Eric Marcus

LGBTQRSTUVWXYZ: Gay Rights Movement or Alphabet Soup?

Filed By Eric Marcus | December 12, 2007 12:01 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement

MGH.jpgGay rights pioneer Frank Kameny branded the gay rights movement before most out gay people were born. He came up with the slogan "Gay is Good!" and carefully considered the marketing techniques that would work best in 1960's America to challenge the status quo.

Have a look at the photograph below from one of the 1965 gay rights protests in front of the White House (that's Frank Kameny in the middle). It was no accident that the men wore suits and ties and the women wore skirts and blouses. And the slogans were all carefully considered before the posters were drawn. Frank took the temperature of the times and responded with a precision that one would expect of the scientist he was.

So what happened on the way to the 21st century? In terms of our "brand," we've progressed from "Gay is Good" to the GLBTQ rights movement. And I can't say that I think our new brand is a good thing for any of us under the GLBTQ umbrella.

I was reminded of what I don't like about our cumbersome moniker when I attended a GLBT (or was that LGBT?) youth conference last week in Westchester sponsored by GLSEN and PFLAG, among others. More than 600 people attended, including middle and high school students, parents, social workers, educators, and school counselors. (I was there to sell copies of my newly released book for teens, What If Someone I Know Is Gay?)

One of the young people I met had led a workshop earlier in the day called "LGBT 101." I asked him what he talked about in his presentation and he said that he explained things like "what LGBT means." That's a good start. But you have to wonder if we've got a problem if we have to introduce ourselves and our cause by explaining that this mouthful of initials stands for the various subgroups within our movement.

We're now so far along in the process of balkanized inclusion that we've been left without a simple way to explain who we are and what we're fighting for. And it's left some of us who don't embrace the tongue-twisting LGBTQ label scratching our heads when asked why we aren't more inclusive. That's what's happened to me on a couple of occasions in recent months because my of book's title. (I don't think What If Someone I Know is LGBTQ? would have had quite the same impact and, besides, it would have been false advertising because my book's focus is on what I know best, which is same-gender sexual orientation).

I don't have any suggestions or answers. I just have questions. Like, why do we have to enumerate every subgroup within our social/political movement? That may make some of us feel good about being inclusive in a very visible way, but what do we gain or lose as a movement by slicing and dicing ourselves into ever more categories? Why do some people say LGBT and others GLBT? (Am I risking my life by pointing out that if we were to consider the alphabet that "G" comes before "L"? And "B" comes before "G"? Although if we take into account population totals and list ourselves in descending order in terms of overall numbers, then "G"--assuming for argument's sake that "G" stands for "gay male"--should come first because there are twice as many gay men as lesbians. Then again, there are probably more bisexuals--male and female combined--than gay men or lesbians, so maybe we should be the BGLTQ movement).

So I'm curious to hear what you think. Am I the only malcontent out on this limb? Am I just an old guy who can't adjust to the LGBTQ new world order? If the alphabet is here to stay, what letter of the alphabet will we be adding next? And can anyone come up with a slogan for our current political and social movement that's as straightforward, alliterative, and powerful as "Gay is Good!"?

Recent Entries Filed under Gay Icons and History:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

If you have another suggestion, put it forward.

If "gay" does include transgender people (for most people), then I suppose that would make things a bit easier.

But most queer people don't see it that way. I don't think it's an "enumerated subgroup" when there are those (almost everyone I know) who'd say that "gay" doesn't include "bisexual" or "transgender".

So I think the first question is not the label, but what the movement is about in the first place.

To me, it's about making all transgression from gender roles safe... so "queer"?

I don't think this question has one answer. I posed it on my blog earlier this year and got a host of responses. The reality is we are attempting to encompass a large (and growing) variety of identities under one umbrella.

Also, I lean toward placing "lesbian" first (i.e., LGBT) to acknowledge women (or womyn) are often treated as second to men in the world.

I prefer to add Intersexed to my list of oppressed people and then refer to the GIBLT population. I like a pronounceable acronym.

