Skip to Main Content

LGBTQIA2S+ & Allyship Toolkit: Overview

The LGBTQ community refers to a collective of individuals, subcultures, and organizations united by culture and social movements. LGBTQ is an initialism for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning. Some groups add the initials IA, referring to intersex, asexual, and/or allied. These terms refer to an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Lesbian refers to women who are physically, romantically, and/or emotionally attracted to other women. Gay describes individuals whose attractions are to people of the same sex; some women prefer to identify as gay or gay women than lesbians. Bisexual refers to those whose attractions may be to individuals of the same or opposite gender. Transgender refers to individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression is not that typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Queer and genderqueer are terms often used by individuals whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual. The term questioning describes those who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation. Intersex refers to individuals whose sex characteristics do not match heteronormative definitions of male or female. Asexual describes individuals who have low or no sexual attraction to others or interest in sexual activity, while allied refers to those who support the LGBTQ community and equality for all.

Campbell, J. (2022). LGBTQ+ community. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

The LGBTQ community has united under a number of symbols. The inverted pink triangle and the rainbow flag are probably the most common. Others include the lambda, linked or modified gender symbols, and flags representing the bisexual, asexual, intersex, straight ally, and other communities.

The inverted pink triangle was used in Nazi Germany to label gay prisoners in concentration camps. Gay liberation activists reclaimed the symbol during the 1970s for the gay rights movement, in part because of its history as a symbol of oppression and persecution. ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, used the pink triangle during the 1980s. Because the pink triangle was used primarily as a male symbol, some lesbians and feminists have adopted a black triangle as a symbol of pride and unity.

The rainbow flag has emerged as the most well-known symbol, dating back to June 25, 1978, and the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Gilbert Baker, a gay man and drag queen, designed the first rainbow flag at the urging of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. The stripes of Baker’s flags for the parade represented sex (hot pink), life (red), healing (orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), art (turquoise), harmony (indigo), and spirit (violet). In 1994 Baker made a mile-long flag for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. When he worked to mass-produce the flags, several of the colors proved to be difficult to incorporate, so pink and turquoise were dropped and basic blue replaced indigo. The most common version of the modern flag begins at the top with red, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.

A number of other flags have also emerged, with various colors and superimposed symbols to represent groups. For example, the bisexual flag has a broad magenta stripe at the top and a broad blue stripe at the bottom; between them is a narrow deep lavender stripe.

Campbell, J. (2022). LGBTQ+ community. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

For decades, gay bars in many American cities were targeted by law enforcement officers. In New York City, gay individuals were prohibited by law from displaying behavior such as holding hands, kissing in public, or dancing with each other. Many gay bars in New York City were shut down by the New York State Liquor Authority because having gay patrons was considered disorderly behavior.

The Stonewall riots of June 1969 in New York City are recognized as a rallying point for the fight for gay equality in the United States. The riots took place in and around the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village after police raided the gay club. Most of the gay bars in the neighborhood, including the Stonewall, were controlled by the mafia, and corrupt officers usually tipped off the management when a raid was being planned. The June 28, 1969, raid was a surprise, and the employees were arrested for selling alcohol without a license. When an officer hit a lesbian patron on the head while putting her into a paddy wagon, she shouted to the crowd, which began throwing objects at the police. The riots and protests on and around Christopher Street lasted for six days. The Stonewall uprising prompted many in the gay community to become politically active. They formed gay rights organizations including the Gay Liberation Front, the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (now simply GLAAD), and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (now PFLAG).

Many changes followed during the 1970s and 1980s, including Christopher Street Liberation Day, the observance of the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which is recognized as the first gay pride parade. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual. Up to 125,000 people marched on October 14, 1979, in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which permitted gays to serve in the military as long as they did not reveal their sexuality, was signed by President Bill Clinton on November 30, 1993. The policy was repealed in 2011.

Clinton also signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage, on September 21, 1996, although Hawaii became the first state to recognize gay marriage on December 3, 1996. The fight for same-sex marriage was waged in the states, with a number of other states recognizing the unions. The Democratic Party and President Barack Obama supported legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012, and the US Supreme Court ruled that states cannot prohibit the unions on April 28, 2015.

In 2003, the US Supreme Court ruled that a law in Texas that criminalized sexual conduct between same-sex adults was unconstitutional in the case of Lawrence v. Texas. This led to dozens of sodomy laws in other states becoming ineffective, and the historic ruling was celebrated by LGBTQ rights groups nationwide. Other non-discrimination laws were passed during the twenty-first century to protect the LGBTQ community at the state and local level. By 2021, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite many advances, millions of Americans are still not protected by non-discrimination laws, and the LGBTQ community has continued to face discrimination. The Pentagon lifted its ban on transgender people serving openly in the US military in June 2016. However, a year later, President Donald Trump declared that the US government would not allow transgender people to serve in the military. After several court battles, the US Supreme Court allowed a ban on most transgender people serving in the military to go into effect in January 2019. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to repeal that ban during his first week in office.

