Life

Why We Need More Queer Identity Labels, Not Fewer

People hold a large rainbow flag during the Pride Walk through the center of Amsterdam on July 29, 2017. 
        The march marks the beginning of Pride Amsterdam, a festival to raise awareness of LGBT rights. / AFP PHOTO / ANP / Sander Koning / Netherlands OUT        (Photo credit should read SANDER KONING/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold a large rainbow flag during the Pride Walk through the center of Amsterdam on July 29.
Sander Koning/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slates home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The acronym for gender and sexual minorities—nowadays styled LGBT, LGBTQ, or increasingly, LGBTQIA+—has expanded over the years, growing in length as the movement has gained strength and momentum. (For those who find themselves lost beyond the queer/questioning “Q,” “I” stands for intersex, “A” for ally, and + for, well, everything else.) But has it gotten too long? The number of labels included has, for many, reached mockable proportions: Tucker Carlson recently took the acronym to task, calling it an example of the “tolerance police.” And even those who champion this civil rights movement fear that the expansion of the acronym could be perceived as evidence of the community’s hyper-PC, extra-sensitive, flighty nature.

But adding more labels to the acronym isn’t about making sure all the snowflakes know they are special. These labels save lives. These labels create a powerful sense of understanding and self-acceptance. The fact that the acronym has become a target for mockery only indicates the amount of work that still needs to be done around LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

Turn back the clock to the 1980s, when the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights gained momentum on the national level. Then, it was the gay rights struggle. Gay stood for everyone in the community, or at least that’s how its proponents justified the term. But like man standing for person, gay wasn’t adequate to describe everyone. And so, by the mid-to-late ’80s, lesbians and bisexuals had successfully pushed for inclusion, with LGB emerging as the new term. In the ’90s, it was transgender people’s turn to ask for recognition in the form of the T. Soon after, the Q followed.

This addition of the Q seems to have been a crucial tipping point, the moment at which the community, represented by the acronym, opened its arms wider. To admit transgender folks and queer folks was to accept that this movement was not just about sexual orientation but about a broader sense of identity: gender identity and gender expression, sexual identity and sexual behavior, and non-normativity in all these areas. So it made sense for intersex, asexual, pansexual, and other terms to be included in the acronym—whether in even lengthier versions like LGGBDTTTIQQAAPP or just under that +.

For many, particularly for those who want to make gay seem normal, this expansion is too much. They worry that by advertising an increasing array of identities, the community will appear too on the fringe and become an easy target for mockery. However, this argument ignores the important role that labels play within marginalized communities. Specific terminology and the robust expansion of it is crucial to the continued success of the LGBTQIA+ civil rights struggle. And even though in some liberal circles labels are viewed as confining (think of every celebrity who has ever refused to be “put in a box”), I believe that labels are not only necessary, but also liberating.

Many coming out stories begin with internal clarity (I felt this way my whole life) mixed with external confusion (I didn’t know how to explain it), resolving when the person meets either an “out” person who acts as a life-model or encounters a term that explains what they have been feeling in language. That’s the power of these labels: They don’t restrict people, boxing them in to a limited sense of self. Rather, they help individuals articulate what has previously been an undefined internal state.

It’s not a fluke that same-sex relationships were termed “the love that dare not speak its name” during Oscar Wilde’s infamous trial for “gross indecency” in 1895. To speak of such things was dangerous, to engage in them was illegal, and therefore terminology was slow to develop. At first the labels applied to the identity (or behavior, as it was understood at the time) were derogatory or criminal, such as sodomite, and then later became clinical, such as homosexual. These were labels that others applied to the LGBTQIA+ community, and thus terms that were used not to promote better self-understanding, but to demonize, to render a group as “other,” and define it against the norm.

Our new wave of terminology—demisexual and polyamorous, genderqueer and two-spirit—has the opposite effect. Yes, it’s easy to mock the proliferation of labels: There are a lot of them! But we should think hard about doubting the importance of these terms. Language grants us the ability to explain ourselves, to put words to what we feel and think and experience. When, in the ’90s, the term transgender was added to the LGB acronym, it wasn’t that transgender people had never existed before that moment. The term was simply new, replacing earlier, less-affirming vocabulary like transvestite, which often fetishized the identity. But the feeling, the experience of self—that had always been there. Having a word for it helped individuals to come out, making that process less tortured and easier to explain to others.

Having terminology also creates community: If a word exists to describe something, the implication is that the concept is important enough to merit a term, that there’s a critical mass in need of this word. If the feeling an individual has “dares not speak its name,” then how is one to find others who share that feeling? These labels—all of them, not just the original one or two or three—play a necessary role in generating solidarity.

Though many of the slogans of the early “gay” rights movement now seem antiquated, the queer action group ACT UP coined a phrase that seems more pressing today than ever before: Silence Equals Death. That slogan covered many signs in the early years of AIDS activism, when the Reagan White House sought to cover up, or worse, simply ignore the existence of the disease. We should be reminded of that as we hear about the ways CDC scientists under Trump have learned to censor themselves around certain terms, particularly the word transgender. We should be reminded that to not speak words is to give silence power, and silence breeds ignorance and fear. The ever-expanding LGBTQIA+ acronym shouldn’t be a cause for mockery; it should be a cause for celebration. We should speak these terms loudly and clearly. And we should be ready to explain and expand even further, welcoming new ones as their owners share them with us. Everyone deserves a name.

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Alex Myers teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy. He was the first openly transgender student at Harvard University and has worked as an advocate for transgender rights. He is also the author of Revolutionary.