June 5, 2019

The importance of the all the letters and identities of LGBTQIA+

Originally published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.

June marks Pride Month, a celebration of LGBTQ identities that has its origins in the 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn, famously led by trans activists of color Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. During the 50th anniversary of the beginning of America’s gay rights movement, it is worth reflecting on who is now included in the movement, and whose identities are being celebrated.

This question is complicated by the fact that there has been a vast proliferation of identities which have been added to the acronym over the years, a shifting vocabulary that reflects the diversity of the community.

“Our community has always had a very fluid language to define ourselves,” says Samone Riddle, founder and executive director of QueerPGH. “With the internet and increased visibility, we have started to find each other, and some of our language has solidified while even more words for gender and sexuality have blossomed.”

The addition of words reflects both an increased understanding of gender and sexuality, and the impulse to be inclusive. For example, the Persad Center, a Pittsburgh-based human service organization in Lawrenceville dedicated to the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities, says they work to use language inclusive of all identities. Lyndsey Sickler, Youth Program Coordinator, says, “To my understanding, we make sure to advertise LGBTQIA+ for basic community events.”

Similarly, while the writers and editors of QueerPGH tend to use the term queer, Riddle comments, “Our secondary go-to is LGBTQIA+. The plus sign is our way of throwing in some of the vagueness of room for indecision and playing around that queer has.”

While there are communities, organizations, and publication who use more or less letters in the acronym (City Paper’s editorial staff, for example, uses LGBTQ), LGBTQIA+ is a good place to start – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, asexual, intersex, and the plus sign as an indicator of options not named. This list includes gender and sexual identities; or, in other words, both who you are and who you are attracted to.

This proliferation of categories is useful in that it opens space for the inclusion of a wide variety of identities, and gives folks tools and language to understand themselves. Learning that asexuality is a legitimate identity that is embraced within the queer community, for example, may give an asexual person a way of understanding their own sexuality, as well as a community of like-minded people to connect with.

“The idea of naming groups creates situations where there is less doubt about inclusion,” says Sickler. “[Groups] will know they are included because they are specifically named.”

This level of specificity, however, is not without its problems. It is for this reason that many folks, myself included, are more comfortable using the term queer. Riddle says, “I don’t think we need more specificity in our acronym, we need more room to explore. We need people to know that gender, sexuality, and identities can change over time.”

Sickler points out that queer often works better for people who “exist between various intersections of the acronym.” Riddle adds, “I think some folks like to use the term queer … because it’s a way to stop trying to box people into the different identities.” In this way, it is also broadly inclusive. They say, “Queer gets to be more vague and abstract. Queer gets to say ‘I dunno, we’re just fucking with gender and sexuality over here if you want to come.’”

But however we choose to talk about it, we cannot forget that, while inclusive, it is precisely this rejection of cultural norms that we cannot strip out of Pride; Pride did, after all, start with a riot.