When I was first out, in the early 1980s, we called ourselves the Gay community, but over time it became increasingly obvious that when people heard the word gay they only thought of gay men, so to give women their due Lesbians were separated out, and the Bi people in the middle included, so we the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual community. Then it became clear that GLB did not really include the interrelated issues of gender, and so a T was added for Transexual, and we became the LGBT community.
Of course four letters are not enough to account for all of the variations in human sexuality and gender, so in the spirit of acknowledging everyone, we kept adding letters, to the point it got a bit ridiculous. I think I laughed out loud the first time I saw LGBTQQIAAP:
- L: Lesbian. Women attracted to women.
- G: Gay. Men attracted to men.
- B: Bisexual. People attracted to both sexes.
- T: Transgender. People whose interior sense of gender is different than their exterior physical sexuality, whether male to female (MTF) or female to male (FTM).
- Q: Queer. People who don’t want to label themselves by their sex acts but do want to claim being different, eccentric, and fabulous. Reclaimed from an old hate term, Queer can also be highly offensive, depending on usage.
- Q: Questioning. People still working out who they are attracted to, often applicable to the young.
- I: Intersex. People born into bodies that are not definitiviely male or female, including those born with ambiguous genitalia, bits of both male and female plumbing, or genetics beyond the standard XX and XY.
- A: Asexual. People who are affectional but aren’t that into sex.
- A: Allies. Straight people who support the LGBTQ+ community.
- P: Pansexual. People attracted to others more by individual personality, differing from bisexuality in that they ignore the gender binary altogether.
And of course that is not all. Another of my personal favorites comes from Canada where they add North American respect for an indigenous non-European category, making it LGBTQQIAAP2S, or some variant thereof:
- 2S: Two Spirit. The traditional gender variation in First People communities who often served as the community’s visionaries and healers.
And for those who think this all sounds trivial, India’s Supreme Court recently recognized the legal status of traditional Hijras, people born male or intersex but live as women or in-between genders. So voters registering in the world’s largest democracy now have gender checkboxes that include M, F, and O, for Male, Female, and Other.
At some point all these letters add up to acronyms so long no one can say them, and they become too long to even fit on a tshirt! But more importantly, using labels right can be tough. On the one hand, they are incredibly useful – think American, athletic, Muslim, grandmother, plumber, and shy – all useful signposts for navigating the social sphere and showing respect, or disrespect, for other people. Yet they can also be limiting or misdirect people from the truth. Grandmother may sound like a sweet label, but not all grandmothers are sweet. Meanwhile Muslim may mean terrorist in some people’s ears, but there are more than a billion and a half people on the planet who strongly disagree. I was raised Mormon and I am gay, but the words gay and ex-Mormon are only a hint of my larger story, because like everyone else I am so much more than my labels.
Most people fit in the middle of the demographic bell curves, by definition. It must be a wonderful thing to feel like you are “normal,” although I have met few people, straight or gay, who admit to feeling completely normal on the inside. I think we all feel a little special, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. But if this magical state of normal does exist, I am all for it. My existence outside the norms is not an attack on anyone else’s typicality.
The truth is am both “normal” and atypical. In many ways I am a pretty typical white American male, for example, and yet I am a good bit taller than average, and of course I am gay. None of these qualities should disqualify me from equal respect as a human being, they are just variations in the size, shape, and nature of my humanity.
The gay/LGBT/LGBTQQIAAP+2S community, then, is a group of people whose sexuality and sense of gender lie outside the center of the bell curve. We are a club inclusive of outsiders, where anyone who feels they belong is welcome. At the same time we often divide up into smaller sub-groups, as it can be empowering to be with others like ourselves. That’s why people have church picnics after all, as it can be great to hang out with your own community, even if you have friends, family, co-workers, and others in your community outside of the church. Lesbians, drag queens, and queer androgynous kids all feel the same way, as it can be joyful to experience communion and solidarity with fellow travelers, even as they maintain their place in the larger social world.
The gay community is now at the paradoxical crossroads of the problem of labels. We are increasingly hyper-specializing into finely grained sub-groups, while at the same time we are letting go of those groupings and identities and integrating into the mainstream. A young gay person can now choose an intricately defined self-identity and live within a tightly proscribed tribe of like-minded friends, or they can choose a traditional path of marriage and family little different from their straight peers. For me all of this represents success, as I want people to be who they are and puzzle out their path through life with the support of healthy community, something I wish for everyone – straight, gay, or none of the above.
Let us enjoy our labels and groupings: Texan, Presbyterian, voluptuous, ripped, Eagle Scout, volleyball player, stubborn, brown, pedestrian, Chinese, fundamentalist, Hare Krishna, and female. And at the same time let us see beyond the labels and respect each individual for who they are, far beyond the limitations of language.
And as for sexuality, at our core maybe we are all just humansexuals, doing the things that humans do in all the different ways that humans do it, and maybe that too is something worth celebrating.