falling off the end of the acronym

This evening, I’m in the mood to write about a couple of little things people say sometimes – expressions, phrases, what have you – that bug me. Not necessarily that enrage me… but that perplex me, or irritate me, or sometimes sit funny in my gut like a day-old sandwich.

The first is the expression “the heterosexual community,” or “the straight community.”

This one doesn’t offend me. It just confuses me. Is there a straight or heterosexual community? I don’t think so. Perhaps others might disagree; if so I’d love to hear about it. I think that there is a heterosexual world, society, even hegemony… but not a heterosexual community. I think there are many communities of various sorts that are implicitly, overwhelmingly or exclusively heterosexual, of course. There are certainly lots of communities out there (some religious ones spring to mind, for starters) that explicitly exclude or are very unfriendly to queers. But that’s not quite the same thing as creating or participating in a community based on one’s heterosexuality, or feeling a sense of community or bonding with others specifically because of one’s acknowledged heterosexuality.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but it seems to me that in order to accurately label a group with the word “community,” and to precede that word with an adjective or other descriptor (South Asian, queer, gaming, teaching, hockey-playing …), the members of that group must bond over the characteristic that is being used to describe them. A group of bowlers that all also happen to be parents does not constitute a “parenting community” if their sense of bonding derives from and centres on bowling and they only ever occasionally discuss their kids.  A group of Filipino women who meet for culturally specific support purposes does not constitute “the Northern Winnipeg community” just because they all happen to reside in the same part of the ‘Peg.

As such, I don’t think there’s such thing as “the heterosexual community.” Find me a Heterosexual Social Night at the local bar, a Straights Are Great online discussion group, a Hip Hets clothing store catering to the needs of our unqueer friends, and maybe that’s the beginning of community. Find me many of those things in some sort of networked state, then maybe we’re talking. As it stands, every time I read that expression, a sense of great puzzlement washes over me, and I wonder to whom exactly the writer or speaker is referring.

Here’s another one for ya.

Have you ever heard someone, in a public meeting or conversation for example, say something like “GAY, lesbian, (bitransqueerwhatever)…”? Sometimes it sounds more like “GAY, LESBIAN, bi, (transqueerwhatever),” or sometimes “GAY, LESBIAN, bi trans, (queerwhatever).” But you get my drift.

I hear it all the time. It’s often followed by a little gesture, like something you might find in a poorly executed hula dance, a little wiggle of the hand meandering off to the side somewhere. Sometimes a little flippy kind of wave up in the air, maybe with a tiny nod of the head, as though to say, “you understand, of course.”

Let’s talk for a minute about our favourite unpronounceable acronym, GLBT (or GLBTQ, for today’s purposes).

It started out as G, though I’ve never actually heard anyone say “the G community” – perhaps because “G” and “gay” are each pronounced in only a single brief syllable, and not a difficult one to say; you barely need to let out a tiny puff of breath, graze the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and let a small sound come forth from your throat. Much like a little cough, or perhaps a short greeting (“hey”) or terse agreement (“‘kay”). Hardly any effort at all. (And it’s definitely much catchier than “homophile,” which surely explains why that word got ditched back in the ’50s.)

Then the lesbians got loud enough, and all of a sudden organizations began to spring up that aimed to be inclusive of the Ls. I’m not a historian, so I’m not talking about specific dates here; rather I’m referencing generalized community trends. Certainly there were L groups and L communities; at some point people saw that there was enough generalized terrain in common, particularly in the realm of political struggle, that it made sense to join forces at least in some cases. So “the gay and lesbian community” was born, and at some point that might have become “the GL community” for short, though I couldn’t tell you when or how often that was used. To be honest “gay and lesbian” wasn’t so scary or hard to remember anyway; a little more effort than “gay,” from one syllable up to five, but that’s not so bad really, so a lot of people just used the words in full.

