The alphabet soup of sexuality and gender

I’ll start with this posting of 9/15/10 to ADS-L by Mark Mandel:

Just sent to my synagogue discussion list in response to an announcement forwarded by our rabbi:


Representatives from numerous area organizations and programs serving *LGBTQQ/SGL* youth and young people

I can’t keep up with this ever-growing initialism. I think i know LGBTQ — lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered/queer — but after that I’m lost. What does the final “Q/SGL” stand for?


(And what’s the difference between “youth” and “young people”?)

And then we were off into a discussion of the initialisms of sexuality and gender.

Larry Horn found the answer to the SGL question: “same gender loving”, but wondered how that was different from some of the other categories, speculating that it might be “a question of identificational rather than referential distinction”; noted that one of the Qs was Queer and suggested Que(e)rying or Questioning for the other; and on the youth/young people question, guessed that one group was younger than the other, though he couldn’t tell which.

An expanded and somewhat edited version of my response on 9/16:

The other Q is for Questioning. This is an extension of the category, to take in a set of people not in the historical core.

The historical conceptual development is from the homo core G, intended to take in both men and women (as in GLF, the Gay Liberation Front, and GAA, the Gay Activists’ Alliance, both of which had participants of both sexes); to G&L or L&G, to accommodate those who found gay too male-oriented, so that lesbians needed to be specifically labeled; then to take in B for bisexuals, who typically do not identify as either G or L; and then to take in T, for trans people in the broadest sense, a category that cuts across the categories of sexual orientation.

That brings us to GLBT (at first the dominant initialism) and then LGBT (now the dominant initialism), with L moved into first place so as not to iconically enforce male precedence.

At every stage there are questions about whether the extended category is socially and psychologically real, and objections to the labels for the categories from those for whom the categories are significant. Such perplexities continue with suggested additions, of Questioning people (exploring their sexuality and puzzling about it), Intersex people, Eunuchs, Asexuals, Friends and Family, PWAs, and an assortment of people with non-normative desires and/or engaging in non-normative sexual practices (the polyamorous, BDSM folk, leatherpeople, furries, and much much more). To some extent the addition of Queer to the mix is intended to take in some of these conceptual extensions — but it’s also to some extent a labeling or identificational matter, as in the choice of homosexual, gay, or queer for same-sex-desiring people.

[On identificational vs. referential] One of the motives for messing with the initialism is to give something for everyone in the category in question to latch onto, regardless of the labels they prefer for themselves or others. This can be a self-defeating strategy, since people who use one label may reject being associated with people who use another (self-identified “queers” might refuse to have anything to do with a “gay” group, for example — and might argue that this isn’t just a preference for a different name but a different social identification).

There’s also the incredibly important question of the purpose of all this categorization and labeling. In Mark’s original example, the purpose is providing social support services to a particular target group picked out by sexual desires. In other social-service settings, the target group is of people engaged in particular sexual practices — notably in providing health and medical services to men who engage in or are likely to engage in sex with other men: G and B men, plus MSMs (“men who have sex with men”), who typically reject the label G or B for themselves (I’ve written about them on Language Log on several occasions).

There are other contexts, of course — groups formed for political action or representation (“speaking for” the mumble-mumble-mumble community), groups formed for mutual support, groups formed for socialization with one another, etc. Typically, such groups have mixed and shifting purposes.

[On youth vs. young people] I believe that the intention is to take in “teens” and “young adults”, respectively. But the category divisions — though socioculturally real,I think — are vague, and the sociocultural divisions tend to get mixed up with legal distinctions, and in any case the ordinary-language labels for the groups are unsettled (no matter what technical vocabulary the professionals settle on for their own uses), so that if you want to offer social services to these people, you’d do well to offer a variety of labels.

[For the record: LGBT is my initialism of preference, as being reasonably inclusive while not going off into unwieldy alphabet soup. This is the usage of Stanford’s campus center, the LGBT Community Resourcs Center.]