I agree with Eric about the cumbersome and divisive nature of the "alphabet soup" approach. My Bilerico item about the problems inherent in using "queer" can be found in my archive. Frankly I won't use the word, because I grew up in a time and a part of the country where this was an ugly word and I believe that there's no "rescuing" it.

There are a lot of thorny questions to wrestle with. Should L go first in the acronym, because "women are so often second?" Well, let's fact it, some gay men and lesbians are not very accepting of bisexuals, who probably fall into a "third" place. Bi's are followed by transgendered people, who are still fighting for their first foothold on the mountain peak, so they're kinda fourth. HRC's pathetic performance on transgendered issues is a sad example of how far our "community" has to go on this front.

Plus "transgendered" itself is enormously complex, with a whole range of medical, social and political considerations. As I've learned from interviews with transgendered people in sports, some TG people are not all that happy with being stuck under the single T letter. They tell me that, in their view, many non-TG people take a misinformed and simplistic approach with this whole diverse and very different range of community experience.

So are TG people looking to create their own alphabet-soup acronym?

A single word to denote everybody -- if we could ever agree on one -- would eliminate the tricky business of deciding who is 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th. But what word to agree on? Many people won't accept "gay" because it's now too associated with gay men. An option is to list the letters in alphabetical order. Which would give us BGLT or BGLQT (which sounds a little like a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich). Not such a great PR approach.

Last but not least, should all the different groups just split up and go it alone? That way, we don't have to deal with each other's beefs. But in war it's never a good idea to divide your forces. So...united we have a better chance of winning, and divided we will surely fall.

But how do we unite? It's like the old story about the blind men who are feeling the different parts of the elephant with their fingers. Can we give up our individual perception about what the trunk feels like, and the ear, and the foot, and agree on what the whole elephant is?


I laughed out loud when I read your comment. Great idea! I always stumble over all the letters. GIBLT is fun to say and it's impossible to say without a smile on your face!

FWIW, the authors of "Gay L.A." said they used that title because the folks they interviewed about LGBT history said that during the 1950s and 60s, "gay" was used to refer to everyone in the LGBT spectrum -- and similar comments were made in "Wide Open Town," a history of SF's LGBT past.

I don't know what the solution is for today, but just wanted to point out that the "simpler days of yore" weren't necessarily simpler. The diversity was always there, even if the labels weren't. But the rise in labels were reflective of people asserting their identities, often due to feeling like third-class citizens. (And yes, the trans communities definitely could spawn its own set of initials.)

FWIW, that one reason I talk about the LGBT communities (plural intentional). The challenge is how to also recognize not just our differences, but what we've got in common -- and how to communicate the latter, especially in short-hand terms like a set of initials.

No, you are not the only one, but this trope is no less tiresome for it.

You don't like the acronym? Fine. Then come up with something more marketable, or be ready to state clearly that the gay "movement" is only that: the social normalization of homosexual men.

We don't even have to bring up the oh-so-problematic trannies to press the point. Gays (and lesbians, but less so in my experience) still commonly insist that "bisexual" is an invalid class borne of false consciousness. If you believe that, then your complaint is at least self-consistent.

One of the whole points of the alphabet soup is an expanding awareness of a great deal of fluidity in sex and gender relations and identity. You are free, of course, to be uncomfortable with that fluidity. You are free as well to assert your non-alliance with anyone but those who adhere to your own specific proclivities. But you are not free to say that such fluidity does not exist, and there are quite a lot of people who have found common ground in that very diversity... which is not as paradoxical as it might seem.

You are not LGBTQI? No worries. We are, and we have business to attend to.

Wow - too much coffee Val? What was so offensive about the question?

I do not want to be known as a giblet. I mean, it's better than a gizzard but not by much. :)

Don and Alex have gone around about "queer" several times on the site. Patricia posted on it too. It's a common question without any clear answers.

As a side not: when we were getting ready to re-launch as the Bilerico Project, one of the problems we faced was the logo. What should the bottom say? Not the slogan - the initials at the end. We stuck with LGBTQ because it seemed inclusive enough.

