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Once upon a time, four letters were commonly used to describe the queer community as a whole: "L" for lesbian, "G" for gay, "B" for bisexual and "T" for trans, creating an acronym: LGBT.
But that was then, and this is now. As new terminologies, identities and experiences appear in the zeitgeist, the acronym has since picked up a few more letters: "Q" for queer and/or questioning, "I" for intersex and "A" for asexual, creating the widely used acronym: "LGBTQIA+" — with that "+" on the end meant to cover anyone who feels their queer identity was not otherwise represented.
The alphabet soup can be a lot to swallow for some (including Lea DeLaria, who's poked fun in the past about the ever-growing acronym), and some prefer to stick to "LGBTQ" or "LGBTQ+" or even, simply, "queer" (DeLaria's choice). But there is a reason and history behind its existence.
Before the rise of the acronym, people often simply said, "the gay community" or "the gay and lesbian community" — which left out bisexual people, who make up the majority of the LGBTQIA+ population as a whole, and transgender people, a group that is largely credited for spearheading the queer-rights movement to begin with. Sometime in the the 1970s, queer activists popularized usage of the "LGB" acronym as a way to display unity. The "T" was later added, in the 1990s, meant to be a further step toward inclusion.
More recently, the letter "Q" was added as a way to acknowledge those exploring their gender or sexual identity, or those who don't identify with any of the first four letters, preferring "queer."
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, the world’s largest media advocacy organization for LGBTQ (the acronym used by GLAAD) rights, tells Yahoo Life the evolution of the acronym represents the community's "growth, strength and vitality, and our future," adding that as more people of different experiences and backgrounds come out — now including those who identify with a range of terms, including nonbinary and xenogender — in record numbers, it’s important to see that reflected in changing terms and acronyms.
Whichever acronym is used, knowing the basics of these terms is important to understand the complexities of the queer experience. Here’s a quick overview:
Lesbian: A woman who is physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to other women.
Gay: A word that describes a person who is physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to people of the same sex or gender.
Bisexual (also Bi or Bi+): A person with the capacity to be physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to more than one gender, though not necessarily at the the same time or to the same degree.
Transgender: A people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. They may also use other terms, in addition to transgender, to describe their gender more specifically — such as nonbinary or gender nonconforming. (Others can be found in GLAAD’s Transgender Glossary.)
Queer: Often embraced by younger generations, "queer" is used to describe an identity that is not heterosexuality, or exclusive to one particular thing. People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or anything else, may also embrace the "queer" label, as more singular labels may be perceived as too limiting.
Questioning: A word used to describe people who are in the process of exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Intersex: A person with one or more innate sex characteristics — like genitals, internal reproductive organs and chromosomes — that fall outside of traditional conceptions of male or female bodies. Their male or female gender identity is typically assigned at birth by medical providers and/or parents. Sometimes, controversially, that decision involves surgically altering genitalia to match this decision.
Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction. Sometimes shortened to "ace," it's also an umbrella term that can include other identities such as demisexual, which refers to those who do not experience sexual attraction to others unless they form a strong emotional bond with them first.
Definitions aside, it’s important to understand that each term may mean something different to different people, based on their own lived experiences.
Bottom line? There's no one way to be L, G, B, T, Q, I or A. What is important, however, Ellis explains, is to know the language first, in order to acknowledge and celebrate differences. Asking people how they describe themselves (including what their pronouns are) is equally as important.
During a time when the queer community is under constant attack by state lawmakers across the country, Ellis says it has never been more vital for the country to learn about the importance of language and unity.
“LGBTQ[IA+] people are part of the most diverse community in the world, representing different sexual orientations and genders, as well as all races, religions and from all regions,” she says. “Language signals solidarity — within the community and to everyone outside of it — that we are different and still united in our fight for freedom and equality for all.”
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