(In case you were wondering, despite the tri-syllabic commonality, “lesbian” just rolls off the tongue easier than “homophile.” I think the L sound helps to lull the mouth into lazy acquiescence, as one finds with words like “liquid” or “lyrical” or “lovely.” Plus, people never wondered how to pronounce it, unlike the “homophile” – goodness, is that “homophile” as in “feel” or as in “file”?)

Of course, plenty of groups still exist that cater to the needs of just Gs and just Ls, and understandably so to an extent; some concerns and interests simply don’t overlap between the two. When they do, though, there are still many problems with both traditional and “reverse” sexism (or perhaps more accurately, misogyny and misandry) in the groups that attempt to be G and L, as well as gender-based cultural differences and misunderstandings, so let’s not see this integration of G and L as a process from a bygone era; it’s still ongoing and not always easy. Just because they’re homos doesn’t mean they’re immune to the Mars vs. Venus syndrome the rest of the world suffers from.

Eventually, by the early 80s or thereabouts, the bi folks started to come out of the woodwork. Bi inclusion in the community of Gs and Ls took a long time to happen, and it’s by no means a fait accompli today. I was sifting through some old papers a couple of days ago and came across a copy of a speech that Anna-Louise Crago, a Montreal queer and sex-worker activist, gave in San Francisco in 1996 at a conference called Young, Loud and Proud. In it, she wrote:

“And then, there are these fences known as borders. I’ve been told I sit on them by many people. There was the psychologist this year who said something to that effect as she ticked off ‘sexual orientation’ on the diagnosis sheet. However, I have been called a ‘fence-sitter’ many many more times by conservative gays and lesbians. This year, the queer youth group I facilitated led a purge of all the bi and trans members. To these people, as a pansexual, I would say in the words of Rebecca Kaplan: ‘Your fence is sitting on me!'”

1996 is only 12 years ago… barely more than a decade. Things have changed since then, yes, but they’re not perfect by any stretch. I haven’t heard of any purges lately, but I still know several groups that keep their doors closed to people based on their other-sex desire or practice, even in the presence of those same people’s same-sex desire or practice.

Nonetheless, over time, the message has spread that bi people need to be included in this sense of community right along with the Gs and the Ls… that although we Bs do have our own special concerns, our concerns overlap to a large degree with those of the Gs and the Ls, at least as much as those of the Gs and Ls overlap with one another, and same for G-only groups and B men, and L-only groups and B women. That’s still a bit of a stretch for some people and groups nowadays, but I’d say, tentatively, that in most places, aside from some rather backwards spots in, say, Vancouver (don’t even get me started), GLB is about the minimum standard.

And then we come to the T. Transgender, transsexual – depends who you ask. Sometimes this turns into TG and TS in an attempt at increased inclusivity, but the vast majority of the time, T is expected to do the job of both.

Historically, by the way, this progression is totally inaccurate; there have always been plenty of B people all over the place, they simply may not have identified as such or disclosed that particular side of their sexualities. And by all accounts, there were plenty of Ts around as far back as good ol’ Stonewall, so they’re hardly the new kids on the block when it comes to fighting for the rights of the sexually- and gender-variant. But in terms of political clout, the T is the most recent addition to the alphabet soup. Those Ts are making lots of noise these days, getting an awful lot of attention in the courts and the media and the medical/psychological community. So most groups who want to retain any activist credibility are hastily pasting the T onto the end of their acronym, and sometimes after that they invite guest speakers to help them figure out why they’ve done so and what it really means.This is a successful integration to varying degrees depending on the group in question. (Interestingly, many of the ones who are still resistant to B inclusion are hunky-dory with the Ts, but that’s a whole other post.)

And nowadays, we have the increasingly common and frustratingly fluid word queer. Queer, as in odd or different. Queer, as in “queer theory” and “queer community” and “hey, you fucking queer.” Queer as in vastly inclusive, ditch the alphabet entirely and let’s band together under a single banner that attempts to include everyfuckingbody it can who deviates from the norm, in the realm of sexuality and gender. To the point where some even argue that completely un-gender-deviant and un-homo-erotic sexualities – heterosexual gender-normative sadomasochism, for example, or non-monogamous sexual practices as a whole – are also welcomed into the all-encompassing and ever-expanding circle of the letter Q, with its quirky little tail to keep it distinctive even in typeset.