Now - why does the L come first? When I first started the blog I always said GLBT. Once we first started getting popular I got taken to task by 3 or 4 lesbians in the same week for saying GLBT instead of LGBT. They insisted it was a "ladies first" type of thing and that it was therefore rude to put the men first. (They were all older ladies, yes.) It made sense to my small-town sense of morals, so I've kept it.

And added on the Q.

I also think the LGBTQ acronymn is awkward to use in general, but I don't have any good ideas to replace it. I am bisexual but don't mind if people refer to me as gay or queer. I don't see the vaule of using specific labels to identify ourselves to the straight world. Most of them lump us all in the same category anyway. Why not just use the word gay when dealing with the world in general and use the more specific labels among ourselves to avoid confusion?




A nose by any other name would smell.

A lot of Intersexed people, probably the majority, are not very enthused by being in some GLBIT permutation. They're even less enthused about being put under some "TransGendered" label, along with sexual fetishists and the mentally ill.

Yes, I know Transsexuals are "mentally ill" according to the DSM-IV. So are victims of child abuse and rape, and anyone who's ever drunk too much coffee to keep them awake.

I feel I've been drafted into GLBT. I certainly never volunteered, and no-one asked me. But now I'm in, I can't help but see the injustices and want to do something about them. I'm still in two minds about whether Ts should be included though. It seems to me that lip-service is paid, but not a lot else. Yet when 1 in 3 Transsexuals are GLB, how can they be split off?

Most rights that T's care about have been won before involvement with the GLBITQ, or GLBITTQ or whatever conglomerate. Those rights have been eroded more often than not as the result of vociferous but ill-directed GLB activism. Still, that would have happened anyway, with or without T involvement.

In the quest for non-transsexual transgender rights, transsexuals really have come off very badly, with far fewer rights in 2007 than they had in 1977, and fewer every day. Way back when, they snuck in under the radar screen, and were given help by medical authorities to gain new identities. MtoFs who were post-op were considered just women. Now they're conflated with gay men, drag queens, and exhibitionistic fat balding men in miniskirts and 5 inch pumps who appear in Pride parades.

The Intersexed continue to be invisible for the most part - with a few exceptions - and are likely to remain that way after seeing what happened with the ENDA betrayal. And what can "Gay" or "Straight" mean to someone with 47xxy chromosomes and mixed gonadal dysgenesis anyway?

I'm good at posing questions. Lousy at giving answers. I just don't know here. I do know that having been drafted though, I'm re-enlisting for the duration. There's too much injustice not to. That's a heck of a thing for a straight neo-con to say, but it's true.

I feel I've been drafted into GLBT. I certainly never volunteered, and no-one asked me.

I don't think many people volunteer to be G, L, B, or T....

I'm working on a post on that, actually, about "gay-jacking", the assumption of the word "gay" by those who'd make it a stable, nonsexual, abstract identity (i.e. John Aravosis saying that "gay men" suddenly have more in common with lesbians "because they're gay" than "men who want to cut of their penises" or something like that).

What if I just stopped identifying as gay? What would happen then?

OMG, I am out of work for one day and I miss this gem of a post??

He came up with the slogan “Gay is Good!” and carefully considered the marketing techniques that would work best in 1960’s America to challenge the status quo.

Kameny came up with the slogan "Gay is Good" after hearing SNCC and Black Panther leader Stokley Carmichael use the phrase "Black is Beautiful". It’s ironic that Kameny fought so passionately to halt the denial of security clearances to homosexuals so they could work in US government agencies such as the CIA and the FBI. These of course being the very organizations responsible for infiltrating radical groups such as the Black Panthers and incarcerating or murdering their leaders.

Needless to say, I’m not very nostalgic for a movement with absolutely zip analysis of interconnecting oppression.

I don’t think What If Someone I Know is LGBTQ? would have had quite the same impact and, besides, it would have been false advertising...

I think that is exactly what I find so important about labels -- it's about what you are advertising. Frankly, while I think your book will be useful for many, I wouldn't buy it. If your title had LGBTQ in it instead, I might buy it, but then when I read it I would be disappointed that it isn't really about LGBTQ folks.

