LGBT Acronyms, or “Alphabet Soup”

Navigating all the terminology in the LGBTQ community can be challenging!

Even if you belong to the community, it can be hard to keep up. Language is constantly evolving.

The LGBTQIA community is diverse. Our relationships to gender and sexuality are so personal.

Diversity in the Community

I think disagreement about terminology can be a good thing.

It shows that people are really grappling with the limitations of language to describe experience. There is something queer about “correct” terminology always being a moving target!

There are a lot of different acronyms that still get used. There isn’t agreement about which is preferred.

I’ve already used three different acronyms so far. So let’s get started!

Early Queer History: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual

The history of the queer community is steeped in privilege. Those with the most privilege have often thrown everyone else under the bus in order to secure rights for themselves.

The Stonewall riot was started by BIPOC trans women. They are still among the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community.

“Homosexuality” used to be a DSM diagnosis. It was created in the 19th century to describe people who wanted to be in sexual relationships with those of the “same” gender. It comes from a binary perspective of gender. And a pathological view of sexuality.

Gay

The word “gay” was reclaimed in the mid-20th century. It was a way to push back against the stigmatization of homosexuality. Prior to this, sexuality was seen as a behavior (who you engage in sexual activities with).

But soon, “gay” became an identity label. Now it is who you are.

Much of the medical research on homosexuality has focused on gay men. This is due to stigma against anal sex, or what is sometimes referred to as sodomy.

Gay was also often used as an umbrella term for any same-sex behavior. Women were somewhat invisible in the early research and discourse. This is influenced by assumptions about sexual desire based on gender norms.

Lesbian

The term “lesbian” was created around the turn of the 20th century. It is credited to the island of Lesbos in the poetry of Sappho. A lot of women loving women called themselves “Sapphic” as a result.

Much early discourse about the community focused on “gay and lesbian” issues.

Bisexual

“Bisexual” was the term to describe those who form romantic or sexual relationships either with those of same and different genders, or multiple genders.

Bisexuality was initially an umbrella term to describe a lot of different sexual orientations.

Anyone who wasn’t gay, lesbian, or straight was bisexual.

Now, many different identities have their own labels (pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual, etc.).

But Bisexual often still gets used as an umbrella label in the acronym.

The Community (and Language) Grows

Trans women have been in the fight for our rights since the beginning. But they weren’t always included in these conversations.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things. But, queer and trans people also face a lot of the same struggles for acceptance. Both homophobia and transphobia are rooted in the gender binary.

And many queer individuals are also trans or non-binary!

The Inclusion of Gender

Many cultures have historically had three, five, or even more different gender categories.

Colonialism, influenced by the spread of Christianity, created a gender binary. The U.S. has traditionally reinforced the gender binary and resulting gender roles.

The term “transgender” came into popular usage in the mid-20th century. Similar words like “transsexual” and “transvestite” have fallen out of common usage.

Christine Jorgensen received media attention in the U.S. after undergoing gender reassignment surgery in the early 1950s.

The community would eventually settle on the acronym GLBT. This represents Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender identities.

Some feminists were upset by the focus on gay men. They thought it eclipsed how lesbians experience both misogyny and homophobia. As a result, the acronym was changed to LGBT in feminist spaces.

The Reclamation of Queer

The “Q” was added when the term “queer” was reclaimed.

Just as “gay” had been in the past, many individuals decided to turn a source of pain into a point of pride. You might have heard of the chant: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”

This helps destigmatize queerness. Some LGBTQ individuals don’t want to be seen as “normal.” They embrace being outside the binary.

So LGBTQ stands for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer community.

Then, Things Get Complicated….

Some people say the Q stands for both queer and questioning individuals simultaneously. Others tack on a second “Q” for good measure. This looks like LGBTQQ.

Some people shorthand everything to “the Queer community” for simplicity’s sake.

This is especially useful as a way to distance from LGBT individuals or spaces.

Some queer folks perceive that the LGBT movement is not challenging the cisheteropatriarchy.

In the fight for marriage equality, many LGBT organizations and activists pushed the idea that LGBT individuals are “just like everyone else.” That the only difference is who they want to marry.

Queer activists reject this narrative, and sometimes the role of marriage as an institution.

The Acronym Keeps Growing

The “I” in LGBTQIA stands for “intersex.” The “A” stands for “asexual” (sorry, it’s not ally). Some add another “A” for either “aromantic” or “agender.”

Others also like to add in a “P” for pansexual. Some people prefer pansexual as an alternative to bisexual. They don’t want to be under the bisexual umbrella.

So you might also see LGBTQIA or LGBTQQIAAP.

Things Get Heated

It was at this point that many people began to say the acronym was becoming unwieldy. They might go as far as derogatorily referring to “alphabet soup.” Others say we can use all 26 letters (or more!) until everyone feels included.

Some people also put forward QuILTBAG for the same reasons that GLBT was shifted to LGBT. I think also because it is fun to say. I don’t think it ever gained much traction.

Indigenous Inclusion

Sometimes “2S” also gets added in for indigenous Two Spirit inclusivity. This happens most often in Canada. This is also contested. Some indigenous people don’t want to be lumped into the LGBT movement. They perceive it as a Western construction which is only necessary due to colonization.

Any of these acronyms might get a “+” added onto the end, as an acknowledgement that they are incomplete.

What I Do

I prefer LGBTQIA+. I will also use LGBTQ because it is more well-known.

The North American Drama Therapy Association covers the U.S. and Canada. So, I will also use LGBTQIA2S+ in solidarity with my Canadian colleagues.

But most of the time I prefer to say queer.

Hope that wasn’t too confusing. Remember, there isn’t a clear “right” answer.

If you want to learn more about terminology, you might find my glossary beneficial.

And these kinds of nuances are why it can be so challenging to find LGBTQ affirming therapy.

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