Campbell, J. (2022). LGBTQ+ community. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

To avoid losing their studio contracts and alienating fans, actors of early Hollywood who were gay hid their sexuality, often by marrying and pretending to be heterosexual. LGBTQ individuals were largely invisible in films and television for decades. While a character might be particularly flamboyant to hint at being gay, the issue was left unaddressed. This slowly began to change during the 1970s. The primetime television show Soap introduced an openly gay character portrayed by Billy Crystal in a recurring role in 1977. However, it was not until April 30, 1997, that a leading character on a primetime network show came out as gay. The sitcom, Ellen, starred in the title role comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres, who came out that same month as gay. The series Will & Grace, featuring several gay characters, debuted in 1998. Gay characters became increasingly common, especially on cable television, in the twenty-first century. The American-Canadian Showtime series Queer as Folk, which debuted in 2000, focused on the lives of a group of gay male friends in often explicit detail. Similarly, the Showtime series The L Word depicted lesbian friendships and relationships, and the reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo introduced a slate of gay style experts. Streaming services created series such as Orange Is the New Black featuring gay and transgender characters and actors. Gay characters also appeared on network television, most notably in Modern Family, which introduced a gay couple among the numerous strong central relationships. Drag programs, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, have notably developed a devoted following on television.

Broadway has been arguably more representative than film and television. Twenty-first century shows on Broadway featuring LGBTQ characters include the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots, which debuted in 2013. It features a drag queen whose need for sexy-yet-stable footwear brings a shoe factory back from the brink of bankruptcy. Fun Home, which debuted on Broadway in 2015, is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It is based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. Literature, in particular young adult novels, has increasingly addressed sexual orientation and questioning in the twenty-first century.

Campbell, J. (2022). LGBTQ+ community. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

The most widely known health issue in the LGBTQ community is the epidemic of AIDS/HIV that began to be recognized during the 1980s. The first inklings that something was amiss developed with medical reports of unusual illnesses among gay men in New York and California in 1981. Previously healthy men were being diagnosed with rare illnesses, including lung infections and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer. By the end of the year, 270 gay men were diagnosed with severe immune deficiency, and 121 had died. Although many injecting drug users also were being treated for immune deficiency, medical professionals saw the epidemic growing in the gay community and in June 1982 named it gay-related immune deficiency, or GRID. Many people initially viewed AIDS, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that caused it, as a disease of the gay community. Gay men were stigmatized, and in many cases were blamed for the epidemic. Public service messages avoided speaking plainly about how to protect oneself from infection because of fears of how the public would react.

Homophobia, such as that seen during the AIDS epidemic, has contributed to gay people being reluctant to seek medical care. Studies have found that gay men are less likely to seek health care and more likely to be depressed and anxious and misuse substances. The Global Men’s Health and Rights Study published in 2016 found that men who experienced sexual stigma and discrimination were less likely to have access to HIV treatment.

LGBTQ people are frequently victims of violence. Those who experience discrimination are more likely to have psychiatric disorders, abuse substances, and commit suicide. Many have experienced legal discrimination in access to housing, employment, health insurance, marriage, adoption, and retirement benefits. Many medical professionals were not aware of or culturally sensitive to LGBTQ health issues. In modern times, medical professionals are much more likely to receive training in addressing the health needs of members of the LGBTQ community.

Specific populations within the LGBTQ community have different needs and concerns. Youth, for example, are more likely to be homeless and two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their counterparts. Transgender individuals have high rates of HIV/AIDS, mental health issues, suicide, and victimization. They are also less likely than heterosexual or LGB individuals to have health insurance. Elderly LGBTQ individuals are likely to feel isolated and lack social services. They also face the challenge of finding healthcare providers who are culturally competent.

Sexual violence, often motivated by hate, is a significant problem. Many members of the LGBTQ community experience sexual violence at rates higher than heterosexuals. About half of bisexual women and transgender people are likely to experience sexual violence. The CDC reports that 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, compared to 17 percent of heterosexual women and 13 percent of lesbians. Many LGBTQ victims hesitate to use resources such as hospitals, police, and rape crisis centers due to fear of discrimination.

Campbell, J. (2022). LGBTQ+ community. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Text from Campbell, J. (2022). LGBTQ+ communitySalem Press Encyclopedia.


CNN Editorial Research. “LGBTQ Rights Milestones Fast Facts.” CNN, 4 Dec. 2019, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

Daley, Bill. “Why LGBT Initialism Keeps Growing.” Chicago Tribune, 2 June 2017, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

Daw, Stephen. “ ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and the Rise of Drag on TV (Exclusive).” Entertainment Tonight, 25 Jan. 2018, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

Fletcher, Abner. “Portrayal of LGBTQ in Film and TV Has Come a Long Way—But More Is Needed.” Houston Public Media, 11 June 2019, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

“Homophobia and HIV.” Avert, 10 Oct. 2019, Accessed 17 Dec. 2019.

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health.” Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2018, Accessed 17 Dec. 2019.

"LGBTQ Americans Aren't Fully Protected from Discrimination in 29 States." Freedom for All Americans, Accessed 25 Jan. 2022.

Morgan, Thad. “When Hollywood Studios Married Off Gay Stars to Keep Their Sexuality a Secret.” History, 10 July 2019, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

“Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community.” Human Rights Campaign, 2016, Accessed25 Jan. 2022.

“Stonewall Riots.” History, 4 Oct. 2019, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

“What Is LGBTQ?” Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Inc., 2019, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.