Before “LGBTQ+” became the term for the community-formerly-known-as-gay, we’d been called a lot of things, most not very nice. But lately ever more letters have been crowding in like rush-hour commuters onto the T, making the acronym a counterproductive bundle. Today, LGBTQ simultaneously erases — and overemphasizes — our differences. It’s time for it to go.
That’s easier said than done. I’ve been reporting on the community for nearly 40 years now. If I could decree a new term, I would. But language shifts organically, often starting with the young. The good news is that the rainbow young have some new nomenclature that may replace the gangly acronym. But first, let’s look at why it keeps expanding — and why it’s now a problem.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the community campaigned to replace “homosexual,” which treated us as deviants, with “gay.” Often that meant men only — so women fought to be included in our organizations’ names, leadership, and media narratives. Bisexuals soon followed suit. Adding the “T” was a bigger deal; for a generation, the folks formerly called “transsexuals” had been treated as unrelated to us LGBs. But in the late 1990s, as those more or less conventionally gendered began winning some acceptance, those then-outcasts found each other on the nascent Internet, invented new labels like “transgender” and “genderqueer,” and fought their way into the acronym and the shared fight. We were now up to “LGBT.”
Soon came “Q” for “queer” or “questioning,” adding everyone who refused a fixed sexual identity. Meanwhile, the rainbow young people began naming ever more identities that once might have huddled under the first big four. College groups’ websites talk about an “LGBTQIAP+” community; blogs and tumblrs discuss terms like “agender,” “nonbinary,” “pansexual,” “transfeminine,” “demigender,” and hundreds more. We added the plus sign “to stop the madness,” quips longtime community advocate Cathy Renna, while still nodding to all those waiting on the subway platform.
Why all the new terms? Back in the day, no one identified with us if they could avoid it. That changed as we made the world safer for sexuality and gender variations. In May 2018, The Fenway Institute issued a report (PDF) finding that 16 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in Massachusetts identify as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or something else.” Key phrase: “something else.” It’s not that a larger proportion of the population have these feelings; rather, more young people now acknowledge all their attractions and desires — and want letters of their own.
But parsing ourselves ever more finely hurts us, both internally and externally. It encourages too much focus on the shifty self rather than the commonalities of community. On one website I found “egogender: a gender that is so personal to your experience that it can only be described as ‘you.’” Surely that’s tongue in cheek — but it encompasses everyone. Look too closely at any baggy abstraction — “woman,” “disabled,” “Jewish,” “working class,” “Gen Z” — and it dissolves into a million private bits. Every human is one of a kind, with a unique sense of how we fit our various tribes. Our categories aren’t “real” in the way you can genetically differentiate chimpanzees from killer whales; they’re ways of talking about overlapping experiences. Mark D. Jordan, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, argues that micro-identity labels “tend to freeze us at a particular moment of growth and relationship, because no matter how many hundreds of identities you have, they’re not adequate to the range of individual experience.”
Meanwhile, “LGBT” overemphasizes categories that stumbled into view at a particular historical moment. Those first three letters — L, G, B — inaccurately imply a gulf between people whose attractions are unidirectional and those whose desires include more variety. Real life is far more fluid, with more folks having dalliances outside their designations than you might guess.
In practice, LGBTQ actually erases our differences, lumping us all into a vowel-free black box. That’s a problem for important issues like public health policy: How can you craft intelligent responses if you treat all our subcategories as equally at risk for HIV/AIDS, say, or domestic violence?
Fortunately, despite the micro-identities, young people are finding efficient ways to group us when necessary. They use “queer” for any sexual identity that even occasionally veers from heterosexuality, the most common category, and “trans” for any gendering that swerves from “cis,” those whose birth sex, everyday gender, and internal identity neatly match up. Yes, “queer and trans” fails to acknowledge that we include both women and men — but with Ellen a prominent daytime talk show host, is that distinction as urgent as it once was?
More conventional folks may wince at “queer,” once a slur that led to firing, ostracism, and violence. After BAGLY, a Boston group for rainbow youth, used the term in some of its communications, a donor complained and hasn’t contributed since, says Kurtlan Massarsky, BAGLY’s director of development and marketing. But for many young people — rainbow-identified or not — “queer” is familiar and comfortable. That’s how a third of the registrants for the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual conference now identify themselves, says Victoria Kirby York, deputy director for the task force’s advocacy and action department. And aren’t we queer, in the older definition of variations from the norm?
York told me about an even better term she’s heard: “QT,” pronounced “cutie,” sometimes merged into “cutiepock” for QTPOC (queer and trans people of color). It’s simple and celebratory — let’s champion that one! Surely, LGBTQ will be our formal designation for awhile longer. But I am fervently hoping for the spread of QT .
Because, darlings, cuties are exactly what we have always been.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kurtlan Massarsky’s first name.