As a therapist who frequently works with members of the LGBTQ+ population, I sometimes get asked about the purpose of all the letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym:
“What’s with the alphabet soup in the acronym?”
“What ever happened to just being gay or straight? Why do new letters continually get added?”
“It’s just too complicated to keep up with. It seems a bit over-the-top. Is the gay community just trying to be difficult?”
These are reasonable questions. On the surface, it may appear like the LGBTQ+ community is attempting to be cryptic and elusive to remain mysterious with all the letters in their acronym that express different nuances of various sexual and gender identities. However, this is not the reason. To better understand the purpose for the continual addition of letters to the LGBTQ+ acronym, we must first understand how language plays a role in everyone’s understanding of who they are.
In America, we have traditionally held to a binary view of gender. That is, anything that cannot be categorized in simple male-female terms typically causes confusion, or even discomfort for some. For example, confusion can transpire when someone has a biological sex that does not match their psychological gender (that is, one may be anatomically male, but feel like they are a female or like they do not belong to either gender). What can increase that confusion is not being able to find a specific word with which one can identify themselves when one doesn’t fit the binary mold. Language helps us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. When language fails to provide the correct description for who we are or how we feel, one can feel isolated, weird, and lonely.
To help us understand how greatly language influences and shapes us, consider the following findings from a recent study on how language shapes culture:
- Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually differentiate between different shades of blue.
- The Australian Aboriginal people of Pormpuraaw don't use words like “left” or “right.” Instead, they use directional words like north, west, east, and south when describing an object’s coordinates or giving directions. As a result, they are exceptionally good at spatial orientation. This is also true for speakers of other languages who utilize directional words in everyday speech.
- The Piraha people avoid using number words. Rather, they use terms like “few” and “many.” As a result, they are unable to keep track of exact quantities.
- Another study found that Spanish and Japanese speakers were not as proficient at remembering the people who caused accidents. In Spanish and Japanese, the person who causes an accident or causality is dropped: “The vase broke,” rather than “John broke the vase” (Beroditsky, 2010).
These findings provide us some insight into the simple fact that words matter. Having the right word to describe something has an influence on how we think about it and how we behave towards it.
Imagine feeling a certain way or experiencing a specific kind of attraction but not having the word to describe that experience to others? Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have had such an experience. Some have experienced firsthand the reality that our language can be limiting and can foster misunderstanding. So, some have created new categories in an attempt to foster more understanding for their identity.
Only relatively recently have we begun to truly understand what it means to be heterosexual or homosexual. Today, those words and concepts are relatively commonplace. However, they haven’t been used for all that long, and their definitions have taken on varying nuances over time. Prior to the 19th century, those words would not have been understood. The terms first emerged in the 19th century to describe deviants (people who had sex for reasons other than procreation). During this time, the words were only used by the medical community and were not widely understood by society at large (Paris, 2011).
In the 20th century, those outside of the medical community had no word for what most considered “normal” sexuality (sex between a man and a woman that did not involve contraception). Having a gender identity (identifying as male or female) also assumed you had a traditional sexuality, meaning you were attracted to the opposite sex. The words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” did not make their way into mainstream print and were not commonly understood until the 1930’s. As contraception became more widely used and accessible, sexual identity became more thoroughly linked to sexual feelings. Prior to this, sexuality was viewed almost exclusively to serve the function of procreation (Paris, 2011).
It was then that people began to understand what the terms homosexual and heterosexual meant to a larger degree. For the first time, sex was not being linked exclusively to serving the purpose of procreating. It was now being understood in a way that was separate from family, reproduction, and religion. Prior to this shift, people in America did not have the language to describe sexual feelings toward someone of the same sex. They really didn’t even have the proper language to describe heterosexual sexual feelings (Paris, 2011)!
Imagine the frustration and isolation folks who were attracted to members of their same sex during this time experienced. Being a part of a sexual minority can already feel isolating, but not having a word to describe your internal feelings only adds to that loneliness.
In an attempt to help people avoid experiencing these negative emotions, members of the LGBTQ+ community have taken strides to improve language by creating words and labels to help others better understand who they are in terms of their sexuality and gender. Everyone wants to be understood, and language is the primary vehicle by which that understanding can be achieved.
Many heterosexuals throughout history have not felt the need to be understood by the language because they belong to the majority. Everyone knows what it means to be straight. Our language has helped us understand that. Most understand what it means to fit neatly into a male or female category as well. Our language has also helped us understand that. Folks from the LGBTQ+ community have not had such a luxury. Most of them have had to navigate their identities secretly, trenched in a lot of shame because the language and culture at large did not foster understanding for their experience.
The LGBTQ+ community is not trying to be difficult. They aren’t trying to breed more confusion. And they certainly aren’t trying to remain mysterious and misunderstood. The attempt to create an all-encompassing acronym is actually striving to do the opposite—to create understanding by increasing our language’s capacity so that everyone can experience the beautiful feeling of being known and understood.
*For a more comprehensive list of the various sexual and gender identities that exist, visit here.
Beroditsky, L. (2010, July 23). Lost in translation: New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.
Paris, J. W. (2011). The end of sexual identity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.