Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.
Ah, that acronym.* Sometimes called “alphabet soup,” the long and often-changing list of letters used to describe non-straight, non-cisgender identities frequently befuddles brains and ties tongues. Before I go any further, let me break it down for you:
If you’re not sure what any of these individual words mean, I highly recommend you click on the link for that word and read the previous Defining entry. If you’re new to this LGBTQIA thing, then I recommend you read the entries for the letters after “LG” even if you have some idea of what they mean. I bet you’ll learn something or at least get to consider a new perspective.
There’s no denying that the acronym is clunky, so why do we use it? Although LGBTQIA can be a mouthful, it gives us a way to describe our community in its broadest sense.
Actually, in my experience, the “LGBTQIA community” is more like a group of loosely affiliated communities that sometimes band together out of solidarity, similarity, or necessity. Each LGBTQIA experience comes with its unique challenges and joys. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual/aromantic people all have something in common: we experience gender or gendered attraction and relationships that fall outside the norm. At our best, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, and aromantic people are specially equipped to help each other out, build each other up, and affirm each others’ experiences.
“LGBTQIA” is not a perfect way to describe the affiliations of non-straight, non-cisgender people across identities, and it’s also not definitive. Some people just say “LGBT,” or “LGBT+” if they want to be inclusive but not type or say so many letters. Others argue that the acronym should be longer, often including a “P” to stand for pansexual or sometimes polyamorous, or another A to stand for aromantic or agender.
Still others, myself included, prefer to use “queer” as a broad umbrella term for all of these identities and more. I prefer to call myself “queer” rather than “LGBTQIA” because it is both more accurate and more inclusive. I could accurately say that I am a nonbinary, non-monogamous person on the asexual spectrum with an interest in people of all genders, but that’s honestly more information than I am usually comfortable sharing and more identities than I usually care to explain or justify. Instead, I often just tell people that I’m bisexual since it requires less explaining, but “bisexual” does not capture my full experience. There is very little language available to me that allows me to quickly convey that I don’t identify as precisely male or female, and often I don’t want to out myself as nonbinary for this reason. And that’s not to mention all of the rest of my, well, queer identities! For me, “queer” communicates all of my gender and sexuality experiences in a way that “LGBTQIA” does not.
But “queer” doesn’t work for everyone. Some straight trans women and straight trans men do not identify as queer because they view “queer” as a word related to sexuality rather than gender. For example, a woman who was assigned male at birth and is only attracted to men is a straight woman and may not identify as queer. At the same time, some LGBTQIA folks do not want to be referred to as “queer” because of its history and sometimes continued use as a slur. All of us, LGBTQIA people and allies alike, should respect how each person wishes to be identified by listening carefully to individuals about their experiences and preferences and then using the language that reflects those preferences.
It seems likely to me that the way we talk about ourselves as a community with many different genders, sexualities, and experiences will continue to evolve. As a person whose identities tend toward the neglected or altogether unnamed part of the LGBTQIA acronym, I do often feel alienated from the community as a whole. Still, I appreciate that we are striving to find language that invites all of us in. Ultimately, that is what we hope to do when we string together all of those letters.
The “A” stands for “ally.”
Straight and cisgender allies can play excellent supporting roles in LGBTQIA communities and activism, but it is important to remember that allies are not the stars of the show. Asexual, aromantic, and agender identities are forgotten enough without allies claiming the small spotlight of that final letter.
Intersex, asexual, or aromantic people don’t really belong in the acronym.
If a person feels they are part of the LGBTQIA community, then I believe that person should be welcomed and allowed to explore. Intersex, asexual, and aromantic people experience gender, relationships, and attraction that do not match up with the straight, cisgender norm, and many therefore want or need to participate in the community. We make great advocates and friends, and we need camaraderie and support too.
Plus, every time someone claims that the IA’s don’t belong, that person may well be preventing someone with multiple LGBTQIA identities from feeling safe enough to fully come out to their peers. It’s difficult to feel closeted with other LGBTQ people because they are not accepting of all of your identities. Remember, it’s very possible to claim more than one letter! In my experience, it’s extremely common.
“LGBTQIA” is always the most appropriate way to refer to a non-straight, non-cisgender person or group of people.
Not every non-straight, non-cisgender person or group of people identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual/aromantic. Often it is more appropriate to refer to a person or group of people by their specific, relevant identities. If you mean gay men, say gay men. If you mean trans people, say trans people, and so on. Don’t say LGBTQIA or even LGBT if you have not considered the experiences of TQIA people in what you’re saying or writing. Lumping all LGBTQIA experiences together when you are in fact only talking about a specific group or identity can make people with lesser-known identities feel more erased, not less.
"But that’s too many letters and corresponding identities to remember!"
I feel you, but putting in the effort to learn about identities that are new to you will make it a lot easier to communicate with and validate your queer and/or trans family member. Besides, the best thing you can do for a loved one who you are trying to understand is ask thoughtful questions and then listen carefully to that person’s answers. Ask questions like, “How do you identify?” and “What does that word mean to you?” The actual person you want to learn about will be able to tell you much better than some definition on the internet.
*Yes, I know that it’s technically an initialism. Don’t @ me, fellow word nerds.
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!
Kara Kratcha (they/she) is a librarian in Queens, NY. When not planning library programs, obsessing over book lists, or questing for the perfect queer librarian outfit, Kara is probably hanging out with their poly partners, aka “significant roommates.” Follow Kara on Twitter @kaeklib.