Every few months another online debate flares up about exactly what the LGBT community should call itself. Generally speaking, most people default to LGBT (or GLBT, with a slight majority favoring the L-first version). This explicitly calls out key components of a diverse group: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. As shorthand goes, it’s fairly effective, recognizing the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity in four simple letters. Of course, it can’t please everyone, and like most compromises, leaves plenty of people feeling unheard.
Four other forms of shorthand see frequent use in the media and on the Internet. Many people opt simply for “gay.” Unfortunately, that leaves out any aspect of the community that doesn’t identify explicitly with same-sex attraction. It also traditionally applies to men, resulting in sexist language, however unintentional.
Opponents of the community typically use “the homosexual community” which manages to be gender neutral but also leaves out significant populations (although those populations may be just as happy not to get attention from these groups.) The more academic term “sexual minorities” is also used. Although this has broader meaning it also draws focus to the word “sexual,” avoidance of which resulted in the use of the word “gay” in the first place. Members of the LGBT community don’t want to be defined strictly by possible behavior, but as complex, fully realized human beings. In an America with a strong puritanical streak – even today – the word “sexual” still has too much power to stigmatize.
Many activists have reclaimed the word “queer” as a preferred descriptor. Taking back the word from the bullies and foes is a way to regain power. This is much like Bitch magazine co-opting a frequent slur as a way to raise feminist activists above their oppressors. For many, however, the scars from being called “queer” are too deep and too fresh to choose it as an identity. So what’s a diverse, inclusion-inclined community to do?
Over time, a number of other additions have been suggested to the LGBT acronym. The most common is Q, signifying “questioning” to recognize that many people are uncertain about their sexual orientation or gender identity (or both). Some also use the Q for queer. At full throttle, the letters wind up something like LGBTQQIP2SAA – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender,
- Two Q’s to cover both bases (queer and questioning);
- I for Intersex, people with two sets of genitalia or various chromosomal differences;
- P for Pansexual, people who refuse to be pinned down on the Kinsey scale;
- 2S for Two-Spirit, a tradition in many First Nations that considers sexual minorities to have both male and female spirits;
- A for Asexual, people who do not identify with any orientation; and
- A for Allies, recognizing that the community thrives best with loving supporters, although they are not really part of the community itself.
That manages to be pretty inclusive, but it’s also pretty unwieldy.
Labels are tricky things. Most oppressed and minority communities have struggled with finding a descriptor that they feel embraces them and that they can embrace. The evolution of Negro to Colored to Black to African-American shows a clear transition from outside labels to a community claiming its own identity, although many with the community object to African-American. The journey from Indians to Native Americans to First Nations is similar, with many outside the community being unfamiliar with the latter designation. The transition from handicapped to disabled was successful (and codified in law) but the attempt to destigmatize to “differently abled” was just too awkward to find common usage.
It’s that kind of awkwardness that stymies the best attempts to find the magic LGBT label. The problem stems from the best of intentions, inclusion. People are complex, with multiple identities. Everyone has a sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion (or lack thereof), ethnicity, and many other components. It’s laudable for the LGBT community to recognize that there is strength in working together and to try to find a descriptor that shows that intent. In the long run, the intent matters more than the label. Rather than take umbrage at a less than fully inclusive LGBTQ – which at least shows good intent – let’s focus on the work we need to do together to make this a better place for everyone.