Alphabet City

Lately I’ve seen a lot of discussion in various Internet forums about the “gay alphabet” – the ever-increasing initials used to describe the queer community. While at one time the word “gay” or “homosexual” was the only available terminology, we have now, in the spirit of inclusiveness, dramatically expanded our nomenclature. Just to give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a sampling from’s “gay alphabet” entries:

LGB:  Lesbian, gay, bisexual.

LGBT:  adding “transgender” (probably the most utilized initials). 

LGBTQ:  adding “queer” or “questioning.”

LGBTQI:  adding “intersex.”

LGBTQIA:  adding “allies.”

LGBTQQIA:  adding “queer” and “questioning.”

LGBTQQIAAP:  adding “asexual” and “pansexual” – someone who is attracted to the qualities of a person, regardless of that person’s gender identity and presentation.

LGBTTIQQ2SA:  distinguishing between “transgender” and transsexual”; adding “Two-Spirit” (2S; a term derived from various Native American/Indigenous traditions of gender and sexual fluidity).

Whew! It’s hard to keep track of such a rapidly increasing list of initials. And, not surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of reactivity within the LGBTQ(QIAAP?) community. In fact, UrbanDictionary itself includes “gay alphabet soup” as an entry, with the following definition and commentary:

Going over-board with adding letters to the traditional “GLBT (Gay/Lesbian/Bi-sexual/Trans)” acronym (sic) to attempt to include every non-homophobic possibility. GLBT alphabet soup can become a very long, nonsensical acronym (emphasis added).

Now I’ll take the opportunity to weigh in on this, and to offer a counterpoint. It’s not the changeling, tongue-twister-like qualities of these initials that bother me, although I will admit that they don’t roll off the tongue very easily. I will also admit that it’s humbling to be teaching a class and using one set of initials, only to be outed by a student as not being on top of the latest nomenclature. But this doesn’t upset me so much. Rather, what’s unsettling to me is the venom behind the critiques of the initals. For example, let’s look at an exchange between two commenters responding to a Huffington Post blog about the “gay alphabet”:

 Wouldn’t pansexual be bi? I mean, there are only two genders.

 Actually, there are not two genders. Gender is a spectrum, not an either/or. There are people who identify at just about any point between male and female. Thus, pansexual includes genderqueer individuals, genderfluid individuals and others.

 Oh, WHATEVER (emphasis added). 

So here’s an attempt to educate a commenter about the diversity and complexity of our community, and the response is “oh, whatever.”  That, in my mind, is far more disturbing than any unwieldy set of initials. It’s a dismissive statement, and it reveals an unwillingness to accept the fluidity of our community.

Two issues come to mind for me. One is that visibility is critical to our community. Coming out and being open about who we are, if we consider UC Davis professor Gregory Herek’s research, has been one of the most powerfully effective tools in reducing homophobia, both on a personal level as well as on a cultural level. But, in my opinion, not everyone in our community is given the same opportunity to be open and speak their truth. Intersex people, for example, have been silenced by the medical community’s attempts to assimilate them into one singular gender category. The queer community still wrestles with whether to include the “I” in its nomenclature, largely because, well, they don’t fit easily into our existing paradigm. The queer community also wrestles with the inclusion of the “T,” even though it’s generally been included in the alphabet roll call for quite some time. Some see the “T” as the proverbial ball-and-chain of the queer community – if we use the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as an example, adding gender identity protections ended up being a deal-breaker in the 2007 Congressional vote – and it divided the LGBTQ activist community, some of whom saw the trans community as stalling the path of progress.

I’d like to segue into another idea, and that is that visibility is not enough. If we’re including more initials so we can earn our political correctness card, but we’re unwilling to really listen to and be present for the issues of that community, then we are doing far more harm than good. In Geneva Reynaga-Abiko’s 2011 review of the book Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Queer Psychology by Victoria Clarke, Sonja Ellis, Elizabeth Peel, and Damien Rigg, published in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, she correctly notes that the terms “bisexual” and “trans” are included in the title of the book, but each of those identities receives only a few paragraphs’ worth attention in the entire book. Giving lip service isn’t enough. If we’re going to include the “T,” it needs to really be included. Sometimes there may be reasons not to include the “T,” or only to include the “T,” depending on what kinds of issues we’re focusing on. But these decisions need to be made intelligently and respectfully, not just as a way to appease our discomfort.

Several months ago, I wrote a couple of blog posts on the “don’t say gay” policies implemented by several public school districts. These policies have something of a “see no evil” mentality behind them – if we don’t talk about it, we won’t see it, and if we can’t see it, then it’s not an issue. If we make the gays go away, then life will be easier. If we make the ever-increasing list of initials go away, then life will be easier. In a community that is complex, fluid, and ever-changing, sometimes keeping things simple just doesn’t work. Instead, I’d like to see our community use the growing list of initials as an opportunity to connect, to listen, to ask questions, to learn, and to work towards ending invisibility, marginalization, and oppression of sexual and gender minorities.


Filed under bisexuality, intersex, LGBTQ, transgender, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Alphabet City

  1. Gary Hollander

    Way to tackle the tough stuff, Gayle. I think you have a book (and the nucleus of great research projects) in this issue. I am eager to see how your thinking on it continues to evolve.

    Frankly, I am sitting out this debate. Well, almost.

    First, I am fine with the inclusion of Q for queer. But Q for questioning? Not so much. Why? Questioning makes no sense as an identity. I wrote about this more than a decade ago and stick by that position.

    Second, I also would not include the A for allies. Love them, but in their case, I think it is I who get to ascribe that title to someone. I strive to be an ally to women, but they will need to determine if I am succeeding.

    For me there is a particular logic issue that I have with umbrella terms — whether gay or LGBTQI — and that is this: who decides? I think that most queer theory considers T an umbrella term extending from intersex to cross dressers. But would Liza Minelli, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrick, or Julie Andrews have seen themselves as transgender? I think that these cross dressers would not. Similarly, my intersex buddies are split on being under the T umbrella or even the LGBTQI umbrella.

    Finally, while we are not close to being there, I do wonder if we are headed for every sexual minority needing their own label. If that is the destination, maybe we need some heavy duty intervention on internalized homophobia, bi-phobia, and transphobia.

  2. I’m glad your decision to sit out this debate only reached the level of “almost”! You always have insightful comments. This debate could be extended on many levels, for a variety of very legitimate reasons. However, what grabs my attention is the “oh, whatever” factor – the frustration that gets expressed when things get too complicated, or too uncomfortable. I don’t particularly love using a long and cumbersome acronym, and I also ponder whether or not all these initials always belong together. However, one unifying factor I see is that all of us, in one way or another, are denied privilege (and visibility) on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or both. Whether or not we can create that visibility through a simple acronym is another story.

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