The acronym LGBTQIA+ is one you’ve probably seen around before. Perhaps you’re one of the letters in this mix or perhaps you’re wondering what the acronym even stands for. LGBTQIA+ is an umbrella term that brings together marginalised sexualities and genders including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and many more, hence the use of the plus symbol.
From its humble beginnings in Western culture as LGB in the mid-to-late 1980s, to LGBT in the 1990s, the acronym has come a long way in acknowledging and including marginalised groups. However, there has been backlash about the abbreviation, more often than not from people outside of the LGBTQIA+ community.
One such argument is that, with so many letters included, LGBTQIA+ is now just an “alphabet soup”. “This is an issue I think about a lot in my role,” says Jesse Jones, managing editor of Pink Advocate. “When launching the magazine, I had to make a decision about what terminology to use. I went with LGBTIQ, which is increasingly the default. For many years, it was LGBT, but including queer people who might not identify as gay or bi is so important.”
Even though the abbreviation might look like lengthy overkill to some, it’s important to acknowledge both the individuality and the community that LGBTQIA+ creates. “I also include the ‘I’ in the magazine’s initialism because I cover issues relating to the intersex community,” states Jesse, “however, I’m mindful that many intersex people are cis and straight, and whether the ‘I’ belongs there is a complex discussion that must be led by intersex people.”
A similar debate is sometimes raised regarding transgender folks and their inclusion in the initialism. LGB was originally created as an alternative to the word “gay” to encompass more sexualities, and it is questioned by some as to whether letters referring to gender diversity belong within the more extended acronym. To echo Jesse, I believe this is a conversation to be had by the transgender and gender-diverse communities who have a deeper understanding of their own needs and are capable of advocating for themselves.
When choosing the rainbow acronym that was the best fit for Pink Advocate, Jesse says, “I’m also cognisant that the term LGBTIQ largely excludes asexual people, which can be similarly problematic.” One could argue that adding A+ to the acronym helps include asexual people, as well as acknowledging the infinite array of sexuality and gender preferences not listed in the extended initialism.
Another concern raised by the community is the implication that you can only be one segment of LGBTQIA+ and therefore cannot embrace multiple identities. “It can imply there’s no overlap between the letters; you can be I or B, but not both,” states Yves Rees, non-binary transmasculine historian, writer and lecturer at La Trobe University. “In reality, many people have complex identities that encompass many letters in the acronym. For instance, in my case, I’m trans (T), pansexual or bisexual (B) and ace-leaning (A). No one of these letters alone does justice to who I am.”
As a person who embodies multiple letters under the umbrella, I often feel aspects of my identity are erased under the expansiveness of LGBTQIA+. “For this reason, I prefer the term ‘queer’,” says Yves, “which encompasses a broad spectrum of peoples and identities, united by their failure and/or unwillingness to conform to cis-heteronormativity. For me, queer feels more expansive, less prescriptive, than the list of categories in the acronym. Queer is also more politically charged than a clinical acronym.”
It’s that less clinical, more expansive aspect that Mama Alto, Melbourne’s acclaimed jazz cabaret diva, also connects with. “Personally, I love and embrace the term queer,” she says. “I love that queer is also a verb. It encompasses a shifting and fluidity, a question or a promise, possibilities and potentials.”
I often use the word queer myself to talk about both my sexuality and my gender; being a non-binary transgender bisexual person means I relate to many pieces of the rainbow pie and, despite being proud of my many identities, the one-syllable all-encompassing “queer” is often easier to use in casual conversation.
“However, I’m conscious that for some people, especially older folk, ‘queer’ remains a hurtful slur,” acknowledges Yves. “Until those pejorative connotations fade from memory, the LGBTQIA+ acronym provides a useful alternative.” For this reason, it is important for younger generations of LGBTQIA+ people to respect the lived experiences of older generations and those from non-Western cultures and understand that a convenient catchall term for some might be hurtful for others.
Mama Alto agrees. “I know for many, it is too difficult or too painful to embrace a word like queer, which has so often been used as a violent slur.” It is therefore vital to respect intergenerational relationships as well as lived experiences of trauma when we talk about inclusion and progress.
Under the rainbow
When it comes to acronym semantics, we can forget that the communities we are discussing are made up of people with autonomy and needs and are not a rainbow monolith. “Gathering together under one umbrella identity catchall needs to be done with real consideration of who among us is excluded,” says Mama Alto, “who is vulnerable, who needs to be uplifted and celebrated and welcomed.” It is important to encourage and include as many people under the rainbow as possible because at the end of the day, if you’re not straight or cisgender, you are likely to face social, inter-personal and political discrimination based on your gender and/or sexuality.
“Rainbow people, LGBTQIA+, the alphabet soup, the QUILTBAG — no matter what terminology we might associate with, I think the important aspect at the core of it all is the solidarity, support, empathy, community and diversity of our experiences as people who have been told by society’s constructed norms that we are not valid,” states Mama Alto.
Rather than dividing us, the acronym of LGBTQIA+ gives marginalised people the language and community to band together when fighting for our rights. It might not be the most accurate acronym forever, but that’s okay; the way we identify ourselves can change over time, along with the language we use to name it. The work LGBTQIA+ people have to do is ongoing and it’s therefore important that we’re achieving this important life-bettering work as a community.
Rae White is a non-binary writer and artist. Their poetry collection, Milk Teeth (UQP, 2018), won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Rae is the founding editor of enbylife.net, a journal for non-binary and gender diverse creatives. Their work has been featured in Archer, Overland, Pink Advocate, Sydney Review of Books and others.