Alphabet Soup

What’s in a name?  Two years before Stonewall, in 1967, the news program CBS Reports broadcast a documentary anchored by Mike Wallace called “The Homosexuals,” which, for better or for worse, baked that name into the cake; although this was the first network documentary, airing on March 7, 1967, dealing with the topic of homosexuality, it was not the first televised in the United States — that distinction goes to a program called The Rejected, produced and aired in 1961 by San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED.

Descriptive (and accurate) though Mike Wallace’s name for his titular characters was, the June 1969 Stonewall Riots instilled a sense of pride in the members of this minority and oppressed community coming into its own in the midst of America’s civil rights era, and homosexual, with its clinical connotations in terms of mental health (it would be another four years before this “condition” was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders), was replaced by the word “gay” to express our happy embrace of our identity.  The struggle for civil rights in the community thus became known as “gay liberation,” and the community “the gay community.”  This unintentionally focused on men exclusively, to the exclusion of women with same-sex attraction, so by the time I came out in the early 80’s, we were calling ourselves the gay (men) and lesbian (women) community.  In fact, many of my formative years as a gay man were spent at the “Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center” (which, given our need to hide in plain sight, we always referred to as the “GLCSC” so as not to “out” ourselves or anyone else).

Today, most people default to LGBT (or GLBT, with a slight majority favoring the L-first version).  As names go, it’s fairly effective, recognizing the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity in four simple letters.  However, it can’t please everyone, and like most compromises, leaves plenty of people feeling unheard; it has also been criticized as impersonal and more reflective of a political coalition which obscures individual groups’ identities and unique traits.

Many people opt simply for “gay.”  Unfortunately, that leaves out any aspect of the community that doesn’t identify explicitly with same-sex attraction; and it also traditionally applies to men, resulting in sexist language, however unintended.

Some have reclaimed the word “queer” as a preferred descriptor, co-opting the word from the bullies who used it against us when we were younger and less comfortable in our own skin as a way to defang it.  This is much like Bitch magazine appropriating an offensive slur against women as a way to empower feminism in a kindof “sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones-but-words-will-never-hurt-me” philosophy.  I like queer for another reason; first, it deemphasizes sexual activity, allowing one to identify as more than simply who they are attracted to and/or want to sleep with, and as I often say, “you don’t have to be gay to be queer” — in other words, it connotes different or outside the mainstream.  I readily admit, however, that the scars from being called a queer are too often very raw and thinly scabbed over for some to choose it as an identity, and it remains a controversial choice.

Over time, a number of other additions have been added to the LGBT acronym, the most common of these being ‘Q,’  but there is widespread disagreement as to just what it stands for.   Of course, many hold it to mean “queer” (see previous paragraph); just as many insist it means “questioning” to recognize that people who are uncertain about their sexual orientation or gender identity (or both) may want to explore (test drive?) the community before taking it on as an identity.  I have seen the unwieldy LGBTQQIP2SAA used for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and...

  • Two Q’s to cover queer and questioning
  • I for Intersex, people with two sets of genitalia or various chromosomal differences
  • P for Pansexual, people who refuse to be pinned down on the Kinsey scale (differs from bisexual in that they are refusing the label, though in practice they are bisexual — P’s:  please send your angry cards and letters to the usual address)
  • 2S for Two-Spirit, a tradition in many Native American/First Nations communities that considers sexual minorities to have both male and female spirits
  • A for Asexual, people who do not identify themselves by sexual (genital) attraction but may experience aesthetic attraction
  • A for Allies, recognizing that the community is comprised of many who support us and our rights, although they are not really part of the community itself

That is an extreme example, and it’s tempting to dismiss it as simply ridiculous, but if you are a member of any of those 11 groups, ask yourself which other group you would feel comfortable identifying as, then imagine someone telling you that is how you MUST identify yourself.  "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet says of her beloved Romeo; and this is true, no doubt.  But in a world that barely recognizes our existence, let alone our “right” to exist, acknowledging queers only to condemn us, having a name and declaring it proudly, without reservation or shame, is essential to living.

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