I’m hard pressed to find a “community” as ever-changing and ultimately unnameable as the gay community.
Once upon a time we were all homosexuals.
Then, as people started realizing that in many contexts “homosexual” has a negative, clinical connotation – in polls, when you use the word “homosexual” instead of “gay,” support plummets – we slowly started shifting towards the word “gay.”
But then, some felt that “gay” was too male, and left women out. So we became “gay men and lesbians.” (Of course, by saying “gay men” we’re suggesting that “gay” does not equal “men” at all, otherwise the phrase would be redundant, and akin to saying “lesbian women” or “male boys.”)
Then we became “gay, lesbian and bisexual” or GLB, since bisexuals, who are attracted to both genders, aren’t technically “gay.” (Interestingly, we make no distinction between male and female bisexuals in the abbreviation, but we do between male and female gays.)
Then, some started calling us LGB, because GLB put “men” first. (Though, of course, LGB puts bisexuals last, but no one was terribly concerned about that, other than, one presumes, bisexuals.)
Then we became “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender” – GLBT, since trans people were left out of GLB.
And then we became LGBT – again, the concern about women - though many older gays (LGBTs?) use GLBT.
Now, it’s becoming more common in some circles to call us LGBTQ – the Q is for “questioning.”
And in some circles, especially if you go abroad, the acronym gets even longer, with the addition of interesex (I), asexual (A), queer (Q), ally (A), and much. Columbia even offers a course titled “LGBTQIAA: Psychodynamics of Sexuality and Gender.”
Wikipedia presents some of the latest thinking on what we should call ourselves:
Many variants exist including variations that merely change the order of the letters; LGBT or GLBT are the most common terms and the ones most frequently seen in current usage. Although identical in meaning, “LGBT” may have a more feminist connotation than “GLBT” as it places the “L” (for “lesbian”) first. When not inclusive of transgender people it is sometimes shortened to LGB. LGBT may also include additional “Q”s for “queer” or “questioning” (sometimes abbreviated with a question mark and sometimes used to mean anybody not literally L, G, B or T) which can then look like e.g., “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQQ””.
Other variants may add a “U” for “unsure”; a “C” for “curious”; an “I” for “intersex”; another “T” for “transsexual” or “transvestite”; another “T”, “TS”, or “2” for “Two‐Spirit” persons; an “A” or “SA” for “straight allies”; or an “A” for “asexual”. Some may also add a “P” for “pansexual” or “polyamorous”, an “H” for “HIV-affected”, and/or an “O” for “other”….
The magazine Anything That Moves coined the acronym “FABGLITTER” from Fetish (such as the BDSM lifestyle community), Allies or poly-Amorous (as in Polyamorous couples), Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Intersexed, Transgender, Transsexual Engendering Revolution or inter-Racial attraction; however, this term has not made its way into common usage. Another acronym that has begun to spread is “QUILTBAG” from Queer or Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay; again, this is not a common term. Similarly, in some areas people are starting to simply use “LGBTQetc” or “LGBTQ+” to be more inclusive. The initial A for Allies comes from straight (heterosexual) allies who are in support of the GLBT community, and sometimes they form an alliance in sociopolitical affairs to further represent the umbrella initialism “GLBTA” (Gay Lesbian Bi Trans Alternative or Allies). The A may also be used to represent asexual people. “LGBTQIA” has some use among transgender American college students and their contemporaries.
Andrew Sullivan weighed in on all of this the other day:
[T]here is a “word” that seems to me worth retiring. Not by fiat, just by trying to avoid or ignore it. It’s the unpronounceable p.c. acronym: LGBT. God I hate that “word”. It describes no single person; it cannot be spoken easily; it reeks of bullshit. No one started using that word of their own accord as a way to describe herself. It was created by leftists who believe that all oppressed groups are primarily defined by their oppression and that the very different lives and identities of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender are somehow all one. I know it’s an effort at inclusion. I appreciate the good intent. And if it had any wit or originality, instead of sounding like a town in Croatia, I could live with it. But it doesn’t.
The ever-expanding abbreviation (it’s not an acronym, as it’s unpronounceable) does run into a few problems. Not the least of which is that a lot of people have no idea what it even means, so we’re actually in-ning ourselves when we use it.
How many other civil rights communities find themselves ever-expanding?
How many other civil rights communities find themselves ever-expanding, and thus ever-in-need of a new name?
The black community has called itself different things over time, including negro (United Negro College Found), colored (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), black, and African-American.
And while those names changed to reflect the times – just as with “homosexual,” “colored” now has a negative, discriminatory connotation – I don’t think the definition of who is “African-American” has expanded over time.
And, interestingly, you don’t see the NAACP adding an “A” for allies who aren’t black, nor do you see the ACLU adding a “Q” for people who are coming around on the whole civil liberties thing, but not entirely there yet. Should they?
That’s not to say that expansion is necessarily a bad thing. It’s entirely possible that some community members weren’t being represented by the overall name, but is that really the case with “gay”? Did people really not realize that in the 1990s, when you said Gay Pride, you also meant lesbians and bisexuals? As for transgender people, when you say Gay Pride in 2014 (in fact, the celebration is increasingly being called “LGBT Pride”), people generally assume the T is welcome alongside the LGB. So was the expansion of the abbreviation necessary, and even if it was, at what point will it ever stop expanding and changing? And should it?
Are we defining ourselves out of existence?
While it’s fine to say that the abbreviation should never stop expanding, cumbaya and all, at some point you stop being a “community” if you start being all 7 billion people on the planet.
And while I suspect some younger “gays” (for lack of a better term) would like nothing better than for us to do away with all of these insular self-defined communities (e.g., black, feminist, gay, Latino, enviro), they tried that in France, and it’s been undercutting their cultural (as opposed to legal) battle for civil and human rights for a while.
While the discussion is worthy of its own post, in a nutshell, when you have a society that says it’s inappropriate to be hyphenated (gay-American, African-American, Greek-American), the assumption from the git-go is that “everybody’s equal already,” so there’s no reason to push for greater equality. And those who do push – who seem to be identifying with a “community,” rather than the nation at large – are looked on with some disdain.
There are a lot more reasons why the “we are the world” approach to progressive advocacy doesn’t really work – including the old “jack of all trades, master of none” argument – but that’s for another post.
Expansion without reflection is not a recipe for inclusion
As I’ve written before, it’s all well and good to expand the “gay” community by alphabetical fiat, but a change in spelling does not a community make.
Do lesbians feel more included since, and because of, their addition to the abbreviation nearly two decades ago? Do bisexuals feel any less ignored or disbelieved? And do trans people feel finally welcome and accepted as an equal partner of the ever-expanding alphabet soup?
When you define someone’s community for them, you’re simply creating the illusion of inclusion. You give people an easy out. “Sure, we believe in bisexuals – look, there’s a B in our name!” But in fact, I’m one of the only gay people I know who believes that bisexuals even exist (many gays think bisexuals are just “faking it,” and are actually closeted gays). You get the letter, but you don’t get the buy-in. And that has political and social repercussions, as the sub-community eventually finds out that the abbreviation only provides lip-service to inclusiveness.
After all, how many “LGBTs” are going to fall on their political swords for the intersex community?
Some people object to having these discussions at all. They’d rather we all just pretend that the entire “community” accepts this ever-expanding definition of community. But I worry, politically, that when you don’t get people to buy in to a common definition of who they are, they don’t end up fighting nearly as hard for some members as they do others. And we can either ignore that reality, since discussing it makes some people uncomfortable, or we can address it, and hopefully make things better for everyone.