You see, virtually everyone I know identifies as queer, and/or bi, and/or trans. Very few of the people in my communities identify as gay (or lesbian for that matter). And there is a concrete difference between those identities. And discussion of queer/trans issues differ greatly from gay (and lesbian) issues.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use the LGBTQ acronym but their material is just about gay, and maybe lesbian, folks. I don't fault people for not talking about my communities and only talking about their own. I mean, I often talk about my queer communities without discussing gay communities. But the problem is when people assume that discussion of gay communities is representative of all others in the LGBTQ acronym.

LGBTQ isn't a brand, it's a coalition. Gay and Queer are the best brands we've got, each with their own problems. But just remember that talking about gay issues isn't the same as talking about queer issues. It's not just the new label for an old community, it's a different (overlapping, of course) community and also a different perspective.

I guess I'm in a not exactly unique, but rare position. There are perhaps ten thousand people worldwide who are born looking like one sex, but change to look like the other in a natural process. But there might only be a few hundred who do so late in life, and only 1 in 30 or less do so from M to F.

Talking with guys born with 5ARD, so who were raised as girls, they're as disoriented as I am. Fortunately most of us were TS before the change, so it's a relief rather than a nightmare. But even then, disorientating, as most of us aren't aware that it is going to happen until it does.

And we suddenly find ourselves part of GLBT, no matter how we self-identify. Technically, I was a neurologically IS (ie TS) and apparently slightly somatically IS male: that changed to extremely somatically IS female, and then treatment made that "somewhat" somatically IS female, equivalent of a post-operative TS female.

As for sexual orientation, I went from a somewhat asexual and apparently straight (but actually lesbian) male, to an asexual/lesbian female, to straight female, and that is far more confusing than the mere somatic changes. That affected me, not just my body.

I'd just about come to terms with the fact that I was lesbian rather than straight, when I started finding guys... fascinating. I'm still working on that, I was and am far more comfortable with the idea of another woman as a partner.

Now trying to explain the somatic (body) changes, the really weird natural hormonal balance, the fact that the psych tests screamed "Female!" all throughout, the fact again that they only thing that stopped me from being "Gay" when I looked male was the totally screwed up endocrine system that effectively neutered me, it's just too hard. So I just say I'm TS. Or rather was. I now identify as just a straight woman with a really, really unusual medical history, and not just "issues" but a lifetime subscription.

Then I get told I'm not really "one of us" as T's should never have been included in GLB+t anyway, their problem is medical, not sexual discrimination. Which is logical, rational, sensible, but somehow those who beat us up screaming "Faggot!" don't see it that way.

There's the post-modernist and extremely academically fashionable view that Gender is nothing but a social construct, and hence our views are discounted, our whole lives invalidated by intellectual bullying.

There's the ignorant psyciatric "professionals" who don't bother keeping up with the literature as it is "too medical". And who believe that with enough therapy, enough electroshock, then they'll find a cure for our insanity.

There's also the antedeluvian Raymond/Greer stream of Radical Feminist Lesbian thought that sees TS women as "tools of the patriarchy". And FtoMs as deluded gender traitors.

And finally there's the Barney Franks (and CWAs for that matter) who have some sort of obsession about which bathroom we use, and again conflate us with the traditional balding guys in Tutus and pumps.

And meanwhile... our concerns are:

1) To make sure the youngsters don't have to put up with the crap we've had to. That parents and schools should be educated in the medical facts, so teenage kids don't get thrown out onto the street and into sex work.
2) To remove the discriminatory - and originally anti-gay - provisions in health insurance and the like so more than 20% of us can afford the treatment we require. And to make sure that we can't get jailed for using the restroom our medical team insists we use if we are to be allowed treatment.
3) Help (by education and legal reform) for those of us so hormonally damaged that they will never look "normal", but always different, and confused with paedophiles and pychos, or at best "gender outlaws", flaming gays or diesel dykes. Even though they're usually straight.
4) Legal revision and streamlining of the definitions of "male" and "female" so they bear some resemblance to reality for the nearly 2% of the population that doesn't fit the usual definition (if you look closely).
5) As a short-term band-aid, try to sneak in on legislation that protects the aforesaid genuine flaming gays and diesel dykes. If same-sex marriage is permissible, then the question of exactly which sex(es) either of two prospective partners are is sidestepped.

