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Words Mean Things: Let’s Sort Out That Acronym

Words Mean Things: Let’s Sort Out That Acronym

LGBT? LGBTQ? LGBTQA+? It’s little wonder many people are confused about the acronym used to describe the community. It keeps changing and evolving. And while there’s nothing wrong with evolving and changing terminology, it does make the situation rife for confusion. This seems to be the case with LGBTQ+ and all of its variants, particularly because the acronym keeps getting longer.


So, let’s sort out this acronym, shall we?

The Basics: LGBT

Most people are familiar with this short, four-letter acronym. It’s probably now the most common form, having displaced even shorter versions (“gay,” then LG, and then LGB), which were used from about the 1960s to the 1990s. LGBT became more visible in the late 1980s through the 1990s, and this form became entrenched in the lexicon around this time.


It’s easy enough to understand. “L” is lesbian, “g” is gay, “b” is bisexual, and “t” is transgender or transitioning.


Initially, we used the term “gay.” Some people still use it in phrases such as “the gay community.” However, people began to take issue with the use of the term “gay,” since it almost exclusively refers to gay men. While you can refer to women as gay, you’re more likely to use the term lesbian.


Lesbians thus asked for inclusion and visibility. Although there’s considerable discussion, even within the community, about whether or not bisexual people truly exist, the “B” was added for people who identify as bisexual, meaning they’re attracted to people of both sexes. They are neither exclusively gay nor exclusively straight.


“T” is sometimes more controversial, since it deals with gender rather than sexuality. However, there’s quite a bit of overlap between gender and sex and sexuality. Many LGB people play with gender identity and roles. While these people are not necessarily transgender, they are playing with gender roles and identities. Thus, there’s some crossover between the groups, and many LGB people participate in these activities with their transgender peers.

Q: The First Expansion

There’s some debate over what the “q” stands for. When LGBT next expanded, “Q” was added.


Both interpretations of “q” point to a desire to be more inclusive. Originally “q” was proposed to mean “questioning.” The community made an active effort to extend to those people who were still in the process of determining their identity. They didn’t yet identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, but they were thinking about it, interrogating their own identities.


The other interpretation is “q” just means “queer.” While queer has been used as a slur against gay men and lesbians, the community has tried to “reclaim” it. This has met with marginal success. We can see this reflected in terms like “genderqueer.” Adding “q” to LGBT merely meant to include all others who didn’t identify as straight and cisgender.


Sometimes, people include two qs to ensure both questioning and queer are present.

A Second T, an I, an A

The next expansion brings us to LGBTTQIA. This about the point most people lose familiarity with the term.


The second T stands for Two-Spirit people. In Indigenous societies in North America, Two-Spirits were people who were not strictly male or female, but were both. These people held various roles, depending on their culture and ethnicity. Some cultural traditions held these individuals in great regard. Others did not.


Two-Spirit is particularly tied to Indigenous conceptions of gender, so it shouldn’t be adopted by just anyone. However, these individuals do find affinity in the LGBTQ community, so their inclusion is another way of extending community to them. Sometimes, people use “2S” instead of a second T.


The “I” was the next letter, standing for “intersex.” Intersex individuals are not transgender per se, although they can be. They may also identify as male or female in accordance with their (ambiguous) biological sex. They might also adopt a non-binary (“enby”) identity or identify as genderfluid or gender queer. Intersex persons may have ambiguous genitalia, or they may have a chromosomal condition, such as Castor Semenya, the Olympic runner from South Africa.


The “A” stands for asexual. Some people are just not sexually attracted to anyone. “Asexual” is a sexual identity, in that it means attracted to no one, so it falls under the umbrella here. Some people use “ace” for this identity.


I’m skipping a letter, but I’ll come back to it in a second—it’s controversial, so we’ll move ahead with the more accepted terms.


We now have “P” added to the mix. It stands for pansexual. What, isn’t it good enough to have four identities? We have straight (attracted to the opposite sex), gay/lesbian (attracted to the same sex), bisexual (attracted to both sexes), and asexual (attracted to neither sex).


Why do we need “pansexual”? Doesn’t that just mean someone’s “bisexual”? Not necessarily. Pansexuals are attracted to anyone, regardless of sex or gender. This person is bisexual, in that they’re attracted to both sexes, but they’re also attracted to people who aren’t performing their “biological” sex (such as trans people), Two-Spirited people, intersex people, and so on and so forth. Pansexual is the true opposite of asexual; asexuals aren’t sexually attracted to anyone, while pansexuals can be attracted to everyone.