(I must say, I stand in disagreement with this take on things. I doubt your average male/female SM-practicing couple has been on the receiving end of a “you fucking queer” – other things yes, like “pervert” or “freak,” but that one I’m not so sure. Call me a traditionalist, but I think you need to experience some form of homosexuality or gender-deviant sexuality before you can rightfully call yourself A Queer. For someone who doesn’t experience their sexuality somewhere within that realm, the closest they should really get to appropriating the term “queer”, to be PC in the Sex Geek’s books at least, would be to call themself a “queer heterosexual,” as in of queer mindset politically but retaining the accuracy of naming one’s sexual orientation. To go whole hog and become A Queer, please either go give head to someone roughly the same sex as yourself and enjoy it, or at least fantasize about it a lot and enjoy that. Barring that, just give it up and be an ally. We still need lots of those. But I digress.)

So this is how we came to GLBTQ. In that order. Men first, women second, binary fence-sitters third, gender-freaks a token fourth, and those outlandishly confusing ones at the very end if at all.

This is not alphabetical order. It’s not order of creation or existence, like the sequels in a movie franchise or a instalments in the Harry Potter series. It’s quite specifically, and implicitly, order of historically recognized and currently relevant political importance.

Sure, sometimes people flip the G and the L to be feminist about things. “LGBT.” Has a nice womyn-positive ring to it, I suppose, but it’s still just dithering around in the safe spots at the beginning of the acronym. I know of one person – one – in my entire queer network who routinely starts his acronym with the B, as in “BLGT.” I fear that most people don’t do so because the idea that the B should come first is so remote in their minds that should they see this mixed-up version of the acronym, they’d simply react with confusion. And have you ever seen the order turn up as “TLGB” or “TBLG” or anything of the sort? Yeah, me neither.

So let’s come all the way back to my starting point: the order of words in a sentence followed by the word “whatever” and the dismissive handwave.

This, to me, more often than not comes off as an order of percieved legitimacy. It’s very telling. Certainly some people fall prey to that little linguistic habit simply because they’ve heard it so many times, or because they’re firmly located in the Q or T and being ironic, or in a genuine attempt to be inclusive and indicate that for them, the acronym goes on to the ends of the alphabet and beyond (I haven’t even mentioned the 2, the I, the A or the second meaning of Q, for example). But the vast majority of the time I see it happen, it’s coming out of the mouth of someone who happily rests somewhere within those first two letters, and who really wants to be seen as progressive but who really just doesn’t get it.

It kinda reminds me of when a straight person uses the words “the gays.” As in, “You know, the gays are such nice people, always so well-groomed.” It means, “I’m trying to show you how open-minded I am, and I probably don’t hate homosexuals, since really it’s not their fault, they were born that way after all, but really I’m pretty darned clueless about what it all means, and shhh, don’t tell anyone I’m asking, but doesn’t anal sex hurt? And what do two women do in bed together, anyway?”

Similarly, those who utter “GAY, LESBIAN, (bitransqueerwhatever)” are really saying, “I’m trying to show you how open-minded I am, and I probably don’t hate all those odd people at the end of the acronym, since really as a gay/lesbian person I should be, I mean I am accepting of those who are a little, you know, different, but really I’m pretty darned clueless about what it all means, and shhh, don’t tell anyone I’m asking, but aren’t bisexuals really just confused? And what do a trans person’s private parts look like, anyway?”

Now, I’m not particularly interested in being the next language police. Which is why I’m not providing a handy list of ways to get around either of these terminology issues. I don’t think this is a job for the PC patrol at all. Rather, I think that people who recognize themselves as using either of these two phrases – “heterosexual/straight community” or “GAY, LESBIAN, (bitransqueerwhatever)” – and who are uncomfortable with that recognition should make their own changes.

