Every year, it seems to outsiders the LGBTQ+ community adds another identity to the acronym. This Pride month, gender and sexual minorities are experiencing a barrage of attacks, from anti-transgender state legislation to perceived threats to the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which secured same-gender couples the right to marry in the United States. Many members of the community find themselves wondering if the labels they choose to align themselves with inform their marginalization. Relationships between subgroups of theLGBTQ+ communityhave been affected by controversies surrounding particular words and their usage, damaging the soundness of the entire body.
This situation has many people wondering if the value they place on their labels is worth the community’s struggle as people marked “other” in a cisgender and heterosexual world. While openly associating with a label does open one up tomarginalizationin the greater world, it is also vital to look inward at and work to resolve the tensions present within the LGBTQ+ community.
The story behind the acronym
When the movement for LGBTQ+ liberation was very young, the formation of an acronym representing the community was vital to creating a cohesive message and group identity. Originally, the initialism commonly used was “GLB.” During the 1980s and 1990s, gay and bisexual men were largely sidelined from their leadership positions in mainstream activist circles due to the AIDS crisis that plagued them, focusing their energy on medical and legal efforts to bring attention to the illness that was disproportionally killing them. At this time, lesbians stepped up to take on leadership roles within the larger communities and nurse them back to health, organizing blood drives, meal trains, and providing fellowship and nursing care to many people with AIDS. By the late 1990s, “gay community centers” transformed into “lesbian and gay community centers.” Switching theplacement of the “G” and the “L”in the acronym became commonplace to honor the contributions of lesbians during this difficult time.
Eventually, “T” was also added as recognition of the contributions the transgender community made. In particular, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson’s STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) was responsible for providing housing and emotional and financial aid to homeless LGBTQ+ youth and sex workers.
In 2016, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)announcedtheir recommendation for “Q” to be added to the acronym to reflect the choice many young people made to reclaim the word “queer,” which was used as a slur against gender and sexual minorities earlier in history. Other additions to GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide that year were “asexual” and “intersex,” terms that have also been adopted into the acronym.
Some have expressed their distaste for additions to the initialism. The UK-based LGB Allianceformedin 2019 in opposition to Stonewall, thelargestLGBTQ+ rights group in Europe, and their approaches to transgender issues. Both the organization’s UK headquarters and US chapter have spoken out against the inclusion of gender identity in family life education, puberty blockers for transgender teenagers, and gender recognition reform. They also disapprove of the inclusion of asexual and intersex groups by the LGBTQ+ community. The Alliance has been criticized for being trans-exclusionary. A2021articlepublished in theInternational Journal of Sociologyincluded the Alliance among “UK lobby groups [that] are successfully pushing a radical agenda to deny the basic rights of trans people.”
This rift between pro- and anti- transgender activists is one of the ways that the acronym itself may cause tension in the LGBTQ+ community. Individuals who are prejudiced againsttransgendermembers have their beliefs validated in trans-exclusionary spaces, and become extremely insular, mimicking cishet bias against the LGBTQ+ community. Members of the LGB Alliance themselves are seen as deviants among heterosexual society and cope with this prejudice by establishing transgender individuals as deviants within their own LGBTQ+ community. When groups like the Alliance are publicly supported, vulnerable lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are left to be persuaded they’d be left behind by groups who also advocate for transgender acceptance, pitted against transgender youth instead of allied with them.
Resistance against additions to the acronym could contribute to the drive against labeling one’sgender identity or sexual orientation. People who see how they’ve effectively been written out of the community by “LGB” activists have begun to refuse to subject themselves to scorn by their peers. The stringent labels that were once essential to forge a cohesive movement for liberation are no longer necessary for gender-diverse and same-sex attracted people to validate their feelings and find community members who understand their experiences. Instead, they have broken outside of rigid labeling and embraced ambiguous and fluid ways of being.
Generation Z has become a driving force behind changes in attitudes around LGBTQ+ labels. At 21%, according to a 2021Galluppoll, Gen Z adults are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than any other, as growing societal acceptance continues to lead to higher rates of self-realization. Additionally, younger generations are increasingly designating themselves as sexually fluid or queer, or are completely resistant to labels. Those who feel constricted by the expectation to adopt a label feel liberated by this refusal, but many still value affiliating themselves with a specific LGBTQ+ subgroup. Individuals no longer feel that they have to be completely sure of who they are before coming out and are instead able to establish themselves as queer and continue their journeys with the support of other young queer people, rather than remaining in the closet, alone with their uncertainty.
“Queer” has also become somewhat of a political identity, representing people who aren’t interested in mere acceptance, but emancipation from homo- and transphobic society. Instead of pushing the idea LGBTQ+ people are “just like” cisgender and heterosexual members of society and for LGBTQ+ lives and relationships to be regarded as “normal,” queer activism rejects acceptance into the status quo in favor of deconstructing gender norms, binaries, and other socially constructed components of western life.
Opposition to the usage of “queer”
Not everyone is comfortable with rejecting LGBT labels in favor of adopting queerness. In particular, older members of the community find it difficult to leave labels behind and accept young people’s usage of a reclaimed slur, to describe themselves. In 2019, when “queer” had been popularized as an identity term years before, a gay man from Illinois wrote toNational Public Radio (NPR)about their usage of the word: “I did not spend my entire life being called queer as a slur for journalists to accept it as reclaimed. It isn’t.” Nonetheless, many are becoming more comfortable with Gen-Z’s usage of the word and embrace the many changes that LGBTQ+ terminology has endured during its lifespan.
The queering of the LGBTQ+ community is also difficult for the lesbian community; hypersexualization, erasure, and other forms of lesbophobia contribute to the lack of visibility that lesbians are often given in the context of LGBTQ+ issues. Because of the unique stigma that lesbians experience, the word “lesbian” is often avoided in both straight and LGBTQ+ circles. For this reason, a large part of the lesbian community is resistant to the switch in common terminology. In a society where lesbians are told we cannot possibly be entirely without desire for men, any obscurity in the ways we are referred to aids our erasure. To refer to us as “queer” without our consent is to ignore our unique history and experiences that are separate from that of the larger LGBTQ+ community.
Unfortunately, lesbians’ reactions to this phenomenon negatively affect other subgroups of the LGBTQ+ community. Numerous people who support the LGB Alliance and other organizations that are hostile to transgender, asexual, and intersex individuals. Those who don’t subscribe to labels are lesbians because of the fear that being invisible in one’s own community creates.Arielle Scarcella, a lesbian youtuber and self-appointed “big sister” of her over710, 000 subscribers,routinely expresses her discomfort with fringe members of the LGBTQ+ community that she finds strange or not representative of her. She markets hervideosto well-meaning and vulnerable younger lesbians who feel the same sense of invisibility she does, with title phrases like “#SaveTheLesbians and others expressing concern for the future of the lesbian community. While the invisiblity lesbians experience within the LGBTQ+ community is very real, Scarcella continues the cycle of pain by ridiculing others on her platform. If I didn’t have the support and confidence in my identity and place in the world I do, I may have fallen into this exclusionary and insular trap many young lesbians are finding themselves in.
So, do labels liberate or limit? The answer to this question is one everyone must make for themselves as they navigate LGBTQ+ existence. The labels we use don’t marginalize by themselves. Our lack of respect for other people’s verbal preferences aid in the preservation of prejudice that fuels our marginalization.
Instead of allowing ourselves to be divided by our differing perceptions of identity, we must focus on listening to each other and joining forces against threats to the future of the LGBTQ+ community. Then, we will no longer be limited by our intercommunity differences, but liberated by our embrace of them and mutual consideration that can only be produced by respectful conversation.