What does it mean to be LGBTQ+?
LGBTQ+ is an abbreviation that encompasses a variety of different sexual and gender identities. We use LGBTQ+ as an umbrella term, but under this umbrella are a whole diversity of identities and experiences. Even though gender and sexual diversity has always existed, identities — the terms we use to describe ourselves to the world — do shift over time in tune with changing cultural norms. Today, more identities are being recognized, which is why the LGBTQ+ acronym keeps expanding (and includes the + sign!), and people whose identities are encompassed by it don’t have the same experiences as a monolithic group. LGBTQ+ people deal with sexism, racism, and/or classism just like everyone else. Often, because their identities mean that heterosexism is part of their lives, there are more than one of these prejudices (individual, social, political) that work together to create challenges, from harassment to denial of work benefits to violence. For instance, research shows that transgender people of color are one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. and are disproportionately affected by violence.
So what do the letters in LGBTQ+ mean?
The “LGB” part represents lesbian, gay, and bisexual people – these are sexual identities (as is heterosexual). Sexual identities are how someone chooses to describe themselves based on their sexual feelings, attractions, behaviors and/or desires.
The “T” of LGBTQ+ represents transgender people. Transgender is a gender identity, or the gender category within a culture that best fits how someone feels internally. Someone who has a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth based on their physical body is transgender, whereas someone whose gender identity corresponds to their birth sex is cisgender. As transgender gender identity is increasingly recognized, the “unmarked” gender identity that has always been privileged in an unseen way as cisgender, is a newly emerging gender identity.
The “Q” represents queer, which is an umbrella term for people who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or something else. The Q, and the “+” allows us to hold for the tremendous number of sexual and gender identities that don’t fall under the terms we’ve described already: identities like genderqueer, gender non conforming, gender expansive/expressive, asexual, pansexual, etc.
The term queer developed as an identity in the 1980s when the “gay community” and the politics surrounding it were not seen as addressing the issues of the larger community, particularly queer and transgender people or queer people of color. The Queer community, as the LGBTQ+ community is referred to more and more nowadays – represents a rejection of heteronormativity (the privileging of heterosexuality and traditional gender and sexual norms and roles) in favor of a larger, overarching community that is inclusive of all identities. For instance, most people don’t realize that the LGBTQ+ community’s focus on passing same-sex marriage actually ends up being a privilege for white, cisgender gay and lesbian people who are for the most part middle class or wealthy: marriage equality doesn’t address the fact that many LGBTQ+ people face many other kinds of social discrimination and other issues are far more important for them, their safety and even their lives. For instance, trans women of color are murdered at disproportionately higher rates compared to any other population (straight as well as queer); the unstable housing that many queer and trans youth face is still an enormous issue; and the forced deportation of thousands of undocumented queer people annually is virtually unknown. The shift from “LGBT” to “queer” allows for a wider variety of people to feel represented within the community and, especially post-gay marriage, focus the need to address these intersectional oppressions. The fight for queer rights is not just about marriage or which bathroom you use, it’s about migrant rights, women’s rights, disability rights; it’s about human rights of all who are facing denial of their ability to live with dignity and humanity.
We talk about gender and sexual identity together in LGBTQ+, but sexual identity and gender identity aren’t necessarily linked – just because a person’s gender identity shifts, that doesn’t mean their sexual identity will as well. A transgender woman for example, may have a sexual identity that is straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or something else. And identities are not always set in stone either: some people experience their gender and sexual identities as fluid, or changing over time. These identities are not new, though; multiple distinct and complex gender and sexual identities have been recorded throughout history. For instance, in many indigenous cultures in North America the term two-spirit recognizes that gender is not binary and that there are many different genders.
So what accounts for all these different identities? We don’t know! Research (and people) are always looking for answers: it’s biology, it’s trauma, it’s your childhood development, maybe it’s even your relationship with your mother. But none of these have answered this question Queer people and straight people do have this in common – none of us know how or why we’re queer, straight, or something else. Is it really that important to know?
Why are people so worried about trans people in bathrooms lately?
Numerous states have proposed legislation that many refer to as “bathroom bills” – a way to monitor or police people’s gender identities (actual or perceived) and prohibit people from using the bathroom they feel best represents their gender. Research demonstrates that the anxiety that circulates around bathrooms (and who goes in and out of them) is the same anxiety that has clouded the queer community throughout history – the idea that anyone who is not straight or cisgender is “perverse” or “abnormal” and may victimize straight and cisgender people.There has never been any research (or even anecdotal evidence) that this has ever happened. . In fact, the moral panic incited by these false fears actually endangers queer and trans people: trans people are most likely to be attacked and/or injured in public bathrooms. One study in D.C. found that 70% of trans and gender nonconforming respondents reported being denied entrance, assaulted or even harassed while trying to use public restrooms. The “bathroom bills” are only one avenue in which systematic oppression has been targeted towards queer and trans people. Homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination have been on the rise for queer people. The year 2017 was the deadliest for LGBTQ+ people in recent history and LGBTQ+ people of color are particularly at risk of experiencing violence.
How learning about LGBTQ+ is a gift — even if you’re straight and cisgender
US and Western cultures have historically reinforced heteronormative ideas about gender which have often forced people to feel and think about themselves in binary categories – man or woman; straight or gay; black or white. This system assumes that sex-assigned-at-birth maps onto gender identity and sexual orientation (e.g., only heterosexuality is allowed). For example, male-identified infants are expected to grow into children that identify as boys/men who look and act masculine while female-identified infants are expected to grow into children that identify as girls/women who look and act feminine. Collectively, LGBTQ+ refers to a way of thinking about –and living– that is not tied to the rigid binary construction of sex/gender but instead offers a whole new range of possibilities where sexuality is not dictated from birth, and neither is gender.
Do you have to know all of the letters encompassed under the LGBTQ+ umbrella? Nope. What you can do is continue to be respectful of people’s identities and listen to LGBTQ+ folks when they speak about their experiences. Being free from edicts that prescribe rigid norms around sex and gender offers an opportunity for everyone to find out what feels right and authentic; and accept others based on what feels right and authentic to them.