File picture: Axel Schmidt/Reuters
File picture: Axel Schmidt/Reuters

'L' is for Lesbian, 'G' is for Gay: what does LGBTIAQ+ stand for anyway?

By Dr Nyx McLean Time of article published Feb 26, 2020

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What does LGBTIAQ+ stand for?

In South Africa, Pride month occurs in February (Cape Town), with different Pride events scattered in between - and you may have seen far more articles on your Facebook timeline or in any other news source referring to the LGBT, LGBTIAQ or LGBTIAQQAP+ community. There are a lot of words and letters being thrown about. You may not know what they all mean or stand for. That’s okay.

The letters frustrate even members of the LGBTIAQ community who don’t always know what they all mean. What is at risk is that we silence those expressions of identity that we don’t know the names for. This article is meant to help you understand what all these letters mean. There are different versions of LGBT, LGBTI, LGBTIQ, LGBTIAQ, LGBTIAQQAP+, for now we will work with LGBTIAQ.

Before we start let’s cover some basics that need to be understood. The letters do not only represent sexual orientation or identity but also gender identity. The difference? Sexual orientation or identity is about who you are attracted to and how you act on this desire. Gender identity is about how you identify or do not identify with regards to your gender. Gender identity has expanded beyond the binary of man and woman and includes non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, agender, just to name a few.

The L is for Lesbian: Self-identified womxn* (Womxn is the alternative writing of women to include transgender women) loving womxn. They have romantic, sexual or emotional relationships with womxn of the same gender.

The G is for Gay: Self-identified men loving men. They have romantic, sexual or emotional relationships with men of the same gender.

The B is for Bisexual: Someone who loves people of any gender. With the inclusion or social recognition that there is more than one gender, this sexual orientation is also called pansexual.

The T is for Transgender: Someone who does not fit their assigned gender identity. For instance someone who may have been born female and raised as a girl but does not identify as a girl or woman but as a man or a non-binary person. They may undergo a transition either hormonal (taking oestrogen or testosterone), surgical (gender-affirming surgeries) or they may not do either and simply present as the gender they identify with by dressing in a particular way that makes them feel more comfortable in their skin.

The I is for Intersex: Intersex is a person who is born with different chromosomes, sex hormones, genitals and do not align with what is typically a male or female body. It is far more common than we think with many children having corrective surgery after they are born and being raised as the gender that their genitals are best associated with. This medical intervention at birth is more and more being questioned with people proposing that children be allowed to express their gender before being assigned a gender that they may not identify with at a later stage.  

The A is for Asexual: Someone is asexual if they do not experience any sexual desire, attraction or feelings for another person. This does not mean that they cannot have romantic or platonic relationships but that these relationships are not founded on sexual desire but rather on feelings and human connection. Asexual people are often faced with an onslaught of advice from well-meaning people about how they haven’t met the right person or that they may be a different sexual orientation to how they’re being read but what this does is disrespect an asexual person’s identity. Trust a person to know what or who they do or do not desire.

The Q is for Queer: Queer is often used as a catch-all for the LGBTIAQ community. Queer is an identity in and of itself. It can mean not fitting into any particular label or sexual identity that exists (so not being straight, gay or bisexual), it is an identity outside of the norms that does not fit into the options that are available. Queer as a word was once used as a slur as is still derogatory but many people who identify as queer have reclaimed the word. Not everyone is comfortable using this word to describe themselves. How do you know if queer is being used in a derogatory way? If it is being thrown around to describe someone and there is a tone of anger, fear or hate, then chances are it is derogatory.

Other letters you may encounter, such as with the longer version of LGBTIAQQAP+ include these identities: questioning, allies, pansexual and + for everyone else who does not identify as heterosexual, cisgender or with any of the options available.

It is important that we recognise that some of these words are adopted from the West or the Global North (United States of America and Europe primarily). Local experiences of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation may be different. In South Africa there is a project called Find New Words. Their aim is to find new words for the South African LGBTIAQ community in the official languages that are not violent or derogatory. This project is one way in which South African LGBTIAQ people are finding ways to provide new words, and new ways of imagining, identity. Words that are reflective of the experiences and identities of South African sexualities and gender identities. To explore some of these words and their definitions, visit their Twitter account @FindNewWords.

Dr Nyx McLean is a caffeine-fueled queer academic who researches LGBTIAQ identities and social movements. Picture: Alexa Sedge.

How do you know which word to use?

Sexual identity, orientation or gender identity are not always obvious and you may not be sure if someone is a lesbian or just has a short and wild haircut, or if someone is a transwoman, genderqueer or completely rejects gender. This may make it difficult for you to decide which word to use to describe someone. While it may feel rude or uncomfortable for you to ask someone what they identify as it is far more distressing to someone who identifies as one of the letters of the LGBTIAQ spectrum to have an identity imposed on them, and often the words used to describe people of the LGBTIAQ community are derogatory.

The best thing to do? Ask the person which word best describes their identity and how to use it respectfully. They will most likely appreciate the care and effort to better know them. I apologise in advance if you ask someone who does not identify as a member of the LGBTIAQ community, people who are heterosexual and cisgender (happy with their gender and don’t identify as transgender) often get very upset if you ask them about their identity. This is because it is often taken for granted that everyone identifies as straight and as either a man or a woman.

In recognising that there are more identities than just straight or gay can go a long way in acknowledging those around you. It can serve to create a culture of respect for diversity that can create safer spaces for members of the LGBTIAQ community. Many of the decisions we make to not speak up, ask questions or learn more about LGBTIAQ identities is rooted in fear or uncertainty. The best way to tackle this is to be curious in a gentle and kind way and ask someone to describe how they identify, and to ask them how you can better respect or acknowledge their identity.

* Dr Nyx McLean is a caffeine-fueled queer academic who researches LGBTIAQ identities and social movements.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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