A couple months later, the initialisms of sexuality and gender came up in a Facebook discussion that started with Max Vasilatos saying she preferred LGBT to GLBT, though her all-around default is Gay. (Others chimed in to say they just hated LGBT. Nothing is easy in these matters.) Some others opted for Queer as the all-encompassing term (a usage well represented in university Queer Studies programs and in other settings). Max also reminded us that back in the ’90s there was LGBO or LGBO*, with O for Other.

And then Mike Reaser, scornfully, took things into the far reaches of alphabet soup:

The acronym used to describe this year’s Toronto Pride festival was the mouthful “LGBTTIQQ2SA”: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, 2-Spirited and Allies.

and Jess Anderson reported that at Wisconsin it was LGBQA, though he’d seen LGBTQQIA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Queer Questioning Intersex & Allies), while Tané Tachyon said that she’d seen people pushing QUILTBAG (which actually can be pronounced as an acronym rather than merely reeled off as an initialism): QUeer Intersex Lesbian Transgender Bisexual Asexual Gay.

Arne Adolfsen, tired of the whole business, mischievously suggested that the only name that would get his vote is FDF: Fags and Dykes and Friends. (I am myself comfortable with fag and dyke, but some people are horrified by them, and others use the terms only for queers who are seen to be gender-discordant in their behavior — effeminate gays and butch lesbians.)

Several people suggested shuffling the terms and/or the initials around on different uses. Fair, but confusing — though I’ve actually done this myself, back in 1991 when I started the group OUTIL (OUT In Linguistics). My descriptions of the group and announcements of gatherings included a characterization of the target populations that was generated from a long list of labels, from which I chose six or seven at random for each use, and randomized their ordering. A remnant of this practice survives in the description on the webpage for the group’s mailing list:

The list is open to lesbian, gay, bisexual, dyke, queer, homosexual, etc. linguists and their friends.

Of course every announcement I sent out offended someone, either because of the labels included (lots of people objected to fag(got) when it came up) or because of the labels excluded or because of the ordering. Eventually, people seem to have accepted my practice as an entertaining idiosyncrasy.

(If I had known of Questioning as a term of art in those days, I still wouldn’t have included it in the list of labels — after all the group was OUT In Linguistics — but Questioning people could still have joined us as Friends.)

12 Responses to “The alphabet soup of sexuality and gender”

  1. Rick Sprague Says:

    I think I’m going to start using the initialism NSV, for “not straight vanilla”. Of course, somebody will object that defining a community in terms of what it isn’t is dehumanizing/impersonal/some such, but that’s just status quo ante, and my term at least has brevity and spellabililty going for it.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Facebook commenters have suggested kink, non-heterosexual, and others, and now you’ve suggested not straight vanilla. There something wrong with all of these — because (as I’ve kept pointing out for years) Labels Are Not Definitions (and cannot be expected to be). (Add to this the fact that what the relevant calegories are, and what labels to use for them, is very much relative to the context and the purposes of the actors in those contexts.)

      Maybe it was my fault for framing this as an essay rather than a lecture. Maybe I should have hammered all this stuff home hard.

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    Is the OUTIL list still around?

    I think the most commonly used terms in my social community are LGBTQIA (used for formal/”official” contexts, especially in political negotiation with other campaigning groups, last three letters stand for queer, asexual, and intersex), and queer (for any other all-purpose use).

    “after all the group was OUT In Linguistics”

    Couldn’t someone be out as questioning? Not saying you made the wrong call as regards the wording you picked, just that it seems people can be out in all sorts of ways.


    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Similar comments on Facebook. But back in the day I was confronted by people who maintained, contentiously, that they were out as straight (and proudly so), and should therefore be included. (There were a number of straight participants, in fact — people who enjoyed the company of lgbt etc. people and were interested in talking about the subcultures and the associated language. They were never problematic.) This is all just playing with words — with out in the sense of ‘open’, disregarding the obvious specialized sense in the sociocultural context. And in fact it was malicious.