I suppose I should add a 6) - to live, to have a life. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness too, if we're lucky.

Looking at that lot, we really don't have a lot in common with most GLBs. Apart from those of us who are GLB as well. To us, that seems such a trivial matter in comparison. And it has to be said, many of us who are GLB are still totally Stealth when it comes to having been TS as well. It's safer that way.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use the LGBTQ acronym but their material is just about gay, and maybe lesbian, folks.

I second that bit by Tobi. Although, when we get to talking about labels like "gay" and "queer", things start to fall apart when you factor in racial minorities.

The black LGBT community in particular is often suspicious of the those labels, seeing them as solely representative of white gay men.

> They insisted it was a "ladies first" type of thing and that it was therefore rude to put the men first.

That's odd. I had been given to understand that the L went first out of recognition of traditional male dominance, and the increasing importance of feminist perspective in overall queer activism.

Zoe, what you describe of your own experience is why, whenever I am given an opportunity to describe trans terminology and politics, I am always careful to address Intersex independently as a condition which has some social overlap with trans issues, but cannot be identical, and which I might sometimes need to speak about, but which I can never presume to speak for.

Eric, thanks for this post. I agree with Alex about queer, but I also realize the problems associated with it. I also don't mind "gay" as a label (since that's what hets lump us all together as anyway), but after reading your book "Making Gay History," I also understand the historical problems with that term.

Here's my "solution": People should be able to call themselves whatever they want. As far as what "we" as a "movement" refer to ourselves as, I think we need to use the language that most average folks understand as a starting point. If that means Ellen gets up on a mic and says, "I'm gay," because that's what folks will understand, fine. Once we have people's attention and can engage them in a conversation, then we can start talking about the complexities of our community. But, that's an easy solution for me to propose. I don't feel left out by "gay."

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex all have very similar equivalents in other languages (like gai, lesbienne, bisexuel, transgenre, transsexuelle, intersexe in French) but not queer and this is one reason I don't like queer.

I'm not that satisfied with LGBTQ either.

Some young people here in Quebec came up with allosexuals formed on the model of allophones that mean people who speak other languages that French (Francophones) or English (Anglophones).

Allosexuals are people that have another sexual orientation than heterosexual and/or presumably another gender identity than the majority of people.

It is also very similar to what is used in Jamaica: allsexuals. Now that's a good one too.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | January 4, 2008 3:10 PM

Good Grief!

If you want to get comments flowing and temperature rising on TBP (and probably other sites) just raise the subject of how to make alphabet soup, and what order to retrieve letters from the broth and lots of letters, words, phrases and sentence come forth in torrents.

Sometimes I wonder if we spent a tenth of the energy on these subjects that may tend to divide us and get down to tackling substantive matters, how much further along we'd all be.

I always feel a bit weird commenting upon American writers--or mostly American writers--because your perspective is often so very different from my own.

Yet I found several comments--not the original post--to be close to the way I understand things.

The comment refering to the 'alphabet soup' as a coalition is one; it as an ideal I am working towards in my own community--Ottawa--and country--Canada.

The original post seems so much of a piece with the priviledge I have so often come across in my work with 'formerly gay organizations' that are so often unwilling or unable to transition to be totally inclusive and diverse in their composition, leadership, fundraising and policy commitments.

My experience, unsettingly, has been that notions of sexual orientation are both pre-emptive and presumptive--that other aspects that affect ALL our lives, including class, age, disability/disease, race, belief, are lost.

Not to mention the "erasure" that so often dominates in the history of transseuxal and transgender people--nor to mention the similar status of bisexual people.

How can we even hope to move towards the goals of equality we all certainly seem to espouse when in our own "communities" we are unable even to recognize, let alone to admit to our important "work" ALL members of our "communities"?