Next up: What the heck do all these different flags mean? (Hint: they represent all the different identities we’ve discussed!)


Demi, Aro, Genderqueer, Genderfluid, Non-Binary

At the current point, the acronym stops there. Right now, the acronym is missing a whole bunch of identities. Where are the demi-sexuals? Demis fall between “asexual” and other sexual identities. They experience sexual attraction occasionally, but not always. They’re thus not asexual, but they’re not totally sexual either.


The current acronym doesn’t fully appreciate concepts such as genderqueerness, genderfluidity, and non-binary identities. While someone could argue the “queer” catches them, or that they fall under intersex, transgender, or Two-Spirit, this isn’t truly the case. You can’t lump identities in with other identities. While there may be some overlap, they don’t act as synonyms for each other. Enby people don’t define themselves as male or female, per se; they don’t operate within the gender binary. Genderfluid people move between genders, while genderqueer people can be enby or genderfluid or simply people who don’t identify with gendered roles.


We also need to discuss aro. Aro people are a-romantic, in that they don’t experience romantic attraction to people. (People can also be demi-romantics.) They do still experience sexual attraction.


Even the longest current acronym doesn’t adequately include these identities. Is another expansion on the horizon? It’s possible.

That Damned Second A

Now, I skipped a letter. Currently, the full acronym is LGBTQQIAAP or LGBTQQIAA2SP.


What’s that second A for? I skipped it for a reason. In fact, it’s the reason I’m writing this post in the first place.


The second “a” allegedly stands for “ally.” These are people who identify themselves as heterosexual or cisgender, but they ally themselves with those who who have LGBTQIA+ identities. They work to support their rights and advance fair and equal treatment.


There’s controversy about including an “a” for ally. Allies don’t have minoritized identities. Do we really need to recognize them in the acronym?


Some people say yes, because it’s important to create an inclusive community space. Allies can sometimes be community members. Some people think leaving them out of the community name is a problem.


On the other hand, the acronym is meant to help people with these identities see themselves. Allies don’t need to be represented anywhere because they’re part of the dominant majority group.


So why the heck are they in the acronym? We’d be better to include aro people with that second “a” than allies.


If you use a shorter acronym, the situation gets worse. We sometimes see LGBTQIA+. The problem is, since allies assume the second a is for them, they often just assume that the short version’s “a” is for them too. We thus have a situation where allies erase asexual identities (and potentially others).


So, yes, the full acronym apparently includes allies, although it’s a questionable inclusion. The shorter versions most definitely do not. If you see the short version and assume “a” means ally and not asexual, you are not being a good ally! In fact, you’re part of the problem.

The Politics of Naming

There is plenty of controversy with the acronym, even beyond its length. There are concerns about the placement of letters. (Why should we open with the L? Why are pansexuals stuck at the back of the line?) When we start using short forms, this becomes even more contentious. The acronym doesn’t include all identities, even in the long form. Should that second A be there and should it mean allies? What happens when we only have one T or one Q? What do we assume that stands for?


These are all legitimate concerns. By including some groups and not others, by prefacing some and de-emphasizing others, by showing some and hiding others, we engage in political prioritizing. Putting “lesbians” first gives them place of precedence. Putting pansexuals last indicates, in some ways, they may not be as important. When we drop a “t,” we must question why we assume the remaining “t” stands for trans or Two-Spirit. Do transgender rights trump Two-Spirit person’s? Do we assume transgender includes Two-Spirits?


These are all important questions to ask, and the answers can be dangerous. If you assume transgender includes Two-Spirits and thus it’s okay to drop one “t”, you’re engaged in harm as you subsume one identity within another and erase one.


Similarly, shortening the acronym and using “plus” can be contentious. While it certainly makes it easier to handle, does “plus” really encapsulate every identity? Again, shortening this way prioritizes some identities, gives them precedence, and makes others take a back seat. People lump them into this nebulous “plus.” It includes but excludes and erases at the same time.


Best Practice

Write it out, in full, at first. After you’ve done this, you can use a short form to make it less tiresome and repetitive for readers. Where appropriate, write it out in full, as often as you can.


Acceptable forms:









When you see a single letter and you know the full acronym includes two of the same letter, ask yourself which identity you’re prioritizing. Who is under the “plus”?


And never, ever, ever assume a single “a” stands for ally. Please. The acronym shouldn’t include allies. Aromantics need representation and acceptance more than allies do. Please. Don’t center yourself in this. Allies, sticking yourself into an acronym meant to represent marginalized identities is a fairly shitty thing to do.

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