ‘other’ sexual orientation in the 2014 ABS General Social Survey.
However, true estimates are hard to gather, because stigmatisation and confusion may lead some people to not report their sexuality, and other people may simply not know what they are. Others still, choose not to report as they may see their private sexuality as their least-defining characteristic of who they are.
Importantly, being LGBTQI+ isn’t just about sex – it’s about relationships, love and a sense of self, important life experiences that everybody wants and deserves. Reducing LGBTQI+ identity purely to sex and sexuality has been used to stigmatise and pigeonhole people historically, and can do a lot of damage.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that LGBTQI+ people face disparities in their mental health.
The most recent National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing estimated that almost a third of LGBTQI+ met the criteria for an anxiety disorder within the previous 12 months, compared with 1 in 7 heterosexual people. There is also evidence that LGBTQI+ Australians are more at risk for suicide.
It’s important to note that these mental health disparities between heterosexual and LGBTQI+ people are not a ‘symptom’ of being LGBTQI+, and are not caused by some inherent problem within LGBTQI+ people.
Rather, there are still major prejudices against LGBTQI+ people today that can marginalise and demoralise people. Being LGBTQI+ can come with increased risks of bullying, verbal or physical aggression, and trauma. In many social situations LGBTQI-identifying people still frequently experience physical, psychological, social and financial discrimination and harassment. Anyone experiencing these harms routinely would also be more at risk of poor mental and social wellbeing.
And because society places such value and visibility on heterosexual relationships, people who don’t fit that mould can sometimes feel out of place or uncomfortable in themselves – not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with them, but because our culture has created rigid identity barriers that don’t encompass the variety of human life.
Acceptance and love for the self – which is bound up in identity – is a crucial part of mental wellbeing, and can be harder when your culture sends you messages that you don’t fit in.
Ilan Meyer, a psychiatric epidemiologist from the US, has shown that LGBTQI+ people can experience a psychological phenomenon known as “minority stress”, because they may have to face specific stressors in their lives.
LGBTQI+ people are often individually resilient, and many have built personal strategies to navigate the prejudices and harms society inflicts on them – but they shouldn’t have to. It’s also important to note that despite these significant challenges, most LGBTQI+ people lead healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that gender and sexuality are diverse experiences, and also that many of the ideas and behaviours we associate with our rigid categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are culturally-specific rather than biologically fundamental.
But still today, some LGBTQI+ people may feel – or be led to believe – that they’re not ‘normal’. So, what is ‘normal’?
Even in the field of neuroscience, we now know that male and female brains are not fundamentally different, and that there are as many differences within the genders as between them. In fact, all our brains have incredible ‘neuroplasticity’ – meaning they can shape and change and adapt throughout our lives as we alter our behaviour or learn new skills.
This may partly explain why certain behaviours or activities become associated with certain genders, because the more you engage in something, the more your brain adapts to it.
All that to say: sex, gender and sexuality are diverse phenomena, and it isn’t factual to reduce these down only to the man-woman binary that our society has historically imposed on us. In fact, gender identity and sexuality can change and fluctuate as you get older, and that’s perfectly normal. What’s more important is how you feel about yourself.
Unfortunately, because society places a high price on sex and sexuality, it tends to overemphasise heterosexuality, differences between men and women, and gender roles. That’s fine if you conform to those norms, but if your experience doesn’t match them, it can be tricky to know where you stand, or to feel a sense of belonging.
Don’t panic. Whether you’re heterosexual, L, G, B, T, Q I or +, you are deserving of love and acceptance. There is nothing wrong with you. Nothing needs to change, no decisions need to be made right this second.
Do I need to pick a label? There’s a lot of labels out there now, and these are helpful tools for some people, enabling them to fully understand their sexuality and sexual identity. But if you’re confused about what label best fits the way you feel, just know that you don’t need to have one right now – if ever. Sexuality, as we’ve seen, is a broad spectrum, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation – there’s no one right way to be.
Do I need to come out? ‘Coming out’ refers to telling other people that you are LGBTQI+. It may be that coming out will help you feel more fulfilled and authentic, and may lift some of the burden of confusion. On the other hand, it may be that it’s not safe for you to come out right now, or it may be that you simply don’t want to. Once again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation.
If you do want to come out, there are helpful charities you can reach out to for support and advice:
For a full list of helpful LGBTQI+ support services across Australia, click here.
If you’re questioning your sexuality, or struggling with mental health issues associated with the unique challenges of being gender or sexuality diverse, it may help to find a trusted and skilled LGBTQI+ counsellor with whom you can work through these issues. Many counsellors have specific training and experience dealing with issues around gender or sexual identity, including many here at Life Supports.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and has completed a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.