      Not so, I assume, for irrationalpoint’s comment, which I take to be an attempt to wrench my wording into a maximally accepting interpretation. But still, this is silly.

  3. irrationalpoint Says:

    “Not so, I assume, for irrationalpoint’s comment, which I take to be an attempt to wrench my wording into a maximally accepting interpretation. But still, this is silly.”

    Ouch, no. What I meant was that I know people who use “questioning” to mean something like “not straight/cis, but don’t really like the other available terms” or “not straight/cis but not otherwise specified”. Used in this way, “out” has the same specific sense as it does for someone who identifies as gay. I should have been clearer, and in retrospect I can completely see how my first comment would have been annoying, which wasn’t my intention at all, and I apologise.

    I completely agree, though, about the maliciousness of “out as straight” as an argument to undermine spaces that are primarily for queer (etc) people.

    Thinking further on your original post:

    Seems to me that at least some of the long acronym stuff comes from a real political problem, in the sense that there are some people who have traditionally faced prejudice from, gay and lesbian folks. How one addresses that within, say, a campaigning context (where there has been a history of, not addressing social issues that are of particular concern to one particular group. I want to say, for example that the disproportionately high rates of violence (even as compared to other queer demographics) against trans people *and* the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, are important political issues), actually does give rise to interesting questions. So while I share your frustration with the linguistic issue, I think at least part of the solution isn’t about what words we use, it’s about how political concerns are focused, and whether some people (and their political concerns) are being routinely excluded from campaigning agendas. In other words, I largely agree that some acronyms are just not useful, but I also see why people are raising that as an issue.

    Someone asked me a few weeks back if the OUTIL group was still active — if it is, I’d be glad to know.


  4. Labels: homosexual « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] of sexuality, gender identity, and sexual practices. (Some discussion in passing in my recent posting on alphabet soup in this domain.) Now, thanks to the reversal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, […]

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Frank Bramlett to the OUTiL mailing list back in 2006:

    I’m the faculty advisor for the lgbtqia student group on the campus of U Nebraska at Omaha. Two years ago, a couple of the students got fed up with all the letters they had to wield, so they changed the name of the organization from “GALO” (Gay and Lesbian Organization) to “Alphabet Soup.”

    They’re now informally known as ABC Soup. But you wouldn’t believe all the trouble they have explaining what it means! Our little brochure even has a rainbow cup with alphabet soup in it.

  6. arnold zwicky Says:

    The discussion on Facebook also included a digression into the ordering of L, G, B, and T, with people proposing rationalizations for particular orderings. GLBT is essentially the historical ordering. But once L is moved into first place to correct the marginalization of women vs. men, then people began suggesting that the letters should be ordered by degree of marginalization, from most to least: TBLG. And others suggested that strict alphabetic order was the way to go: BGLT. Sigh.

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    And there’s the Stanford faculty/staff group:

    QUEST (Queer University Employees at Stanford) is an informal campus organization with events for queer-identified staff and faculty at Stanford, their friends and allies.

  8. Associations and connotations « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] here, discussion of the giant initialism here). Here's a section of the handout that pursues a theme from my posting "Labels: homosexual" […]

  9. asdf Says:

    A is Asexual/Agender! Not Ally!

  10. Kim Darnell Says:

    As the faculty advisor for oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) at Georgia State, I like the solution that the students in our group came up with for dealing with the ever growing list of letters in the LGBT$)#?! acronym: They simply use “sexual and gender minorities” to refer to all the different sorts of folks who would otherwise get a letter. This has a nice parallel to “racial and ethnic minorities”, which is in broad usage, and is generally easy for people to wrap their heads around. The only problem with it that I’ve encountered is that some people don’t understand what a “gender minority” might be, but once they are given the examples of folks who are transgender or gender non-binary, they seem almost relieved to have the label to use.

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