How can we reach out to other communities who share our marginalization in poverty, addictions, incarcerations, violence, and on and on and achieve the final victory that cannot be achieved incrementally?

I am convinced this is the 'perspective' we must all take, or risk being irrelevant.

Recent victories for "equal marriage" (though actually only 'gay marriage')--in Canada--while of implicit value for the rest of us, have little explicit value. And efforts to bring an inclusive, even an anti-oppression perspective to this struggle met with very unpleasant response.

To return to the coalition idea, I LIKE the difficulty of saying the 'alphabet soup.' In Ottawa the particular form that has gained some currency is GLBTTQ--gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans (for transgender and transsexual), two spirit, queer/questioning.

Until there is an actual coalition, and an actual, not implicit, inclusion and true diversity in 'our' organizations--I am thinking of Canadian organizations--this is a reminder that is constantly needed.

What I have most envied in watching the struggle over ENDA is the wide inclusion for transgender and transsexual people.

In Canada, where sexual orientation is now in all federal, provincial and territorial human rights legislation AND the Criminal Code (the national criminal law--criminal law is the sole responsibility of the national government) AND significant administrative law and regulation protection for gay and lesbian people, transgender and transsexual people have long been left behind.

My faint hope is that as the struggle over ENDA gathers more profile--that is, can be seen here, the 'slop over'--those who believed what they said when then said "they will come back for transsexual and transgender people" will actually do so.

GLIBQTT (pronounced “glib quote”) is not a movement! We are not a movement and we need to stop thinking like we are still in the ‘60s. For the most part, our folk just want to live their lives and be left out of the politics of securing our rights and the acceptance of the hetero-normative majority.

For those of us with an activist mentality, and I suspect that most of Bilerico’s readers fit the profile, we need to think in terms of coalition building. That means casting the widest net possible to have the numbers necessary to have a strong voice. Therefore I would like to suggest a few other “communities” that we should reach out to:

Polyamorists are a growing segment of people that are denied rights as we are. Their family units lack marriage equality, tax and inheritance status, medical benefits and so forth. Although polys are usually heterosexual, they share in our disadvantages. They should be a part of the coalition.

Bi-racial couples still suffer from a lack of social acceptance, even within GLIBQTT communities. Although they are further along the path with legal marriage rights and such, we still share a common history and struggle. They should be a part of the coalition.

Mentally handicapped people are often denied the right to even have sexual relationships, much less get married or build family units. The institutions and caretakers responsible for making decisions on their behalf often cannot be bothered with the difficulty of helping them live in healthy relationships. The mentally handicapped and their advocates should be a part of the coalition.

You could probably think of others to add to the new alphabet soup. The point is that you are not going to have a movement sweep up the vast majority of folks that identify themselves with one of these letters and go marching into Washington 40 million people strong. We build a coalition with the broadest base possible, and we lobby and educate and keep pushing until we secure the rights and acceptance we deserve for all of us.

Then we can go back to our own individual communities and play Scrabble.


I have a wonderful idea for you ..

Remove the T from your alphabet. The GLB hijacked the transgendered, the transgendered hijacked the transsexuals...the transsexuals want nothing to do with the GLB and the GLB want nothing to do with the "oh-so-problematic trannies"

Problem Solved :)

Hmm, Well, being a lesbian transwoman, I get two places in the anacronym, yay me!

Of course, the simple way I generally refer to myself is queer. It is short, simple, descriptive, and positively empowers a word that has been used for so long against the community.

Of course there is also fag or faggot, but then I really do not want to be associated with cigarette butts or bundles of sticks. ;-)

queer is good, gay is good, giblt is good. good, good, good. gay men are gay. gay women are gay. transgender is gay from any way you look at it. bi is gay. intersex is gay. maybe everyone could agree that gay is the common denominator, and that all of the members of the LGBTQRSTUVWXYZ community are gay and that we are all included and we could just call ourselves gay? after all, that is what the rest of the world thinks of us, anyway. they aren't too bright. maybe we should make it easy for them?