The good news is that it’s easy. In the first case, just think about what you really mean when you say “heterosexual community,” and say that instead. In the second case, there’s a ton of information out there on bisexual issues, trans issues and queer identity; there are lots of articulate speakers and sharp writers who will be more than pleased to guide you through the nuances of such things, and once you’ve read enough to gain a sense of how to be respectful, you might be able to appropriately reach out to the people near you who fall within the B or the T or the Q and ask them for their individual take on things, if they are willing to provide it (and if they’re not, that’s their right and privilege, and no, you aren’t allowed to be mad at them for it and dismiss all other Bs and Ts and Qs because of you got turned down).

The bad news is that it’s hard. Maybe not so much in the first case, though that might depend on who’s using the phrase. In the second case, before you can expect to truly get anything out of the self-education process, you need to look at your own biases, analyze the places of your discomfort, and make sure you’re opening them up, gutting them and letting the sun shine in rather than just plastering them over and putting on a fresh coat of paint.

6 Responses

  1. I consistently use LGBTT2IQQA. I keep the letters (and number) in the same order, and you challenge me to change that. I keep them in the same order because it ensures that remember all of them. I rattle it off like a party trick. Often it makes people pause, and ask what all the letters are. It’s a good icebreaker, and sometimes a bit of a show stopper – it’s strange, people seem to react to me rattling off that many letters (and a number) as if i was standing on my head and spinning plates on poles.

    I was a big fan of FABGLITTER (fetishists, allies, bisexuals, gays, lesbians, intersex, transsexual, transgendered, engineering revolution). This was often used in the magazine “Anything that Moves” and is perhaps the only pronounceable version i have seen of the unpronounceable acronym. These days i seem to lack the panache to use FABGLITTER. It also came with two built in challenges; one, many people fail to recognize the fabulousness of this word and fail to take it seriously, and two, a remarkable number would get hung-up on the fetishists part.

    TBLGAY is York’s on-campus group. It stands for Transgendered, transsexual, Bisexuals, Lesbians and Gays at York. The group began as HAY, (the Homophile Association of York) but quickly became GAY (Gays At York), and has be L-GAY, BL-GAY, TBL-GAY and TBLGAY. It rolls off the tongue fairly well if you are a T, B, L, or G, but still falls short of a full list. There are all kinds of historical documents from and about this group in the fonds at York and i have had the pleasure of interviewing early members.

    From the train, traveling through the night to Windsor.

  2. Oh, pooh on you, j. You would be someone who’d go and bloody remember the entire list. And use it. Yeeesh. And I thought *I* was a geek!

    In all seriousness, you comment has utterly delighted me. FABGLITTER! TBLGAY! Thank you so much for sharing these treasures both linguistic and historical. Deelish.

    Now finish up in Windsor and come back to Toronto so I can, y’know, make you some alphabet soup or somethin’.

  3. I gave up on the letters and just opted for queer some years ago. I’ll occasionally use LGBTQ… — complete with trailing-off voice and hand-wave — in contexts where I think queer might be misunderstood as perjorative, and I agree that neither option is ideal, but there’s something to be said for not allowing whatever point you were actually trying to make to get lost behind a mess of specificity about who *exactly* we’re talking about, you know?

    Oh, and are you home tonight? I want to call you about something.

  4. the closest they should really get to appropriating the term “queer”, to be PC in the Sex Geek’s books at least, would be to call themself a “queer heterosexual,” as in of queer mindset politically but retaining the accuracy of naming one’s sexual orientation.

    I’ve actually occasionally used ‘queer heterosexual’ and variants thereof as a self-descriptor, for pretty much these reasons.

  5. Interesting take on queer. I’ve come to a different usage myself and actually do include some heteros, while excluding some gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans folk. I know some heteros who are more queer in their mindset than many bisexuals that I encountered in my days as a bi activist. I understand your reasoning, of course, but my understanding of queer differs.

    But hey, I like ya anyways of course! Thanks for coming out to our show by the way and for plugging it here on Sex Geek!

  6. thanks for writing all this up! i do very much enjoy your take on it, and your writing style.

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